Reprieve wins historic legal action over rendered prisoner held in Bagram; UK government ordered to release Yunus Rahmatullah after eight years of detention without charge or trial

The British government was today ordered by the Court of Appeal to release a prisoner held without charge or trial since 2004 in the notorious US military prison at Bagram Airbase, Afghanistan.

Yunus Rahmatullah was seized by British forces in Iraq in February 2004, handed to the US and illegally rendered to Afghanistan, where he has been held beyond the rule of law for eight years.

Today’s historic decision marks the first time any civilian legal system has penetrated Bagram, a legal black hole where nearly three thousand prisoners – many rendered from all over the world – have been unlawfully held by the US military for up to a decade. Lawyers have never been allowed in the prison, which is notorious for torture and homicides and has been called ‘Guantanamo’s Evil Twin’.

In response to a habeas corpus application by legal action charity Reprieve and Leigh Day & Co, Court of Appeals judges Neuberger, Kay and Sullivan this morning ordered the release of Yunus, a Pakistani who has only recently made telephone contact with his family and whose physical and mental state has been described as ‘catastrophic’.

The British government has repeatedly refused to help Yunus; although the Abu Ghraib scandal broke just weeks after Yunus’s detention, British officials failed to get him back and said nothing when they learned he had been sent illegally to Bagram.

The UK has always had the clear power to get Yunus back, under the Geneva Conventions and under the relevant ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ which grants control over the prisoner to the UK and explicitly requires Yunus to be returned to UK custody on request. There is no reason to think that the US Government would not comply with such a request; the US military’s Detainee Review Board held on 5 June 2010 that Yunus’s internment was ‘not necessary’. There is therefore no lawful basis for his imprisonment, as the UK government has admitted to the court. The UK therefore has the right- and the duty – to send Yunus home.

The UK government has repeatedly declined to state on what legal basis Yunus was rendered; the Geneva Conventions define his rendition as a ‘grave breach’—that is, a war crime – about which the UK appears to have known in advance. The Court of Appeal acknowledges this, and has said the UK may be required under international law to get Yunus out of Bagram – or face being in grave breach of the Geneva Conventions.

The UK Government now has seven days to secure Yunus’s release, or to explain to the court why they cannot.

Cori Crider, Legal Director of Reprieve, said: “The United Kingdom must now do whatever it takes to send Yunus home to his mother. The Court is quite right – once the UK takes a prisoner it cannot simply wash its hands of him, or of the Geneva Conventions. The government stands warned – failure to get Yunus out of Bagram now may be to aid and abet a war crime.”

Mr Rahmatullah’s solicitor, Jamie Beagent of Leigh Day & Co, said:  “This judgment affirms that our client remains the responsibility of the UK under international law.  The Government must now accept its responsibilities and seek the return of Mr Rahmatullah from US detention, under the terms of its agreements with the United States, and present him to the UK Court and secure his release from detention. “We hope that the writ of habeas corpus will finally bring to an end our client’s nightmare of indefinite detention without charge in appalling conditions at Bagram.”  ENDS

Notes to editors 1. For further information please go to http://www.reprieve.org.uk/cases/yunusrahmatullah/ or contact Donald Campbell or Katherine O’Shea in Reprieve’s press office on +44 (0)20 7427 1082.

2. Yunus Rahmatullah has been held beyond the rule of law for over seven years in Bagram Airforce Base. He is said to be in a very grave mental and physical condition. In February 2009, after years of government denials that the UK had been involved in any rendition operations, then-Secretary of State for Defence John Hutton announced to Parliament that UK forces had captured two men in Iraq in February 2004, and handed them to US forces. In subsequent statements to Parliament, the government revealed that in March 2004, British officials had become aware of the US intention to transfer the men from Iraq to Afghanistan.

The British government admitted its complicity in crime (kidnapping, otherwise called rendition), admitted it was wrong, and appeared to apologize. Yet it did not and refused to identify the men – a crucial step if they are to be reunited with their basic human rights. Indeed, the government has apparently done nothing over the past seven years to ensure that they receive legal assistance.

Reprieve led a complicated and expensive search for the identity of these men, which covered three continents over ten months. One of the men has been identified as Amanatullah Ali and the other as Yunus Rahmatullah.

Yunus Rahmatullah, also known by his nickname ‘Saleh Huddin’, was raised in the Gulf states. For six years, he was held incommunicado, unable to even contact his family. Reprieve has been told by multiple sources that, as a result of his abuse in UK and US custody, he is in catastrophic mental and physical shape, and now spends most of his time in the mental health cells at Bagram.

Yunus’s family insist on keeping their current location confidential. They are legally in their country of residence, but fear that they will suffer reprisals if they are known to be opposing the British and US governments.

Yunus’s mother Fatima Rahmatullah issued the following statement on April 15, 2010:

“Yunus is the youngest and closest son to my heart. I lost my other son, his only brother, in a tragic accident. Now, Yunus is my only hope in life. I see him in my dreams; I pray daily that I will see him in my waking hours again.

“Our family was shocked when we learned that the British government might have been behind Yunus’ disappearance.  I am told the British government has refused even to confirm that Yunus was the person they seized six years ago. As a mother, this is a position that I struggle to understand.”

Reprieve first sued the UK Government to formally identify Yunus Rahmatullah, and is now suing for habeas relief in the British courts. The case has today been decided in Reprieve’s favour  by the Court of Appeal, reversing an earlier decision by the High Court. 3. Originally used to process prisoners captured during Operation Enduring Freedom, Bagram Theater Internment Facility has become backlogged with prisoners who are held for years without charge, trial or legal rights.  Unlike detainees at Guantánamo, prisoners at Bagram have no access to lawyers and thus are unable to challenge their detention, despite the fact that between 2002 and 2008 several prisoners who had undergone torture were released without having even been put on trial. As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama unequivocally rejected the “false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus”. Yet when his administration took office it chose to stand by Bush’s legal arguments concerning Bagram detainees: as enemy combatants they had no constitutional rights.

Bagram prisoners have been subjected to beatings, stress positions, sexual abuse and humiliation, sensory deprivation, sleep, food and water deprivation, exposure to cold temperatures, dousing with cold water and blaring of loud music. Tariq Dergoul, a British national, was injured by the Northern Alliance and then sold to the US for $5,000. While detained at Bagram, he suffered frostbite for which he was denied medical care. He ultimately required the amputation of the affected limb. Dilawar was a taxi driver, known to be innocent by his interrogators, who was murdered by his captors in December 2002. He was subjected to over 100 sadistic blows to his legs by various guards, strikes performed as “a kind of running joke”. As a result, his legs became “pulpified”, according to the autopsy report, and the blunt trauma killed him. For the BBC’s reporting on allegations of abuse and neglect at Bagram please click here.Bagram prison originally consisted of crude pens fashioned from metal cages surrounded by coils of razor wire. Roughly twenty people shared a cage, sleeping on foam mats and using plastic buskets as toilets. Military personnel described it as “far more spartan” than Guantánamo. Faced with serious overcrowding in 2004, the military began refurbishing the prison and installed flush toilets. As of 2005, the US Army claimed that Bagram had a maximum capacity of 595 prisoners. The basic infrastructure, however, remained the same. Hundreds of detainees were still held in wire-mesh pens and exercise, kitchen and bathroom space was minimal. In August 2008 the US government awarded a $50 million contract for a new prison. This is now completed, but in the wake of the redevelopment reports still circulate of an undisclosed part of the site (sometimes referred to as a “Temporary Screening Facility”) where abusive practices continue.

Reprieve’s local partner Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) is fighting a ground-breaking case filed on behalf of seven Pakistanis imprisoned in Bagram Air Base, which challenges the Pakistan Government over their role in renditions. Awwal Khan, Hamidullah Khan, Abdul Haleem Saifullah, Fazal Karim, Amal Khan, Iftikhar Ahmad and Yunus Rahmatullah were abducted from Pakistan and taken to Bagram, where they have been kept without charge or trial since 2003. One prisoner is merely 16 years of age and was seized two years ago at the age of 14. Another was not permitted to speak to his family for six years, and is believed to be in a grievous physical and psychological condition. 

4. Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.  Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 17 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, assisting over 70 prisoners facing the death penalty around the world, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’ Follow Reprieve on twitter: @ReprieveUK; if you were forwarded this release, sign up to join our press mailing list.