Archive for May, 2008

The journey from Guantánamo: One final indignity for Sami al-Haj

Sami al-Haj and his son MohammedOn Sunday May 4, Clive Stafford Smith, the Director of the legal action charity Reprieve, travelled to Sudan to meet, for the first time as a free man, the recently released al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, who has been represented by Reprieve since 2005. This is Clive’s report, which includes a passage specifically refuting claims by Pentagon officials that Mr al-Haj, who had been on a hunger strike for 16 months prior to his release, and was taken to a hospital on his arrival in Sudan, “seemed like a healthy individual” as he departed from Guantánamo.

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Even when they were about to release him, the US military was unwilling to treat Sami al-Haj with dignity.

The final days in Guantánamo Bay were very hard on Sami. There had been so many false promises that Sami was still uncertain whether he was going to leave, and for the last 15 days he stopped drinking water, in addition to refusing food. Only the food and liquid forced into him kept him alive.

The Admiral came himself to process Sami out. He brought a paper and read it out before telling Sami to sign it. The paper said that Sami recognized the right of the United States to take him as a prisoner again if he did anything wrong. Sami refused. He explained that I, as his lawyer, had told him not to sign any such document.

One of the soldiers told Sami quietly that even now they might refuse to allow him to leave. An American official was saying that Sami refused to change his clothes from orange to white, which they would interpret as a decision that he would not go. This was all false.

“I will wear anything if it means being free,” said Sami. “I will even go naked, no problem. I want to get my freedom.”

A kinder soldier told Sami that someone seemed to be trying to stop his travel. The soldier took Sami immediately to his cell from the force-feeding chair to change clothes.

At around 7 pm on Wednesday night [April 30], Sami was taken from his cell in Camp 1. An hour later, the bus started its trip to the airport. The drive took an hour, although it is not very far. There were black plastic trash bags all around the bus windows, so that Sami could not see anything. I have been along that road many times, and it is hard to see what anyone was afraid that he might see — McDonalds, perhaps, or the Guantánamo Golf Course.

When they reached the airport the aircraft waiting was similar to the one that had originally brought Sami from Afghanistan. Sami and the eight prisoners released with him had to enter through the rear of the plane. Walid Ali, another Sudanese, was next to Sami, and then Said al-Boujaadia from Morocco. Amir Yacoub was the third man from Sudan, and there were five Afghans.

Like each man, Sami had his eyes covered, muffs on his ears, and shackles on both his hands and legs. The plane took off at about 10.30pm that night on the first leg of the journey, a 15-hour flight to Baghdad, Iraq.

“When I first requested the toilet the guards said it was not allowed,” Sami said. “So I said I would do it in the chair.” The guards then took him to the toilet, but they would not close the door, unshackle his hands, or take off the eye cover. They said that they would pull his trousers down and sit him down, and added that he would not be allowed to use the tap to wash afterwards.

Eventually, after much argument about how this was senseless and uncivilized, Sami said that he could not use the toilet at all under these circumstances. As a result, the long hours ahead would not be pleasant.

There was no sleep to be had for all that time. When Sami tried to lean slightly one way so that he could rest, he was told that this was not permitted.

Sami ate nothing on the flight. In truth, he never intended to, as he had vowed to himself that he would remain on hunger strike until he was safely in Sudan. He had resolved that he would only break his protest by asking his wife to feed him –- his first normal food for 16 months. But Sami wanted to know what the guards would say, so he suggested to Walid that he ask about food. The guards told him to keep quiet, that they would give it to him when the time came. Eventually, an hour and a half later, he was given a peanut butter sandwich. Sami ate nothing.

Neither did Sami drink, partly because of his ongoing protest, but more particularly because he knew he had to survive without a toilet for the duration of the journey. For the others, there was one bottle of water that they had to pass among themselves.

Baghdad was only a stopover. Everyone had to change planes. The Afghans were to go to Kabul, the rest would go first to Sudan, before the plane would take Said back to Morocco.

On the second leg of the flight, it was another four hours to Khartoum, a total of twenty in all. Twenty more hours of suffering before the aircraft finally touched down. By the end, Sami was weak, far weaker than when he left the prison in Cuba.

Even then, the American soldiers were not content to set him free. Before turning him over to the Sudanese authorities, they took off the metal cuffs, but replaced them with plastic restraints, so tight that they cut into his wrists.

“After the plane, the first thing I knew, I was here in the hospital,” Sami told me. It was a strange contrast to Guantánamo, where I recently met a shackled Sami in Camp Iguana. Now we were talking in the VIP room of the Khartoum hospital, with Sami wearing the white traditional robe of a Sudanese, smiling at those around him.

Earlier, a member of the medical staff had taken me aside to describe how they had feared for him when he had been transferred from the American soldiers onto a hospital gurney. He had been almost unconscious, and his life signs had dropped to dangerously weak levels. For a while, it seemed that Sami had only come home to die.

But fortunately this story turned out happily. While I was with him, the President’s wife came to pay her respects. President Bashir himself had come before her. Now Sami was smiling at his visitors, gently instructing his seven-year old son Mohammed to pass around the tin of sweets.

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Clive Stafford Smith, lawyer for Sami al-Haj, is the Director of the British charity Reprieve, which is dedicated to those facing injustice in Guantánamo Bay and other secret prisons around the world, and providing free representation to prisoners who cannot afford lawyers.

Andy Worthington was Reprieve’s Communications Officer in 2008, and 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.

An edited version of this article was published on the British website Liberal Conspiracy.

Massive Attack focus on Guantánamo and renditions at Meltdown 2008

Massive Attack, the acclaimed and uncompromising Bristol-based musicians, who are curating Meltdown 2008 at London’s Southbank Centre from June 14 to 22, have added some potent politics to their programming by inviting legal action charity Reprieve, which works on behalf of prisoners in Guantánamo and US secret prisons, and Britons facing the death penalty around the world, to showcase a series of events in the Southbank’s Purcell Room.

Massive Attack's Meltdown

While Meltdown’s music will be provided by, among others, Grace Jones, Terry Callier, Tom Tom Club, Gang of Four, some excellent reggae and dub musicians including Horace Andy, Johnny Clarke and Adrian Sherwood –- and, of course, Massive Attack themselves –- Reprieve will be showing, on Sunday June 15, Alex Gibney’s excellent Oscar-winning documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, which tells the story of America’s post-9/11 flight from domestic and international law through the story of Dilawar, an innocent Afghan taxi driver, who was beaten to death by US soldiers in a US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. The film will be followed by a discussion with Reprieve’s Director, Clive Stafford Smith, and released Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg. Other special guests are to be confirmed.

On Saturday June 21, theatre company iceandfire will perform Rendition Monologues, a new play, premiering at London’s Bridewell Theatre on June 8, which is based on the testimony of prisoners –- some released, some still imprisoned –- who have been subjected to the horrors of rendition, illegal detention and torture. This performance will be followed by a discussion with Zachary Katznelson and Chloe Davies of Reprieve, and released Guantánamo prisoner Bisher al-Rawi.

On Meltdown’s opening night, Saturday June 14, there will be a screening of Fourteen Days in May, the award-winning documentary, by Reprieve Chair and trustee Paul Hamann, about the last days in the life of death row prisoner Edward Earl Johnson. This will be followed by a discussion with Paul Hamann, Clive Stafford Smith and released death row prisoner Nick Yarris.

In addition, United Visual Artists, Massive Attack’s designers, will be showing projections and backdrops focusing on rendition and secret prisons, which will also be used on Massive Attack’s forthcoming world tour.

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.

Who are the prisoners released from Guantánamo with Sami al-Haj?

Late last Thursday evening, I joined in the widespread celebrations — at least in those parts of the world that care about the injustice of holding people in prison without charge or trial — that attended the repatriation of al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj from Guantánamo, his home for the last six years, to Sudan.

Although a few news outlets have briefly mentioned some of the other men released with Sami — two of his compatriots, a Moroccan and five Afghans — their stories remain largely unknown. However, as a result of the research I undertook for my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, I’m able to shine some light on their stories, which otherwise are unlikely to receive much coverage — if at all — outside their home countries.

While none have the extraordinary impact of Sami’s story — which, I note, has the Pentagon so scared that three officials told ABC News on Friday that he was “a manipulator and a propagandist,” who produced a “constant drumbeat of allegations” about the treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo — they do nothing to support the administration’s constantly unraveling claim that the prisoners are “the worst of the worst.” This claim, made by Rear Admiral John D. Stufflebeem on January 28, 2002, has been parroted at the highest levels of government in the years since, even though 501 prisoners have now been released, and the administration has stated that it only intends to try between 60 to 80 of the 273 prisoners who remain in Guantánamo.

On the cargo plane containing Sami al-Haj that landed in Khartoum in the early hours of May 2 were Amir Yacoub al-Amir and Walid Ali, who, like Sami, were bound like beasts for their journey despite finally being transported to freedom. Both had also been held for over six years without charge or trial, but unlike Sami, whose plight was widely publicized by al-Jazeera, by his lawyers at the legal action charity Reprieve, and by groups campaigning for the rights of journalists, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontières, both of these men had barely registered on the media’s radar.

Amir Yacoub al-Amir, great-grandson of Sudan’s Caliph

Amir Yacoub al-Amir36-year old Amir Yacoub al-Amir was one of at least 120 prisoners (around 15 percent of Guantánamo’s entire population), who were captured not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, without ever having been anywhere near the battlefields of Afghanistan. In his tribunal at Guantánamo (one of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals convened in 2004 and 2005 to assess whether, on capture, the prisoners had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants” without rights), al-Amir strenuously denied an allegation that he was associated with al-Qaeda, saying, “I disagree with al-Qaeda on everything,” and also denied being associated with the Taliban.

Seized from a car in Peshawar in March 2002, while visiting Pakistan, al-Amir’s story echoes reports by numerous other innocent men seized in Pakistan, who said that they were captured and sold for money, a situation that was confirmed at the highest levels in 2006, when, in his autobiography, President Musharraf boasted that in return for handing over 369 terror suspects (who were mostly transferred to Guantánamo), “We have earned bounty payments totaling millions of dollars.” In Guantánamo, al-Amir explained that he was seized because the Pakistani government “was capturing any Arab and giving them to the United States as terrorists.”

Like Sami al-Haj, al-Amir was represented by Reprieve, and in 2007 Reprieve’s Director, Clive Stafford Smith, traveled to Sudan to meet his family, where he discovered that his great-grandfather, a cousin of the Khalifa (Caliph), had, with numerous other relatives, been captured and imprisoned by the British army, after the fall of General Gordon’s regime in 1885, in conditions that were remarkable similar to those prevailing at Guantánamo. In a New Statesman article, Stafford Smith described how the prisoners were “dispatched (or, in modern terms, rendered)” to Egypt, where conditions were so brutal that al-Amir’s great-grandfather died, and noted that, during his visit, members of the government, and other relatives of the Khalifa, “expressed concern that Amir Yacoub had been illegally rendered, and was now being held, like his great-grandfather, by the hyperpower of the day, in a brutal and lawless prison far from home.”

Walid Ali, survivor of an Afghan massacre

Walid Ali and Amir Yacoub al-Amir33-year old Walid Ali (on the left in the photo, with al-Amir), whose story has only ever been reported in The Guantánamo Files, explained in 2005 to his Administrative Review Board — convened to assess whether the prisoners were still regarded as a threat to the United States or as an ongoing source of intelligence — that he had traveled to Pakistan to teach the Koran, but had then been drawn to the conflict in Afghanistan, where he joined the Taliban, serving as a guard for 25 to 30 days.

Like several other prisoners, Ali told the Board that he had been inspired to help the Taliban fight the Russians, which was not as far-fetched as it sounds, as General Rashid Dostum, the Northern Alliance’s pre-eminent Uzbek commander, had served with the Russians throughout the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, before repeatedly switching his allegiance during the chaos of the 1990s. In his hearing, Ali appeared genuinely bewildered that Dostum had become an ally of the United States, and that he was therefore accused of fighting Americans.

Ali was one of at least 50 Guantánamo prisoners to survive a massacre at the Qala-i-Janghi fort (and improvised prison) in northern Afghanistan in November 2001. They, along with the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, were the only survivors out of up to 400 foreign Taliban fighters — mainly from the Gulf countries, North Africa, Pakistan and Uzbekistan — who had left the city of Kunduz, the Taliban’s last outpost in the north of Afghanistan, after a surrender was negotiated between senior Taliban leaders and the Northern Alliance.

Tricked into believing that they would be allowed to return home after giving up their weapons, some of the men responded to the betrayal — and fears that they were to be executed — by starting an uprising (in which a CIA agent, Johnny “Mike” Spann, was killed), which was savagely put down by US bombers, representatives of the US and British Special Forces, and Alliance soldiers. The survivors — many of whom had their hands tied behind their backs when the fighting started, and were subsequently wounded — hid in a basement while the battle raged, and it’s probable, therefore, that most did not actually have anything to do with the uprising. After seven days, in which they were shot at and bombed, and finally flooded out, the survivors were transferred to General Dostum’s prison at Sheberghan, and were then taken to Guantánamo via the US prison at Kandahar airport.

In a written statement to his ARB, Ali told one of the most complete stories of being caught in the crossfire and suffering in the basement:

“They handcuffed us so tightly that the circulation was cut off, and I became unconscious. What happened after is … all I know is they were firing bullets at us while we were handcuffed and American airplanes came and started firing at us and killed a lot of us. I was handcuffed and wounded in my back with a bullet and it went to my belly where it is now. And I feel the pain of it … While I was on the ground an American airplane fired a bomb and shrapnel hit my head and it is still there in my head. And then I went unconscious and I did not feel anything until I woke up in a room underground … Of course, they used all [kinds of] different weapons in order to kill us. They even used water and electricity. And they threw a bomb on us. And a lot of times they opened water on us to the point [that] we had water up to our necks. Of course, the wounded ones couldn’t stand up and they were killed in the water.”

Said al-Boujaadia, cleared for 18 months

Some time after the plane carrying Sami al-Haj and his compatriots touched down in Khartoum, it dropped off another prisoner in Morocco. 39-year old Said al-Boujaadia, also represented by Reprieve, had surfaced briefly in the media last December, but his story was largely unknown until last month, when I wrote an article that focused on his particular route to Guantánamo.

In 2001, al-Boujaadia traveled to Afghanistan with his Afghan wife, whom he had met and married on a previous visit, and their three children. Like many others, his life fell apart after the 9/11 attacks, and the US-led invasion that began in October. Although he managed to secure the safe escape of his family, he, like almost a third of the Guantánamo prisoners — a mixture of missionaries, charity workers, migrants and Taliban foot soldiers — was captured as he attempted to help another family cross the Pakistani border to safety.

Although he was cleared for release in late 2006, when his review board decided that he did not pose a threat to the United States, his planned departure, in March 2007, never took place, because he was 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 — including videotaping a statement from him, or allowing him to testify from Morocco — but these options were turned down by the military authorities, who continued to hold him without even offering him an explanation.

On December 6, 2007, over a year after he was cleared for release, al-Boujaadia finally testified on Hamdan’s behalf. His testimony was apparently required because he was seized on the same day as Hamdan, but although he recalled seeing Hamdan lying face down on the floor in the makeshift Afghan prison he was taken to after his capture, he had no other information to offer. Even so, it took the authorities another five months to release him.

Imprisoned on his return, al-Boujaadia is happy to submit to any investigations that the Moroccan government thinks appropriate, as Clive Stafford Smith reported during a visit to Morocco in March. As Stafford Smith added on Friday, however, “We respectfully request that the Government of Morocco complete any investigation of Mr. al-Boujaadia quickly, so he may be swiftly reunited with his wife, his children and his elderly mother.”

In a second article to follow, Andy looks at the stories of the Afghans released with Sami al-Haj, Amir Yacoub al-Amir, Walid Ali and Said al-Boujaadia.

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, CounterPunch, Anti-war.com and AlterNet.

Note:

The prisoners’ numbers (and variations on the spelling of their names) are as follows:

ISN 720: Amir Yacoub al-Amir (Yacoub Mahmoud) (Sudan)
ISN 81: Walid Ali (Sudan)
ISN 150: Said al-Boujaadia (Morocco)

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the eleven prisoners released from February to June 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

Lush celebrates the release from Guantánamo of al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj

Lush, the ethical — and politically motivated — cosmetics company, which launched a nationwide initiative in March to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners in Guantánamo (who have been held without charge or trial in the offshore prison for up to six years and four months), celebrated the release of al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj at the weekend by issuing a new poster for the “A” boards outside all 84 of its UK stores, bearing the headline, “Sami Freed!” but pointing out that “Thousands of people are still being illegally held in secret prisons around the world.”

Lush's new Sami al-Haj poster

Sami, along with British resident Binyam Mohamed, who remains in Guantánamo, is featured in Lush’s “Guantánamo Garden” bath ballistic, which dissolves to reveal a picture of one of the two men, and a link to the website of the legal action charity Reprieve, which represents Sami, Binyam and 35 other prisoners in Guantánamo, and is the beneficiary of the company’s latest campaign.

Lush is to be congratulated for fearlessly celebrating Sami’s release — and for pointing out that thousands of other men are still being held without charge or trial in US-run prisons around the world — because, as I reported when the initiative began, the company immediately ran into trouble in Reading, where the owners of the Oracle shopping centre objected to a similar poster requesting “A Fair Trial for Sami/Binyam” by claiming that it contravened the terms of the lease, which stipulated that retailers were prohibited from displaying signs which, “in the reasonable opinion of the Landlord,” are of a “distasteful, offensive or political nature.”

This act of political censorship provoked a stern rebuke from Reprieve, whose Director, Clive Stafford Smith, pointed out, “The management of the Oracle at Reading has failed to demonstrate why a fair trial is either distasteful or political,” and added that “numerous avowedly political campaigns have been — and continue to be — presented in the centre’s stores. Topshop, for example, has rightfully campaigned for Fair Trade, and Lush itself has campaigned against animal testing and against unnecessary packaging, without attracting criticism from the management.” He concluded that the Oracle’s position was, inexplicably, “Fair trade is okay, fair trials are not.”

The Oracle was not the only venue for critics who seemed to have swallowed the US administration’s long-derided claims that men held without charge or trial can be described as “the worst of the worst.” Lush’s own customers, commenting on the “Guantánamo Garden” page, seemed to be divided about the merits of the campaign, and it remains to be seen whether this latest statement by Lush will bring forth critics anxious to deride the company for promoting the release of a “terrorist.”

I think not, somehow, but I may be wrong.

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

As published on Indymedia.

The Guantánamo Files: al-Istiqamah interviews Andy Worthington

The Guantanamo FilesThe following interview, conducted with Umm Uthmann, appeared on the website of al-Istiqamah, a thoughtful and well-researched monthly newsletter aimed at “encouraging Muslims to be steadfast in their Deen, particularly in the current climate.”

Andy Worthington is a journalist and historian, and the Communications Officer for Reprieve, the legal action charity that represents 35 Guantánamo prisoners. His book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison brings to life the stories of the detainees in Guantánamo and analyses to what extent “the gloves came off” with 9/11. Al-istiqamah.com speaks exclusively to Andy about his book and recent promotional tour in the US.

Al-istiqamah: Andy, what made you decide to write a book on the Guantánamo detainees?

Andy Worthington: I had been extremely worried about what was happening at Guantánamo from the first day the prison opened, on January 11, 2002, and those grimly iconic images of the shackled, orange-clad prisoners were disseminated around the world.

As the years passed, I maintained an interest in what was happening at Guantánamo, and began seeking out reports on the prisoners –- on Cageprisoners, in particular –- in an attempt to find out who was there, but it was not until spring 2006, after watching Michael Winterbottom’s film The Road to Guantánamo, about the Tipton Three, and reading released British prisoner Moazzam Begg’s book Enemy Combatant, that I seriously asked myself the fateful question, “Who is in Guantánamo?” I was particularly energized by Moazzam’s account, because, although he was held for over three years in US custody, he spent almost two years in solitary confinement (in Guantánamo), and it was his often brief sketches of other prisoners he encountered that especially fired my imagination.

I was then fortunate that my research coincided with the first major release of documents relating to the prisoners in Guantánamo. Some documents were made available in 2005, under Freedom of Information legislation –- primarily 517 “Unclassified Summaries of Evidence” against the prisoners (all issued without names to identify them), which formed the basis of a ground-breaking analysis by the Seton Hall Law School in the United States, who used the documents to establish that, according to the Pentagon’s own accounts, 86 percent of the prisoners had not been captured by US forces, but by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, and only 8 percent were alleged to be involved in any way with al-Qaeda.

The 2006 documents were far more substantial, however, and were only released after the Associated Press won a lawsuit against the Pentagon. These documents included, for the first time, the names and nationalities of all the prisoners, and 8,000 pages of transcripts from the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), held to establish whether they had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” who could be held without rights, and the annual Administrative Review Boards (ARBs), convened to assess whether they still constituted a threat to the US and/or whether they still had ongoing intelligence value.

These hearings were horribly corrupt, of course, as the prisoners were presented with a military representative instead of a lawyer, and were prevented from either seeing or hearing secret evidence against them, which could have been –- and in many cases clearly was –- obtained through the torture, coercion or bribery of other prisoners, either in Guantánamo or in other secret prisons run by the CIA. However, the transcripts provided –- and still do provide, in most cases –- the only insight into the stories of the prisoners, and it was through a painstaking process of transcribing these accounts, and arranging them into a chronology, that I was able to compile the book and, hopefully, bring the men’s stories to life.

Guantanamo, January 11, 2002Al-istiqamah: What was your initial reaction to the photographs of these men in orange boilersuits wearing goggles, gloves, ear muffs and doubled over behind a barbed wire fence? Did you think these men could conceivably be “the worst of the worst”?

Andy Worthington: In a word, no. As I mentioned above, I suspected that something had gone horribly wrong. And anyone who looked closely at the records of those in charge of America’s response to 9/11 –- particularly Vice President Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld –- would also have been worried. Both had initially come to power under Richard Nixon in the 1970s, and Cheney in particular was driven by the idea of unfettered executive power. In the 1980s, Cheney did all in his power to prevent Ronald Reagan from taking a fall for his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal (arguing that the executive should be beholden to no one), and he was supported in this by David Addington, whom he met at the time. After Cheney became Vice President in 2000, Addington became his legal counsel and is now his chief of staff, and in many ways Addington, as a lawyer, was the actual engineer of all these horrendous post-9/11 policies.

Al-istiqamah: Why did the US administration feel that “the rules of the game changed” with 9/11?

Andy Worthington: Well, clearly because something terrible –- an unprecedented terrorist attack –- had happened to them. But in fact the rules of the game had not changed. Al-Qaeda had been targeting US interests since 1998 –- the African embassy bombings, which were followed by the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 –- and the precedent for an attack on US soil long predated bin Laden’s declaration of war against the US, and can be traced to Ramzi Yousef’s attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. And what’s particularly important to remember is that these attacks were eventually followed by trials on the US mainland, in which Ramzi Yousef and others were tried, convicted and imprisoned without the administration resorting to torture.

So what changed after 9/11 was that, with Cheney and Addington at the helm, the administration responded by confusing a war to oust the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan with the pursuit of criminals –- those responsible for 9/11 –- and along the way deliberately abandoned all established procedures for dealing with either Prisoners of War or criminals, introducing torture as a tool for supposed “actionable intelligence,” and, I suspect, also as an expression of vengeance, which was understandable, I suppose, but not a sound basis for either foreign policy or the pursuit of a small cadre of specific criminals.

Al-istiqamah: You said that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia make dubious allies. Could you elaborate on that point?

Andy Worthington: Basically, the problem is that Pakistan has long regarded the control of Afghanistan as an aim of its foreign policy, and elements within the Pakistani administration –- in government, in the military, and in the intelligence services (the ISI) –- were at least partly responsible for supporting the Taliban, the very people the Americans were pursuing after 9/11. In some ways it was a return to the situation that had prevailed during the Soviet occupation, when the Americans had poured billions of dollars’ worth of aid into the mujahideen resistance, but only through Pakistani intermediaries, who, of course, chose to support those who suited their own aims rather than those of the Americans. So the wily and formidable Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, who later became the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and was assassinated two days before 9/11, received virtually nothing, because he was not a Pakistani ally, whereas Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was virulently anti-American, received the lion’s share of the Pakistani-directed US aid.

As for the Saudis, the oil connection –- whereby the US funded the Saudis and had to keep the House of Saud sweet in return for their precious black gold –- overshadowed any possibility of an objective analysis of Saudi motives. During the Soviet occupation, the Saudis matched –- or exceeded –- American donations to the mujahideen cause, giving them unprecedented political leverage, and this largesse continued into the 1990s, after the Americans lost interest in Afghanistan, when they obviously continued playing political games for their own ends.

To sum all this up in one line, it’s worth reflecting that, while the Taliban were in power, from 1994 to 2001, only three countries officially recognized the regime: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

John Walker Lindh at Qala-i-JanghiAl-istiqamah: Chapter 2 of your book covers the Qala-i-Janghi massacre at a fort in northern Afghanistan in November 2001. This infamous “uprising” resulted in the killing of CIA agent “Mike” Spann and the capture of the “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh. As a journalist yourself, what did you make of Shafiq Rasul’s statement that the journalists present only seemed interested in ascertaining if any of the surviving prisoners knew John Walker Lindh?

Andy Worthington: I think Shafiq was largely correct. A number of journalists were present at Qala-i-Janghi after the uprising –- or the massacre, depending on how you look at it –- and many of them wrote very balanced reports, but by the time the survivors reached Sheberghan (the prison run by General Dostum, one of the Northern Alliance leaders), word had got out –- via an interview with Lindh that was broadcast around the world –- that an American was being held, and Sheberghan was overrun, for the most part, by journalists, frantic to cover the “American Taliban” story, who were completely untouched by the suffering of the other prisoners. This was quite remarkable, really. Sheberghan was meant to hold a few hundred prisoners, whereas it was actually holding around 3,000 in dreadful conditions, and it should have been evident to any capable journalist that this was a story in its own right.

Sheberghan prisonI should point out that there were exceptions. Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, for example, visited the prison specifically to speak to some of the other prisoners. This was clearly what other reporters should have been doing, as she managed to speak to an Iraqi who was later sent to Guantánamo, and, more distressingly, to an Uzbek, Abdul Jabar, who never made it to Guantánamo, and who told her, “They are going to send us back to Uzbekistan, and there we will not survive prison.”

Al-istiqamah: Filmmaker Jamie Doran’s documentary Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death provides numerous eye-witnesses who give credible accounts that US Special Forces ordered that the prisoners who did survive the container convoy despite a lack of air, water and food be taken into the desert. US Special Forces subsequently stood by and watched as survivors were shot by Afghan allied soldiers and hastily buried. How far up the chain of command do you believe that such tactics were authorised?

Andy Worthington: I’m not sure. Clearly something vile happened between Kunduz, where thousands of Taliban soldiers surrendered –- and others, like the Tipton Three and other civilians, were rounded up –- and Sheberghan. Hundreds, or possibly thousands of prisoners died in containers en route, primarily through suffocation, but no inquiry has ever taken place to ascertain how many people died, or how much truth, if any, there is to claims made in Doran’s film that, as you put it, US forces “stood by and watched as survivors were shot by Afghan allied soldiers and hastily buried.” The mass graves are there; of that there’s no doubt, but my feeling is that the Americans’ local commanders on the ground were shocked by the number of corpses in the containers, and that, in a demonstration of the callousness of war –- and a desire to hide the evidence as quickly as possible –- they disposed of not only the dead, but also some of those who were seriously wounded. I’m not trying to justify this by any means, but I think it would be foolish to pretend that horrendous actions don’t take place in wartime. I don’t think that the decision to stand by –- or even to assist in killing the wounded, if that’s what happened –- was dictated at the highest levels of the administration. If it happened, I suspect that it was a battlefield decision.

Al-istiqamah: You present accounts of aid workers, religious students and teachers captured by the Northern Alliance and subsequently sold to the US. How many of these men were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Andy Worthington: It’s difficult to say with absolute certainty because one of the most fundamental problems with Guantánamo is the lack of due process: a trial before an impartial judge, cases presented by the prosecution and defence, a jury and a verdict. What happened at Guantánamo, after the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 –- two and half years after the prison opened –- that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights (the right to challenge the basis of their detention) was that, instead of being able to pursue their cases in a US court, as the Supreme Court clearly intended, they were subjected to the corrupt and largely one-sided CSRT process.

In examining the tribunal transcripts, it’s often difficult to establish clear story lines, especially as many of the prisoners refused to take part, and therefore were unable even to challenge the allegations and present their own version of events. However, my detailed analysis of the documents, and in particular the chronology I was able to establish –- who was captured where; in Afghanistan, crossing into Pakistan, in Pakistan or, in rather fewer cases, in seventeen other countries around the world –- plus the information in the several hundred transcripts of those who agreed to take part in their CSRTs and ARBs, enabled me to come up with what, I think, is the best estimate.

I would say that up to half of those captured were innocent men –- Afghans betrayed by other Afghans; missionaries, humanitarian aid workers and economic migrants from a range of other countries, many seized and sold by the Americans’ Afghan and Pakistani allies, taking advantage of the bounty payments, averaging $5,000 a head, that were paid for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.” The rest, for the most part, were Taliban foot soldiers, mostly recruited to fight in an inter-Muslim civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance that began long before 9/11. In addition, as comments made anonymously by senior officials over the last four years have made clear, no more than 40 to 50 of those held in Guantánamo’s six-year history had any meaningful connection whatsoever with al-Qaeda, a figure that is even less than the Seton Hall Law School’s estimate.

Al-istiqamah: You make the valid point that the US failed to understand the Islamic “culture” e.g. why idealistic foreigners would come to Afghanistan to live and work under what they considered to be an Islamic State without a sinister motive. Is this the underlying reason for the US military’s failure to win hearts and minds?

Andy Worthington: Well, this cultural ignorance doesn’t help, but in Afghanistan I think the US lost the battle for “hearts and minds” through its chronic failures of intelligence (trusting extremely untrustworthy lawlords and other dubious characters), through the scale of its imprisonment of Afghans as “enemy combatants,” not just in Guantánamo, but also in Bagram airbase and in various other forward operating bases, and through its refusal to adequately investigate murders in US custody. What also happened was that the administration lost interest in Afghanistan sometime in 2002, when it began gunning for Iraq, and so failed to stay the course to provide the reconstruction that might have made a genuine difference. And all these failures were, of course, repeated and magnified in Iraq itself.

Al-istiqamah: You mention the case of US citizen Daniel Joseph Maldonado in the final chapter “Endgame.” What did you make of his account of rendition to Kenya, which appeared in our September 2007 issue?

Andy Worthington: I thought it was excellent. As you know, it was how I first discovered your website, and I think that this sort of detailed reporting –- on issues that are not covered in the mainstream media at all –- is absolutely invaluable.

Al-istiqamah: Had Daniel not been a US citizen, would he have been rendered to Guantánamo instead of being flown home to the States?

Andy Worthington: Not necessarily. What’s bizarre, as I mentioned in the final chapter, and as I have reported since, is that six prisoners have arrived in Guantánamo in the last year, even while every other indication from the government is that it is genuinely attempting to scale down the operation. There seems to be little logic to this process (although there’s little logic to much of what the administration does), as only two of the six are regarded as “high-value detainees.” Had Daniel not been an American, it seems more likely that he would have continued to be held in one of the Americans’ proxy prisons in the Horn of Africa, which, of course, are reported on far less than Guantánamo.

Al-istiqamah: The US administration certainly knew what would upset the sensibilities of the Muslim detainees e.g. mishandling the Qur’an, stripping detainees, threatening sexual abuse etc. Do you blame the Muslim community for viewing the “War on Terror” as a War on Islam?

Andy Worthington: No, but I wonder if it’s not quite that simple. One way of looking at it would be to consider that the primary motive for this kind of behaviour –- humiliation, as part of a process of dehumanisation, as a preparation for interrogation –- would have occurred whoever the prisoners were, and that these techniques deliberately prey on Muslim sensibilities because the prisoners happen to be Muslim. In this interpretation, the administration’s chronically brutal and ill-conceived attempts to grab geo-political power –- and to nation-build –- in Afghanistan and Iraq are not aimed at Muslims per se.

I must admit, however, that the “War on Islam” scenario is easily read, and that racism is clearly prevalent in the US military, and also permeates the chain of command. What’s so disturbing about all this is that the genuine terrorists, who are themselves usurping Islam for their own ends, appear to have got exactly what they wanted: an ever-escalating “Clash of Civilizations,” in which decent people, whatever their religion, are literally caught in the crossfire.

Al-istiqamah: President Bush has recently vetoed a bill that would have banned techniques such as waterboarding from being used on terrorism suspects. What do you make of the CIA’s claim that waterboarding, sensory deprivation etc, are not “torture”?

Andy Worthington: It’s an absolute disgrace. In the notorious “Torture Memo” of August 2002, David Addington and other lawyers, including John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales, attempted to redefine torture as physical pain “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” It’s simply not true. The UN Convention Against Torture –- to which the US is a signatory –- defines torture as acts “specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering,” and there’s no doubt that waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced not only in secret CIA prisons but also at Guantánamo –- involving prolonged isolation, prolonged sleep deprivation, and the use of extreme heat and cold, for example –- are nothing less than torture, especially when their use has been combined, as has so often been the case. Those responsible for initiating these policies –- all of them –- should one day face criminal charges for what they’ve done.

Al-istiqamah: Do such practices have a proven track record of keeping America safe? Is torture ever justified to extract information –- how often is this information accurate or reliable?

Andy Worthington: No, no and never. That’s the problem. We’re sold the “ticking time-bomb” scenario that’s supposed to justify torture, but there’s no evidence that there’s ever been a single occasion when a bomb was about to explode, and an unwilling prisoner, with the knowledge of its location, was tortured to yield his secrets. The truth, as experts in interrogation –- rather than the producers and writers of Fox’s 24 –- have explained, is that the person being tortured will tell his interrogator whatever he wants to hear, and that the information is therefore inherently unreliable. In addition, of course, the practice of torture is morally repugnant, and corrupts those who practice it.

Dan Coleman of the FBI, a resolutely old-school interrogator who worked on al-Qaeda cases before 9/11, and secured convictions without the use of torture, has made some of the most eloquent observations about torture. In 2006, he told Jane Mayer of the New Yorker that “people don’t do anything unless they’re rewarded.” He explained that if the FBI –- which refused to implement “enhanced interrogation techniques” –- had beaten confessions out of suspects, it would have been self-defeating. “Brutality may yield a timely scrap of information,” he conceded, but in the longer fight against terrorism, such an approach was “completely insufficient.” He added, “You need to talk to people for weeks. Years.”

Al-istiqamah: What was the hardest part of the book to write?

Andy Worthington: All of it, to be honest. I’ve never worked as hard in my life as I did for the 14 months that I spent researching and writing the book. But to give you a more honed answer, it was hard dealing with the specifics of torture that appear in four different places in the book: in the chapters on Kandahar and Bagram, in the chapter on torture in Guantánamo, and in the chapter on “extraordinary rendition.”

Al-istiqamah: You were recently in the States. Did you get any hassle at the airports on either side of the Atlantic?

Andy Worthington: Fortunately not, though some friends in the States had suggested to me that I would. What I actually found as I passed through US immigration was that those responsible for processing visitors –- who are probably not the best-paid workers around –- were for the most part just doing their job and ticking the right bureaucratic boxes: Do you need a visa? Have you got one? Where are you staying? How long are you staying?

Al-istiqamah: What was the response to the US public to your lectures? Are they as brainwashed by CNN and Fox as the British public imagines?

Andy Worthington: Not if my experience was anything to go by. Now obviously I only visited New York and Washington D.C., and stayed for the most part not only with liberals but with liberals who care about the gross injustices perpetrated by their government as part of the “War on Terror,” but I have to say that I was astonished by the level of political discourse. Obviously it helps that it’s an election year –- and that either a woman or a black man might conceivably become President –- but I was impressed at how much discussion there was about how jettisoning the Geneva Conventions, embracing “extraordinary rendition” and secret prisons, and holding prisoners without charge or trial were not only damaging America’s reputation abroad, but were also fundamentally undermining the values on which Americans pride themselves, and on which this great nation of immigrants was founded.

Al-istiqamah: The Guantánamo Files is dedicated to your son Tyler “in the hope that he will grow up to see a more just and less brutal world, to the children of the prisoners and to the prisoners themselves.” Have you met any of the families of the British detainees, or any of the ex-detainees?

Andy Worthington: I’ve met some of the British prisoners who’ve been released, and have spoken on a few occasions with Moazzam Begg, who kindly agreed to come and speak at my book launch in London last November. I’d like to meet more ex-prisoners, if I get the opportunity, but my focus remains on those who are still imprisoned in Guantánamo, many of whom I’ve now been writing about for over two years.

Sami al-Haj after his releaseAl-istiqamah: One of the many detainees referred to in The Guantánamo Files is al-Jazeera’s cameraman Sami al-Haj. As the Communications Officer for Reprieve, you must have been elated to hear of his recent release.

Andy Worthington: Absolutely. I started working for Reprieve two months ago, and until Sami –- and eight others –- were released, no prisoners at all had been released since last December. I was starting to wonder if, having finally charged six individuals in connection with the 9/11 attacks (in February), the administration was intending to sit on its hands and ride out its last months without releasing anyone at all. Needless to say, we were celebrating in Reprieve’s offices while working late, preparing press releases and keeping up-to-date with the latest developments.

Sami’s release, will, I hope, be of enormous significance, not just because he has the opportunity to write a comprehensive insider’s account of Guantánamo –- following up on the excellent reporting he has done for several years from inside Guantánamo –- but also because he is such a well-known figure in the Middle East and Africa, and his example will hopefully spur other countries to act more resolutely on behalf of their citizens who are still held in the prison.

Al-istiqamah: It is clear that the US acted illegally by not granting the detainees Prisoner of War status. Why is Guantánamo still standing, over six years later?

Andy Worthington: That’s a good question on which to end. Partly it’s because the administration believes its own hype, or is unwilling openly to concede the extent to which Guantánamo has been a failure on all levels. I suspect that some within the administration –- and Dick Cheney would be a good example –- are incapable of examining facts objectively, and remain driven by their own hyperbole.

There’s also the problem of how to actually close Guantánamo, as there are many dozens of prisoners who have been cleared for release, but who cannot be repatriated because of international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture. Attempts to bypass these treaties have, fortunately, been resisted in the US courts, but homes need to be found for these men, and my hope is that some countries in Europe can be persuaded to accept them. Now would be a good time, as the Bush administration is on its way out, and diplomacy is probably not quite as important as it has been for the last seven years.

In addition, the administration is clearly dragging its heels to some extent –- nearly a hundred Yemenis remain, for example, including numerous completely innocent men, apparently because the administration doesn’t believe that the Yemeni government can be trusted with their security on their return, and this issue has been dragging on for years. And there’s also the problem of the 60 to 80 men scheduled to face trial by Military Commission, because the trials, conceived by Dick Cheney and his advisers in November 2001, are as corrupt as the CSRTs, and fail to meet internationally recognized legal standards.

The simple truth is that, having rushed into this whole malign project nearly six and half years ago, the administration has discovered that it was far easier to set up Guantánamo than it is to close it, and it’s a problem that will probably be bequeathed to the next administration. All the candidates have pledged to close the prison, but they too will face problems actually following through on their promises. Like the occupation of Iraq, it appears in many ways to be a nightmare without end, and will take years to resolve.

Al-istiqamah: Andy Worthington, on behalf of al-istiqamah.com, we’d like to thank you for this insightful interview. We encourage all of our readers to purchase The Guantánamo Files and visit Andy’s website, where updates are posted on a regular basis.

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

A guide to this website: what’s here, and how to find it

The Guantanamo FilesThis site developed as an offshoot from my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. Published by Pluto Press in November 2007, The Guantánamo Files is the first book to tell the stories of all the men imprisoned without charge or trial in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and is based, largely, on a detailed analysis of over 8,000 pages of documents relating to the prisoners, which were released by the Pentagon, following a successful lawsuit by the Associated Press, in spring 2006.

The articles on this site (over 200 at the time of writing) provide a detailed analysis of developments at Guantánamo — and in other fields relating to the “War on Terror” — since I completed the final edit of The Guantánamo Files in May 2007. I began, in the absence of any interest from the mainstream media, by covering the story of Abdul Rahman al-Amri, a Saudi who died in Guantánamo at the end of May, and soon found enthusiastic hosts for my work at various US websites, including CounterPunch, the Huffington Post, Antiwar.com and AlterNet, and at the website of the British human rights group Cageprisoners. In recent months, I have also written for the Guardian and the New York Times.

This site is a WordPress blog — brilliantly customized in April 2008 by web designer Josh King-Farlow, who developed a theme for my particular needs, which, appropriately enough, is called “Hack.” As such, it consists of a sequence of posts, published chronologically, and is also fully navigable — as a database, essentially — through the “Search” facility at the top right of every page.

The articles (posts) are also searchable via “Categories,” in the right-hand column, and it’s here that I thought it might be wise to provide some details about the most significant themes of the last year for new visitors, and others who are not as drenched in Guantánamo-related knowledge as I am. It’s my hope that they are dealt with in more detail here than anywhere else in the media, and that my site will function as a “One-Stop Shop” for all Guantánamo-related issues.

Prisoners released from Guantánamo

Since May 2007, 115 prisoners have been released from Guantánamo. 56 of these are Saudis, whose stories — unreported elsewhere in the media — can be found under Saudis in Guantánamo. Other categories include Afghans in Guantánamo (37 since May 2007, although all were subsequently transferred to a US-run wing of a prison in Kabul, where most are still held), and a smattering of others: Bahrainis, Jordanians, Libyans, Mauritanians, Moroccans, Sudanese and Yemenis. Along the way, as with all other posts, links should take you to other relevant articles, both inside the site and on external websites.

British residents in Guantánamo

Also included is extensive coverage of the stories of the British residents in Guantánamo, who were abandoned for many years after nine British citizens were repatriated in 20054 and 2005. Three of these men — Omar Deghayes, Jamil El-Banna and Abdulnour Sameur — were released in December 2007 (although Omar and Jamil then had to overcome a cruel and ill-advised extradition request from the Spanish government), but three others remain: Saudi-born Shaker Aamer, a long-term hunger striker and a fearless opponent of injustice; Ahmed Belbacha, originally from Algeria, who has been cleared for release, but fears repatriation because of a risk that he will be tortured; and Binyam Mohamed, from Ethiopia, who was tortured for over two years in Morocco and in a secret prison in Afghanistan run by the CIA.

Hunger strikes, torture, rendition and secret prisons

The stories of these three men touch on other significant themes: Hunger strikes in Guantánamo looks not only at Shaker’s story, but also at the stories of other prisoners, including, in particular, al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, who was finally released in May 2008; Return to torture looks at other cleared prisoners who face the risk of torture or have, indeed, been subjected to ill-treatment on their repatriation, including the Tunisians in Guantánamo and one of the Libyans; and the categories American torture and Extraordinary rendition and secret prisons contain a series of articles relating not only to Binyam Mohamed’s experiences, but also to those of many others, including the “high-value detainees” mentioned below, who, amongst other “enhanced interrogation techniques,” were subjected to the reviled torture technique known as waterboarding, while held in secret CIA-run prisons.

Noticeably, attempts to return foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture have not been practiced exclusively by the administration of George W. Bush. The British government is also involved, and this, and other international crimes dreamt up in Downing Street and Whitehall, can be found under the categories Belmarsh, control orders and deportations and Diego Garcia. The thorny issue of the repatriation of foreign nationals from Guantánamo — or rather, attempts find third countries to accept them — is also dealt with under the category Asylum in Europe, and one important strand of this story concerns the Uyghurs in Guantánamo.

Guantánamo’s corrupt tribunals

A particular focus of the last year has been on the tribunals at Guantánamo — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) — which were charged with evaluating the status of the prisoners as “enemy combatants” without rights. Last June, a former official in the CSRT process, Stephen Abraham, issued an explosive statement demolishing the validity of the process, which had a knock-on effect on the Supreme Court, and this thread can be followed at Guantánamo whistleblowers, Guantánamo tribunals and Guantánamo and US Supreme Court. Prisoners who were particularly affected by this systematic miscarriage of justice include Adel Hamad (released in December 2007), and Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, who is still held, and who has, moreover, been subjected to Medical Abuse at Guantánamo. Related to this theme are Guantánamo suicides, Conditions at Guantánamo, and the story of Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, an innocent man, who died of cancer in December, which I reported for the New York Times.

Guantánamo’s corrupt trials

Another significant thread has involved the Military Commissions at Guantánamo, a system of trials for “terror suspects” that was dreamt up by Vice President Dick Cheney and his advisers in November 2001. As illegitimate as the tribunals, the Commissions have, over the years, been condemned by the Supreme Court, by military defense lawyers, and by a host of experts both at home and abroad, and they have failed to secure a single clear victory after more than six years. This thread can be followed at Military Commissions, and also through some of the prisoners’ individual stories, including David Hicks, Omar Khadr, Salim Hamdan and Mohamed Jawad. Children at the time of their capture, the stories of Omar and Mohamed Jawad are also included in the category Children in Guantánamo.

Recently, other prisoners — “high-value detainees” who were held for many years in secret CIA prisons, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, as well as Mohammed al-Qahtani, who, notoriously, was tortured in Guantánamo — have been put forward for trial by Military Commission in connection with the 9/11 attacks, although it remains uncertain how any of these trials will be able to proceed smoothly, when they are all haunted by the specter of torture. Another “high-value detainee” of particular interest is Abu Zubaydah (whose alleged status has been disputed by the FBI), and another, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, was recently charged in connection with other terror attacks in 1998 and 2000.

US enemy combatants

Also hopefully of interest — as they should be of paramount importance to US citizens — are stories about the US enemy combatants held without charge or trial on the US mainland, or prosecuted in dubious trials, of which the most notable cases are those of Jose Padilla and Ali al-Marri.

The Guantánamo Files

And finally, articles related to The Guantánamo Files (events, interviews, reviews, and TV and radio appearances) can be found by scrolling down the “Categories” list. They also include posts relating to extra chapters of the book, which can be found, along with links to my books, biographical information and links to other sites of interest, in the left-hand column.

I hope this helps you to find your way around my site. If you like what you see, you can subscribe to the RSS feed (also on the left-hand column) and receive future articles in your inbox. I’m also delighted to receive constructive comments.

Andy Worthington
London
May 2008

Note: See here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

Sami al-Haj: “Torture is terrorism”

Sami al-Haj reunited with his son MohammedSami al-Haj, the al-Jazeera journalist who was freed from Guantánamo yesterday, after six years and four months in US custody (including 16 months, from January 2007, on a harrowing hunger strike), continued to speak out about his treatment today, and was also reunited with his eight-year old son Mohammed, who was just a baby when he last saw his father, and with his wife Asma. The two had traveled from Qatar as soon as Sami’s release was confirmed.

After an emotional reunion with Mohammed, Sami summoned the strength to greet Sudan’s President, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who visited him in his hospital room, accompanied by dozens of ministers, and then gave the world another message via Opheera McDoom of Reuters, explaining that the prisoners in Guantánamo had been subjected to “all kinds of torture,” but that what affected them most deeply was when the guards insulted Islam or desecrated the Holy Qu’ran.

”Security and human rights are inseparable issues — you cannot have one without the other,” he said, adding, “Human rights are not only for times of peace — you need to hold onto them always even during difficult times and times of war.” He concluded with some choice words for his former captors, which — in light of the well-documented abuse he suffered in US custody, and the agonies of his 480-day hunger strike — will no doubt reverberate around the world: ”My last message to the US administration is that torture will not stop terrorism — torture is terrorism.”

Sami al-Haj and his son Mohammed

Sami and Mohammed (from al-Jazeera).

For a 15-minute al-Jazeera broadcast about Sami, featuring scenes of his arrival and his emotional reunion with his son Mohammed, see below:

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 in 2008 was the Communications Officer for the legal action charity Reprieve, which has represented Sami since 2005. 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 composite article, based on this and my previous two articles on Sami’s release, was published on AlterNet.

Sami al-Haj speaks, appeals for fellow prisoners in Guantánamo

Sami al-Haj after his release from GuantanamoAl-Jazeera has the first interview with Sami al-Haj since his return to the Sudan from Guantánamo late last night. The journalist, seized while on assignment for al-Jazeera in December 2001, had been on hunger strike for the last 16 months of his 76-month imprisonment without charge or trial by the United States, and looked, as was to be expected, thinner and considerably older than his 39 years. His brother, Asim, was shocked by his appearance, and said that he looked like a man in his 80s.

Speaking to reporters from a hospital bed, Sami said, “I’m very happy to be in Sudan, but I’m very sad because of the situation of our brothers who remain in Guantánamo. Conditions in Guantánamo are very, very bad and they get worse by the day. Our human condition, our human dignity was violated, and the American administration went beyond all human values, all moral values, all religious values.”

He added, “In Guantánamo, you have animals that are called iguanas, and rats that are treated with more humanity. But we have people from more than 50 countries that are completely deprived of all rights and privileges. And they will not give them the rights that they give to animals.” “For more than seven years,” he continued, the prisoners “did not get a chance to be brought before a civil court to defend their just case, and to get the freedom they were deprived of. They [the Americans] ignored every kind of law, every kind of religion, but thank God I was lucky because God allowed that I be released.”

“Although I’m happy,” he continued, “there is part of me that is not, because my brothers remain behind, and they are in the hands of people that claim to be champions of peace and protectors of rights and freedoms, but the true, just peace doesn’t come from military force, or threats to use smart or stupid bombs, or to threaten with economic sanctions. Justice comes from lifting oppression, and guaranteeing rights and freedoms, and respecting the will of the people, and not to interfere in a country’s internal politics.”

Wadah Khanfar, the director general of al-Jazeera, who was in Khartoum to welcome Sami back, was “overwhelmed with joy” at Sami’s safe return, but was critical of how the US military had treated him, persistently attempting to recruit him to spy on al-Jazeera, to “prove” a link between the network and Osama bin Laden that does not exist.

“We are concerned about the way the Americans dealt with Sami, and we are concerned about the way they could deal with others as well,” he said, adding, perhaps in response to rumours that, as a condition of his release, the US administration had stipulated that Sami must not leave Sudan, and must not work as a journalist, “Sami will continue with al-Jazeera, he will continue as a professional person who has done great jobs during his work with al-Jazeera. We congratulate his family and all those who knew Sami and loved Sami and worked for this moment.”

To watch the interview with Sami on YouTube, see below:

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.

Sami al-Haj released from Guantánamo

Sami al-HajAfter four and a half months of inexplicable inertia, the US administration has finally seen fit to release another group of prisoners from Guantánamo, including the Sudanese al-Jazeera cameraman and journalist Sami al-Haj. Despite claims from within the administration that it was hoping to scale down the operation at Guantánamo, no prisoners have been released since December 2007, when two other Sudanese prisoners, 13 Afghans, ten Saudis and three British residents were released.

Instead, one prisoner died — of cancer — and another prisoner was actually transferred into Guantánamo from a secret prison run by the CIA. My suspicion, which I have spoken about, but not to date written about, was that, having announced in February that six prisoners allegedly connected with the 9/11 attacks were to face a trial by Military Commission at Guantánamo, the administration was happy to drag its heels over the fate of the roughly 200 prisoners (out of the remaining 272) who are unlikely ever to face a trial, in the probably mistaken belief that the 9/11 trials — which will, inevitably, be wracked with allegations of torture — will secure the legacy of the Bush administration and divert attention from these other men.

The most celebrated Guantánamo prisoner in the Middle East — if not in the West — Sami, whose story I reported at length here, just a few weeks ago, was seized by Pakistani forces on December 15, 2001, apparently at the behest of the US authorities, who suspected that he had conducted an interview with Osama bin Laden. As with much of their supposed intelligence, this turned out to be false, but as his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the Director of the legal action charity Reprieve (which represents Sami and 34 other Guantánamo prisoners), explained last year, “name me a journalist who would turn down a bin Laden scoop.”

As a trained journalist, Sami’s insights into the horrors of Guantánamo have been unparalleled. Subjected to clearance by the Pentagon’s censors, his letters and his conversations with his lawyers at Reprieve have shed light on the abuse of the Koran, suicide attempts, hunger strikes and the number of juveniles held at the prison.

For the last 16 months of his imprisonment, Sami was himself a hunger striker. Although the ethics of the medical profession stipulate that a mentally competent hunger striker cannot be force-fed, the US authorities disagreed. Twice a day, for the last 480 days, Sami was strapped into a restraint chair, secured with 16 separate straps, and force-fed against his will via a tube inserted into his stomach through his nose.

Greeting the news of his release, Clive Stafford Smith said, “This is wonderful news, and long overdue. The US administration has never had any reason for holding Mr. al-Haj, and has, instead, spent six years shamelessly attempting to turn him against his employers at al-Jazeera. We at Reprieve send him our best wishes as he is reunited with his wife and his seven-year old son Mohammed, whom he has not seen since Mohammed was a baby.”

Also released — subject to final confirmation — were two other Sudanese prisoners, a Moroccan and six Afghans, whose stories I’ll report on in the following days.

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.

As published on the Huffington Post.

Note: Sami’s prisoner number was ISN 345. For more on his story, see here, here and here.

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the eleven prisoners released from February to June 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

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Andy Worthington

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