I was disturbed by a recent article in the weekend edition of the Financial Times of London.
Tayseer (or Taysir) Alony Kate is a reporter for al-Jazeera, now serving a 7-year sentence in the Spanish high security jail of Alcala-Meco. He was convicted by a Spanish court of collaborating with al-Quaeda. The reason – he was granted an interview by Osama bin Laden, the only journalist to be given that opportunity. He could have only doen so with al-Qaeda connections. Therefore, he is a leader in a Spanish al-Qaeda cell.
After reading the article, I am not sure that he is guilty. And the form of civil law practiced by Spain (in fact, many European countries) allows for justice to be denied. We may complain about the American court systems – and there are those out there who would deny a public defender to Zacarias Moussaoui, seeing it as a frivolous waste of money – but this article helped to remind me that it functions as the best-working system worldwide.
Alony is Syrian born, who gained Spanish citizenship in 1988. In 2000, he was a freelancing reporter and was hired by al-Jazeera to open a bureau office in Kabul. Once there, he tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to get an interview with Osama bin Laden, but was always denied. Then 9/11 occurred. In October 2001, an amissary from bin Laden approached al-Jazeera's office in Kabul to say that bin Laden would grant an interview, but only if written questions were submitted beforehand. Alony notified al-Jazeera, who also brought in CNN to assist, and the questions were prepared. Here is what happened:
On October 20 2001, some Arabs showed up at al-Jazeera’s offices in Kabul. Alony was bundled into a waiting car, with no time to pick up camera equipment, notebook or even a jacket. He was taken, blindfolded, to bin Laden’s hiding place - a journey that lasted three and a half hours. When the blindfold was removed, bin Laden was standing before him.
“Everything was prepared. They even had professional cameras,” Alony told the court.
In the interview, he begins by asking bin Laden whether he was responsible for the September 11 attacks. “If inciting... is terrorism, and if killing those that kill our sons is terrorism, then let history witness that we are terrorists,” bin Laden replies.
Alony presses bin Laden on how a devout Muslim like him can justify indiscriminate murder, an act condemned by many Islamic scholars. Bin Laden replies that the “balance of terror” is more equal now than 10 years ago, when the US did as it pleased in the Middle East. “We practise good terrorism, because it deters others from killing our children in Palestine and other places,” he says.
“But what about the killing of innocent civilians?” Alony insists.
“What about the people that have been killed in our lands for decades?” bin Laden replies. “Who said that our blood is not blood and that their blood is blood?”
“So you say that this is an eye for an eye? They kill our innocents, so we kill theirs?” Alony retorts. Bin Laden admits the Prophet forbade the killing of women and children. “But this forbidding of killing children and innocents is not set in stone, and there are other writings that uphold it,” bin Laden says.
At Alcala-Meco, Alony tells me he was dissatisfied with the interview. Bin Laden had refused to answer some questions, and towards the end his replies degenerated into threats and warnings against Muslim countries that “collaborated” with the enemy.
“As I conducted the interview, I could hear the US bombs falling around us, not too far away,” Alony recalls. “What I really wanted to know was how bin Laden felt about bringing so much suffering and destruction upon the Afghan people. I asked him whether he thought Afghans were paying too high a price for his presence in their country, and he was not at all pleased. He called that view `partial and incomplete’.”
When the interview was over, Alony was blindfolded and taken back to Kabul.
After Kabul was bombed, Alony was asked to report from Iraq and moved there to cover the war. After learning that Spain’s leading anti-terrorism magistrate, Baltazar Garzon, had placed him under investigation for ties to al-Qaeda, Alony returned to Spain in summer 2003 to clear his name. Bad timing. As we know, March 2004 saw the al-Qaeda attacks in Madrid.
In November 2004 (after being arrested in September 2003 and released), Alony was arrested and in March 2005, his trial began. There were only two arguments in the indictment against him. Alony “finance[ed] a terrorist network” and “transport[ed] funds for terrorists” when he agreed in March 2000 to bring $4,000 from Spain to a fellow Syrian in Kabul. The other Syrian was named in the indictment as a “known terrorist,” but no other evidence was offered of this. And Alony was accused of helping another terrorist, Mustafa Setmarian, who had once been a guest in Alony’s home in Granada in the 1990’s. When Alony went to Kabul, the Spanish court charged, he used his relationship with Setmarian to gain the interview with bin Laden.
As an American attorney, what disturbed me about the story in this article is the fact that under civil law, the Court asks for the evidence that it wants, which is submitted in writing. Contrast this with our own system, where two adversarial sides present the evidence to the Court. Of course, an American judge controls what evidence is submitted by ruling whether or not it is admissible (assuming an objection was raised by the other party), but a record is established of what an attorney tried to get admitted into evidence so that an appellate court can review it to determine whether the trial court abused its discretion.
In Alony’s case, the judge did not call for any evidence that Alony was in Afghanistan at the request of al-Jazeera or whether it was bin Laden who approached al-Jazeera to conduct the interview. Thus, the prosecutor’s attack on Alony’s professional qualifications as a reporter took on no objections.
Rubira [the prosecutor] told the court: “Alony’s merits as a journalist were not credited before the bin Laden interview. Therefore his journalistic skills could not have been the reason why al-Jazeera hired him.” That statement was repeated in the verdict that condemned Alony for collaborating with terrorists.
Imagine a situation where you are on trial, but the magistrate will decide the parameters of your defense. The war on terrorism is very real, but we cannot toss aside due process and justice to gain retribution. In 2000, a journalist who had been a citizen of Spain for some 12 years went to Kabul and was given – at the time – a lifetime opportunity, to interview the one man whom the world was hunting (and still does). Five years later, his alleged “connections” that obtained him the interview – not anything he did before, not anything he did afterwards in both Afghanistan and Iraq, there was not even any attempt to try to tie him in with Setmarian in the years that followed, recalling that Setmarian was named as the ringleader in both the Madrid and London bombings – was enough to earn him seven years in a maximum security prison after his conviction in September 2005. After a trial where the defendant has relevant evidence to offer, but could not because the court did not ask for it. Indeed, the interview with bin Laden was not included in evidence and yet in his arguments, Rubira said it sounded as if Alony was "talking to his boss [bin Laden]."
Let me use a legal term of art reserved for such rare occasions . . . what the fuh . . .?!?! I support the War on Terrorism, but we, the US of A, have to do a better job thna than and not compromise our system of justice. Leave this stuff for the Europeans.