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The Strange Case of the Forgotten Gitmo Detainee

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Abu ZubaydahSince being seized in a raid in Pakistan in 2002, Abu Zubaydah has had his life controlled by American officials, first at secret sites where he was tortured, and since 2006 in a small cell in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And, thanks to one of the strangest—and perhaps most troubling—legal cases to grow out of the War on Terror, it appears he’s not going to be leaving anytime soon, which was exactly what the CIA always intended.

Today, not even his lawyers understand what’s transpired behind closed doors in a Washington, D.C., courtroom.

In June 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that detainees at Guantanamo had the right to challenge their imprisonment in federal court and that their cases should be handled “promptly” by the judicial system. The next month, lawyers for Abu Zubaydah, a detainee whose torture and waterboarding in secret prisons was among the most notorious of the Bush years, filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging his detention.

The progress of that case has been anything but prompt. While more than 100 Guantanamo detainees have been released since then, and the military tribunals of even more high-profile detainees like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed are moving forward in Guantanamo’s courtrooms, the federal judge hearing Zubaydah’s case has failed to rule on even the preliminary motions.

The seemingly intentional inaction has left even experienced court observers baffled. Richard W. Roberts, the U.S. District Court judge handling the suit, is not a particularly slow-moving jurist. His median time for resolving entire cases is slightly over two years; Zubaydah’s case has already been pending 6 years 9 months and 13 days.

Because almost the entire file has been kept secret, it’s not possible to know why Roberts, who is the chief judge of the D.C. circuit, has let Zubaydah’s case languish. But this much is clear: Keeping Zubaydah from telling his story is exactly what the CIA wanted from the moment it began to torture him.

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