Power Wars Blog by Charlie Savage

Mark Martins and the backstory to Hamidullin, the Russian Taliban sentenced to life in prison today

Today, Irek Hamidullin, a Russian army defector who joined the Taliban and was captured after a (spectacularly unsuccessful) assault on American and Afghan forces in Afghanistan in November 2009, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted at trial before a civilian court last August. I report the very interesting background to Hamidullin case on pages 533-534 of Power Wars.

Hamidullin was captured shortly after the newly promoted Brigadier General Mark Martins arrived in Afghanistan and took over as acting head of detention operations there following a stint (as a colonel) as the co-leader of Obama’s 2009 executive order task force for detention policy. On the task force, Martins had been a prime mover in the push to reform and keep, rather than scrap, military commissions, and I separately recount a previously unreported behind the scenes battle he had with David Barron, then the acting head of OLC, on tribunals issues. But Martins was also steeped in the broader lessons of the task force, a chief takeaway of which was that it was smart to be thinking about off-ramps — stable, long-term disposition options — for terrorism captives from the beginning.

From Afghanistan, Martins began lobbying the Department of Justice and U.S. Central Command in Tampa to bring FBI agents to Afghanistan to investigate Hamidullin’s case while the evidence was still fresh, such as by interviewing the soldiers who had captured him, while they were still deployed in the theater. Since Hamidullin could likely not be sent to Russia (lest it abuse him), Martins’ idea was to gather evidence in a way that would meet admissibility standards in civilian court.

Especially in the politically toxic aftermath of the Christmas 2009 underwear bombing, the idea of reading Miranda rights to a terrorism suspect captured in a war zone was a tough sell. But the revamped military commissions system was not yet up and operating, and eventually Martins got what he asked for.

Nearly four years later, in the fall of 2013, the United States was preparing to “end” its military mission in Afghanistan. There turned out to be less to this than advertised, obviously, but the U.S. would get out of the detention business at Parwan, the prison at Bagram Airbase, by the end of 2014. Hamidullin was one of the last detainees in U.S. custody. By then, Martins was back in the United States and serving as the chief prosecutor in the military commissions system.

Now that the tribunals system was operating again, Martins wanted to prosecute Hamidullin in it — if not at Guantanamo, to which Obama had banned bringing any new detainees, then at the military base in Charleston, South Carolina. But holding a tribunal on domestic soil would mean entrenching military commissions as a tool for future captures, and Obama’s national security team had grown skeptical of the tribunals system, which was not working very well in getting to trial in the 9/11 and Cole bombing cases.

Martins lost the policy debate: in the fall of 2014, the Justice Department obtained an indictment of Hamidullin and he was flown to the Eastern District of Virginia for trial before a civilian court. He was convicted earlier this year, and now will serve the rest of his life in prison.

So the irony is that while Martins lost the policy fight to prosecute Hamidullin in his military commissions system, he nevertheless deserves significant credit for this outcome because it was his own earlier intervention to collect civilian court-worthy evidence that led to it.