Archive for April, 2008

The Guantánamo Files: Voices of Our World interviews Andy Worthington (plus other radio interviews)

The Guantanamo FilesDuring my visit to the United States in March to promote my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, I was interviewed by Michael Ramadan Jones for Voices of Our World, a weekly show, with a global overview, that focuses on the stories of those oppressed or otherwise marginalized by the dominant world powers, and I’m pleased to report that this interview is now available online, as the first segment of a two-part show, “Tortured Logic,” broadcast this week, which also features Jameel Jaffer, the director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The show is available here.

Mentioning this show has made me realize that I’ve failed to mention some other radio stations that have interviewed me in the last few months, some of which are also available online.

On February 23, 2008, I was interviewed on “This is Hell” with Chuck Mertz on WNUR 89.3 FM in Chicago. Chuck interviewed me in August 2007, and for my return visit we talked more about The Guantánamo Files, and inevitably, as the show fairly closely followed the administration’s announcement that six “high-value detainees” — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) — were to be charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks, we also spoke about the use of torture by US forces, both in Guantánamo and in secret prisons run by the CIA, in which KSM and others were held before being transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006. We also spoke about the problems facing other prisoners, who have been cleared for release, but cannot be returned to their home countries because of fears that they will be tortured. The show is available here — or here as an MP3. The interview starts about 24 minutes in, and lasts for about half an hour.

On March 7, 2008, just before my US trip, I was interviewed on “Wakeup Call” on Pacifica Radio’s WBAI 99.5 FM in New York. I was asked first about how the Spanish government had just been shamed into dropping its extradition request for Omar Deghayes and Jamil El-Banna, two British prisoners released from Guantánamo, whose extradition was requested as soon as they arrived home in December 2007. I was also asked about the charges against KSM and others, in which I was able to explain how the system of trials that these men will face — the Military Commissions, dreamt up by Dick Cheney and his advisers in November 2001 — are a woeful substitute for either the established US court system or the US military’s own judicial processes. Other topics included The Guantánamo Files in general, and the case of Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, the Afghan prisoner who died of cancer in December, the front-page story about Hekmati that I co-wrote with Carlotta Gall for the New York Times, and the TimesEditors Note that followed publication of the story. To listen to the show, click here, or visit this page, scroll down to “Wakeup Call,” and play or download the 6 am slot on Friday March 7, 2008. As with “This is Hell,” the interview starts about 20 minutes in, and runs for about 20 minutes.

On March 25, 2008, I had a fascinating interview (sadly not available online) with former Senator Burt Cohen, for his show “Portside,” on Portsmouth Community Radio, in which we talked, primarily, about the failures of US foreign policy in Afghanistan. We spoke, of course, about Guantánamo, because most of those held in the prison were captured — theoretically, at least — in connection with the US-led invasion of October 2001 and its aftermath, but we also talked about how the invasion itself was flawed, relying on warlords for its success, with no thought for how it was the brutality of the warlords that had encouraged the rise of the Taliban in the first place, and how the battle for “hearts and minds” was almost certainly lost within a year of the invasion, when the US administration shifted its attention to Iraq. For a flavor of what we talked about, have a look at this interview with Joshua Holland of AlterNet.

And finally, for now, I’d like to put out a mention of an interview that took place on February 4, 2008, when I was interviewed by Kevin Barrett for the brilliantly-named Muslim-Christian-Jewish Alliance for 9/11 Truth. This was a wide-ranging two-hour interview (albeit punctuated by numerous ad breaks, including, I must admit, some rather hilarious “Survivalist” ads by a company specializing in dried meats and tinned foods), but it’s unfortunately only available to subscribers.

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.

The Guantánamo Files: Al-Jazeera interviews Murat Kurnaz, Andy Worthington

Al-Jazeera logoOn Thursday April 24, I was invited to take part in the Riz Khan show on al-Jazeera, with released Guantánamo prisoner Murat Kurnaz, and Paul Glastris, the editor-in-chief of Washington Monthly, whose latest issue features an extraordinary roll-call of politicians, military figures and other experts condemning the US administration’s use of torture. The show is based in Washington D.C., but I was interviewed in al-Jazeera’s studio across the river from the Houses of Parliament.

At the start of the show, Murat, who is here to promote his account of his horrendous five-year ordeal, Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo, spoke about the circumstances of his arrest and imprisonment, and Paul and I were then asked to talk about the use of torture, and the system of trials by Military Commission that was introduced in November 2001 by Vice President Dick Cheney and his close advisers, including David Addington.

Both of us, it was clear, are hopeful that whoever leads the next administration will follow through on their promise to close the prison, and will put an end to the extraordinary flight from domestic and international law that has been engineered by the White House’s current occupants. Paul, I was happy to note, echoed the American people’s widespread revulsion at the use of torture, extraordinary rendition and imprisonment without charge or trial that I noted during my visit to the United States last month.

To watch the show on YouTube, see below.

Andy 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.

The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts

Abu Zubaydah, an alleged senior al-Qaeda operative, has been held without charge or trial as a “high-value detainee” for over six years, first in secret CIA custody, and then in Guantánamo, while battles have raged within the administration over his supposed significance. Drawing, in particular, on the story of former Guantánamo prisoner Khalid al-Hubayshi, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, makes the case that Zubaydah’s importance has been wildly exaggerated.

A recent article in the Washington Post, Out of Guantánamo and Bitter Toward Bin Laden, which was based on an interview with former Guantánamo prisoner Khalid al-Hubayshi (released in 2006), was noteworthy as much for what it did not reveal as for what it did.

Khalid al-Hubayshi

Khalid al-Hubayshi. Photo by Faiza Saleh Ambah.

In the article, Faiza Saleh Ambah began by explaining how “A calling to defend fellow Muslims and a bit of aimlessness took Khalid al-Hubayshi to a separatists’ training camp in the southern Philippines and to the mountains of Afghanistan, where he interviewed for a job with Osama bin Laden.”

Part of this story was previously known from al-Hubayshi’s long years in Guantánamo, as Detainee 155, when he admitted to his Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) in 2004 that he had trained in the Philippines and had also trained at the Khaldan camp in Afghanistan in 1997. He also said that he moved to Afghanistan in 2001, joining a “private small camp” outside Jalalabad, which was subsequently closed down by the Taliban. Throughout, he presented himself — with some eloquence — as a freedom fighter who focused on particular struggles that various Muslims around the world had with non-Muslim oppressors (the model that was largely superseded by bin Laden’s declaration of global jihad in 1998).

It was for this reason, he said, that he trained at Khaldan, which was not associated with either the Taliban or al-Qaeda at the time, and it was also for this reason that he returned to Afghanistan in 2001, and joined the camp near Jalalabad. He insisted, “I wasn’t a member of al-Qaeda or on the front lines with the Taliban because I don’t believe in what they are doing. I believe what the Taliban did in Afghanistan was ethnic war [and] al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization.”

He also explained, “I think Osama bin Laden is wrong. He just wants to be famous. He doesn’t care how he does it, killing people, killing Muslims, or destroying countries. I think he got what he wanted — to be famous. I don’t need to meet him. I don’t understand the politics. People look at the vision of Osama bin Laden and believe America is their enemy. They don’t understand what is going on or what happened in Afghanistan in 1980 [when the Soviet invasion began].”

This opinion of bin Laden, it transpired from al-Hubayshi’s interview with Faiza Saleh Ambah, was true, but rather lacking in context. In the interview he admitted that, although he had certainly become disillusioned with the inter-ethnic fighting in Afghanistan — “I was not there … to help Afghans fighting Afghans for political gain,” he said, adding, “If I was going to die, I wanted to die fighting for something meaningful” — his return to Afghanistan in May 2001, and what he subsequently did there, was both more complicated and more compromised than he had admitted at his tribunal.

He explained that, while attempting to return home in 1999, he had been arrested and imprisoned by the Pakistanis, who confiscated his passport. After his release, he used a false passport to travel to Yemen, and was smuggled back into Saudi Arabia, where he resumed his job at a utilities company. Two years later, however, when he learned that he was “wanted for questioning by the Saudi authorities,” he obtained another false passport and fled to Afghanistan, where, he said, he noted that “al-Qaeda’s influence had spread and the organization had become more like a corporation … with company cars and many safe houses,” and the Taliban “had also grown more powerful.”

After becoming “adept at making remote-controlled explosive devices triggered by cellphones and light switches,” he admitted that an associate of bin Laden, who was “impressed by his skills,” asked him “to join al-Qaeda, or at least meet with bin Laden.” He recalled that he “spent half an hour with bin Laden at a converted military barracks near the city of Kandahar,” where the two men “sat on carpets in bin Laden’s office and shared a fruit platter.”

The following conversation took place, according to al-Hubayshi. “What are my duties toward you, and what are your duties toward me, if I join with you?” he asked, to which bin Laden replied, “That you don’t betray us and we don’t betray you.” He added that bin Laden also offered him a plot of land, but said that he refused the offer to join al-Qaeda, explaining that bin Laden’s fight “had changed from defending Muslims to attacking the United States. I wasn’t convinced of his ideology. And I wanted to be independent, not just another minion in this big group.”

After returning to his independence — presumably at the small camp near Jalalabad that he talked about in his tribunal — al-Hubayshi said that he was training Chechen fighters on 9/11, and that a month later, when the US-led invasion began, the Afghans “blamed us … and forced us out of the city at night. We slept by the river for two weeks.” Later, he was drawn once more into bin Laden’s orbit when another of his associates came and took him and some of the other men to the Tora Bora mountains, for what, it seems, was touted as a glorious showdown with the Americans.

“Bin Laden was convinced the Americans would come down and fight,” al-Hubayshi said. “We spent five weeks like that, manning our positions in case the Americans landed.” He added, however, that as the airstrikes moved closer, and as the Americans’ Afghan allies advanced on their positions, bin Laden abandoned the fight and fled. Faiza Saleh Ambah wrote that al-Hubayshi “remains bitter about what he considers bin Laden’s betrayal: calling the fighters to Tora Bora and then abandoning them there.” “The whole way to Cuba,” he explained, “I prayed the plane would fall. There was no dignity in what he made us do.” He also said that he was “sorry that Muslims carried out the Sept. 11 attacks because they targeted civilians.” “That was wrong,” he explained. “Jihad is fighting soldier to soldier.”

Abu ZubaydahWhile this entire report fills in some rather large gaps in al-Hubayshi’s testimony in Guantánamo — and also provides some apposite insight into his opinion of bin Laden — what was missing from Faiza Saleh Ambah’s interview was any mention whatsoever of another allegedly pivotal figure in al-Qaeda: Abu Zubaydah, the Palestinian-born facilitator of the Khaldan camp, and one of 14 “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006.

In the interview, the only mention of Khaldan was that al-Hubayshi “learned to fire anti-aircraft missiles, anti-aircraft machine guns, anti-tank weapons and rocket-propelled grenades and became an expert in explosives,” whereas his comments in Guantánamo about his relationship with Abu Zubaydah struck me as enormously significant while I was researching The Guantánamo Files, and remain so to this day, as they cast important light on a fierce debate within the US administration, which has raged since shortly after Zubaydah was captured in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad in March 2002.

Contrary to claims made by the administration and the CIA — which, as described in Time magazine shortly after his capture, indicated that he was “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations and top recruiter,” who would be able to “provide the names of terrorists around the world and which targets they planned to hit” — the story that emerged in Ron Suskind’s 2006 book, The One Percent Doctrine, was that Zubaydah was nothing like the pivotal figure that the CIA had supposed him to be, and had actually turned out to be mentally ill.

Investigating his diary, analysts found entries in the voices of three people — a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego — which recorded in numbing detail, over the course of ten years, “what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said.” Dan Coleman, the FBI’s senior expert on al-Qaeda, explained to one of his superiors, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.” According to Suskind, the officials also confirmed that Zubaydah appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations, and was, instead, a minor logistician.

And yet, as Suskind also reports, so misplaced was the CIA’s belief in Zubaydah’s importance that when they subjected him to waterboarding and other forms of torture, and he “confessed” to all manner of supposed plots — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty — “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each target … The United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”

Last December, when there was a brief uproar over the destruction by the CIA of videotapes showing the “enhanced interrogations” of Zubaydah and another “high-value detainee”, Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, Dan Coleman spoke out once more about Zubaydah, telling the Washington Post that the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the CIA cast doubt on the credibility of Zubaydah’s confessions. “I don’t have confidence in anything he says,” Coleman explained, “because once you go down that road, everything you say is tainted. He was talking before they did that to him, but they didn’t believe him. The problem is they didn’t realize he didn’t know all that much.”

Coleman also revisited the rift that developed between the FBI and the CIA when CIA operatives began holding him naked in his cell, “subjecting him to extreme cold and bombarding him with loud rock music,” explaining that FBI operatives who witnessed this said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. This guy’s a Muslim. That’s not going to win his confidence. Are you trying to get information out of him or just belittle him?”

Reiterating his skepticism about Zubaydah’s supposed importance, Coleman said that he “was a ‘safehouse keeper’ with mental problems who claimed to know more about al-Qaeda and its inner workings than he really did,” that his diaries were “full of flowery and philosophical meanderings, and made little mention of terrorism or al-Qaeda,” and that he and others at the FBI had concluded, by looking at other evidence, including a serious head injury that Zubaydah had suffered years earlier, that he had severe mental problems. “They all knew he was crazy, and they knew he was always on the damn phone,” Coleman explained, referring to other al-Qaeda operatives, adding, “You think they’re going to tell him anything?”

Largely unnoticed, although featured in my book, are two more analyses of Zubaydah’s role that reinforce the opinions expressed by Dan Coleman and Ron Suskind: those of Khalid al-Hubayshi, and of Zubaydah himself, during his CSRT in Guantánamo last spring.

Al-Hubayshi explained that, far from being a mastermind, Abu Zubaydah was responsible for “receiving people and financing the camp,” that he once bought him travel tickets, and that he was the man he went to when he needed a replacement passport. He also suggested that Zubaydah did not have a long-standing relationship with bin Laden. When asked, “When you were with Abu Zubaydah, did you ever see Osama bin Laden?” he replied, “In 1998, Abu Zubaydah and Osama bin Laden didn’t like each other,” adding, “In 2001, I think the relationship was okay,” and explaining that bin Laden put pressure on Zubaydah to close Khaldan, essentially because he wanted to run more camps himself.

The echoes with Zubaydah’s own account are uncanny. In his CSRT, Zubaydah said that he was tortured by the CIA to admit that he worked with Osama bin Laden, but insisted, “I’m not his partner and I’m not a member of al-Qaeda.” He also said that his interrogators promised to return his diary to him — the one that contained the evidence of his split personality — and explained that their refusal to do so affected him emotionally and triggered seizures.

Speaking of his status as a “high-value detainee,” he said that his only role was to operate a guest house used by those who were training at Khaldan, and confirmed al-Hubayshi’s analysis of his relationship with bin Laden, saying, “Bin Laden wanted al-Qaeda to have control of Khaldan, but we refused since we had different ideas.” He explained that he opposed attacks on civilian targets, which brought him into conflict with bin Laden, and although he admitted that he had been an enemy of the US since childhood, because of its support for Israel, pointed out that his enmity was towards the government and the military, and not the American people.

I await the development of Abu Zubaydah’s story with interest. Just a month ago, his lawyers, Brent Mickum and Joe Margulies, followed Coleman and Suskind’s lead by filing an unlawful detention suit arguing that their client is insane, and I’m fascinated to know what they — and others who are wondering why, if Zubaydah was so important, he was not charged in February in connection with the 9/11 attacks along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and five others — will make of the testimony of Khalid al-Hubayshi, who, as Faiza Saleh Ambah reported, is now a world away from his previous life as a would-be soldier and US prisoner, happily married and working at the utilities company from which he twice escaped to pursue his dreams of jihad.

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 Antiwar.com, ZNet, the Huffington Post, AlterNet and American Torture.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison, Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here) (all May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA), and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

Guantánamo’s forgotten child: the sad story of Mohammed El-Gharani

Since last June, when Omar Khadr, a Canadian prisoner at Guantánamo, was first hauled up before a Military Commission — the novel system of “terror trials” conceived in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — he has rarely been out of the news. Just 15 years old at the time of his capture, Khadr’s treatment has been widely condemned, not just because the trial system is weighted in favor of the prosecution, and is empowered to accept secret evidence obtained through torture or coercion, but also because of his age. 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.”

Omar Khadr is not, however, the only prisoner at Guantánamo who was just a child when he was captured. Almost entirely overlooked is Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, Mohammed El-Gharani, who was just 14 when he was captured in October 2001. Unlike Omar, Mohammed is one of at least 120 prisoners who will almost certainly never face charges, and who are left, instead, in severe isolation in Guantanamo, with no opportunity whatsoever to bring their cases to the attention of the wider public.

Mohammed El-GharaniAnd yet Mohammed’s story is one of the saddest in the prison’s long and unjust history. Although he was born in Saudi Arabia, his parents are from Chad, so he was never granted citizenship, and was prevented from having the same opportunities as Saudi nationals. He dreamed of becoming a doctor, but was not allowed to finish secondary school, and was selling religious paraphernalia to pilgrims attending the Hajj, when a Pakistani friend advised him to travel to Pakistan to learn how to repair computers so that he could establish a business in Saudi Arabia.

In order to pursue his dream, Mohammed visited the Chadian embassy, and exaggerated his age to obtain a passport. Only those aged 18 or over are allowed to travel without their parents, so he boldly declared that he was 20. With a valid three-month visa for Pakistan, he took his savings and bought an airline ticket to Karachi.

Soon after arriving, in October 2001, he was praying in a mosque, when it was suddenly surrounded by police, who arrested everyone inside. Most were released, but he was taken to a prison where, for 20 days, he was hung by his wrists, suspended so that only the tips of his toes touched the ground, and was beaten if he moved.

He was then sold to the Americans, who were offering bounty payments of $5,000 a head for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects,” and was transferred to the US prison at Kandahar airport in Afghanistan, where, like every other prisoner sent to the makeshift prison, he was subjected to systematic brutality.

Imprisoned in a barbed wire pen with five other prisoners, he was beaten during interrogations, and on several occasions had freezing cold water thrown over him during the night. He reported that one particular soldier “would hold my penis, with scissors, and say he’d cut it off.”

He was then flown to Guantánamo, but unlike three Afghan boys (released in January 2004), who were held separately from the adult population, and treated with something approaching the appropriate care of juvenile prisoners, he has never received any preferential treatment as a juvenile, and has, instead, been subjected to torture and abuse as severe as almost any other prisoner.

He has been hung from his wrists on 30 occasions (an experience he described as worse than in Pakistan, because his feet did not even touch the ground), and has also been subjected to a regime of “enhanced” techniques to prepare him for interrogation — including prolonged sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation and the use of painful stress positions — that clearly constitute torture.

On one occasion, a heavily-armoured riot squad — the Initial Reaction Force (IRF), used to quell even the most minor infringements of the rules — slammed his head into the floor of his cell, breaking one of his teeth, and on another occasion an interrogator stubbed out a cigarette on his arm.

As a result of this violence he has become deeply depressed, and has attempted to commit suicide on several occasions, by slashing his wrists, trying to hang himself, and, on one occasion, by running head-first into the wall of his cell as hard as he could.

Despite all his suffering, and the lack of evidence against him, no attempt has been made to address the clear deterioration of his mental health, and he has been held in some of the prison’s harshest cell blocks, where prisoners are held, for 22 or 23 hours a day, in solid metal cells with no windows and no opportunity to socialize with their companions.

Although the violence against him continues unabated (he is regularly set upon by the IRF teams, because of his frustrations with the regime), he will almost certainly be released if the government of Chad engages in serious negotiations with the US government. In August 2007, lawyers from Reprieve, the legal action charity that represents Mohammed and 30 other Guantánamo prisoners, visited Chad to meet members of his family, and to present his case to the government. They received assurances from President Deby and the Foreign Ministry that they would act on his behalf, but the negotiations appear to have stalled, in part because the government has been caught up in a well-publicized struggle against rebel forces.

This week, a representative of Reprieve is visiting Chad in an attempt to resurrect the struggle for Mohammed’s freedom. He takes with him evidence that, when it comes to securing the release of prisoners, the most significant factors are public pressure and diplomatic negotiations. Last December, after two years of stonewalling on the part of the Americans, the Sudanese government secured the release of two of its innocent citizens, simply by refusing to give up. If it wishes, the government of Chad can do the same for Guantánamo’s forgotten child.

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 exclusively in the Daily Star, Lebanon.

For an article dealing with Mohammed El-Gharani’s habeas corpus case, see Judge Orders Release Of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (January 2009), and for an article on El-Gharani’s release, see Guantánamo’s Youngest Prisoner Released To Chad (June 2009).

The US military’s shameless propaganda over Guantánamo’s 9/11 trials

Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, examines a recent statement from the US military that appears to have been issued for propaganda purposes, and explains how its timing seems designed to deflect attention from recent negative publicity relating to the proposed trials of Guantánamo prisoners.

In what appears to be nothing more than propaganda masquerading as news, the US military has announced, as Reuters described it, that it will “televise the Guantánamo trial of accused September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and five other suspects so relatives of those killed in the attacks can watch on the US mainland.”

Five of the six Guantanamo prisoners accused in connection with the 9/11 attacks

Five of the six prisoners charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks. From the top: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, Ali Abdul Aziz Ali and Walid bin Attash.

Army Col. Lawrence Morris, the chief prosecutor of Guantánamo’s system of trials by Military Commission, stated, “We’re going to broadcast in real time to several locations that will be available just to victim families,” adding that the footage would be “beamed to closed-circuit television viewing sites on military bases at Fort Hamilton in New York, Fort Monmouth in New Jersey, Fort Meade in Maryland and Fort Devens in Massachusetts.”

While there seems little doubt that Col. Morris is sincere, it’s also apparent that the trial under discussion will not be taking place anytime soon, and that announcements of broadcasts designed to appeal to the families of 9/11 victims are premature, to say the least, and more judiciously regarded as attempts to shore up the disputed legitimacy of the Commission process.

Conceived by Dick Cheney and his close advisers in November 2001, as an alternative to either the US court system or the US military’s own judicial processes, the Military Commissions have been heavily criticized for allowing the possibility of withholding evidence from the accused and of using evidence obtained through torture. This latter provision was later dropped, but the possibility of using evidence obtained through coercion remains at the discretion of the government-appointed military judge, and it should also be noted that this is an administration that has found it notoriously difficult to differentiate between acts of torture and acts of coercion.

The Commissions have also stumbled from one disaster to another. Dismissed as illegal by the Supreme Court in June 2006, they were resuscitated by Congress just a few months later, but were then struck down by their own judges in June 2007, on the grounds that the legislation that had revived the process — the Military Commissions Act — had authorized the judges to try “illegal enemy combatants,” whereas the process at Guantánamo that had supposedly made the prisoners eligible for trial — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, themselves heavily criticized for relying on secret evidence obtained by dubious means — had only declared that the prisoners were “enemy combatants.”

Although this issue was resolved just a few months later, in a hastily-convened appeals court, the Commissions have never, even briefly, escaped from the deep shadows cast over their legitimacy by their own government-appointed military defense lawyers, who have maintained, from the moment that they first investigated the new trial system in any detail, that the Commissions are, to quote just a few examples, “implements for breaking the law” by concealing evidence of torture (Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, who represented Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden, in the Supreme Court case that threw out the first system of Military Commissions), and rigged, ridiculous, unjust, farcical, and a sham (Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, who represents the Canadian Omar Khadr).

Currently mired in controversy in the case of Khadr, who was just 15 years old when he was captured — and, it was recently revealed, may not have killed the US soldier whose murder is the key charge against him — the Commissions have fared no better in any of the other pre-trial hearings that have taken place recently. Lawyers for Salim Hamdan have fought tenaciously to establish that he had no insider role in al-Qaeda and should therefore have rights as a Prisoner of War, and in the last month three other prisoners have resorted to disrupting their pre-trial hearings through a combination of non-cooperation and pleas for justice that have done little to reassure the wider world that the process is either valid or fair.

As I reported last month, the first of the three to boycott the process was Mohamed Jawad, an Afghan who, like Omar Khadr, was also a juvenile when he was seized after allegedly throwing a grenade at a vehicle carrying two US soldiers and an Afghan translator. Dragged from his cell to attend his hearing, he told the judge in his case, Col. Ralph Kohlmann, “My right has not been given to me. I have not violated any international law. There are many accusations against me … they don’t make any sense … I am a human being.” He added that he “continued to be treated unjustly and interrogated, and that he wanted the ‘whole world’ to know it.”

Jawad was followed by Ahmed Mohammed al-Darbi, a Saudi captured in Azerbaijan and rendered to Guantánamo via Afghanistan, who is accused of plotting attacks on shipping for al-Qaeda. After al-Darbi refused to take part in the Commission process, explaining that it lacked legitimacy, his military-appointed lawyer, Army Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles pointed that he had no choice but to accept his client’s actions, which, as the Associated Press put it, he described as the result of a “reasoned decision.”

Although the judges in the Commissions attempted to insist that the lawyers “must carry on with their defense even if their clients boycott,” Lt. Col. Broyles was adamant, as he told reporters, that al-Darbi’s decision “should mean … that I sit very quietly, answer the judge’s direct questions and that’s it.” He added that his role in al-Darbi’s forthcoming trial was now equivalent to that of a “potted plant,” and that he would “almost certainly” file a challenge against any order demanding that he defend his client against his wishes.

Lt. Col. Broyles’ criticism is more significant than it may at first appear, as it highlights a conflict of interest that is genuinely troubling to defense lawyers called upon to defend clients who subsequently refuse their services. Under the terms of their military contracts, they are supposed to follow orders and insist on defending the men, even though they refuse counsel, but as civilian lawyers they could have their licenses revoked if they attempt to defend clients who have fired them.

This conflict of interest has arisen in the Commissions before. In their first incarnation, before the Supreme Court ruled that they were illegal, two of those charged –- Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a Yemeni whose pre-trial hearing is expected imminently, and Ghassan al-Sharbi, a Saudi who has not yet been charged under the new system –- refused to be represented by the lawyers assigned to them: Major Tom Fleener and Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler, who now represents Omar Khadr.

In an article in GQ last summer, Major Fleener and Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler both explained that they were unable to find any justification for the administration’s insistence that the prisoners were not allowed to represent themselves. As Sean Flynn noted, “The right to self-representation [has] been a codified tenet of American law for 217 years. Under established rules, whether a man can competently defend himself is irrelevant; he need only be competent to make the decision to represent himself.” Kuebler believed that al-Sharbi was competent to make that decision. “Therefore,” Flynn continued, “Kuebler believed he had an ethical obligation to step aside. A lawyer can’t force himself upon an unwilling client, and no credible court would ever allow such a thing. To do so would be to replace a vigorous defender with a prop, an actor in a charade that only mimicked a proper trial.”

Major Fleener faced a similar problem in the case of Ali Hamza al-Bahlul. He told Flynn, “The concept of compelled representation has always bothered the crap out of me. You just don’t force lawyers on people. You don’t represent someone against his will. It’s never, ever, ever done.” Flynn then explained, “The reason it’s never done is that it undermines the concept of a fair trial. When a man’s life or liberty is at stake, he gets to decide who will speak for him. That’s the way American courts work, have always worked. To eliminate that right is to begin to transform a trial into a pageant.”

On April 10, when a third prisoner refused legal representation in his trial by Military Commission, what appeared to be a trend began to attract the interest of the world’s media. Ibrahim al-Qosi, a Sudanese prisoner accused of working as an al-Qaeda operative, told Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Paul, the judge at his pre-trial hearing, that “he did not want a lawyer and would not attend future hearings because he did not consider the court legitimate,” as the AP described it. “I do not recognize the justice or the lawfulness of this court,” he said, adding, “What is happening in your courts is in fact a sham, which aims solely that the cases move at the pace of a turtle in order to gain some time to keep us in these boxes without any human or legal rights.” As the AP report continued, “He later removed the headphones used to hear the translator and said he would participate no further, declining to answer the judge’s questions,” and saying, “I will leave the field and you can play as you want to play.”

Although Brig. Gen. Thomas Hartmann, the legal advisor to the Commissions’ convening authority, attempted to shore up the ailing process, pointing out that the Commissions’ rules “provide for the process to move forward whether or not the accused chooses to participate,” and defending the trials as “extraordinarily fair by any norm” and providing “substantial protections,” attorney Neal Sonnett, who monitors the Commissions for the American Bar Association, explained why proceeding with trials without the defendants being present would be potentially fatal for their perceived legitimacy. “If all these cases are going to proceed with empty chairs,” he said, “what has already been called a kangaroo court will just be highlighted as really a kangaroo court.”

It later transpired that al-Qosi’s defense lawyer, Navy Reserves Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, had not even been able to meet her client. As Carol Rosenberg explained in the Miami Herald, she had asked the judge “to help her gain access to [al-]Qosi’s cell to try to persuade him — face to face — to accept her services. The judge refused. Prison camp commanders have said such access is against Pentagon policy.”

With the judge insisting that the case proceed as planned, and Cmdr. Lachelier left to consult the California bar to discover whether, as with the concerns of Lt. Cmdr. Kuebler, Major Tom Fleener and Lt. Col. Broyles, her license will be at risk for representing someone who fired her, the time was clearly ripe for a morale-boosting exercise by the authorities, which is where, I presume, the idea for the statement about televising the 9/11 trials arose.

What makes the announcement particularly premature is that those who have been studying the Commissions’ recent progress — or lack of it — know that the major obstacle preventing even the pre-trial hearings of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged accomplices from proceeding is the fact that they do not yet have the required legal representation. Just last month, Col. Steve David, the Commissions’ chief defense lawyer, explained that, unlike the prosecution, which has a full roster of 30 lawyers, he has only nine lawyers on duty, who are already struggling to cope with their caseload.

It was, however, also ironic that the military’s announcement almost immediately backfired when one of the few military lawyers assigned so far — Navy Capt. Prescott Prince, who was recently appointed to defend Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — added his own criticisms of the Commission process to the ever-growing list of insider complaints. As Reuters described it, Capt. Prince “said he doubts the defendants can get a fair trial in the Guantánamo court because it accepts hearsay evidence that may have been obtained through cruel and dehumanizing means,” and also pointed out that the Geneva Conventions ban “acts of violence or intimidation.”

He also explained, in Reuters’ words, that, “if the trials are indeed fair, then broadcasting them widely would prove that to the world, but he worried about setting a precedent by televising what he suspects will be show trials,” and added, “I can just imagine American soldiers and sailors and airmen being subjected to similar show trials worldwide.”

With his talk of show trials — and his fears that members of the US military are liable to be subjected to US-influenced show trials in future — Capt. Prince joins an ever-growing list of military defense lawyers who understand that the Military Commissions are both unjust and counter-productive. It is, as I have stated before, time to shut the system down and move trials to the US mainland.

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 the Huffington Post, Anti-war.com, CounterPunch and AlterNet.

See the following for a sequence of articles dealing with the stumbling progress of the Military Commissions: The reviled Military Commissions collapse (June 2007), A bad week at Guantánamo (Commissions revived, September 2007), The curse of the Military Commissions strikes the prosecutors (September 2007), A good week at Guantánamo (chief prosecutor resigns, October 2007), The story of Mohamed Jawad (October 2007), The story of Omar Khadr (November 2007), Guantánamo trials: where are the terrorists? (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo charged with 9/11 attacks: why now, and what about the torture? (February 2008), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (ex-prosecutor turns, February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), African embassy bombing suspect charged (March 2008), Betrayals, backsliding and boycotts (May 2008), Fact Sheet: The 16 prisoners charged (May 2008), Four more charged, including Binyam Mohamed (June 2008), Afghan fantasist to face trial (June 2008), 9/11 trial defendants cry torture (June 2008), USS Cole bombing suspect charged (July 2008), Folly and injustice (Salim Hamdan’s trial approved, July 2008), A critical overview of Salim Hamdan’s Guantánamo trial and the dubious verdict (August 2008), Salim Hamdan’s sentence signals the end of Guantánamo (August 2008), High Court rules against UK and US in case of Binyam Mohamed (August 2008), Controversy still plagues Guantánamo’s Military Commissions (September 2008), Another Insignificant Afghan Charged (September 2008), Seized at 15, Omar Khadr Turns 22 in Guantánamo (September 2008), Is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed Running the 9/11 Trials? (September 2008), two articles exploring the Commissions’ corrupt command structure (The Dark Heart of the Guantánamo Trials, and New Evidence of Systemic Bias in Guantánamo Trials, October 2008), Meltdown at the Guantánamo Trials (five trials dropped, October 2008), The collapse of Omar Khadr’s Guantánamo trial (October 2008), Corruption at Guantánamo (legal adviser faces military investigations, October 2008), An empty trial at Guantánamo (Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, October 2008), Life sentence for al-Qaeda propagandist fails to justify Guantánamo trials (al-Bahlul, November 2008), Guilt by Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), 20 Reasons To Shut Down The Guantánamo Trials (profiles of all the prisoners charged, November 2008), How Guantánamo Can Be Closed: Advice for Barack Obama (November 2008), More Dubious Charges in the Guantánamo Trials (two Kuwaitis, November 2008), The End of Guantánamo (Salim Hamdan repatriated, November 2008), Torture, Preventive Detention and the Terror Trials at Guantánamo (December 2008), Is the 9/11 trial confession an al-Qaeda coup? (December 2008), The Dying Days of the Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns Chaotic Trials (Lt. Col. Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Torture taints the case of Mohamed Jawad (January 2009), Bush Era Ends with Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Chaos and Lies: Why Obama Was Right to Halt The Guantánamo Trials (January 2009), Binyam Mohamed’s Plea Bargain: Trading Torture For Freedom (March 2009).

And for a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Obama’s Confusion Over Guantánamo Terror Trials (June 2009).

The Guantánamo Files: the Sri Lanka Guardian interviews Andy Worthington

The Guantanamo FilesSri Lanka Guardian: To introduce you, if anyone asks you, who is Andy Worthington, from which country is he, and what is his role and status, what would you say?

Andy Worthington: I’m a historian and journalist from the UK, living in London, and the author of three books. My latest, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, is the first book to look in detail at the stories of all the men held in Guantánamo. I’ve also just started work as the Communications Officer for Reprieve, the legal action charity founded by Clive Stafford Smith. Reprieve represents 31 Guantánamo prisoners, and also works on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty.

Sri Lanka Guardian: What do you think of the current political and military developments in Sri Lanka as a senior journalist who is dealing with the international media?

Andy Worthington: I’m not qualified to report on the current situation in Sri Lanka, although I sincerely hope that peace will prevail for all the Sri Lankan people.

Sri Lanka Guardian: You have visited Sri Lanka a few years ago as a tourist. What do you think of the people in Sri Lanka and our customs, problems and the solutions we are pursuing?

Andy Worthington: Yes, I visited Sri Lanka about ten years ago. The island is beautiful, and the people charming and welcoming, although I was, of course, saddened by the violence that has torn a hole in the country’s heart.

Sri Lanka Guardian: Well, I would like to change our topic to discuss your current position. We know you are the best writer on some intelligence agencies including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and their dirty tricks. How do you identify terrorism as a concept and the CIA’s perceptions of terrorism and effectiveness in countering it?

Andy Worthington: I’m sure I don’t deserve that first accolade, although I have certainly undertaken research into the workings of the US intelligence agencies. To keep my response succinct, I would say that terrorism — as it relates to al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks — is the work of criminals, that it should not be confused with the precepts of Islam and the beliefs and actions of the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide, and that combating al-Qaeda by declaring a “war” on terrorism has been profoundly misguided.

Sri Lanka Guardian: How do you as a historian exhaustively trace terrorism and its historical development?

Andy Worthington: Essentially, with the help of some extraordinary researchers who have come before me. If we’re talking about Islamist terrorism, it’s important to understand its roots in terms of the radical ideologues who first promoted the idea of violent jihad — and in the modern era that includes pivotal figures like the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. Also of crucial importance is the trajectory from colonization to independence in the Muslim world, the struggle of political Islamists and the manner in which that struggle has largely been superseded by notions of violent jihad, and the role in this development of Egyptian militants and, in some cases, their bloodthirsty radicalization by the Egyptian state (as in the case of Ayman al-Zawahiri, usually described as “number two in al-Qaeda”, but clearly an enormous influence on the radicalization of Osama bin Laden).

Another crucial trajectory concerns Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion in 1979, through the funding of the mujahideen resistance by the United States (via Pakistan, an untrustworthy intermediary, to put it mildly) and Saudi Arabia, the ruinous civil war of the early 1990s and the rise of the Taliban. Two of many books that I would recommend, which have helped me along the way, are Ghost Wars by Steve Coll and Al-Qaeda by Jason Burke.

Sri Lanka Guardian: Could you tell us about current developments in global terrorism since 9/11 in the US and 7/7 in the UK?

Andy Worthington: Again, to keep my response manageable, I’d say that the US response to 9/11 has been misguided and counter-productive in three particular ways: the invasion of Afghanistan seems to have served primarily to push al-Qaeda into the border areas of Pakistan, where they remain; the invasion of Iraq created a whole new country-wide battlefield for al-Qaeda, and could have been dictated from a script prepared by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the processes — at Guantánamo and beyond — of imprisonment without charge or trial, “extraordinary rendition”, torture and secret prisons have been corrosively damaging for the moral standing of the United States.

In the UK, the government paranoia and tough posturing on terrorism has been equally misguided, in particular through the politicians’ unwillingness to equate their involvement in the carnage of Iraq with discontent amongst parts of the Muslim community, and their insistence that they have the right to hold terror suspects either without charge or trial or — when rebuffed by the courts — under control orders that amount to virtual house arrest. Speaking as a British citizen, it’s an absolute disgrace that these kinds of developments are taking place in the UK, and that they’re allowed to proceed virtually unchallenged. Where is the public’s outrage, and why are we almost solely dependant upon judges to combat an increasingly paranoid and authoritarian government?

Sri Lanka Guardian: Please comment on counter terrorism activities by the United States and the United Kingdom and their effectiveness. Would you do things differently?

Andy Worthington: I think I’ve largely answered this question above. The huge issues that are being ducked by both the US and the UK are that we should be seeking to decrease, rather then increase our violent involvement in the affairs of the Middle East, and that we should not confuse the actions of a small number of criminals with a supposed “Clash of Civilizations.”

Sri Lanka Guardian: Osama bin Laden and his terror movement are said to have been created by the USA in the early 1980s. But now they are the enemies of the USA. First, is it true that the US created al-Qaeda? And can leaders in the United States and United Kingdom ever eliminate al-Qaeda?

Andy Worthington: It’s not strictly true to say that the US created al-Qaeda, although they did pour billions of dollars into Afghanistan in the 1980s to fund the mujahideen resistance to the Soviet Union. As a member of the Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan at this time, Osama bin Laden, and others who went on to form al-Qaeda, were therefore at least indirectly funded by the US, but the most significant side-effect of the US funding for the anti-Soviet fighters was that they — along with the Saudis, who matched US funding, or provided even more — literally swamped this poor country with weapons, to lingering and brutal effect.

The US also stepped back from Afghanistan when the Soviet regime fell and the mujahideen embarked on a brutal civil war, and were also sidelined — in particular by the Pakistanis — when the Taliban, supported by Pakistan, either directly or covertly, rose up to restore order in the mid-1990s. This combination of neglect and of manipulation by Pakistan meant that the military training camp system in Afghanistan, which had initially arisen during the US-funded resistance to the Soviet Union, and of which al-Qaeda was but a small part (from 1996 onwards, after Osama bin Laden returned from a four-year hiatus in the Sudan), was allowed to expand in a largely unchecked manner.

As for whether al-Qaeda can ever be eliminated, I have to return to my observations above about Western foreign policy and the need to regain the moral high ground.

Sri Lanka Guardian: What is the hidden agenda, if any, behind the US War on Terror?

Andy Worthington: Clearly, as Iraq demonstrates, the hidden agenda of the United States is geopolitical influence and the control of oil. Both factors also apply to Afghanistan, of course, but are somewhat muddied by the fact that the US was also involved in the pursuit of al-Qaeda. With Afghanistan in particular, it’s not enough to say simply that the “War on Terror” is a smokescreen for installing a pro-American regime that will cooperate with the construction of a pipeline from the Caucasus to Pakistan. Guantánamo, Bagram and the secret prisons are not just a front; they are, sadly, the fruits of an administration mired in a mix of vengeance, blinkered self-righteousness and the misguided pursuit of “actionable intelligence” through the use of torture.

Sri Lanka Guardian: You have launched an important book on Guantánamo Bay, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. The book reveals how American soldiers have held innocent people like slaves and how they are finishing them off. Please tell us why Americans are playing with human life like this.

Andy Worthington: Bluntly, because they believed their own hype that they were picking up “the worst of the worst” from the battlefield, even though at least 85% of those who ended up in US custody were handed over to US forces by their Afghan or Pakistani allies, at a time when substantial bounty payments for al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects were widespread.

Specifically, as well, the administration, at the highest levels (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld), authorized the use of torture on these poor men, when they failed to produce “actionable intelligence” (for the most part, because they were either innocent men or simple foot soldiers, and had no knowledge to impart), and were also directly responsible for all the other lawless innovations of the last six years: holding prisoners without charge or trial, authorizing the kidnap and “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects anywhere in the world, and empowering the CIA to run secret prisons or to “render” those kidnapped to third countries, particularly in North Africa, where they could be interrogated by proxy torturers.

Sri Lanka Guardian: Have you visited Guantánamo Bay camp or Abu Ghraib in Iraq? What are the conditions prevailing there?

Andy Worthington: I haven’t. Abu Ghraib, like all the Iraqi prisons, is totally off-limits to all outsiders (except the Red Cross) and visitors to Guantánamo are only allowed to meet the prisoners if they are their legal representatives. For this, you need to be both a lawyer and an American, and I’m neither. As a journalist, I wouldn’t want to be given the military’s PR tour of the prison, although I admire journalists like Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, who has been a persistent and critical visitor to the prison since it opened, and I also appreciate that, as a journalist, the trials at Guantánamo — the Military Commissions, dreamt up in November 2001, and still struggling to establish their legitimacy — are important events to cover.

Sri Lanka Guardian: Pakistan, Afghanistan and some pro-USA countries have been giving their support to capturing al-Qaeda suspects. In Pakistan hundreds of youths have been disappeared. Some have been arrested and handed over to the CIA/FBI without proper investigations, according to some independent analysts. Could you let us know the contributory countries to the catastrophe in Guantánamo Bay? Asian countries?

Andy Worthington: As you correctly point out, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have been involved in these processes, although it should be noted that in Afghanistan this was down to the actions of individual warlords, whereas in Pakistan, as President Musharraf admitted in his autobiography in 2006, the government received millions of dollars for handing over hundreds of terror suspects.

What we also need to remember is that, after 9/11, the US administration put pressure on almost every country on earth to provide assistance in the pursuit of terrorists. European countries complied, if not by assisting in the direct apprehension of suspects (as was sometimes the case), then in facilitating — or turning a blind eye — to the passage of “extraordinary rendition” planes through their airspace. Other countries were leaned on — or volunteered — for deeper involvement. Thailand and Indonesia were involved in kidnapping and rendition, for example, and for a while the Thais also allowed — or tolerated — the existence of a secret CIA prison in their country, as the Poles and Romanians apparently did later.

This is too big a topic to cover here in any depth, but your readers will probably be interested to know that the prisoners in Guantánamo were captured in 17 different countries, and that some, like those captured in the Gambia and Zambia, were some considerable distance from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Sri Lanka Guardian: It seems to us that Americans truly believe that they are fighting for freedom and democracy and cannot see what they end up doing. What is the mechanism behind this? Surely they are not brainwashed with books like yours freely available to them?

Andy Worthington: Well, that’s very kind of you to say so, but the simple truth is that millions of Americans believe what the President tells them, and that many of those involved in prosecuting the “War on Terror” — in the government, and in the military — also believe the hype that the illegal prisons are full of “the worst of the worst.” It’s still the after-effect of 9/11. The truth, which can only be perceived when you step back from these assertions, is that you can’t legitimately describe people as dangerous terrorists when they haven’t actually been through any valid screening process, and have been denied any legitimate manner in which they can question the basis of their detention. It’s as simple as that. You have to follow internationally acceptable methods of establishing guilt; you can’t just trust the President to say so, without having to provide any evidence, which is essentially the deplorable situation that still prevails.

Sri Lanka Guardian: How is flawed American public opinion on matters like this different from public opinion in closed countries like, say, China or North Korea?

Andy Worthington: Oh, I’d have to say that it’s very different. People complain that the right-wing controls too much of the media in the United States, and it’s certainly true that some media proprietors have a shockingly wide and baleful influence. People also complain that there are few good newspapers in the US either, but the truth is that some extraordinarily important stories about the conduct of the “War on Terror” have been broken by journalists at newspapers including the Washington Post and the New York Times, and it’s also apparent, of course, that there is a thriving alternative world of news that exists on the internet in the US, unlike, to use your example, China and North Korea.

Sri Lanka Guardian: Regarding Iran, it is now conceded that the US deposed the elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh in 1952 and imposed the Shah. Many believe that it is this natural anger within Iran that led to the growth of extremism in Iran. It is also said that, however flawed, it is the most democratic of Islamic countries. And yet the US is allied with nearly all oppressive Islamic countries while always berating Iran. How does this happen with the American polity being democratic and the public having access to a wide variety of opinions?

Andy Worthington: Just because people have access, or potential access to information doesn’t mean that they exercise that choice. You’re right to point out the history of US-Iranian relations, but the default position, since 1979, has been that Iran and the United States are enemies. Similarly, citizens of all Western countries, not just the US, have to delve beyond the received positions on, for example, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to begin to make sense of how the world really is.

Sri Lanka Guardian: According to your article Horror at Guantánamo, one of the terror suspects at Guantánamo is infected with the AIDS virus. Unfortunately, it is now evident that he was never involved with terrorism. That is, he is innocent. Why is America capturing innocent people outside America without proper investigations?

Andy Worthington: This is Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan who is married to an Afghan woman and ran a shop in Jalalabad at the time of the US-led invasion in October 2001. The US administration denies that he has been infected with AIDS, and it may be that he was told this as an act of cruelty by one of the staff at Guantánamo, but what’s beyond doubt is that he has hepatitis B and tuberculosis, and that neither illness has been treated adequately, presumably because he has refused to cooperate with the interrogators by admitting that he was a terrorist.

His story is actually typical of many of the prisoners at Guantánamo, in that he was captured by bounty hunters and sold to the United States at the time when the system of bounty payments was prevalent, and that therefore it was presumed, from the moment that he was transferred to US custody, that he was a terrorist. Again, the problem is that there has been no adequate screening process to determine whether or not this is actually the case. All Arabs in US custody in Afghanistan were automatically sent to Guantánamo, and the screening in Guantánamo — involving military tribunals — was also inadequate, because the tribunals either relied on generic evidence that would not stand up in a court of law, or on secret evidence, which was often based on confessions made by the prisoners themselves, or by other prisoners, often under duress (or worse).

The difference between the point of view you express — that the US is “capturing innocent people outside America without proper investigations” — and the point of view of the US administration is that, as far as the administration is concerned, every confession, however it is derived, is valid, whereas you — and myself, for that matter — are appalled that the entire process stems from the presumption of guilt, rather than the presumption of innocence. Again, if people like Mr. al-Ghizzawi had been captured on a battlefield, we might be having a different conversation, but the fact is that the majority of these men — including Mr. al-Ghizzawi — were not, and it is therefore imperative, as it has been for over six years now, that they be allowed to challenge the basis of their detention in a meaningful manner.

Sri Lanka Guardian: If that incident had happened in a poor country we would see lots of human rights organizations and the international media blaming the country. But now these same organizations are indefinitely silent. How do you explain their contradictory thinking and activism?

Andy Worthington: Basically, I don’t agree that human rights organizations or the media have been silent. My organization, Reprieve, is just one of many Western organizations involved in human rights and the law — including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Human Rights First, The American Civil Liberties Union and scores of legal firms in the US — who have been challenging Guantánamo and the conduct of the “War on Terror” since the outset, and although some parts of the media — in the States, especially — were rather slow to pick up on the injustices that have been perpetrated over the last six years, they too — with the exceptions of the administration’s right-wing cheerleaders, of course — have been deeply committed to discovering the truth about what has been done in their name for many years now.

Sri Lanka Guardian: What are your future hopes as an author and journalist?

Andy Worthington: Basically to keep on exposing the truth about this most shameful of US administrations, and to stick with the story until the whole disgraceful edifice — from Guantánamo to the secret prisons — has been dismantled, and the United States returns to the rule of law. I hope that my book, my work as a journalist, and my work at Reprieve all contribute to the process.

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.

This interview was originally published in the Sri Lanka Guardian.

Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo

Sami al-HajSami al-Haj is a journalist, but one unlike any other. For over six years, since December 15, 2001, when he was seized by Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border, while on assignment as a cameraman for the Qatar-based broadcaster al-Jazeera, he has been in a disturbing but unique position: a trained journalist held as an “enemy combatant” on the frontline of the Bush administration’s “War on Terror,” first in Afghanistan, and then in Guantánamo.

For the first four years of his imprisonment, Sami, like all the prisoners processed through the US-run prisons in Kandahar and Bagram and then transferred to Guantánamo, had no voice. Until October 2004, when the first lawyers arrived at the prison following a momentous Supreme Court decision, three months earlier, that the prisoners had the right to challenge the basis of their detention, the only voices that emerged from Guantánamo were those of the few released prisoners — of the 200 released between 2002 and 2004 — who dared to speak out about their treatment.

Mostly these were the Europeans: the British, French, Danish, Swedish and Spanish prisoners released in 2004. Others — like the handful of Saudis released during this period — were explicitly prevented from speaking out, and others were advised not to do so. When 17 Afghans were released in April 2005, Chief Justice Fazel Shinwari told them at a press conference, “Don’t tell these people the stories of your time in prison because the government is trying to secure the release of others, and it may harm the chances of winning the release of your friends.” Others had been terrified into acquiescence. Yuksel Celik Gogus, a Turk released in November 2003, said after being freed, “They will come and take me away if I say what happened in Guantánamo.”

Sami’s opportunity to speak out came in early 2005, when he met his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, the legal action charity that currently represents 31 Guantánamo prisoners. The stories that Sami told him were shocking, as were those of many other prisoners. Echoing each other, despite cultural and linguistic differences, the prisoners reported extraordinary violence in the US-run prisons in Afghanistan. In describing their experiences at Guantánamo, they complained about the psychological torment of indefinite detention without charge or trial, the indiscriminate brutality of the teams of guards unleashed on prisoners for the most minor infringement of the rules, and the regime of torture — influenced by CIA counter interrogation techniques, and including prolonged isolation, the use of extreme heat and cold, the prolonged use of agonizingly painful stress positions, and the exploitation of phobias — that was prevalent in Guantánamo in 2003 and 2004 (as discussed in my book The Guantánamo Files).

As Stafford Smith listened to Sami’s story, he was appalled to discover — beyond the tales of torture in Kandahar, Bagram and Guantánamo, and disturbingly unsubstantiated claims that he had “arranged for the transport of a Stinger anti-aircraft system from Afghanistan to Chechnya” — that every one of the hundred-plus interrogations to which he had been subjected in Guantánamo had focused solely on the administration’s attempts to turn him into an informant against al-Jazeera, to “prove” a connection between the broadcaster and Osama bin Laden that did not exist. As Stafford Smith noted bluntly and accurately in his book, The Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice in Guantánamo Bay, “Sami was a prisoner in the Bush Administration’s assault on al-Jazeera.”

Later events and disclosures only served to reveal more of the administration’s dark machinations. A reporter was killed in a US bomb attack on al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Baghdad in April 2003, and in 2006 it was reported that President Bush had, as Stafford Smith again described it in his book, “mooted the idea of bombing the al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar.” As for Sami, it transpired that the US authorities had probably seized him because they had confused him with another man who had interviewed Osama bin Laden (although as Stafford Smith also noted, “name me a journalist who would turn down a bin Laden scoop”), and that, while Sami was on assignment in Afghanistan, his calls to his wife had been monitored by the CIA. “Extrapolating from the experience of a lowly cameraman like Sami,” Stafford Smith added, “it did not seem implausible that the phone of every al-Jazeera journalist was being tapped.”

The prisoners’ testimony was an enormous step forward in the wider understanding of the torture and abuse that was endemic in the administration’s “War on Terror” prisons, when their accounts, which were all subjected to a censorship process instigated by the Pentagon, often, and bewilderingly, emerged at the other end more or less intact.

In Sami’s case, his background in journalism added another dimension to these reports. In his book, Clive Stafford Smith recalled that when he asked Sami for information, he “would assemble important facts on almost any topic in the prison relying on the incredible prisoner bush telegraph.” He added, “Sami wrote reports about his treatment, the conditions at the prison and the pattern of his interminable interrogations. Perhaps two-thirds of these eventually made it through the censors, the others being held up for reasons that seemed little related to US security.”

These first-hand reports from behind the wire included reports on the religious abuse — primarily of the Qu’ran — that led to a series of hunger strikes and suicide attempts, and an assessment of the number of prisoners who were under 18 at the time of their capture (forty-five in total) which, as Stafford Smith wrote, sounded doubtful but was, in the end, probably something of an understatement. When the Pentagon finally released a prisoner list in 2006 — following a successful lawsuit pursued by the Associated Press — an analysis by Reprieve concluded that as many as sixty-four prisoners had been under 18 at the time of their capture (although it was difficult to state this with certainty, as many knew only the year of their birth, and not the day or the month).

As the years wore on, however, the irrepressible spirit recalled by all those who had met Sami before his imprisonment, and which also impressed Stafford Smith, was ground down by a particular despair that is perhaps unknowable to those who are not imprisoned without charge, without trial, with no contact with family or friends, and with no way of knowing when, if ever, this regime of almost total isolation will come to an end.

On January 7, 2007, the fifth anniversary of his detention without trial by the US, Sami embarked on a hunger strike, which continues to this day. In common with the small number of other persistent hunger strikers, he is strapped into a restraint chair twice a day and force-fed against his will. Clive Stafford Smith explained the brutality of the procedure, the reason the authorities are doing it, and also why it is illegal to do so, in an article last 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,” he 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.”

Even as he endured this twice-daily ordeal, Sami found the strength to put together a report on all the other hunger strikers in the prison — another extraordinary piece of frontline reporting that was published last March by the human rights group Cageprisoners. As the months passed, however, Stafford Smith noted a decline in his physical and mental health. Although he made an appeal for the BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped and imprisoned in Gaza for four months, and noted, “While the United States has kidnapped me and held me for years on end, this is not a lesson that Muslims should copy,” Clive Stafford Smith also noted in October, “Sami looked very thin. His memory is disintegrating, and I worry that he won’t survive if he keeps this up. He already wrote a message for his seven-year-old son, Mohammed, in case he dies here.”

Although Alan Johnston wrote a public letter to Sami after his own ordeal came to an end, Sami’s story has failed to permeate the Western media the way that it has in the Muslim world where, with the help of al-Jazeera, he has become Guantánamo’s most celebrated prisoner. Unfortunately, in the world of 24-hour rolling news, Johnston’s appeal on behalf of his fellow journalist was soon forgotten in the West, even though his words were both apt and heartfelt.

“While I was kidnapped recently in the Gaza Strip,” Johnston wrote, “fellow journalists from around the world joined the campaign mounted to try to secure my release, and of course you were among them. I was particularly grateful for your contribution given your own very difficult circumstances. In the light of my own experience of incarceration I am aware of how hard it must be for you and your family to endure your detention, and I very much hope that your case might be resolved soon. I understand that after some five years in Guantánamo you are calling to be allowed to answer any allegations that are being made against you. And of course I would always support any prisoner’s right to a fair trial.”

Despite Sami’s suffering, he continues to seek ways to publicize the plight of his fellow prisoners. During the most recent visit from his lawyers in February — with Cori Crider of Reprieve — he produced a number of morbid, and almost hallucinatory sketches illustrating his take on conditions in Guantánamo, which he described as “Sketches of My Nightmare.”

Fearing that they would be banned by the military censors, Crider asked him to describe each sketch in detail and when, as anticipated, the pictures were duly banned but the notes cleared, Reprieve asked political cartoonist Lewis Peake to create original works based on Sami’s descriptions.

The first of Sami al-Haj's banned pictures from Guantanamo

“The first sketch is just a skeleton in the torture chair,” Sami explained. “My picture reflects my nightmares of what I must look like, with my head double-strapped down, a tube in my nose, a black mask over my mouth, strapped into the torture chair with no eyes and only giant cheekbones, my teeth jutting out — my ribs showing in every detail, every rib, every joint. The tube goes up to a bag at the top of the drawing. On the right there is another skeleton sitting shackled to another chair. They are sitting like we do in interrogations, with hands shackled, feet shackled to the floor, just waiting. In between I draw the flag of Guantánamo — JTF-GTMO — but instead of the normal insignia, there is a skull and crossbones, the real symbol of what is happening here.”

In recently declassified testimony, Sami described more of his recent experiences of the force-feeding process:

On the Monday before last [February 11] a white male came to do the force-feeding. They gave him only ten minutes training, then he did three of the eight men being fed that day, including me. He screwed the tube into my nose, not slowly, and not using lotion. I had flu at the time and my nostril was closed. It made it much harder. I was in the chair. I could barely talk, and my mouth was covered with the mask they put on. I was waving my hands.

“That’s very painful!” I eventually said. There were tears streaming down my face. “I am meant to do this to you,” the man said, harshly. “If you don’t like it, don’t go on strike.” He would not look me in the eye. He did not look in the least bit ashamed. He never said sorry, or paused when I was in pain. I almost thought he seemed happy that he was doing it.

They used my feeding tube for another man last Monday [February 18]. This, even though they have marked the boxes for each tube. I have been getting a sore larynx, maybe from the infection of another person using my tube. I requested a spray but it was denied.

The second of Sami al-Haj's banned pictures from Guantanamo

Sami’s second sketch is his take on the familiar JTF-GTMO sign outside the prison. “This time,” he explained, “the hooded skeleton is in a three-piece suit [the prisoners’ term for being shackled at the wrists, ankles and waist]. The head is totally blacked out. The wrists are shackled at the back, with chains running down the legs. There are very elaborate arm bones, leg bones and the spine. And again the flag, the Jolly Roger of JTF-GTMO with a diabolical smile on the skull.”

The third of Sami al-Haj's banned pictures from Guantanamo

For his next sketch, Sami shifted his attention to the prison hospital. “There is a third sketch, which is about the Hospital,” he said. “Again it is a skeleton, but with a face this time. The top of the skull is dotted with tracks, tracks of pain. This is the hospital gurney prisoner. He sits completely still, his hands and feet shackled to the side of the bed.”

In his testimony, recently released, Sami has elaborated on his experiences of the hospital:

I am very concerned about having cancer. I have had blood in my urine for a long time. They refused to believe me until I showed them urine in a container that had red in it. Since then they have had seven positive tests for blood in my urine.

I have a pain all across my chest and stomach, and in both kidneys. To begin with they thought it might be a kidney stone, but I had a scan for that. They did not give me the results for two weeks, and I worried all that time. It was negative.

So then they did a second scan with a tracer in the blood. This time, they did not tell me the results for two months. Again, I was left to worry about what might be wrong with me. Again, eventually a doctor came to see me, a black male, about 40 years old, clean shaven, in a uniform without rank on it. He saw me for only give minutes. He began decently, but then got rather hostile. He told me the test was negative, meaning that there was no kidney stone. “From my experience,” the doctor said to me, “I think it’s cancer.”

They then said that the next time a doctor would be coming with the appropriate expertise would be in May. Nobody would be coming before that, and he might not come even then. “You will leave me worrying about this for months?” I asked. “I don’t have the necessary equipment,” said the doctor. He apparently thought the prisoners were not as important as the soldiers in his care. “I don’t mind if you suffer or not,” he said. “It’s not my problem. I’m not here for you.” He left.

I worried too much after this. For three days I got barely any sleep. I was worrying that maybe I was dying. Then the brothers around me said, perhaps they are just telling you this, just trying to break your strike. I took some heart from this. But I still worry, as Abdul Razzaq died of cancer here, and it was a very painful death [Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, an Afghan who died on Dec.30].

I have all the other medical problems too. Really, I have pain almost everywhere –- all over. I have pain everywhere. It’s hard to identify one thing as it’s all over. My back, kidneys, chest, stomach, knee, I even have hemorrhoids. When I do get released, I am going to need to be taken to hospital right away.

The fourth of Sami al-Haj's banned pictures from Guantanamo

For his final sketches, Sami focused on the doctors’ role in the force-feeding process. “All they care about is the prisoner’s weight,” he explained. “’Are you sick? Are you in pain?’ Who cares? It is all about the number on the scale. At the top of the drawing there is a skeleton again, but this time without hands or feet. The top of the head, the cranium, even the eyes are gone. Our lives depend on the doctors, but we get nothing from them. So we’re going mad. A man who is mad has no mind, but he still has a heart. We’re all going mad here. The skeleton is strapped to a gurney, there’s a tube and a pump, and the gurney is on a scale. It reads 98 lbs. But that’s with the weight of the gurney, and maybe the soldier’s pushing down on the skeleton a bit also.”

He added, “As they prepare the feeding they don’t use gloves. When they take the tube out, things come out of the nose, but the people are strapped to the chair, and cannot do anything to clean the revolting tube. There are psychological teams all around, all keen to work out what the impact of this is on the prisoner.”

The fifth of Sami al-Haj's banned pictures from Guantanamo

In the fifth sketch, Sami explained the meaning of the bloated body, noting that, even if the prisoner’s weight were to rise due to force-feeding, he would still be losing his mind. “In the second half of this drawing the prisoner is inflated,” he said. “The man is strapped to the gurney, and the weight on the scale reads 250 lbs. He has filled out, there are rolls of fat on his belly, but he is still mad. The pumps are all hooked up, forcing food into him. But the top half of his head is still vacant.”

The last of his declassified notes add a disturbing conclusion to the story of the doctors’ involvement in the force-feeding process, and the horrendous isolation and deprivation that still prevail in Guantánamo:

We met recently with a senior female doctor from the hospital. “Only if you break your strike can we give you medical care,” she told those of us on hunger strike. “Otherwise we cannot help you.” Some have now broken their strike. Four men are very sick, and were suffering too badly. But the truth is that they have given no help even to those who stop.

I am having bone problems. The cold is bad. I am on disciplinary for being on strike, so I get a plastic blanket at 10 pm, at least three hours after our last prayer time. Every other day I hardly get to sleep anyway, as rec [recreation time] is in the middle of the night.

For eight days I had the same clothes. I have not been given proper toothpaste for two years and seven months now. I am allowed a fingerbrush for just five minutes each day, and it doesn’t reach the back of my mouth. I am not allowed a prayer rug. I am not allowed a prayer cap. I am not allowed my prayer beads. I am not allowed any holy book except for the Qur’an. I have no books to read. The last book I was allowed was in December 2006, before I began my strike.

All I have are orange clothes, flip flops, an isomat, a Qur’an, and a bottle of water. I suppose I should think myself lucky. Another of the men here has been disciplined by having even his isomat take away –- for a whole year. Another man has lost his right to a water bottle for a whole year. All this made another man so upset that he tried to hang himself.

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), and was the Communications Officer for Reprieve in 2008. 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 on AlterNet, as The Torture Drawings the Pentagon Doesn’t Want You to See.

See here for further articles about Sami, dealing with his release in May 2008 and his subsequent activities.

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 letter from Guantánamo (by Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj) (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 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).

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison, Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here) (all May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA), and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

Cleared but still held in Guantánamo: Moroccan prisoner Said al-Boujaadia

The flag of MoroccoIn the first of an occasional series looking at prisoners in Guantánamo who have been cleared for release after multiple military reviews, but are still held in the notorious offshore prison, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, and Communications Officer for Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity that represents prisoners in Guantánamo, looks at the case of Said al-Boujaadia, a Moroccan prisoner who was cleared for release in 2006.

There are, at conservative estimates, at least 50 prisoners in Guantánamo who have been cleared for release by military review boards from 2005 to the present day, but who are still held in appalling isolation. The majority are held in Camp VI, a maximum-security cell block, completed in December 2006, where they remain for 22 to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, in metal cells without windows. They have no opportunity to socialize with other cleared prisoners, have extremely limited opportunities for education or entertainment (no TV, no radio, and limited access to books), and their ability to communicate with their families by letter is subject to the whims of the authorities, who frequently delay the delivery of letters or misplace them altogether.

In the cases of dozens of these prisoners — from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan — they continue to be held because the Bush administration (which is usually more than willing to shred its international obligations) has, for the most part, agreed to be bound by international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture, although there are notable exceptions.

Last year, in an attempt to bypass its obligations, the US administration signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the government of Tunisia, which purported to guarantee the humane treatment of cleared prisoners released from Guantánamo, even though Tunisia is regularly condemned for endemic human rights abuses by the US State Department. When two men — Lotfi Lagha and Abdullah bin Omar (aka Abdullah al-Hajji) — were returned to Tunisia from Guantánamo, they were reportedly subjected to ill-treatment in Tunisian custody, and were then convicted and imprisoned after trials that were regarded by observers as woefully inadequate. A US District judge then intervened to prevent the return of a third cleared Tunisian, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, and another court recently intervened to prevent the return of another cleared prisoner, Ahmed Belbacha, to Algeria, another country with which the administration has been pursuing dubious “diplomatic assurances” of humane treatment.

While these cases account for the majority of the cleared prisoners who are still held in Guantánamo, others have been overlooked for other reasons, and one of these men is Moroccan national Said al-Boujaadia.

A father of three, al-Boujaadia, who is 39 years old, is from Casablanca. In 2001, he traveled to Afghanistan with his Afghan wife, whom he had met and married on a previous visit, and their three children. In the chaos that followed the US-led invasion in October 2001, he managed to secure the safe escape of his family, but was himself captured, as he attempted to help another family cross the Pakistani border to safety.

Hundreds of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay were seized at this time in a similar manner, and it has since become apparent that many were then sold by their Afghan captors to US forces, who were offering bounty rewards, averaging $5,000 a head, for al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects. When offered these rewards, many of the Americans’ allies seized stray foreigners, in the knowledge that they could be packaged as “terror suspects” and sold.

Al-Boujaadia was cleared for release from Guantánamo in late 2006, when a military review board decided that he did not pose a threat to the United States or its allies — including Morocco. He was reportedly scheduled to leave Guantánamo in April 2007, with another cleared prisoner, Ahmed Errachidi. At the last minute, however, while Errachidi was flown to Morocco to be reunited with his family, the US military decided to keep al-Boujaadia at the prison, not because of anything he had done, but because he had been requested as a witness at the trial by military commission of another prisoner, Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who had been a driver for Osama bin Laden.

Hamdan’s defense counsel offered alternatives that would have allowed al-Boujaadia to be released. These included videotaping a statement from him, or allowing him to testify from Morocco, but these options were all refused. The authorities continued to hold al-Boujaadia and failed even to explain to his lawyers, or to al-Boujaadia himself, that he was being held because he was required as a witness.

On December 6, 2007, al-Boujaadia finally testified on Hamdan’s behalf. Despite an eight-month wait, it was clear that he had little to offer, and that Hamdan’s defense counsel had acted correctly in trying to find ways to allow him to make a statement without having to remain in Guantánamo. Although he was seized on the same day as Hamdan, al-Boujaadia recalled only that the first time he saw Hamdan was when he was taken to a makeshift Afghan prison and found Hamdan lying face down on the floor. In response to further questioning, he explained that he had no idea whether Hamdan was an al-Qaeda member, and that he had not seen his car, which allegedly contained a number of rockets.

Since he has already given his testimony, there has been no reason for the US authorities to continue holding Said al-Boujaadia, but four months later he remains in Guantánamo, still separated from his family, and with no indication of when, if ever, he will finally be released.

In an attempt to address this oversight, lawyers from Reprieve (including the charity’s director, Clive Stafford Smith) recently traveled to Morocco to raise his plight with the Moroccan government. In meetings with government representatives, and at a well-attended press conference in Rabat, Stafford Smith urged the government and the media to take action on Said al-Boujaadia’s behalf. He noted that ten Moroccan prisoners had already returned home from Guantánamo Bay, and that each had been dealt with in a just and appropriate manner.

The lawyers also asked the government to assist the US authorities in their stated aim of closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay by making representations on behalf of two other Moroccan prisoners, Younis Chekkouri and Abdullatif Nasser, who have not yet been cleared for release.

Younis Chekkouri, who is 39 years old, traveled to Afghanistan in 2001, with his Algerian wife, after many years in Pakistan, where he had first traveled in search of work and education. The couple lived on the outskirts of Kabul, working for a charity that ran a guest house and helped young Moroccan immigrants, and had no involvement whatsoever in the country’s conflicts. Chekkouri has repeatedly explained that he was profoundly disillusioned by the fighting amongst Muslims that has plagued Afghanistan’s recent history, and has also expressed his implacable opposition to the havoc wreaked on the country by Osama bin Laden. In his military tribunal in Guantánamo, he described bin Laden as “a crazy person,” adding that “what he does is bad for Islam.”

Abdullatif Nasser, who is 43 years old, had worked as a small-scale businessman in Libya and Sudan, and had also spent time in Yemen and Pakistan. He was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001, and has explained that he was attracted to the country because of its Islamic scholars and its piety. In Guantánamo, he has experienced particularly harsh treatment, because he stands up for the rights of his fellow prisoners, and refuses to keep silent in the face of injustice.

All three men are represented by Reprieve, and Clive Stafford Smith made it clear, both in public, and in representations to the King and the government, that they are all happy to submit to any investigations that the Moroccan government thinks appropriate. “The men are perfectly willing to stand trial to face any charges your government feels are warranted,” he explained to Moroccan officials. “They have been asking for a trial, after all, for six years. These men merely seek justice — justice denied them for far too long by the American government.”

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 the Huffington Post and CounterPunch.

Note: Said al-Boujaadia was released from Guantánamo and transferred to Moroccan custody in May 2008.

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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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