After eight years’ imprisonment without charge or trial, five former Guantanamo prisoners are beginning new lives this week — two in Switzerland and three in Georgia. Their stories reveal, yet again, how Republican lawmakers and media pundits in the US, who have, in recent months, renewed their fear-filled attacks on those still held, are guilty of hyperbolic and unprincipled outbursts, and, in addition, how these critics’ attacks are damaging to the prospects of cleared men, seized by mistake, finding new homes in countries that, unlike the US, are prepared to offer them a chance to rebuild their shattered lives on a humanitarian basis.
All five men were cleared for release from Guantánamo on two or three separate occasions — through Bush-era military review boards, through the deliberations of an interagency Task Force established by President Obama, and, in some cases, through successfully having their habeas corpus petitions granted by a US court. However, difficulties arose when it came to freeing them because they feared torture or other ill-treatment if returned to their home countries, and the US government (first under George W. Bush, and now under Barack Obama) recognized its obligations, under international treaties, not to repatriate them, but to find other countries prepared to take them instead.
The fact that Georgia — the former Soviet satellite in the Caucasus — is the new home of three of these men, and not the US state, demonstrates another obstacle to the men’s release. Had President Obama acted decisively last April, two Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, seized by mistake in December 2001) would have been freed in the US, and others would undoubtedly have followed. However, when the President bowed to pressure from Republican critics, and turned down a plan, put forward by White House Counsel Greg Craig, and backed by defense secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which involved bringing the two men to live in the US, the job of Obama’s Special Envoy, Daniel Fried, who was charged with finding new homes for dozens of cleared prisoners from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, was made considerably more difficult.
America’s allies had to overcome their obvious impulse — refusing to help unless the US also acknowledged its own mistakes by giving new homes to cleared prisoners — and it is a tribute to the governments of Switzerland and Georgia that they felt able to place humanitarian concerns above political pragmatism by accepting the men. Switzerland had already accepted an Uzbek ex-prisoner in January this year, and Georgia now joins Switzerland in a distinguished club that also includes Albania, Belgium, Bermuda, France, Hungary, Ireland, Palau, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain. These countries have all shown up the US (and other European countries, including the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark), who have turned their backs on the dozens of cleared prisoners who will languish in Guantánamo until new homes can be found for them.
The Uighur brothers released in Switzerland
The two men given new homes in the Swiss canton of Jura are brothers, Arkin Mahmud, 45, and Bahtiyar Mahnut, 34, Two of the 22 Uighurs originally held at Guantánamo (five of whom were released by George W. Bush in Albania in 2006), the men had been living in a small, rundown settlement in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains at the time of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, either because they had been thwarted in their attempts to travel to Turkey or Europe in search of work, or because they nurtured futile hopes of finding some way to rise up against the Chinese government. They were sold to US forces by Pakistani villagers when their temporary home was destroyed in a US bombing raid and they had crossed the border into Pakistan.
The US government understood almost immediately that they had been seized by mistake, but that did not prevent senior officials from allowing Chinese interrogators to visit them at Guantánamo, and, it seems, securing a guarantee in UN negotiations that China would not oppose the invasion of Iraq by designating a Uighur separatist group as a global terrorist organization.
Attempts to conveniently tie the Guantanamo Uighurs to this group came unstuck in June 2008, when a US court derided the government’s supposed evidence as being akin to a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it was not until October 2008 that the government finally abandoned all claims that the men were “enemy combatants.” That month, their habeas corpus petition finally reached Judge Ricardo Urbina, in the District Court in Washington D.C., who ordered their release into the United States, pointing out that holding innocent men was unconstitutional.
The Bush administration appealed, and the appeal was approved in February 2009 by the notoriously right-wing Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, who ruled (with the blessing, sadly, of President Obama’s Justice Department), that matters of immigration were to be decided by the Executive and not the courts, thereby gutting the men’s habeas victory of any practical meaning.
After Greg Craig’s honorable plan to rehouse two of the men in the US was scrapped, Daniel Fried was obliged to undertake numerous missions to persuade other countries to offer them new homes. Fried eventually persuaded Bermuda and the Pacific island of Palau to take ten of the men, but Arkin Mahmud and Bahtiyar Mahnut in particular remained a problem. Palau had refused to offer a new home to Mahmud, who had developed mental health problems in Guantanamo, and, in solidarity, his brother, who had been offered a new home, turned down the offer, preferring to stay with his brother in Guantánamo instead.
An appeal to the government by the Washington Post, asking that the men be allowed into the US, was subsequently ignored, but it seemed that Obama was on a collision course with the Supreme Court, which accepted the men’s case last October, until Switzerland obligingly offered the men a new home in January this year.
As Arkin Mahmud and Bahtiyar Mahnut begin their new lives in Switzerland, five Uighurs remain in Guantánamo, but their fate is unknown. The Supreme Court refused to proceed with their case at the start of this month (although they did vacate the terrible Court of Appeals ruling), essentially because the five remaining men had also been offered new homes in Palau, but had turned them down, and it remains to be seen if Palau will renew its offer, if another country will rescue them from their seemingly endless ordeal, or if the lower courts will, once more, attempt to order their release into the United States.
A Libyan refugee released in Georgia
Announcing the release of the other three men from Guantánamo, the Justice Department refused to reveal their identities, but Candace Gorman, the indefatigable attorney representing Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan, revealed that one of the three is her client, and it appears that the second man is also Libyan, and that the third is from an unidentified country in the Middle East (perhaps Libya, again, or Syria or Tunisia).
The release of Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi brings to an end another of Guantánamo’s many particularly bleak stories. A refugee from Libya, al-Ghizzawi had settled in Afghanistan in the 1990s, where he married an Afghan woman and had a child. Together, he and his wife ran a small bakery in Jalalabad, but after the US-led invasion, hearing that Arabs were being targeted, he decided to seek refuge with his in-laws in his wife’s home village. There, however, he was seized by bounty hunters and sold to US forces.
In Guantánamo, al-Ghizzawi suffered horribly. Afflicted with tuberculosis and hepatitis B, he nevertheless received little or no treatment, in common with the majority of those with medical problems, whose treatment was dependent on cooperation with their interrogators. In practical terms, what this meant for innocent men like al-Ghizzawi was that they would not be treated unless they provided false confessions to their interrogators, which could be used to justify their own detention, or the detention of others identified in these false confessions.
Al-Ghizzawi’s case is also notorious in terms of the warped review processes masquerading as justice at Guantánamo, as was revealed in 2007 by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of US intelligence who had been involved in compiling the information used as evidence in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals at Guantánamo in 2004-05. In an affidavit filed in a case submitted to the Supreme Court, Lt. Col. Abraham explained how the tribunal system, designed to review the prisoners’ cases to ascertain whether they had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” who could be held indefinitely, was a sham, and that the information used consisted of intelligence “of a generalized nature — often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status.”
Lt. Col. Abraham also explained how he had taken part in one of the tribunals, and, with his fellow officers, had concluded that the government had failed to establish that the prisoner before them had any connection whatsoever to al-Qaeda or the Taliban for the very reasons described above. That prisoner was Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, and, as Lt. Col. Abraham added, the authorities refused to accept the tribunal’s decision, dismissing all three officers, and conducting a second tribunal that reached the conclusion the government wanted; namely, that al-Ghizzawi was an “enemy combatant,” and that he could continue to be held indefinitely. This was not the only “do-over” tribunal, but the fact that it happened at all is a disgrace, and the fact that al-Ghizzawi continued to be held for another six years after Lt. Col. Abraham exposed the shortcomings in the government’s so-called evidence is a disturbingly clear example of the complete disregard for any notions of justice or decency in the running of Guantánamo.
It was not until June last year that al-Ghizzawi was finally cleared for release by the interagency Task Force established by President Obama to review all the Guantánamo cases, and even then the Justice Department behaved appallingly, neglecting to inform Candace Gorman of the decision and then gagging her when she tried to inform al-Ghizzawi’s family, and his wife, who, in despair after years of waiting, had decided to seek a divorce.
Unprincipled obstacles to the closure of Guantánamo
I have no idea if the identities of the other two men released in Georgia will be made available, but it is clear that they too have been deprived of their freedom for up to eight years not as a result of any coherent policy, but as a direct result of the Bush administration’s arrogance and incompetence in establishing Guantánamo as a prison outside the law filled largely with men who were seized and sold to US forces by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, and who had no connection whatsoever to al-Qaeda, the 9/11 attacks, or any other group involved in international terrorism.
With 183 prisoners still at Guantánamo, and 101 of these cleared for release by Obama’s Task Force, and, in some cases, by the US courts, the shrill rhetoric of those who still insist that the prison is full of terrorists should have been silenced, but as the cynical fearmongering of recent months has shown all too clearly, when it comes to Guantánamo, Republican lawmakers are more than happy to stir up unsubstantiated hysteria about the prison, playing the fear card as the mid-term elections approach, and encouraging Democrats to do the same.
I have my doubts that the other 82 men qualify as terrorists, but presume that the 35 proposed for trials (either in federal courts or in Military Commissions) will one day have their cases considered by a judge and jury, and that the other 47 men, who the Task Force recommended be held indefinitely without charge or trial, will be able to challenge this deeply distressing advice in a US court, before judges reviewing their habeas corpus petitions. As with 34 of the 46 cases so far decided, the judges will, no doubt, conclude that, in many of these cases, the government’s assertions that they are too dangerous to release, despite a lack of usable evidence, will be revealed as distortions based on the kind of false confessions that Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi resisted making in exchange for medical treatment.
For now, however, while readers should bear in mind that only between 5 and 10 percent of the total number of prisoners held at Guantánamo will, in the end, be judged to have had any connection to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, the release of these five prisoners to Switzerland and Georgia continues to demonstrate that innocent men are still held at Guantánamo, and that the fearmongering in the US is both unjustifiable and potentially damaging to these men’s prospects of being rehoused elsewhere.
Given these obstacles — and lawmakers’ refusal to accept any cleared prisoners into the US — Daniel Fried is to be congratulated for successfully concluding the complex negotiations leading to the release of these men, and, sometimes single-handedly, it seems, working towards the closure of Guantánamo, which remains a stain on America’s reputation, and a dark symbol of the Bush administration policies that Obama has found himself unwilling, or unable to thoroughly repudiate.
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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 52 prisoners released from February 2009 to February 2010, 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, 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 to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; October 2009 — 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody; December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah); December 2009 — 2 Somalis, 4 Afghans, 6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 3 prisoners of undisclosed nationality to Slovakia, 1 unidentified Uzbek to Switzerland; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania, 1 Palestinian to Spain.
Though clearly the release of innocent prisoners is good, the question for me is: How many more are innocent and having to sit to appease the likes of Sen. Lindsey Graham and Jeff Sessions or their racist base that just see Muslim names and say, ‘guilty’. How is this different than what other tyrants do?
Andy, thank you for your consistently quality work. It is much appreciated.
Here are a few comments from Truthout:
S. Wolf Britain wrote:
Of course, if I was one of those completely innocent men who were falsely accused, tortured and held indefinitely for many years without any true due process of law, I wouldn’t want to be released into the U.S. even if my life depended on it. Because, if one thing has been made abundantly clear, it is that the U.S. is no longer a free and safe country to be in at all; and I would fear being dragged up again, and being unjustly imprisoned and tortured again, by the supposedly but not most righteous country on the face of the planet.
Therefore, any and all “foreigners” who still want to immigrate to the U.S. are crazy; for, unless they’re under threat of unjust indefinite detention and/or torture by their “home” countries, they would certainly not be safe in the U.S. by any stretch of the imagination.
An anonymous reader wrote:
Wow, the idea to be released in the U.S. after being incarcerated in their prison in Guantanamo would not exactly be a thrilling idea. The U.S. has been soiled by this incident and the shame of it all is that the people that perpetrated the damage will not be held responsible. Those that personally did the torturing will probably suffer the rest of their lives, unless they are truly made of stone.
Arminius Aurelius wrote:
Liberty and Justice for All …….rings hollow
Words are cheap
If I were one of these innocent people who were tortured in Guantanamo , Iraq or Afghanistan , I would be a convert to the Taliban or Al Qaeda and their philosophy that Amerika is EVIL . I and my family members would seek vengeance in spades . The only difference is that I instead of attacking innocents would direct my wrath toward the War Criminal politicians who brought this Holocaust upon the innocent Iraqis , Afghans and Pakistani people.
Over on Facebook, Barry Wingard wrote:
I wish I had your ability to write. Another great piece for history to review.
And Ghaliyaa Islam wrote:
Agreed! I wish I had that ability, too… not many do, not like Andy’s.
This was my reply:
Thank you, Barry and Ghaliyaa. Encouraging words in dark times, when it’s easy to despair that fear-filled soundbites are all that count …
Asif Kuchey wrote:
If history remembers people of justice, your name is already carved in the pages of history- Andy
Jan Boeykens wrote:
Good job, Andy!
And this was my reply:
Thank you, Asif and Jan. Encouragement is particularly welcome right now!
Zara Rehman wrote:
This is a fantastic piece of writing which I hope everyone reads notably the American government-please post a copy to them!
And Jan Boeykens replied:
Good idea, Zara. I will send a copy of this writing to the embassies.
Let me also thank you Andy for this article, and your diligent work.
Al Ghazzawi’s is one of the heartbreaking stories. It was dreadful that Ms Gorman had to take a diagnostic checklist with her, to try to determine what kind of liver disease he had. Sami Al Hajj also acquired Hepatitis in Guantanamo. I think this is one of the pieces of evidence that suggests the captives told the truth that during the height of the hunger strikes vengeful guards reused filthy feeding tubes.
All the evidence that has been made public strongly suggests the captives received terrible medical care.
Thanks, arcticredriver. Very good to hear from you, as always, and thanks for the insightful comments.
[…] where there is a 2,000-strong Uighur community, and will follow the example of Bermuda and Switzerland, which have both given Uighurs from Guantánamo a permanent home, despite opposition from the […]
[…] an offer by the Pacific island state of Palau, arriving there on October 31, and two others were taken in by Switzerland in January this […]
[…] — Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland — are in Europe and have taken in 23 prisoners in total, and five other countries — Bermuda, […]
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. 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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