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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Commander of Afghan insurgency pleads guilty at Guantánamo Bay

The Detention Center Zone at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, April 17, 2019.

By Carol Rosenberg

An Iraqi prisoner who commanded insurgents during the U.S. war in Afghanistan pleaded guilty earlier this week to war crimes charges related to lethal attacks on allied soldiers in 2003 and 2004, in a deal that could hand him off to the custody of another country by 2024.

Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, now in his 60s, spent much of the daylong hearing responding, “Yes, your honor,” to the questions of the military judge, Lt. Col. Mark F. Rosenow, about a secret account of his activities in Afghanistan as a co-conspirator with Osama bin Laden and other top Qaida leaders between 1996 and 2003. The account included more than 100 items.

He could be sentenced to 10 years in prison, much of it to be served in the custody of another country, under a plea agreement that has yet to be made public.

He pleaded guilty to the traditional war crimes of attacking protected property — a U.S. military medevac helicopter that insurgents who answered to him failed to shoot down in Afghanistan in 2003 — and of treachery and conspiracy connected to insurgent bombings that killed at least three allied troops, one each from Canada, Britain and Germany.

Those allied soldiers were killed by car bombs or suicide bombers posing as civilians, the judge said. If Hadi had known in advance about the plans, he had a duty to stop them. If he had possessed no prior knowledge, the judge said, Hadi had a duty to punish the perpetrators.

But the plea deal still represented a drastic scaling back of the government’s charges against him. None of the crimes to which he pleaded guilty made him directly or indirectly responsible for some of the most serious allegations made by military prosecutors when they charged him in 2014.

Gone from his case were allegations that he was part of the sweeping Qaida conspiracy to rid the Arabian Peninsula of non-Muslims. Nor was there any claim of responsibility or knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, which prompted the creation of the Guantánamo prison and the war court.

None of the charges held him responsible for the destruction by the Taliban of monumental Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in March 2001. Nor did the charges tie him to the 2003 assassination by insurgents of a French worker for the United Nations relief agency.

Hadi, who says his real name is Nashwan al-Tamir, was captured in Turkey in 2006 and brought to Guantánamo Bay the next year. Efforts to bring him to trial have been slowed by the coronavirus pandemic and by his health. He has a degenerative spinal disease that has left him paralyzed at times.

Plea talks in the case started this year under a new Biden-era push to close the Guantánamo prison, which has an aging detainee population and limited capacity to provide health care without airlifting in specialists and equipment.

Under Hadi’s plea agreement, which was reached in May and refined over the weekend, a military jury will hear the evidence against him and be asked to choose within a range of 25 to 30 years of confinement, starting with his plea.

Once that is done, according to the deal, the senior Pentagon official responsible for overseeing the war court will reduce it to 10 years.

The agreement postpones sentencing for two years, providing time his lawyers hope will be sufficient to find a sympathetic nation to receive him and provide him with lifelong medical care. His spinal disease has required five operations in less than a year at Guantánamo and has left him relying on a wheelchair and walker — and in need of more surgery to address his periodic paralysis.

“He pleaded guilty for his role as a front-line commander in Afghanistan,” said his lawyer, Susan Hensler, who is compensated by the Pentagon. “He has been in custody for 16 years, including the six months he spent in a CIA black site. We hope the United States makes good on its promise to transfer him as soon as possible for the medical care he desperately needs.”

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