Archive for January, 2008

Omar Khadr: Canada’s Guantánamo torture warning shows double standards

How humiliating.

Maher ArarThe story begins with the shameful case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian who was kidnapped by US agents as he changed planes in New York in 2002, and rendered to Syria, where he was tortured for a year on behalf of the Americans before being released.

Mr. Arar –- who was awarded millions of dollars in compensation by the Canadian government in January 2007, but has yet to receive even an apology from the US administration –- had been wrongly fingered by Canadian intelligence, and his case is one of many chilling examples of the damage caused by failed intelligence in the American’s program of “extraordinary rendition.”

In an attempt to prime diplomats about how to spot the signs of torture when they visit Canadians in foreign jails, the Canadian government’s Foreign Affairs Department instigated a “torture awareness workshop,” which also informed the diplomats of where they could expect to find what CTV in Canada described as “countries and places with greater risks of torture.”

The list, in a training manual issued by the Foreign Affairs Department, included traditional offenders –- Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Syria –- but also included some torturers that are not generally mentioned in polite Western company: Israel and the United States. Specific mention was made of Guantánamo Bay, where, to drive the point home, the manual noted specific “US interrogation techniques,” including “forced nudity, isolation, and sleep deprivation.”


The manual was never supposed to have been publicly released, of course, but the Canadian government inadvertently released it to lawyers for Amnesty International as evidence in a court case relating to the alleged abuse of Afghan detainees, after they were handed over by Canadian soldiers to the local Afghan authorities. After realizing their mistake, government officials desperately tried to get the manual back, stating, as CTV put it bluntly, that they “wanted to black out sensitive parts that may anger allies.”

It’s too late for that, of course. While US ambassador David Wilkins declared, “We find it to be offensive for us to be on the same list with countries like Iran and China,” adding, “Quite frankly it’s absurd,” lawyers and human rights activists have seized upon the documents to insist, for the second time in only a few months, that the Canadian government is guilty of double standards in its refusal to act on behalf of Omar Khadr, the Canadian Guantánamo detainee who was just 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan in July 2002.

Omar KhadrAnd they’re right to do so. The first set of double standards was highlighted in September, when, during a visit to Canada to publicize Mr. Khadr’s plight, his US military lawyer, Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, contrasted the Canadian government’s “leadership in international efforts to recognize child soldiers as victims in need of special protection and rehabilitation” with its “virtual silence” in the case of his client. Just two weeks ago, David Crane, the former US prosecutor for Sierra Leone’s war crimes trials, who is now a professor at Syracuse University, revived this argument, telling Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star that he failed to understand how Canada and the United States “could be sympathetic to the plight of Africa’s child soldiers, who are forced to commit atrocious crimes,” but not to Khadr, whose circumstances were the same. “I’m just not sure why the Canadian government, which was tremendously important in my work in West Africa –- they were incredibly supportive –- is not making a bigger deal of this,” he said.

This latest revelation only adds to the government’s self-inflicted woes. As Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, explained to CTV, the new developments cast doubt on the government’s assertion that Khadr is being treated fairly in US custody. “Canada has just admitted we believe torture is possible in Guantánamo Bay,” he told the broadcaster’s Canada AM show. “That clashes terribly with what Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said, that Mr. Khadr, who is in Guantánamo Bay and was a child at the time he was put there, is being given a (quote, unquote) appropriate judicial process. Torture is not an appropriate judicial process.” Attaran went on to suggest that the Canadian government’s refusal to demand Khadr’s release from Guantánamo was purely political. “Out of a desire to appear tough on the war on terror, Mr. Harper has put this set of considerations out the window, and that’s not appropriate,” he said, adding, “We have to obey the law.”

Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler also spoke to CTV, reinforcing Amir Attaran’s statement that the documents relating to the “torture awareness workshop” contradict Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assurances that Khadr is receiving fair treatment. “Omar has been there for five and a half years,” he said, “and at some point in the course of [his] detention the Canadian government developed the suspicion he was being tortured and abused. And yet it has not acted to obtain his release from Guantánamo Bay and protect his rights, unlike every other Western country that has had its nationals detained in Guantánamo Bay.”

Kuebler added that the suspicions that his client has been tortured at Guantánamo undermined any claims that he could receive a fair trial in his Military Commission –- the novel system of show trials invented by Dick Cheney and his advisors in November 2001, whose rampant lawlessness is discussed at length here.

He explained that he and the rest of his legal team want Khadr to be sent back to Canada to face justice there, and pointed out the absurdity of the Canadian government’s claims that they were waiting for the US judicial process to play itself out. “Omar has certainly been abused, his rights have been violated under international law, and apparently the Canadian government has reason to believe that’s true, and yet, they’ve acted not at all to assist him,” he told CTV.

While the Canadian government attempts to repair its relations with the United States and Israel, the next phase of Omar Khadr’s trial by Military Commission is scheduled to take place early next month, and several motions have already been filed on his behalf. One argues that the Commissions are unconstitutional because they are designed only for non-Americans, and another –- relating specifically to Mr. Khadr –- argues that they have no jurisdiction over him because trying a detainee who was 15 years old at the time of his capture would violate the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, a United Nations measure ratified by the United States in 2002, which safeguards juveniles (those under 18 years old) from prosecution. As his lawyers have pointed out, “No international criminal tribunal established under the laws of war, from Nuremberg forward, has ever prosecuted former child soldiers as war criminals,” adding that, if Commission judge Col. Peter Brownback pursues Khadr’s case, he will be “the first in western history” to preside over a trial of alleged war crimes committed by a child.

Adding to the Canadian government’s embarrassment, at almost the same time that the contents of the Canadian government’s training manual were made public, it was revealed that 55 law professors and 22 members of Parliament, including Canada’s former attorney general, Irwin Cotler, had signed the defense lawyers’ motion, stating unequivocally, “It is a principle of customary international law that children are to be accorded special protections in all criminal proceedings, and in any prosecution for participation in warlike acts.”

In the pipeline, undoubtedly, are numerous references to the Canadian government’s latest gaffe, in documents to be filed by Omar Khadr’s lawyers, which would be laughable if the result of the government’s contradictions and cowardice were not so heartless.

You could ask Omar Khadr himself, if you could get anywhere near him.

For more information about Omar Khadr, the Military Commissions and “extraordinary rendition,” see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post, CounterPunch, and AlterNet.

The sixth anniversary of Guantánamo: protest photos from London (and some information on the endangered right to protest in the UK)

Here’s a selection of photos of a lone, hooded activist in an orange jumpsuit making a simple, striking statement about Guantánamo at various London landmarks last Friday, to mark the sixth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo as a “War on Terror” prison. The photos were submitted by “g” to the Truth Action website, and a link was provided to the British activists’ site We Are Change.

Guantanamo protestor at Liverpool Street

At Liverpool Street, in the City, London’s global financial hub.

In a surreal touch, the police stopped the action in case it caused “mass hysteria.” That the object of this protest – the detention without charge or trial of tens of thousands of prisoners in Guantánamo, Afghanistan, Iraq and other secret prisons – might be a better candidate for the creation of “mass hysteria” was conveniently ignored.

Guantanamo protestor on the Millennium Bridge

On the Millennium Bridge.

Guantanamo protestor in Tate Modern

Inside Tate Modern. Is it art? Where’s Banksy?

Guantanamo protestor in Parliament Square

At Brian Haw’s permanent anti-war demonstration in Parliament Square, opposite the Houses of Parliament.

Brian has now been demonstrating since June 2001, and has weathered the passing of legislation designed to shut down his protest (although he was attacked by a policeman while filming a “freedom to protest” event in Whitehall on January 12, and was then arrested on an unspecified public order offence and assaulted in a police van, as this report explains).

Under the terms of the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act (SOCPA), spontaneous demonstrations within a half-mile radius of Parliament were banned in 2005, and applications for protests must now be submitted and approved in advance. Dozens of activists have been arrested since SOCPA was introduced –- starting with Maya Evans and Milan Rai, who were arrested for reading out the names of dead British soldiers and Iraqi civilians outside Downing Street in October 2005 –- and there is nothing to stop the police from arresting a single hooded individual in an orange jumpsuit if he or she decides to make a silent protest within the “exclusion zone.”

This bleak repression of the right to protest is an insult, not only because it tramples on a long-cherished right to peaceful protest, but also because it highlights the hypocrisy of the man who introduced the legislation: former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who stated, during a visit to the United States in April 2002, “When I pass protesters every day at Downing Street, and believe me, you name it, they protest against it, I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom.”

Although Gordon Brown pledged to repeal the unpopular, and much vilified, clauses of SOCPA relating to protests outside Parliament, the website Parliament Protest reports that the government may use the current period of Public Consultation (which ended yesterday) “to ‘harmonise’ the laws covering static demonstrations (of which the Designated Area around Parliament Square is a special case), with the Public Order laws, which restrict processions and marches on the roads generally i.e. to inflict the wretched SOCPA restrictions everywhere else in England and Wales, or to apply Public Order restrictions to one person static demonstrations everywhere.”

Guantanamo protestor outside Downing Street

Outside Downing Street, the residence of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

For more on the protests marking the sixth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, see this brief report, and click here for a detailed account of the current situation at Guantánamo, which draws partly from my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

A letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj)

Today, the Associated Press reports on a letter from Guantánamo written by al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj. The letter is dated December 27, 2007, and has just been declassified by the Pentagon’s censors. It was translated from the Arabic by his lawyers at the London-based legal charity Reprieve, which represents dozens of the Guantánamo detainees.

Sami al-Haj

Mr. al-Haj was captured by Pakistani forces, acting on behalf of the United States, in December 2001, as he prepared to resume the Arabic TV station’s coverage of Afghanistan with the rest of his team. As Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s legal director, explained after visiting him at Guantánamo last September, he was seized “because the US thought he had filmed al-Jazeera’s famous [Osama] bin Laden interview. As has so often been the case of late, the US was wrong (though name me a journalist who would turn down a bin Laden scoop).”

In Guantánamo, Mr. al-Haj has been subjected to an extraordinary array of vague allegations for which the administration has failed to provide any evidence. At his administrative review in September 2006, it was alleged that he had transported $220,000 to Azerbaijan “for what he was told was told was a humanitarian mission which instead was destined for Chechen rebels,” and that, when he worked for a company called the Union Beverage Company, he “interacted with the individual in charge of distribution of juice in Azerbaijan,” who “was under investigation for possible ties to terrorism.”

Referring to his first assignment in Afghanistan with al-Jazeera, the authorities also decided that interviews allegedly conducted by Mr. al-Haj and a co-worker with “the Treasury Minister of the Taliban, the Minister of Electricity, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs,” and with “a man who identified himself as a member of the al-Qaeda (sic)” constituted a connection or an association with terrorism. Throughout his detention, other claims –- including an allegation that he “arranged for the transport of a Stinger anti-aircraft system from Afghanistan to Chechnya” –- have been dropped from the “evidence” against him.

Confirming that these allegations are nothing more than a smokescreen, the authorities in Guantánamo have focused almost exclusively on Mr. al-Haj’s association with al-Jazeera. In an interview with Democracy Now on January 15, his younger brother, Asim, spoke to Amy Goodman from Khartoum, and explained that his brother is “a victim of a political operation against al-Jazeera, which Washington does not approve of.”

He added that, throughout the 130 interrogations to which he has been subjected in Guantánamo, “the interrogations were all about al-Jazeera and alleged relations between al-Jazeera and al-Qaeda. They tried to induce him to work as a spy for American intelligence in return for US citizenship for him and for his family and to help him even write a book, on the condition that he would spy on his colleagues at al-Jazeera. For example, if you look at the allegation that he was involved in sales of rockets or missiles to Afghanistan, I mean, how could a reporter or a media person traveling to a country he’s never been to before carry this? Would he carry these in his luggage or what?”

In Guantánamo, Mr. al-Haj has been a tireless campaigner for justice. He has been prominent in campaigns demanding that the detainees be freed or subjected to a fair trial, and has provided detailed information (declassified by the Pentagon) about his fellow detainees, and about the various hunger strikes that have plagued the administration. As a result of his principled stand, Mr. al-Haj is regarded with particular suspicion by the authorities, and has been subjected to appalling treatment over the years.

In despair at the treatment not only of himself, but of all the other detainees, he embarked on a hunger strike on January 7, 2007, and has now gone without food for 374 days. The authorities’ response to the hunger strikes has been brutal, as Clive Stafford Smith explained in October.

“Medical ethics tell us that you cannot force-feed a mentally competent hunger striker, as he has the right to complain about his mistreatment, even unto death,” Stafford Smith wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “But the Pentagon knows that a prisoner starving himself to death would be abysmal PR, so they force-feed Sami. As if that were not enough, when Gen. Bantz J. Craddock headed up the US Southern Command, he announced that soldiers had started making hunger strikes less ‘convenient.’ Rather than leave a feeding tube in place, they insert and remove it twice a day. Have you ever pushed a 43-inch tube up your nostril and down into your throat? Tonight, Sami will suffer that for the 479th time.”

Stafford Smith also noted a serious decline in his client’s mental and physical health, and is worried that he may die in Guantánamo. “Sami looked very thin,” he wrote in October. “His memory is disintegrating, and I worry that he won’t survive if he keeps this up. He already wrote a message for his 7-year-old son, Mohammed, in case he dies here.” On Democracy Now, his brother added, “if Sami dies, who will be responsible for this? And to who would we … if we were to file suit, that would be against whom? The most difficult thing for a human being is to be subject to injustice against which you cannot do anything, for yourself or for in support of others.”

In the hope of providing a small gesture to keep the plight of Sami al-Haj in the public eye, I reproduce the full text of his letter below.

Sami al-Haj’s letter from Guantánamo, December 27, 2007

It is with great pleasure that I pass on my warmest greetings and gratitude for all your efforts in regards to the case of the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. Also I would like to pass on our wishes for the New Year and asking God to make it a successful and prosperous one.

As for our news, we remain here for more than six years, and we still seek to proclaim truth, freedom and world peace. All of this takes place in a world which knows what is happening but remains silent and does little more than watch this sorry theatre.

By now, surely everyone knows that truth. The US was the country that prided itself by bringing peace; now, sadly, instead it rains down violence and discord. Guantánamo is the most obvious example of this. We prisoners entered Guantánamo alive, many have left it alive, and some of us remain in it, seemingly alive ourselves.

However, those who remain die every second of every day that we are here. Each of us suffers new physical pain, and our injured hearts suffer from a psychological pain that can not be described. All of this happens and the world remains silent. And, as it has been written, it is true of us:

I am alive and will listen if you call
But there will soon be no life for us who you call;
And if you blew at the embers now they would light up
But wait and you will find that you blow into ashes

Sami al-Haj

For further information about Sami al-Haj, and about the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Click here for the campaign to free Sami al-Haj.

As published on the Huffington Post, CounterPunch and Indymedia (UK, DC, Indybay and NYC).

For a sequence of articles dealing with the hunger strikes at Guantánamo, see Shaker Aamer, A South London Man in Guantánamo: The Children Speak (July 2007), Guantánamo: al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj fears that he will die (September 2007), The long suffering of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian teenager sent home from Guantánamo (October 2007), Guantánamo suicides: so who’s telling the truth? (October 2007), Innocents and Foot Soldiers: The Stories of the 14 Saudis Just Released From Guantánamo (Yousef al-Shehri and Murtadha Makram) (November 2007), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), The forgotten anniversary of a Guantánamo suicide (May 2008), Binyam Mohamed embarks on hunger strike to protest Guantánamo charges (June 2008), Second anniversary of triple suicide at Guantánamo (June 2008), Guantánamo Suicide Report: Truth or Travesty? (August 2008), Seven Years Of Guantánamo, And A Call For Justice At Bagram (January 2009), British torture victim Binyam Mohamed to be released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), Obama’s “Humane” Guantánamo Is A Bitter Joke (February 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), Guantánamo’s Long-Term Hunger Striker Should Be Sent Home (March 2009). Also see the following online chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 2 (Ahmed Kuman, Mohammed Haidel), Website Extras 3 (Abdullah al-Yafi, Abdul Rahman Shalabi), Website Extras 4 (Bakri al-Samiri, Murtadha Makram), Website Extras 5 (Ali Mohsen Salih, Ali Yahya al-Raimi, Abu Bakr Alahdal, Tarek Baada, Abdul al-Razzaq Salih).

US military chief’s strategic call to close Guantánamo

Admiral Mike MullenWidely reported in the last few days were comments made by the United States’ most senior military official, Admiral Mike Mullen, during a visit to Guantánamo on Sunday. In his first trip to the prison since he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October, Admiral Mullen told reporters, “I’d like to see it shut down.” Asked why, he explained, “More than anything else it’s been the image –- how Gitmo has become around the world, in terms of representing the United States. I believe that from the standpoint of how it reflects on us that it’s been pretty damaging.”

Mullen also pointed out that he was “encouraged” to hear that the prison population had been reduced considerably over the last year, but his criticism of Guantánamo was not as one-sided as some press reports made it appear. Indicating the enormous gulf between his wishes and the administration’s point of view, he conceded that he was “not aware that at this point there is anyone considering that [closing the prison],” and explained, “We certainly look at this mission as an enduring mission until someone comes in and shuts it down. I have no idea how long it will be. The political leadership would have to make that decision.”

As the head of the US navy, Mullen had previously visited the prison in December 2005. On that occasion his opinion was not recorded, although one of his companions, General Bantz J. Craddock, the commander of CENTCOM, delivered a typical morale-boosting speech to the troops, in which he said, “The dedication and professionalism of JTF [Joint Task Force] members, who continue to operate under some very challenging conditions, is evident to all who visit Guantánamo. Our Nation can be proud of what they contribute to the Global War on Terrorism.”

Shades of this unswerving and unquestioning praise for Guantánamo as part of the front line in the “War on Terror” could be perceived in Mullen’s comments on Sunday that “JTF Guantánamo has performed extraordinarily well and has really delivered during a difficult mission,” and his claim that “The world is focused on Guantánamo Bay. We’ve got to get it right every single hour. The consequences of getting it wrong could be global.”

This analysis of Guantánamo’s role was also highlighted in his comment that “there are some really, really bad people here who have perpetrated extraordinary crimes,” although it was his addendum to this comment –- that these “bad people” will “go through some kind of due process, due legal process” –- which, in conjunction with his baldly-stated wish to see the prison closed, indicated that he was carefully laying out a position on Guantánamo that echoed the opinions of defense secretary Robert Gates.

Defense secretary Robert GatesIt was, of course, Gates who appointed Mullen to his new job, declaring that he had “the vision, strategic insight and integrity to lead America’s armed forces,” and it was also clear that his appointment marked a break from the Pentagon regime of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Almost as soon as he replaced Rumsfeld, in November 2006, Gates called for the closure of Guantánamo, and for trials to be held on the US mainland. He declared that the prison’s reputation was so tainted that any verdicts from trials held there –- in the much-criticized Military Commissions –- would lack legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Although his opinion was backed up by Condoleezza Rice and the State Department, however, he was overruled by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and, in particular, by Vice President Dick Cheney, Guantánamo’s stoutest defender, and the prime architect –- with the invaluable aid of his close advisors, including David Addington –- of the government’s “War on Terror” policies.

Unlike President Bush, who has stated publicly that he wants to see Guantánamo closed (even if such a comment is as reliable as his claim that the US “does not torture”), Cheney has not budged an inch on Guantánamo. Shortly after the prison opened, in January 2002, he declared, in one of the most hyperbolic speeches on record about the detainees, “These are the worst of a very bad lot. They are very dangerous. They are devoted to killing millions of Americans, innocent Americans, if they can, and they are perfectly prepared to die in the effort. And they need to be detained, treated very cautiously, so that our people are not at risk.”

Vice President Dick CheneyIn June 2005, a year after the Supreme Court ruled that the detainees had the right to challenge the basis of their detention, Cheney’s opinions had barely changed. He told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “The people that are there are people we picked up on the battlefield, primarily in Afghanistan. They’re terrorists. They’re bomb makers. They’re facilitators of terror. They’re members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.” This in itself was inaccurate, as the tribunals convened to assess the detainees’ status as “enemy combatants” had demonstrated that a large number of detainees were not “picked up on the battlefield” and were not caught in Afghanistan either, but although he acknowledged that some detainees had been released, explaining, “We’ve let go those that we’ve deemed not to be a continuing threat,” his conclusion was as sweepingly shrill as it had been when the prison opened. “The 520-some that are there now,” he insisted, “are serious, deadly threats to the United States.”

By summer 2007, when the prison’s population had dropped still further, to 360 detainees, Cheney had downscaled the numbers, but his rhetoric was essentially the same. Appearing again on CNN, he explained that he was opposed to plans to close Guantánamo, and claimed that there were “hundreds of people” like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed –- the senior al-Qaeda operative who stated in a tribunal at Guantánamo in March that he was the architect of 9/11 –- who were still held in the prison. This was in spite of the fact that figures provided at the same time by the Pentagon’s Office for the Administrative Review of the Detention of Enemy Combatants (OARDEC) stated that a maximum of 80 detainees were presumed to be significant enough to face a trial.

Robert Gates, however, has refused to drop the issue of Guantánamo’s closure, and, as mentioned above, has even dared to contemplate a course of action that provokes fits of hysterical fighting talk from other Republicans: transferring those regarded as truly dangerous to prisons on the US mainland. When this issue was raised last summer, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell managed to persuade his fellow Senators to declare, by 94 votes to 3, that detainees, “including senior members of al-Qaeda, should not be released to American society” or transferred into “facilities in American communities and neighborhoods,” spelling out his complaints in a speech that should have mortified the many Democrats who claim to oppose the existence of the prison, but who were evidently not listening when they cast their votes.

“Some in Congress have actually proposed that we require the President to move terrorist detainees held at Guantánamo Bay to the continental United States and keep them here,” McConnell fulminated. “That means moving them into facilities in cities and small towns across America in states like California and Illinois and Kentucky. Well, I can guarantee you that my constituents don’t want terrorists housed in their backyards in Fort Knox, Fort Wright or anywhere else within the Commonwealth. I know I don’t.”

Just three weeks ago, at a press conference at the Pentagon, Gates again raised this issue of transferring detainees to the US mainland in a speech that specifically addressed the problems associated with the prison’s closure (some of which were highlighted in an article I wrote for Guantánamo’s sixth anniversary on Friday). “I think that the principal obstacle has been resolving a lot of the legal issues associated with closing Guantánamo, and what you do with the prisoners when they come back [to the United States],” he said. “Because of some of these legal concerns –- some of which are shared by people in both parties on Capitol Hill –- there has not been much progress in this respect.”

General Mullen’s musings do nothing to address the inertia referred to by Robert Gates over the plans to close Guantánamo, but they represent a break from the views of his predecessors, General Peter Pace, and General Richard Myers –- both appointed by Donald Rumsfeld –- and should be seen, therefore, as constituting another salvo in the defense secretary’s struggle to persuade the White House to restore the rule of law in the “War on Terror.”

Seen in this light, Mullen’s appointment –- and his statements on Sunday –- reflect the changing perspective of the military over the last six years, as can be seen from a brief review of statements made by his predecessors.

General Richard MyersGeneral Myers, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Guantánamo opened, had a way with hyperbole to rival Dick Cheney. On January 11, 2002, when the first detainees arrived at the prison, he told reporters that they were restrained because, given the opportunity, they would “gnaw through hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 [military plane] to bring it down.” It was an opinion that he maintained throughout his tenure. In June 2005, after Amnesty International issued a report describing Guantánamo as “the gulag of our time,” he called the report “absolutely irresponsible,” and insisted that the United States was doing its best to detain fighters who, if released, “would turn right around and try to slit our throats, slit our children’s throats.”

His successor, General Pace, who was appointed by Rumsfeld in September 2005, reportedly showed a more skeptical approach to the conduct of the “War on Terror,” and was credited with tackling his boss in private, recommending that Guantánamo should be closed, and stating his belief that the United States should follow the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of prisoners, even those in al-Qaeda. In public, however, little of this was evident.

General Peter PaceSpeaking about the Guantánamo detainees at a National Press Club Luncheon in February 2006, he conceded that they presented a dilemma, admitting that “some of those who have been at Guantánamo over time have been judged to be less threatening than they were when they were picked up on the battlefield, and some of those have returned to their countries and resumed a, quote, ‘normal’ life,” but adding that “Others have gone immediately back into the battle and have tried to kill us again.” His conclusion, however, followed a harder line than Admiral Mullen’s recent pronouncements, with unmistakable echoes of the stance taken by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. “But these are unlawful enemy combatants,” he said. “They are our sworn enemies. They have said that they want to kill us and do away with our way of life.”

In letting slip his calculated sound bite last Sunday, Admiral Mullen may have only taken a small step towards the closure of Guantánamo –- aligning the military with the Pentagon and the State Department –- but it may be one that ultimately proves significant.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on CounterPunch and the Huffington Post.

Gordon Brown urged to act for British residents in Guantánamo

On Friday morning, on the sixth anniversary of the opening of the US administration’s lawless prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a group of human rights campaigners presented a letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street, requesting him to act on behalf of Binyam Mohamed and Ahmed Belbacha, the two remaining British residents in Guantánamo, and also to ask the US government to close the prison down.

Although the weather was awful, spirits were high amongst those who had gathered to deliver the letter: released Guantánamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Bisher al-Rawi, MEPs Baroness Sarah Ludford and Jean Lambert, actress Kika Markham (Corin Redgrave’s wife), Tahir Deghayes, the younger brother of released detainee Omar Deghayes, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, and an unexpected guest: Joanna Lumley, whose presence obviously brightened the morning for the group of press photographers who had gathered in the rain to record the occasion.

Petition delivered to 10 Downing Street, January 11, 2008

From left to right: unidentified policeman, Joanna Lumley, Moazzam Begg, Baroness Sarah Ludford, Yvonne Ridley, Bisher al-Rawi, Kika Markham, Jean Lambert, Andy Worthington, Tahir Deghayes. Photo © Richard Keith Wolff. Contact him at:

The full text of the letter (as drafted by the human rights group Cageprisoners) and its signatories is reproduced below. For further information on the British residents, see Andy’s archive here.

Dear Prime Minister,

We, the undersigned, welcome last month’s release of the British residents, Jamil El-Banna, Omar Deghayes and Abdennour Sameur and applaud the government’s intervention in securing their release from Guantánamo Bay. At long last their ordeal has come to an end and, hopefully, they will be able to truly begin to rebuild their lives with their families.

It is, however, with great concern that we note the UK government failed in securing the return of two remaining long-term prisoners who hold strong ties to this country, Binyam Mohamed al-Habashi and Ahmed Belbacha. This is particularly disquieting since we are aware that the Foreign Secretary had included Binyam Mohamed in the initial request made this August to his US counterpart.

We believe Binyam Mohamed sought asylum in the UK in 1994 and that he was granted leave to remain here. The circumstances surrounding the seizure, extraordinary rendition and imprisonment of Mr. Mohamed, as described by him in Guantánamo Bay through his legal representatives, are horrific to say the least. Part of his testimony describes how he was interrogated in Morocco for 18 months, evidently at the behest of US intelligence. During this time it states, amongst other things, that he was stripped naked and a scalpel used to repeatedly cut his chest and genitals.

In July 2003 two British citizens, Moazzam Begg and Feroz Abbassi, were amongst the first men to be designated for trial by military commission in Guantánamo. Many senior British law lords said the proposed procedure was highly objectionable. Lord Steyn described it as “a mockery of justice … derived from the jumps of the kangaroo.” The then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, himself finally intervened stating that the military commissions process was wholly inadequate for the purposes of administering a fair trial and, demanding in the absence of a just system, that the men be repatriated. In January 2005 the last of the UK citizens, including Begg and Abbassi, were returned home.

It is a strange paradox that Binyam Mohamed remains in Guantánamo only because he is now being put through the very process whose objectionable nature had once provoked the decision to pursue freedom for British men held unjustly.

In the case of Ahmed Belbacha, we have learned that he lived and worked in Bournemouth since 1999 and was cleared to work at a Labour party conference there. He even received a letter of thanks from the then Deputy Prime Minster, John Prescott, for his services. Mr. Belbacha was cleared by the US military for release but he cannot safely return to Algeria where he would be at serious risk from both militants and a government known for human rights abuses. Without intervention by the United Kingdom, Mr. Belbacha may face a fate worse than Guantánamo Bay.

We therefore kindly request once again that the British government intervenes on behalf of these men who have been subjected to the violations of incarceration without trial for so long.

Today, the Guantánamo Bay prison centre has reached the six-year mark since inception. Hundreds of men continue to be held there without access to due process and the rule of law. The chorus of voices calling for the closure of this place grows stronger by the day. In June last year, former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, stated, “we have shaken the belief the world had in the American justice system … by keeping a place like Guantánamo open and creating things like the military commission. We don’t need it and it is causing us far more damage than any good we get for it.”

He also said, “if it were up to me I would close Guantánamo not tomorrow but this afternoon” and “I would get rid of Guantánamo and the military commission system.”

We request too that the British government joins this call and unequivocally asks its closest ally to close down the Guantánamo prison centre.

Thank you.

Moazzam Begg, former Guantánamo detainee and spokesman for Cageprisoners
Zachary Katznelson, Reprieve, Counsel for detainees in Guantánamo
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Baroness Sarah Ludford, MEP
Lord Nazir Ahmed
Sir Geoffrey Bindman, Bindman & Partners, British Institute of Human Rights, Professor of Law, UCL
Ruhal Ahmed, former Guantánamo detainee
Tarek Dergoul, former Guantánamo detainee
Amani Deghayes, sister of ex-Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes
Yvonne R. Bradley, Esq, Detailed Military Defense Counsel for Binyam Mohamed
Gareth Peirce, Lawyer, Birnberg Peirce
Jean Lambert, MEP
Caroline Lucas, MEP
Corin Redgrave, Actor and Campaigner
Kika Markham, Actress
Bianca Jagger
Dr Adnan Siddiqui, Cageprisoners
Tony Benn, MP
Clare Short, MP
Mark Oaten, MP
Dianne Abbott, MP
David Howarth, MP
Desmond Turner, MP
Norman Baker MP, Lib Dem Shadow Secretary of State for Transport
Helen Bamber OBE, Clinical Director, Helen Bamber Foundation, Working for Survivor of Gross Human Rights Violations
Anjum Anwar MBE, Blackburn Cathedral
Victoria Brittain
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Journalist, The Independent
Alastair Lyon, Birnberg Peirce Solicitors
Ismail Patel, Chair, Friends of Al-Aqsa
Anas Altikriti, Spokesman, British Muslim Initiative
Aki Nawaz, Artist and activist, Muslim Defence League
Richard Hermer, Doughty St Chambers
Muddassar Arani, Arani Solicitors
Imran Khan, Imran Khan & Partners Solicitors
Ibrahim Hewitt, Head of Al Aqsa School
Naeem Malik, Birmingham Guantánamo Campaign
Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra
Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC)
Muhammad Umar, Chairman, Ramadhan Foundation
Sue Conlan, Peace & Progress
Richard Haley, Scotland Against Criminalising Communities
Dr David Nicholl, Birmingham Guantánamo Campaign
Shahreen Khanom, Arani Solicitors
Mary Pearson, National Secretary, Troops Out Movement
Ali AlHadithi, President, Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS)
Azad Ali, Muslim Safety Forum
Muhammad Habibur Rahman, President, Islamic Forum Europe
Shakeel Begg, Imam of Lewisham Islamic Centre
Solange Mouthaan, Lecturer, Law School, University of Warwick
Louise Christian, Christian Khan Solicitors
Natalia Garcia, Tyndalwoods Solicitors
Yasmin Khan, Justice4Jean Campaign
Dr Azzam Tamimi
Yvonne Ridley, Journalist
John Pilger, Journalist
Andy Worthington, Author, The Guantánamo Files
Fareena Alam, Journalist, Q News
Liz Davies, Chair, Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers
Frances Whittle, Birmingham Guantánamo Campaign
Adrienne Burrows, Peace and Justice
Linda Rogers, Peace and Progress
Pat Fawcett, Arts Officer, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council
Tony Whelan, Universities and Colleges Union, London School of Economics
Dr Taj Hargey, Chair, Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford
Nafeez Ahmed, Associate Tutor International Relations, University of Sussex, Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development
Asad Rehman, Human rights activist, Chair of Newnham Monitoring Project
Dr Kamal Al Helbawy, Centre for the Study of Terrorism
James Yee, former US Army Chaplain, Guantánamo
Sajida Malik, Solicitor, Birnberg Peirce

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Indymedia.

The future of Guantánamo

The Guantanamo FilesThis is the title of an article I wrote for “Comment is free” in today’s Guardian, looking at the obstacles to Guantánamo’s closure, which will be faced if any of the front-runners in the US presidential primaries –- Hillary Clinton, Barack Omama and John McCain, who have all expressed their opposition to the prison –- succeeds in removing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from the White House in November.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, which explains in detail why the prison is, as described in the Guardian article, “a self-defeating failure on an almost unimaginable scale.” The book is published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Six Years Of Guantánamo: Enough Is Enough

The Bush administration has maintained a low profile over the last month, as waves of indignation over the destruction of CIA videotapes showing the torture of two “high value” detainees have lapped ever closer to the White House. In the last few weeks, as coverage of the presidential primaries has consumed the media, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney must also have been hoping that they would be able to escape scrutiny on today’s bleak anniversary. It is, however, imperative that they are not allowed to do so. Despite its claims that it “does not torture,” this is an administration drenched in torture, which must one day be made answerable for its crimes.

Six years ago, on January 11, 2002, the first of 778 prisoners –- referred to as “detainees,” and identified only by numbers –- arrived at a hastily erected prison in the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where, ever since, they have been subjected to a disturbingly lawless experiment.

Detainees on the flight to Guantanamo

Detainees on the flight to Guantánamo.

Under the terms of a military order initiated in November 2001, the President claimed that he could hold the detainees indefinitely, without charge or trial, as “enemy combatants.” Guantánamo, leased from Cuba in 1903 under an arrangement that cannot be broken unless both countries agree to it, was specifically chosen for this experiment because it was presumed to be beyond the reach of the US courts.

For two and a half years, the administration succeeded in its aims, running an illegal offshore interrogation center, which mutated into a torture prison when the detainees proved resistant to interrogation. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” introduced by the administration included prolonged solitary confinement, forced nudity, sexual and religious humiliation, sleep deprivation, the use of extreme heat and cold, and the use of painful stress positions. Despite condemnation by world leaders, international legal experts, global bodies including the United Nations and an unprecedented array of former US military commanders, the administration defined torture so narrowly –- as being equivalent to organ failure or death –- that it refused to concede that it was actually engaged in torture.

The irony, which only became apparent later, was that the reason that so many of the detainees were not forthcoming in their interrogations was not because they were al-Qaeda terrorists who were trained to resist interrogation, but because they had no information to give. When the government’s own documents were analyzed, in reports by the Seton Hall Law School (PDF), and in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, it became apparent that the majority of the detainees had not been captured by US forces on the battlefield, as alleged, but had been sold to them by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, at a time when bounty payments of $5000 a head for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects were widespread.

Detainees on arrival at Guantanamo, January 11, 2002

Detainees on arrival at Guantánamo, January 11, 2002.

In June 2004, the US courts finally caught up with Guantánamo. In a momentous ruling, the Supreme Court insisted that Guantánamo was “in every practical respect a United States territory,” and that the detainees had habeas corpus rights –- the right to challenge the basis of their detention before an impartial court.

Undeterred, the administration allowed lawyers access to the detainees, but refused to allow them anywhere near the US courts, establishing, instead, a system of military tribunals –- the Combatant Status Review Tribunals –- as a mockery of their habeas rights. In these tribunals, the detainees were allowed to tell their own stories, in response to the government’s allegations against them, but were not allowed legal representation. Moreover, the tribunals were empowered to accept secret evidence, obtained through the torture, coercion or bribery of other detainees, which was not revealed to the defendants, and could not even be challenged.

In some ways, of course, there is more to celebrate today than there was on Guantánamo’s fifth anniversary. In the last year, a number of whistleblowers –- former military officials who worked on the tribunals –- have bravely stepped forward to condemn the tribunal process. Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who spoke out in June, described them as a sham, reliant upon vague, unsubstantiated and generic evidence, and designed merely to approve the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants,” and in October an Army Major, speaking anonymously, added his complaints, revealing the deliberate exclusion of exculpatory evidence, the reconvening of tribunals when an unfavorable result was produced, and the pressure exerted on tribunal members from higher up the command structure.

Plans to scale down the prison population also continued throughout 2007. 492 detainees have now been released –- 122 in the last year alone –- and the majority of those have been freed on their return home, but the gross injustices of Guantánamo have not come to an end. Two detainees (see here and here) died at the prison last year (to add to the three who died in 2006), and five more detainees were transferred into the facility, even while the President was claiming in public that he wanted to close it down.

For the 281 detainees who remain, moreover, life is as hard as ever. Although a few are housed in Camp 4, which contains communal dorms, the majority are held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day in the newest camps, Camps 5 and 6, and are deprived of the meager comforts –- including access to TV, and some sort of a social life –- that are routinely enjoyed by the majority of convicted criminals on the US mainland.

Others continue to be held in complete isolation, an unknown number are suffering from severe psychiatric disorders, and for the few dozen long-term hunger strikers the prison remains a torture center. Prevented from exercising the only power they still hold –- the right to starve themselves to death in protest at their endless detention without charge or trial –- twice a day they are held in restraint chairs, using 18 separate straps, and are fed through a thick tube inserted into the stomach through the nose, which is removed after each feeding in a deliberate attempt to “break” their will.

To compound the detainees’ misery, it’s unclear how some of them will ever be freed. Up to 70 have been cleared for release –- some for more than two years –- but the majority are still held because of international treaties preventing their return to their homelands –- including China, Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria –- where they face the risk of torture. Attempts by the authorities to bypass these treaties through “memoranda of understanding,” guaranteeing the humane treatment of returned detainees, recently came unstuck after two returned Tunisians received jail sentences following dubious trials, and the decision by a District Court judge to prevent the return of a third Tunisian seems to have put the whole errant project on hold.

Another 80 are scheduled to face trial by Military Commission, a system of show trials concocted by Dick Cheney and his advisors in November 2001, but as these, like the tribunals, rely on secret evidence obtained through the torture, coercion or bribery of other detainees, and have yet to produce a single significant victory, it remains unclear if they will ever function adequately. As the uproar over the destroyed CIA tapes has demonstrated, the administration is desperate to conceal all evidence of torture by US forces, because it remains illegal under domestic and international law, and it seems inconceivable that military trials which conceal evidence of torture can ever be regarded a legitimate.

An alternative solution is to free the other 130 or so detainees who are currently regarded as too dangerous to release, but not dangerous enough to be charged (which is, of course, another extraordinary invention on the part of the authorities) and to bring those regarded as genuinely dangerous –- no more than 40, according to various intelligence estimates –- to trial on the US mainland.

This proposal is almost taboo in the United States, but it may yet come to pass. It relies on the hope that pliable juries can be persuaded to overlook the torture of “high value” detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed in a tribunal last year that he was the architect of 9/11, and Abu Zubaydah and Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, two other allegedly senior al-Qaeda operatives, whose destroyed interrogation tapes are the reason that would-be investigators are currently circling the White House.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, photographed after his capture in March 2003.

This is a gloomy scenario, and it still doesn’t explain what will happen to the cleared detainees who cannot be repatriated, or how to begin dismantling the completely unaccountable web of secret and semi-secret prisons –- in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere –- that underpins Guantánamo, which is, after all, only the most visible symbol of a worldwide gulag, involving “extraordinary rendition” and “ghost detainees.” It is, however, honest and considered, which is more than can be said for the motivations of those who dreamt up the whole malign experiment in the first place.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on AlterNet, the Huffington Post, CounterPunch, and ZNet. Cursor and Truthout also ran it as lead features.

Guantánamo: Six Years Of Injustice Need To End

Six years ago today, one of the most depressing icons of the twenty-first century opened for business. On January 11, 2002, the first of nearly 800 prisoners arrived at a hastily erected prison in the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Leased from Cuba since 1903, under an extraordinary agreement that cannot be broken unless both countries agree to it, Guantánamo was specifically chosen because it was presumed to be beyond the reach of the US courts.

Camp X-Ray, January 11, 2002

Camp X-Ray, January 11, 2002.

It was here that the US administration unveiled its novel approach to justice in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Declaring that the prisoners –- henceforth to be referred to only as “detainees” –- were amongst the “worst of the worst,” President Bush insisted that he had the right to hold them not as prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions, but as “unlawful enemy combatants,” who could be imprisoned indefinitely without charge or trial.

If trials were deemed necessary, these too would be innovative proceedings that owed nothing to international or domestic law. Under the terms of a military order signed by the President in November 2001, which authorized him to capture and detain any non-citizen he regarded as a terrorist anywhere in the world, these new war crimes trials, known as Military Commissions, were empowered to draw on secret evidence, obtained through torture, coercion or hearsay, which could be withheld from the detainee and his lawyers.

As hundreds of detainees arrived at Guantánamo in the first few months of 2002, the government’s rhetoric was undermined when Brigadier-General Mike Lehnert, the prison’s first commander, admitted, “A large number claim to be Taliban, a smaller number we have been able to confirm as al-Qaeda, and a rather large number in the middle we have not been able to determine their status. Many of the detainees are not forthcoming. Many have been interviewed as many as four times, each time providing a different name and different information.” In August 2002, a senior intelligence official also confirmed that all was not well in Guantánamo, telling the Los Angeles Times that the authorities had netted “no big fish” in Guantánamo, and that some of the prisoners “literally don’t know the world is round.”

Despite this, the administration was adamant that the reason that its offshore interrogation center was not providing a wealth of information about al-Qaeda and its operations was because the detainees had been trained to resist interrogation, and not because most of them had no information to offer. It was only revealed later that the majority of them had not been captured by US forces on the battlefield, but had been sold to them by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, at a time when bounty payments of $5000 a head for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects were widespread.

Flyer offering rewards for al-Qaeda detainees

The notorious US PsyOps leaflet offering Afghan villagers money for life in exchange for handing over al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.

In an attempt to increase the intelligence yield, senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney and their close advisors, approved the introduction of explicit torture techniques – euphemistically referred to as “enhanced interrogation techniques” –- which included prolonged solitary confinement, forced nudity, forced grooming, sexual and religious humiliation, sleep deprivation, the use of extreme heat and cold, and the use of painful stress positions. These techniques certainly increased the amount of information produced, but Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Christino III, a senior military intelligence officer, who was responsible for analyzing the intelligence produced from Guantánamo, told the journalist David Rose that there was no dramatic improvement in the quality of the intelligence, only an attempt to “improve the way it was packaged.”

It was not until June 2004 that attempts by lawyers to make Guantánamo conform to US law, which had begun almost the moment Guantánamo opened, reached the Supreme Court. In a momentous decision, the justices ruled, by a majority of six to three, that the detainees had the right to challenge the basis of their detention, demolishing, along the way, the administration’s long-cherished belief that Guantánamo did not count as US territory. In his majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens emphasized the importance of habeas corpus, citing a historic case that dealt specifically with the detention of aliens in US custody, in which it was stated, “Executive imprisonment has been considered oppressive and lawless since John, at Runnymede, pledged that no free man should be imprisoned, dispossessed, outlawed or exiled save by the judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”

This decision finally allowed the detainees to have access to legal representatives, but the administration refused to allow them anywhere near a courtroom. Instead, the Pentagon introduced military tribunals –- Combatant Status Review Tribunals –- to review whether they had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants” when they were captured. These drew largely on the forced confessions produced in the “enhanced interrogations” – both in Guantánamo and in an array of secret prisons where other “high-value” detainees were held – and their less severe, but equally worthless counterparts: confessions produced in return for favorable treatment, which only encouraged the creation of another web of lies.

Nevertheless, the story of Guantánamo on its sixth anniversary is not as grim as it could have been. Through diplomatic negotiations, and, to a lesser extent, through decisions made in the tribunals and their successors, the annual Administrative Review Boards, 492 detainees have now been released from Guantánamo, and the majority are at liberty in their home countries and, in a few cases, in Albania, the only country that could be prevailed upon to accept cleared detainees who feared returning to the countries of their birth.

For the 281 detainees who remain, however, the prison is still a horrendous affront to justice. As many as 70 have been cleared for release, but cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be tortured on their return. Blind to the irony of the situation, the administration has also been largely thwarted in its attempts to find other countries to accept these men, and has resorted to signing “memoranda of understanding,” designed to guarantee the detainees’ humane treatment, with countries including Tunisia and Libya, whose human rights records are notoriously poor.

At present, the authorities’ callous attempts to wash their hands of their own responsibility for the fates of these men have been put on hold. After two Tunisians, returned in June, received prison sentences following trials that were regarded by observers as grossly unjust, a US district court judge prevented the return of a third Tunisian, and it remains to be seen what new plan the administration can conceive of to rid itself of its own mistakes.

The administration also proposes that 80 of those still held –- including the few dozen, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11, who can be objectively regarded as truly dangerous –- will be tried by Military Commission, but it has yet to be established that the Commissions can actually function. Plagued by setbacks, including a Supreme Court defeat in 2006, criticism from its own government-appointed judges, and implacable opposition from the military lawyers assigned to defend the detainees, their only success was in March last year, when the Australian David Hicks accepted a plea bargain, admitting to “material support for terrorism” and dropping his well documented claims of abuse by US forces, in exchange for a nine-month sentence in Australia, which has just come to an end.

As for the rest of the detainees, although many will no doubt be freed in the months to come, the prevailing injustice at Guantánamo is best summed up by the manner in which they are regarded by the administration: as too dangerous to be released, but not dangerous enough to be charged. Six years after Guantánamo opened, it’s time that such arrant, unprincipled and highly damaging nonsense came to an end.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

A version of this article was published exclusively in the Daily Star, Lebanon.

The Sixth Anniversary of Guantánamo: A Symbol Of US Hubris

The Guantanamo Files

January 11, 2008 marks a particularly grim anniversary, as the Bush administration’s reviled prison at Guantánamo Bay has been open for six years. Although over 60% of the nearly 800 detainees have now been released, the predicament facing the remaining 281 is as bleak as ever.

Held without charge, without trial, and without any way of knowing when, if ever, they will be released, the detainees are cut off from their families, are mostly held for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, and are not even granted the meagre pleasures –- TV, a social life, and the freedom to read and write –- that are enjoyed by the most hardened convicted criminals on the US mainland. Although the torture that was prevalent in 2003 and 2004 appears to have subsided, it remains clear that indefinite detention in deliberately isolated circumstances can constitute torture in and of itself.

It’s also known that some prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for several years, and that dozens of long-term hunger strikers continue to be force-fed twice daily in a brutal manner. Held in restraint chairs, using 18 separate straps, they are fed through a thick tube inserted into the stomach through the nose, which is removed after each feeding in a deliberate attempt to “break” their will.

Shockingly, after six years of legal wrangling, the detainees still have no effective means to challenge the basis of their detention. Although the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that Guantánamo –- specifically chosen because it was presumed to be beyond the reach of the US courts –- was “in every practical respect a United States territory,” and that the detainees therefore had habeas corpus rights, the other two branches of the government –- the executive and Congress –- have twice conspired to remove these rights, and the results of a third challenge mounted in December will not be apparent until spring 2008.

In the meantime, what hopes there are for the dismantling of Guantánamo rest on the perceived status of the remaining detainees. The administration has at last conceded that it only intends to pursue war crimes trials against approximately 80 of the detainees, although these figures are not necessarily plausible, as some senior officials have estimated that the truly dangerous detainees number only 40 at most. There is also no guarantee that the trials will proceed smoothly.

Dreamt up by Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisors in November 2001, the Military Commissions have been condemned for relying on secret evidence and seeking to conceal all mention of torture on the part of US forces, and have yet to produce a single significant result. Riven by internal disputes, and currently focused on two contentious cases –- that of Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was just 15 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan, and Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden –- their only success has been in the case of the Australian David Hicks, who accepted a plea bargain. After dropping claims that he was tortured by US forces, Hicks returned home last year to serve a nine-month sentence for providing “material support for terrorism,” and has just been freed.

It’s possible that another 130 or so detainees will be released this year, although at present the administration maintains that it can hold these men indefinitely. With a typical disregard for the law, senior officials have suggested that they can do so because the men are too dangerous to be released, but not dangerous enough to be charged.

Closing Guantánamo is also complicated by the fact that 70 men, cleared for release through military reviews, cannot be returned to their home countries –- including China and various North African regimes –- because of fears that they will be tortured. In an attempt to overcome international safeguards preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture, the US government has been busy signing “memoranda of understanding” with some of these regimes. In this, they have colluded with the British government, which is seeking to repatriate alleged terror suspects, held without charge or trial under control orders that amount to virtual house arrest.

Rightly regarded as worthless by human right activists, these agreements, which purport to guarantee humane treatment, have been betrayed by the Tunisian government in the cases of two returned detainees, and appeals courts in the US and the UK have recently delivered rulings aimed at overturning these dubious policies.

Six years after it opened, then, Guantánamo, though diminished in some ways, remains as monstrously lawless as ever, and even as it empties it becomes more apparent that behind it –- in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in other secret locations –- lurks an even larger system of indefinite detention that is even less accountable than this darkly iconic symbol of US hubris.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

A version of this article, entitled “Guantánamo Bay –- jumpsuits and torture,” appears in the January 2008 edition of Socialist Review.

Guantánamo Britons resist Spanish extradition order

On Wednesday January 9, in a crowded court room at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, a short hearing took place as the next step in the request for the extradition of two former Guantánamo detainees, Jamil El-Banna and Omar Deghayes, which, with astonishing insensitivity, was submitted by the Spanish government on the men’s return from Guantánamo last month after more than five years in US custody.

The weakness of the Spanish case –- alleging that both Mr. El-Banna and Mr. Deghayes were members of an al-Qaeda cell in Madrid, which provided recruits for militant training camps in Afghanistan and Indonesia –- was discussed at length in a previous article.

In this hearing, as the men returned to court after three weeks with their families, their lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, QC, launched a withering attack on the Spanish government, telling the court, “The Spanish authorities are deeply implicated in the ordeal of the last five years. They acquiesced to, and facilitated, their interrogation at Guantánamo and indeed participated in that interrogation process. They took no steps or adequate steps to say, ‘we want them for trial in Spain.’ They left them to be interrogated in Guantánamo, and now –- after they have been exonerated by US authorities, after English police have said they don’t wish to bring any charges –- the Spanish authorities are saying, ‘we want to question them on the self-same charges.’” He added that it would be an “obvious oppression” to extradite them now “for the same allegations that have been fully investigated in Guantánamo.”

The judge, Timothy Workman, who had already shown compassion to the men before Christmas, when he granted them bail, and noted that prosecution concerns about doing so were “outweighed by the detailed review carried out in the US,” extended their bail, and ordered them to return for a more lengthy hearing on February 14.

Outside the court, as Mr. El-Banna and Mr. Deghayes mingled with well-wishers, there was a palpable optimism on the part of the lawyers, a feeling, perhaps, that the Spanish can be persuaded to drop their ludicrous claims before they embarrass themselves.

Both Mr. El-Banna and Mr. Deghayes seemed well, although this was clearly a day for a show, and it was impossible to discern the fears and anxieties that must be troubling both men after their long imprisonment in horrendous conditions.

With his hair and beard trimmed since his court appearance in December, when, with his long grey hair, he appeared, perhaps aptly, to be a recently rescued castaway, Mr. El-Banna smiled tentatively, taking his supporters by the hand and thanking them warmly.

Jamil El-Banna

Jamil El-Banna. Photo © Dylan Martinez/Reuters.

Mr. Deghayes, too, seemed in good spirits. Engaged and talkative, he was accompanied by a group of supporters from the Save Omar campaign, who had worked assiduously for his release, and had travelled from his home town of Brighton to show their solidarity. His mother, whose distress was apparent in photographs taken before his release, was smiling and glancing over at him, clearly still elated at her beloved son’s return.

Omar Deghayes

Omar Deghayes. Photo © Dylan Martinez/Reuters.

For more on the stories of the British residents, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Indymedia.

For the rest of the extradition story, see here and here.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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