From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — Originally published Wednesday, Jan. 28

Army Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and a prosecutor with well over a hundred criminal jury trials under his belt. In May 2007, he was assigned to prosecute Mohammed Jawad, a prisoner held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo. It was a job that Vandeveld accepted and pursued eagerly as a patriotic American.

However, as he looked into the specifics of the case assigned to him, the colonel became appalled. In fact, what he found should appall all Americans of good conscience.

He learned that Jawad, held in Guanatamo [sic] since 2002, had been arrested in his native Afghanistan at the age of 15 or 16 and charged with throwing a hand grenade that injured two U.S. soldiers. But in the six years Jawad had been held, the military had made no attempt to examine or even compile evidence against him. Vandeveld discovered scraps of supposed evidence scattered in desk drawers, bookcases, tossed on empty desks or even thrown into a locker and forgotten. The story he tells makes it clear that the military had no real interest in Jawad’s guilt or innocence. In effect, the fact that Jawad was there was considered proof enough that Jawad belonged there.

The most damning piece of evidence against the Afghan teenager was a handwritten confession supposedly obtained by Afghan police before Jawad was turned over to the Americans. But Vandeveld’s faith in that document was shaken when he discovered that Jawad was functionally illiterate, meaning he could not have written or even read that statement. Furthermore, the confession was written in Farsi; Jawad speaks only Pashto.

The statement also quotes Jawad as confessing to have acted alone. Yet two adult men were also arrested by Afghan police for that attack; they too reportedly confessed.

... Despite those doubts, Vandeveld continued to press his case, believing there must be other evidence that Jawad was guilty. But he began to have reservations about the propriety of prosecuting an adolescent as a war criminal. His confidence would be shaken further after Jawad claimed to have been beaten and abused by the U.S. military.

... Vandeveld was certain that a mere Afghan teenager, a boy who was at worst just a simple foot soldier in al-Qaida with only a few weeks of experience in the group, would not have been treated that way. ...

But ... the abuse, it turned out, was far more common than he had allowed himself to believe. For example, the Army’s own documents revealed that at one point, young Jawad had been denied sleep for two straight weeks. Other evidence supported Jawad’s claim that he had been physically assaulted by U.S. soldiers and shoved down a stairwell while hooded and handcuffed. The treatment damaged him so deeply that he tried to commit suicide by the only means available to him, by violently banging his head against a wall.

... Eventually, Vandeveld came to the most troubling conclusion of all: Jawad was innocent and should be released immediately.

... Vandeveld ... eventually realized that even if he got the charges against Jawad dismissed, the Bush administration “would continue to hold Mr. Jawad indefinitely as an enemy combatant, no matter the paucity or unreliability of the evidence asserted against him.”

So in September 2008, Vandeveld resigned in frustration. Now in civilian life, he is supporting a legal effort to get Jawad freed through U.S. civilian courts.

... The military commissions by which Jawad was to have been tried — and in which Vandeveld was to have acted as prosecutor — have been suspended for 120 days at the request of President Barack Obama. Obama has also signed an executive order requiring the closure of the Guantanamo prison within a year ...

But for now, Mohammed Jawad, supposedly one of the “worst of the worst,” remains in Guantanamo. In his statement, Vandeveld urges that Jawad be released not just for his own sake, but “for our own sense of justice and perhaps to restore a measure of our own basic humanity.”

More in Defense

Al Qaeda leader breaks 11-month silence

Read more »