Archive for August, 2010

The Legacy of the Iraq War: Over 100,000 Dead, 20,000 Unidentified

As combat operations officially end in Iraq, nearly seven and a half years after the Bush administration’s illegal invasion, it is difficult to know how to summarize succinctly the tragic cost of the enterprise. I retain nothing but disdain — and a desire for accountability — for those who initiated this criminal, and criminally ill-conceived attempt at nation-building — primarily, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and British Prime Minister Tony Blair — and would like, one day, to see these men prosecuted for war crimes, and in Cheney’s case, in particular, for introducing a torture program designed to secure confessions from “terrorist suspects” to bolster the case for the invasion, while pretending to the American people that he was seeking information to prevent another terrorist attack akin to 9/11.

There is so much that is appalling about the last seven and a half years — the Abu Ghraib scandal, the murder of Manadel al-Jamadi and other deaths in US custody, horrendous war crimes, the shocking rise in the number of refugees, both within Iraq (1.55 million) and also, primarily, in Syria and Jordan (2 million), the destruction of Fallujah, the plundering of Iraq’s economy, the rise of Blackwater, the profits for the warmongers at Halliburton and elsewhere — but most of all I feel for those who have lost their lives: the US soldiers sacrificed for the greed and folly of a few, and the largely unacknowledged Iraqi civilians, whose deaths were sidelined from the very beginning of the war, when Gen. Tommy Franks declared, callously, “We don’t do body counts.”

Gen. Franks, of course, was only referring to body counts of those supposedly “liberated” by US forces. The exact number of US forces killed — 4,421, to date — has been carefully monitored, while the number of Iraqis killed has only ever been the subject of sporadic speculation in the mainstream media in the West. As the war officially “ends,” Western commentators have finally revealed that they are comfortable with quantifying the Iraqi dead — as at least 100,000. This may be an under-estimate, but even if it is not, it represent 40 Iraqis killed for each day of the war, and I fail to see how anyone in a position of authority can sleep well at night knowing that one or two men, women and children have been killed as a result of their actions every hour for the last seven years and five and half months.

To mark the “end” of the war, I’m cross-posting below an excellent article published in the New York Times on August 30, as the final part of a three-part series of articles, “What Is Left Behind,” which began with “A Benchmark of Progress, Electrical Grid Fails Iraqis” (published on August 1) and also featured “In Iraq War, Soldiers Say They Had a Job to Do” (published on August 20). This final part, “Restoring Names to Iraq War’s Unknown Casualties,” written by Anthony Shadid, followed the attempts by one Iraqi family to discover what happened to Muhammad Jassem Bouhan al-Izzawi — a father, son and brother — who disappeared on July 1, 2005, and is one of at least 20,000 unidentified Iraqis whose families seek to identify them in a “room at the Baghdad morgue known simply as the Missing,” where the faces of the 20,000 are repeatedly projected onto four screens, and who, if they are successful, are then able to visit their graves, in a vast cemetery of the unknown Iraqi dead, part of the Wadi al-Salam (Valley of Peace) cemetery in the city of Najaf.

Restoring Names to Iraq War’s Unknown Casualties
By Anthony Shadid, New York Times, August 30, 2010

BAGHDAD — In a pastel-colored room at the Baghdad morgue known simply as the Missing, where faces of the thousands of unidentified dead of this war are projected onto four screens, Hamid Jassem came on a Sunday searching for answers.

In a blue plastic chair, he sat under harsh fluorescent lights and a clock that read 8:58 and 44 seconds, no longer keeping time. With deference and patience, he stared at the screen, each corpse bearing four digits and the word “majhoul,” or unknown:

No. 5060 passed, with a bullet to the right temple; 5061, with a bruised and bloated face; 5062 bore a tattoo that read, “Mother, where is happiness?” The eyes of 5071 were open, as if remembering what had happened to him.

“Go back,” Hamid asked the projectionist. No. 5061 returned to the screen.

“That’s him,” he said, nodding grimly.

His mother followed him into the room, her weathered face framed in a black veil. “Show me my son!” she cried.

Behind her, Hamid pleaded silently. He waved his hands at the projectionist, begging him to spare her. In vain, he shook his head and mouthed the word “no.”

“Don’t tell me he’s dead,” she shouted at the room. “It’s not him! It’s not him!”

No. 5061 returned to the screen.

She lurched forward, shaking her head in denial. Her eyes stared hard. And in seconds, her son’s 33 years of life seemed to pass before her eyes.

“Yes, yes, yes,” she finally sobbed, falling back in her chair.

Reflexively, her hands slapped her face. They clawed, until her nails drew blood. “If I had only known from the first day!” she cried.

The horror of this war is its numbers, frozen in the portraits at the morgue: an infant’s eyes sealed shut and a woman’s hair combed in blood and ash. “Files tossed on the shelves,” a policeman called the dead, and that very anonymity lends itself to the war’s name here — al-ahdath, or the events.

On the charts that the American military provides, those numbers are seen as success, from nearly 4,000 dead in one month in 2006 to the few hundred today. The Interior Ministry offers its own toll of war — 72,124 since 2003, a number too precise to be true. At the morgue, more than 20,000 of the dead, which even sober estimates suggest total 100,000 or more, are still unidentified.

This number had a name, though.

No. 5061 was Muhammad Jassem Bouhan al-Izzawi, father, son and brother. At 9 a.m., on that Sunday, Aug. 15, his family left the morgue in a white Nissan and set out to find his body in a city torn between remembering and forgetting, where death haunts a country neither at war nor peace.

There is a notion in Islamic thought called taqiya, in which believers can conceal their faith in the face of persecution. Hamid’s family, Sunnis in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad, engaged in their own.

As sectarian killings intensified in 2005 and Shiite militias stepped up attacks, they hung two posters of Shiite saints near the apartment’s windows, shattered in car bombings and patched with cardboard. To strangers, they changed their tribal name from Izzawi to Mujahadi, hoping to blend in. They learned not to say, “Salaam aleikum” — peace be upon you — in farewell, as more devout Sunnis will do.

Burly and bearded, Muhammad was the most devout in the family, and perhaps the least discreet. He allowed himself American action films, “Van Damme and Arnold,” his brother recalled. But his routine was ordered by the call to prayer, bringing him five times a day to the Arafat Mosque.

“We said, ‘Listen to us, just pray at home,’” Hamid recalled begging him.

“It’s in God’s hands if I’m killed,” he said his brother replied.

On July 1, 2005, at 5 a.m., guns clanged on their metal front door like brittle bells. Muhammad’s mother opened it, and men dressed as police officers forced her back. Barely awake, Muhammad clambered down the stairs in a white undershirt and red pajamas. The men bundled him into a police pickup and drove off, leaving his 2-month-old daughter, Aisha, and his wife and mother, who cried for help as the headlights disappeared into the dawn.

In all, 11 men joined the ranks of the missing that morning.

Willing to Help, for $20,000

Shadowed by militias, the family found that going to the morgue was often too dangerous, but as the weeks passed, Muhammad’s brother-in-law went anyway. He found nothing. The family gave nearly $650 to a relative who had a friend who knew a driver for a Shiite militiaman. A month later, he came back with no word, but kept $100 for his time. Another acquaintance offered to help for $20,000.

“Where were we going to get that kind of money?” Hamid asked.

A chance encounter in August brought the family to the morgue. A neighbor had found his father among the pictures in the Missing room. He was one of the 11.

Hamid is a quiet man in a city that does not embrace silence. Modest, even bashful, he is full of abbreviated gestures, questions becoming stutters when faced with authority.

Gingerly, he clutched a note from the morgue. No. 5061, it said, along with the name of the police station, Rafidain, that had recovered his brother’s body. He drove his family to the vast Shiite slum Sadr City, past a gas station named for April 9, the date of Saddam Hussein’s fall, and a bare pedestal where the dictator’s statue once stood.

Police officers in mismatched uniforms sprawled in chairs at the entrance, near a barricade of razor wire laced through tires, a car seat and a fender that suggested the city’s impermanence. “What do you want?” one of them barked at Hamid.

The family needed a letter from the police station, the first step in claiming Muhammad’s death certificate and finding out where he was buried. With Hamid beside her, the mother pleaded to let them inside. For five years they had looked for him, she said.

The policeman glared at her suspiciously. “If you’re lying, I’ll put you all in jail right now,” he shouted.

“My son is dead, and this is what you say to us?” the mother answered.

The policeman turned his head in disgust.

“Dog,” he muttered under his breath.

Slogans litter Baghdad. They are scrawled on the blast walls that partition this city of concrete. They proclaim unity from billboards over traffic snarled at impotent checkpoints. The more they are uttered, it seems, the less resonant they become.

“Respect and be respected,” read the one the family passed, entering the police station.

They followed Kadhem Hassan, the weary 60-year-old police officer in charge of records, whose office was around the corner from toilets piled with excrement.

“They keep throwing rocks at us at night,” he said, kicking shards of bricks away from the entrance to his office, near a slogan that read, “Heroes.”

His office was bare but for a rickety desk and cabinets piled with curled, yellowing files. A fan circulated the heat; Officer Hassan had bought it for $20. Sitting in his chair, he endlessly shuffled files. In words slurred by missing teeth, he told Hamid’s nephew to go buy paper if they wanted a letter.

Eventually, he found the police report of Muhammad’s death.

Dated July 3, 2005, it read: “We discovered 11 unidentified bodies, their hands bound from behind, their eyes blindfolded and their mouths gagged. The bodies bore signs of torture.”

“All of us were victims,” Officer Hassan told Hamid, in an attempt at sympathy. “Who was the exception? No one was. Not the martyrs, not the policemen, no one.”

“If they just shot them, O.K.,” Hamid said. “But they beat them, tortured them and then they burned them. Why? And those guys” — the politicians, he meant — “are just watching.”

“Power and positions, that’s all they’re worried about,” Officer Hassan said.

“Let me be honest,” Hamid said, flashing rare anger at no one in particular. “Just to tell the truth. It would have been better if we had stayed under Saddam Hussein.”

The policeman shrugged and stayed silent.

A Bureaucratic Odyssey

From the Rafidain police station, carrying a letter on paper he had paid for, Hamid went to the morgue. His letter, said a clerk there, Ihab Sami, was incomplete.

“The police don’t understand and neither do you!” Mr. Sami shouted at him.

Quiet, Hamid shook his head and returned to Sadr City.

“Come tomorrow morning,” Officer Hassan told him.

He did. Sometimes with his mother, sometimes his nephew, he went back to the morgue, the police station again, the courthouse in Sadr City and the morgue. Over seven days, he collected papers, each with the number 5061.

“We lost someone,” Hamid said as he drove. “They should take it easy on us.” He grew quiet. “I guess nothing ends easily,” he whispered, “for the living or the dead.”

In a cauterized country caught between its haunted past and uncertain future, death seems to shape life in Baghdad. As Hamid drove patiently through its crumpled landscape, he passed the cemeteries whose tombstones read like an inventory of war, one built on the day after the fall of Saddam Hussein, at a riverside park, near pomegranate trees too desiccated to bear fruit.

“Whoever reads the Koran for me, cry for my youth,” read the marker for Oday Ahmed Khalaf. “Yesterday I was living, and today I’m buried beneath the earth.”

Across the Tigris River was the Jawad Orphanage, where Hussein Rahim, who does not know his age, played with other children whose parents had been killed in the violence. An explosion entombed his family in their home in July 2008. He lived because he was playing soccer. His father’s name, he thinks, was Ali. But he can’t recall the name of his 6-month-old sister, nor his mother. They are the past, he said, and “no one wants to talk about it.”

“I can’t forget,” Hamid said, on the eighth day of his odyssey.

A roadside mine had closed the street, and Hamid parked nearly a mile away. With his nephew, he walked toward the office for unclaimed death certificates and past a billboard that read, “Hand in hand, we’ll build Iraq together.”

Government offices under construction had grown dilapidated even before they were finished. The carcasses of car bombs were piled on the side of the street.

“I don’t consider this my country anymore,” Hamid said. “Really, I feel like a stranger. Not just me. Everyone does.”

The office — a flattering term for a ramshackle tan trailer with brown trim — was down a dirt road, across from a nursery lined with unplanted pots. Here, even the nursery was coiled in barbed wire.

“They don’t even put a sign out front,” Hamid complained.

Perky, with good-natured cheer that seemed at odds with her work, Maysoun Azzawi sat inside with her harried and haggard assistant, Hajji Saleh. She dispatched him to plumb the 100 notebooks — stacked upright and on their side, some with binders missing, all with pages torn — to find the death certificate for 5061.

“Come on, hurry up!” she yelled at him. “Look for the old records! 2005!”

She turned to Hamid. “Are you a Sunni or Shiite?” she asked.

“Mixed,” he answered.

She nodded knowingly, then yelled again. “Hajji, are you going to find it or do I have to come in there?”

He shuffled in, and she pored over the ledger, line after line of unidentified dead, its pages blown by an air-conditioner propped up on two broken cinder blocks.

“Whatever happened to us?” she asked, as she turned the pages, looking for 5061. “There are good people here, brother, but God damn this country.”

“It’s here,” she said finally, and asked for a pen.

She pulled out the death certificate, written in red and numbered 946777. The morgue had sent Muhammad’s body south for burial on July 22, she told Hamid, and the undertaker was Sheik Sadiq al-Sheikh Daham. She handed him the onionskin paper certificate.

“You have everything you need now,” she said. “You can go to Najaf.”

She kept the pen.

In the Valley of Peace

Najaf, the spiritual capital of Shiite Islam, is a city of the dead.

For more than a millennium, the deceased have arrived at its cemetery, the Valley of Peace, seeking blessings in their burial near the golden-domed tomb of Imam Ali, the revered Shiite saint. There are moments of beauty here — finely rendered calligraphy on turquoise tiles, domes of a perfect symmetry that life cannot share. But shades of ocher predominate, the tan brick of headstones stretching to the horizon like supplicants awaiting an audience.

The cemetery receives the unknown, whether Sunni or Shiite.

Before the sun rose, on the ninth day after identifying his brother’s picture, Hamid drove his three sisters, Muhammad’s wife and daughter and his mother past Baghdad’s outskirts. American jets whispered through the sky. As the sun rose gingerly, Hamid’s car passed the tomb of the Prophet Job.

In Hamid’s hand was his brother’s death certificate.

“Corrected,” it read simply.

Only the caretaker knew where Muhammad’s grave was; he had sketched its location on a hand-drawn map in a red leather book bound by yellow tape. Three stacks of bricks covered in hastily poured concrete marked it. “Unknown, 5061, July 2, 2005,” it read. Next to it was 5067, 5060 and so on, hundreds more, stretching row after row, so cluttered that some of the dead shared a grave.

The women stumbled toward it, throwing sand on their heads in grief. Their chorus of cries intersected with the Shiite lamentations of a nearby funeral. Muhammad’s wife grasped the marker, as though it was incarnate. His sister kissed the cement.

“How long have we looked for you, my son?” his mother screamed, tears turning the sand on her face to mud. “All this time, and you’ve been suffering under the sun.”

She shouted at Hamid and the others.

“Please dig him out! Let me see him. It’s been five years. Hamid! We haven’t seen him. Show him to me, just show him to me for a little while.”

She turned to Muhammad’s daughter, Aisha.

“This is your child!” she yelled.

Wearing pink, Aisha paid no attention. Too young to know grief, she played with dusty red plastic carnations, glancing at the rest of the dead, anonymous like her father.

Hamid stayed back, his tears turning to sobs.

“There is nothing left to do,” he said, shaking his head.

An hour later, the family pulled away in Hamid’s car, his mother’s cries still audible. “Let me take your place,” she moaned. It turned onto a ribbon of black asphalt. For a moment, the car caught the glint of the sun, then disappeared behind the countless tombs.

Behind them was 5061. With a brick, they had furrowed a line into the marker. With a bottle of water, they had washed it, revealing a newly white tile in a sea of brown.

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 of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

The Witness to Guantánamo Project

Last November, I was delighted to meet Peter Jan Honigsberg, Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, and the author of Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror, when he enthusiastically agreed to show the Guantánamo documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and myself) as part of my US tour of the film. Peter is also the director of the admirable “Witness to Guantánamo” project, which involves “conducting in-depth, filmed interviews with former detainees and other witnesses to document human rights abuses and rule of law violations that took place at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.” As the project’s website also explains:

Witness to Guantánamo is the only project that is systematically filming and preserving in-depth narratives of former detainees and other witnesses. By creating an archive of these videos, W2G will collaborate and partner with other projects around the United States and the world to educate the public and mobilize pressure to hold US government officials and private actors accountable for human rights transgressions and violations of US and international law.

I urge readers to visit the website, to learn how “[t]he project’s methodology reflects the Shoah (‘catastrophe’) model” initiated by Steven Spielberg with regard to the Holocaust, and to watch a number of video clips of former prisoners and others with experience of Guantánamo, which have been made available online. These provide an excellent insight into the horrendous abuses initiated by the US administration in the “War on Terror,” and also provide a useful introduction to the archive, which is intended to be used by those requiring evidence to support other projects aimed at exposing the truth about Guantánamo, as the website also explains:

No one has systematically chronicled the abuses and rule of law violations at Guantánamo from the perspective of former detainees as they speak in-depth on camera, telling their own personal narratives of their experiences in Guantánamo. All the interviews will be translated into English and transcribed to reach the broadest audience possible. It is our intent that the video archive grow into an invaluable resource for present and future generations of activists, scholars, historians, journalists, students, documentarians, lawyers, former detainees and the general public. Eventually, individuals will be welcome to apply to use the interviews to support qualitative and quantitative social science research; select footage for documentary and other media-related projects; create educational units on Guantánamo for elementary through graduate school students; and inform and educate the public. The diverse potential uses of the archive will be limited only by the imagination.

Below, I reproduce a fascinating article written by Peter Jan Honigsberg for the Huffington Post, after completing a recent series of interviews with former prisoners:

Dignified, but Broken
By Peter Jan Honigsberg, the Huffington Post, August 30, 2010

A friend said that she recently saw photos of men who had been incarcerated at Guantánamo prison and that the photos expressed each man’s human dignity. I, too, have seen the dignity in each of the twenty-four former detainees we have interviewed on film for our Witness to Guantánamo project. However, I have also seen something else. Many of the men, though dignified, were broken.

Indeed, how could men, who were sold for $3,000 to $30,000 each, held for up to eight years without charges, often sensory deprived — whether isolated or sleep deprived for long periods — not be broken? The men depicted Guantánamo as a “psychological prison,” and that it was.

One of the men we interviewed was introduced to us as the “jokester” of Guantánamo. He was seemingly cheerful and laughed with us before we began filming. Yet, during the interview (our interviews usually run for two to two and a half hours) his sense of hopelessness while in the prison surfaced. He told of the time he called a guard to his cell. He asked the guard to bring a high-ranking military official, a sheet of paper and a pen. He said that he would write on the paper that it was “okay.” After signing the paper, he wanted the official to take him to the beach and, demonstrating to us with his index finger pointed at his forehead, “shoot me.”

Another man, who was intelligent, exceptionally sensitive, spoke five languages and had never been to Afghanistan or Pakistan but was seized elsewhere, broke early. He was a librarian by trade and should never have been held at the base. When we asked him whether he had ever met with psychiatrists while at Guantánamo, he responded by equating them with “devils” who tried to tear down his mind. He told the interrogators whatever they wanted to hear, whenever they wanted to hear it.

A third man, very insightful, thoughtful and charismatic, told us that he managed the torture and pain by focusing on his foot or on some other detail of his body that he could control. He knew English, but did not reveal it to the guards so that he could overhear their conversations and help orient himself. He prided himself on being a loner and on his initial ability to hold fast and refuse to talk to the interrogators. After several months, the military officials placed him in isolation. He was denied all human contact. The guards shoved his meals through the “bean hole” in the cell door. After one year of intense isolation, “I broke,” he said.

Sometimes, I think that men who resisted while at the prison emerged psychologically healthier. And, sometimes they did. One man we met was 16 when captured and, like most prisoners, arbitrarily beaten. He continually fought the guards by throwing feces and such at them, even though it meant that he was beaten up frequently by the Emergency Response Force (ERF) team and then taken to isolation. (The ERF team consisted of 5 or more guards in riot gear. They sprayed detainees with mace and then pummeled them, sometimes while the men lay prostrate on their beds). Although he was released to a country that is not his home, today this detainee seems able to cope better than many of the men we have met.

Other men survived by “going with the flow.” They did what they were told and were beaten less frequently. Necessarily, the men’s actions reflected their personalities and character traits. Five men would not survive Guantánamo. They allegedly committed suicide.

Yes, there is a powerful sense of dignity in each former detainee you meet today. But these men who were held for years without charges were more than imprisoned. They were broken. And even though some — but not all — of the men released are doing better today, one must wonder whether they will ever fully move on from what they suffered unnecessarily in that hell we call Guantánamo.

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 of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Disgraceful: The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy

I don’t want to spend much time discussing the opposition to the building of the Park51 Project, a $100 million mosque and cultural center two blocks from the site of the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, as such a response to an assault on the First Amendment to the US Constitution — and the first article of the Bill of Rights — ought to be beneath contempt. In guaranteeing freedom of religion (and the separation of church and state), freedom of speech, the right to assemble peacefully, and the right to seek the redress of grievances from the government, the First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

However, I wanted, at the very least, to register my concern about how the Islamophobic venom that has spread from Ground Zero in a wave of intolerance, prompting an attack on a Muslim taxi driver in New York (Ahmed Sharif, who responded by stating, “This is a city of all colors, races, all religion, everyone. We live here, side by side, peacefully”), an attack on the site of an Islamic cultural center in Tennessee (following a vitriolic campaign against it), protests against the building of new mosques, and the establishment of “Burn a Quran Day” by a Pastor in Florida, appear to be indicative of a violent stupidity that is deeply troubling to those of us who hoped that this kind of hatred had been consigned to the trashcan of history with the demise of the Bush administration.

If the Constitution means anything, it is unacceptable that 61 percent of Americans think that a mosque and cultural center should not be built close to “hallowed ground” (as President Obama described the Ground Zero site) — not just because of the Constitution’s prohibition on religious favoritism, but also because such an attitude is a disgraceful affront to the memory of those who died in the 9/11 attacks who were not Christians, and who, of course, included Muslims.

As other commentators have written admirably about these problems — see, for example, editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post, an article by Glenn Greenwald, and articles by Richard Kim and Katha Pollitt in the Nation — I’ll content myself with having made the handful of observations that I wanted to make, and would like to leave you with what I regard as the most sensible appraisal of the Ground Zero Mosque controversy — a statement made by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on August 3, after New York’s Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted that there was no reason for landmark status to extend to the building on Park Place where the mosque and cultural center are planned.

I don’t always agree with Mayor Bloomberg (as, for example, when he withdrew his support for the planned 9/11 trial in New York), and I don’t agree with his assertion that the 9/11 attacks were executed by “some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedom to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams and to live our own lives,” because the attacks were not about US freedoms, but were, instead, a brutal response to the brutality of US foreign policy. Similarly, I cannot agree with his assertion that the attack on the World Trade Center was “an act of war,” as I believe it was a terrorist attack, and therefore a criminal enterprise. However, I would be hard pressed to find a more thorough demonstration of why opposition to the creation of the mosque and cultural center is “a violation of the US Constitution,” and why it is also “as important a test … of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime.” Most importantly, unlike President Obama, Mayor Bloomberg has not flip-flopped on the mosque issue, and has also not caved in to opponents like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Mayor Bloomberg’s Speech about the Park51 Project on August 3, 2010

We have come here to Governors Island to stand where the earliest settlers first set foot in New Amsterdam, and where the seeds of religious tolerance were first planted. We’ve come here to see the inspiring symbol of liberty that, more than 250 years later, would greet millions of immigrants in the harbor, and we come here to state as strongly as ever — this is the freest City in the world. That’s what makes New York special and different and strong.

Our doors are open to everyone — everyone with a dream and a willingness to work hard and play by the rules. New York City was built by immigrants, and it is sustained by immigrants — by people from more than a hundred different countries speaking more than two hundred different languages and professing every faith. And whether your parents were born here, or you came yesterday, you are a New Yorker.

We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors. That’s life and it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11.

On that day, 3,000 people were killed because some murderous fanatics didn’t want us to enjoy the freedom to profess our own faiths, to speak our own minds, to follow our own dreams and to live our own lives.

Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that, even here in a City that is rooted in Dutch tolerance, was hard-won over many years. In the mid-1650s, the small Jewish community living in Lower Manhattan petitioned Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant for the right to build a synagogue — and they were turned down.

In 1657, when Stuyvesant also prohibited Quakers from holding meetings, a group of non-Quakers in Queens signed the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition in defense of the right of Quakers and others to freely practice their religion. It was perhaps the first formal, political petition for religious freedom in the American colonies — and the organizer was thrown in jail and then banished from New Amsterdam.

In the 1700s, even as religious freedom took hold in America, Catholics in New York were effectively prohibited from practicing their religion — and priests could be arrested. Largely as a result, the first Catholic parish in New York City was not established until the 1780’s — St. Peter’s on Barclay Street, which still stands just one block north of the World Trade Center site and one block south of the proposed mosque and community center.

This morning, the City’s Landmark Preservation Commission unanimously voted not to extend landmark status to the building on Park Place where the mosque and community center are planned. The decision was based solely on the fact that there was little architectural significance to the building. But with or without landmark designation, there is nothing in the law that would prevent the owners from opening a mosque within the existing building. The simple fact is this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship.

The government has no right whatsoever to deny that right — and if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the US Constitution. Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question — should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here. This nation was founded on the principle that the government must never choose between religions, or favor one over another.

The World Trade Center Site will forever hold a special place in our City, in our hearts. But we would be untrue to the best part of ourselves — and who we are as New Yorkers and Americans — if we said “no” to a mosque in Lower Manhattan.

Let us not forget that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbors grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans. We would betray our values — and play into our enemies’ hands — if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists — and we should not stand for that.

For that reason, I believe that this is an important test of the separation of church and state as we may see in our lifetime — as important a test — and it is critically important that we get it right.

On September 11, 2001, thousands of first responders heroically rushed to the scene and saved tens of thousands of lives. More than 400 of those first responders did not make it out alive. In rushing into those burning buildings, not one of them asked, “What God do you pray to?” “What beliefs do you hold?”

The attack was an act of war — and our first responders defended not only our City but also our country and our Constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights — and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.

Of course, it is fair to ask the organizers of the mosque to show some special sensitivity to the situation — and in fact, their plan envisions reaching beyond their walls and building an interfaith community. By doing so, it is my hope that the mosque will help to bring our City even closer together and help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 were in any way consistent with Islam. Muslims are as much a part of our City and our country as the people of any faith and they are as welcome to worship in Lower Manhattan as any other group. In fact, they have been worshipping at the site for the better part of a year, as is their right.

The local community board in Lower Manhattan voted overwhelming to support the proposal and if it moves forward, I expect the community center and mosque will add to the life and vitality of the neighborhood and the entire City.

Political controversies come and go, but our values and our traditions endure — and there is no neighborhood in this City that is off limits to God’s love and mercy, as the religious leaders here with us today can attest.

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 of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Would Al-Qaeda Terrorists Really Be Reading Harry Potter at Guantánamo?

Every now and then, when the authorities at Guantánamo want to demonstrate how well catered for the prisoners are, a story emerges that purports to demonstrate how well-stocked the prison library is, and how the prisoners are enjoying a range of titles, including J.K. Rowling’s best-selling series of Harry Potter novels.

The first time I recall reading that prisoners in Guantánamo were enjoying reading the Harry Potter books was back in August 2005, when the Washington Times — in a story that soon spread around the world — claimed that “Harry Potter’s worldwide popularity is so broad-based that it has become favorite reading” for the prisoners at Guantánamo.

That was the opening paragraph of an article entitled, “Detainees under Harry Potter’s spell.” However, in the second paragraph, Lori, the civilian contractor who had been overseeing the library for two years, conceded that, although the Harry Potter books were “on top of the request list” for the 520 prisoners held at he time, “followed by Agatha Christie whodunits,” only “a few” were “kind of hooked” on Harry Potter. In a further attempt to make the care of the prisoners appear benevolent, Lori added, “A couple have asked if they can see the movie,” even though, at the time, the only movie-watching privileges granted to any prisoner were to those who had been extremely cooperative with their interrogators.

When the Washington Times published its article, the author also stated that there were “more than 800 books” in the library, in addition to the copies of the Koran made available to most prisoners, although it was also noted that “Detainees may not peruse the bookshelves at Camp Delta … Instead, a staff of three librarians load up a book cart and go cell to cell.”

In September 2006, just a week after President Bush announced that 14 “high-value detainees” had been moved to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons whose existence the President had, until that moment, furiously denied, the Pentagon issued “Ten Facts about Guantánamo,” a largely transparent piece of propaganda, which included the risible claim that the “[e]ntertainment” at the prison included “Arabic language TV shows [and] World Cup soccer games.” The press release also claimed that the library — whose most requested book was still Harry Potter — now had “3,500 volumes available in 13 languages.”

It took until 2007 for some uncomfortable truths about the library to emerge, when a letter from a Saudi prisoner, Abdul Aziz al-Oshan (released in September 2007), was unclassified by the Pentagon’s censors. In the letter  (to his attorneys), al-Oshan, who had studied at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University in Riyadh, explained:

Some people think that the Gitmo camp library is a big hall with large drawers, well-organized shelves, shiny marble floors, state-of-the-art electronic catalog system for a rich library in which the detainees browse morning and evening, choosing the best of the available books in all fields and sundry sciences, in many different languages — just like that magnificent library I used to walk through five years ago when I was a student at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud University in Riyadh, conducting my scholastic research work at the time.

The truth, as all will attest, is that the Gitmo camp library is nothing more than two small gray boxes with which guards walk around in some cell blocks, carrying them above their heads to protect themselves from the burning sun, or, at best, dragging them on a dolly with two little wheels. Inside the two boxes, there are no more than a combination of old, worn-out books, with their covers and some of their leaves torn by rain and other adverse factors that surround these two boxes. Furthermore, they are the same books that have been passed by the detainees for years … [T]he majority of reading material [is] available in English, which is not spoken or read by the overwhelming majority of inmates. You will surely find books about American history and the founding fathers. The detainees can do no more than turn these books this way and that and enjoy their shiny covers, not knowing what the books are about or gaining any knowledge of their contents.

In addition, you will find worn-out copies and old issues of National Geographic. A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of that magazine from the ruins of books in that dilapidated box and was astonished that the issue I picked up was dated 1973 — over 30 years ago. I asked the itinerant box carrier (the librarian, as the administration likes to call him) if I could have a more recent issue, dated 2000 or above. Evidently tired of carrying these boxes and walking around with them, he replied very calmly, “You have five more minutes to choose the books you want. This is all we have.” I thanked him for performing this arduous task and making this strenuous effort, placed that magazine on top of the stack of books in the box, and told him as nicely as I could, “please take my number off the check-out list. As of today, I will have no need for your plentiful library.”

I have no doubt that the library has improved to some extent since Abdul Aziz al-Oshan wrote his perceptive and slyly humorous letter. Although nine years of imprisonment without charge or trial is, in all ways, worse than six years of imprisonment without charge or trial, it seems clear that President Obama has arranged for more prisoners to be allowed to socialize, to read and to watch films than was imaginable under the Bush administration.

However, in the latest report that once more brought up the popularity of Harry Potter — an article in TIME on August 20 — it is clear that little has really changed. Although there are now, apparently, “18,000 books, magazines, DVDs and newspapers on offer from the library,” which “span some 18 languages including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Russian, French and English,” the article also stated, in a passage that could have been written in 2005, “Prisoners don’t browse the shelves of this particular library; instead, they wait for a weekly visit by a cart of books prison officers think they might be interested in. There are mysteries and books of poems, copies of National Geographic magazine (a favorite), dictionaries and science textbooks. If the prisoners see something they like they are allowed to check it out for 30 days.”

Although the TIME article also recognized that “There’s not a lot to look forward to if you’re one of the 176 prisoners held in the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay — no visits from loved ones; no parole or release date; and for many, no prospect even of a day in court to answer charges,” the author, Kayla Webley, couldn’t resist adding, rather cheesily, “Still, at least there’s Harry Potter. He may not come riding in on the back of a hippogriff to free his favorite captives from their own version of Azkaban, but he shows up once a week on a cart of books from the prison library, offering an escape of the imagination treasured by many.”

Figures to illustrate exactly how many prisoners were treasuring the “escape of the imagination” offered by J.K. Rowling were not provided by TIME or by the Pentagon. I was amused by comments made by H. Candace Gorman, the attorney for Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan freed in Georgia in March this year, who “likened his own plight to the inmates of Azkaban,” while “President George W. Bush was his own version of Voldemort,” but above all it occurred to me that, if these books about a pagan boy-wizard and his companions really are as popular as the authorities are stating, then it serves only to demonstrate that the enduring claims that Guantánamo contains a significant number of al-Qaeda members of sympathizers are wildly mistaken, as it is unimaginable that, under any circumstances, Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri would take some light relief from their ideology by reading books that are so thoroughly drenched in paganism and sorcery.

Of the 176 prisoners still held, only 35, according to the Obama administration’s own appraisal, have been cleared for release and are not, essentially, regarded as any kind of security threat. Another 35 have been recommended to face trials, 48 are supposed to be detained indefinitely without charge or trial, and 58 others are Yemenis, cleared for release but still held. The ongoing detention of the Yemenis — for whom only one exception has been made — arose because of hysterical overreaction to reports that the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited by a Yemeni-based al-Qaeda cell, and fears that any prisoners released will be easy prey for terrorist sympathizers and supporters in their home country of 23 million people (all of whom have, as a result, been tarred as terrorist sympathizers by President Obama’s moratorium on releasing any Yemeni prisoners).

So what does an analysis of these figures mean? Could it be that just 35 non-Yemenis, cleared for release, are the only prisoners avidly devouring the works of J.K. Rowling, or could it be — as seems far more likely — that some of those regarded as a security threat (whether cleared for release or not) are actually the kind of jihadists, terrorists and terrorist sympathizers whose commitment to violent jihad against the United States and other Western targets is so feeble and so overstated that they are actually the kind of men who are trying to while away their seemingly endless confinement with fictional works of pagan escapism?

I think we should be told …

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 of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners. Cross-posted on Common Dreams, The Smirking Chimp, Eurasia Review, The Public Record, Blog from Middle East, Uruknet and New Left Project.

An interview with Faraj Hassan Alsaadi (from 2007)

The following interview with Faraj Hassan Alsaadi was conducted by Cageprisoners and published in August 2007, and I’m cross-posting it in memory of Faraj, who died in a motorbike accident on August 16. Imprisoned without charge or trial, or held under a control order, from May 2002 until December 2009, when his control order was finally revoked, Faraj was a free man for less than eight months before his untimely death. He leaves behind a wife and three young children.

Cageprisoners: Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: My name is Faraj Hassan Al-Saad, alias Abu Shaima, born in North Africa (Libya) in 1980. I am married with one daughter, called Shaima, who is now six years old.

Cageprisoners: What bought you to the UK from Italy?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: In fact, Italy was not a place for me to reside in. I did live in Italy for a few months. It was my first destination to enter Europe, as many asylum seekers do. Then I came to the UK, as I was advised by my brother, who has been granted asylum to remain indefinitely in the UK, to come to the UK. Italy was a scary place to live in for the Libyan opposition abroad, as Libya used to be colonized by Italy, so the relations between the two governments is very strong till this day. Therefore I never claimed asylum there nor did I tell anyone I was a Libyan, as I feared being deported back to the dictatorship of Libya.

Cageprisoners: Could you describe the nature of your arrest in May 2002?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: Nearly a month after I came to England, I was coming back home from the immigration department in south London. I felt that someone was following me everywhere. I stopped my journey to pray dhuhr in Al-Muntada Al-Islamic mosque in Parsons Green area. After I finished my prayer, I found the same person who was sitting beside me on the train from south London, then standing in the train station, so as soon as I boarded the train he followed me wherever I went. So when I left the train in north London near my brother’s home, I saw him coming on the other side of the main road. I called to him, but he ran away. I told my brother about it, but none of us understood who this person was and why he was following me.

As for me, I carried on with my life without thinking about it again. Then very suddenly and without any expectation; after my brother and I came back from Fajr prayer in our local mosque, we were woken up because of the doorbell. My brother went to see who was ringing the bell at 6:30 am. He opened the door as he saw the police outside. They came straight to the guest room where I was sleeping. They asked me about my name and introduced themselves to me. They were from Scotland Yard’s Special Unit and were accompanied by some immigration officers. There was an Arabic translator with them also. I asked him what do they want and why they came here. He said they are from an anti-terrorism unit and they want to question you. The officer told me, you are living in the UK as an illegal immigrant, so I gave him the ID card I have received from the Home Office after claiming asylum, which showed them my temporary residence in the UK. Although he looked at all my documents, he said I had to go to the police station for questioning. He gave me a choice of whether I wanted to go freely with them or they would handcuff me. I said I would go freely as I have committed no crime to allow them to put handcuffs on an innocent man. I was in the police station till 4 am the next day.

I was informed that my brother was also in the police station, because they found the Italian passport I used to come to the UK, which was the only way for me to reach here, as all asylum seekers do when they get in the country. They also found another British passport I wanted to use for bringing my wife from Pakistan, so that we can be reunited again. I straight away told my solicitor that these two passports were mine and my brother had nothing to do with them nor had he seen them, as they were in my personal bag in the guest room of his house. Soon after, my brother was released and I was granted bail by the police and released from custody. But the immigration authorities did not want to release me and told me that I will be transferred to the detention centre in the next two days. I was told I would remain there until they looked into my asylum case, so I stayed in the police station for five days. I was then transferred to Leicester prison, instead, which is 115 miles from London. There was a reason behind this far destination transfer, which was to make the visit difficult for my brother. [Leicester is] one of the worse prisons in the UK and the regime was so racist in there.

Cageprisoners: What were the charges against you?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: I was never charged with anything the whole time I was in Leicester, but while I was there I was visited by three officers from Scotland Yard Anti-Terrorism special unit. The officers showed me an article from an Italian newspaper. They asked me whether I know the building with the article or not. I said no. They said this is the church you tried to blow up in Italy. I simply told them that if they had had anything on me they should charge me, and I will prove my innocence in a court of law, as I believed these allegations against me were all false. They came once again and asked me to open some codes for them — electronic and some Arabic handwriting — but I never understood about these things, nor do I know why they are asking someone like me. They asked me about some names and showed me some photographs of people I never knew in my life. So the answer I gave them was always the same — “I don’t know,” and this was the truth.

The police officers offered me to work for them. They stated if I agreed to give names and address of anyone I know in this country or abroad, I would be released, given residence in the UK, and granted a visa to have [my] wife and daughter to join me in the UK. As I only know my brother who lives here and I was concerned about my friends, the innocent Muslims whom I know, I told them I don’t know anyone. I told the officers that next time they should contact my solicitor before they came to see me again, then I walked out of the visit room.

After two months in Leicester, I was bought back to London regarding the two passports they found with me the day I was arrested. I was charged for possessing them both. I was given the wrong advice by my previous dishonest lawyer — to plead guilty for them both. In fact I should not, as one of them I used to escape for my life to a place where I can claim asylum and protect my life, which I did. I was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment, which means I have to serve only one month for that. From court I was taken to Wormwood Scrubs to serve that time.

Cageprisoners: Where were you held initially?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: I was held in Leicester prison for two months, Wormwood Scrubs for three and a half months, Belmarsh ten months, Brixton two and a half years then Belmarsh for another three and a half months, and then I was transferred to Long Lartin high security prison where I have been remanded since April 2006.

Cageprisoners: Could you describe the regime there?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: The regime in prison always embodies a group of uneducated staff who couldn’t find any job in the outside world. They only train them for three months how to open and close the doors, or take someone to segregation, or strip search an inmate. Many of these staff [have] been caught [at the] prison gates smuggling drugs and mobile phones into prison. They always talk in haughtiness and disrespect. All male and female staff use bad language. They don’t care about anyone inside and they only use the rules if they can say, “You can’t have this, or you shouldn’t do this” etc. Prison officers hate all Muslims in prison, especially if you are a devoted Muslim. It is very hard for Muslims to get a job, attend education classes, or gym sessions. Prison officers only want to see you behind doors, nothing else.

Cageprisoners: You said at this point, “I felt I was being unfairly treated because of my religion.” What makes you say this?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: I only realised at the time that I am one of the thousands of Muslims that have been kidnapped from their houses and amongst their families, wives and children without any reason, just because of some false information or suspicion, where they ended up in prison for months and years without any legal appearance in court. Muslims are treated nowadays like the Bani Israel at the time of the Pharaoh. So if this is not a police state, then how can a police state be?

Cageprisoners: You were transferred to Belmarsh. What was the reason for your transfer?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: The reason I was transferred to Belmarsh [was] because I applied to come out on bail on the 1st of November 2002, so because my bail was refused I was straightaway transferred there, even though I was not classified as a Category “A” prisoner at the time. It was in a way trying to discipline me, so that if I applied for bail again I would face worse consequences. The fact that the Home Office are the ones who control the prisons, deal with your case, put you [in] the category they want to, release reports [in] the media — their policy [is] always to make you look like the most dangerous man in the whole world. So if they want to put you in Belmarsh, in a high security prison, [it] would mean [something negative] to the judge who wanted to grant you bail. I believe the Home Office always uses this policy with anyone who fights his case by using the law, when they find themselves that they might lose the case.

Cageprisoners: You describe Belmarsh as a place where “human rights are violated in unbearable ways.” Could you tell us about some of your experience in Belmarsh?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: In fact, Belmarsh is a prison built specifically in the past two decades for the IRA, a very high security prison. There is also another prison inside it with its own wall and regime, where most prisoners in there are Muslims. In Belmarsh, prisoners are not allowed out of their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day. They are only allowed out for one hour in the exercise yard and one hour allowed for association. However, if the weather is bad — i.e. if is raining, which is very common — we don’t get it and [it is] sometimes reduced to 15-20 minutes. Normally prisoners fight for the phone, because they only have three phone boxes in each wing and each wing includes nearly 80 prisoners, so most of them want to use the phone. The showers were very few in comparison to the population of the wing. I personally have a shower in my cell just to save the time in doing something else. Many prisoners suffer from terrible depression being locked up for so long, for months and years without any human contact and interaction. The Muslim prisoners in particular suffered daily abuse and discrimination from the guards. Most of the Category “A” prisoners in there are Muslims, and I remember that one of the brothers from Algeria was on Category “A,” although he has to serve less then a year for a false document, and Category “A” is only for high profile cases.

Belmarsh is a racist establishment. It is institutionally racist. The staff and the Governor have no regards for the religious and cultural rights of Muslims. Back in February or March 2006, there was a lot of media coverage, saying that Muslims in Belmarsh are instituting gangs, forcing other prisoners to become Muslims and have a meeting once week. They meant Jummuh prayers, and all [this] information was given to the media by members of staff or by the Governor himself. It is obvious that many people revert to the light of Islam because of the respect, unity, good manners and love between the Muslim prisoners in Belmarsh — they also wanted to join the Caravan of Islam. In fact, the EU has done an independent report on Belmarsh condemning its treatment of prisoners.

Some of the terrible things I have experienced in Belmarsh [include] once [when] I had Islamic books in Arabic sent in from my brother. One of the officers [who] opened the package said, “You can’t have them, because the translator must check them first.” I asked him to write the books in the property card, but he said, “Don’t worry, we will do that when you have them in your cell.” I believed him. After a while, I asked for the books to be returned to me, as it had been some while. However, I was told I have no books sent in at all! I met that officer after a while and asked him about the books, but his answer was, “I don’t know, I never took these books.” I believe he threw them in the rubbish bin.

The other terrible experience that I remember the most happened in February 2006. I was standing in the queue waiting to use the phone. I had a disagreement with one of the inmates who doesn’t respect the other person’s turn. I told him he could not go before me whatsoever, so he started using abusive language. Unfortunately, the situation ended up in a fight between us. I can recall that his nose was bleeding and the blood was everywhere on the floor. The staff themselves saw the whole incident, and that I was the one who was attacked first and I was just defending myself. Instead, they took me alone to the segregation unit and kept me there for few days. While I was in the segregation unit, they did not allow me to have my prayer mat or Qur’an, but Alhamdu’lillah I was reading Qur’an from the heart. I asked them to bring my clock and prayer timetable but they never did. There were a few books in the segregation block, so I asked the officers to bring me some books but they never did. They did not even let me either call my solicitor or give me paper or envelope to write to my solicitors. After being held in the segregation for a few days I was taken before the Prison adjudicator for adjudication. I was told the case was dismissed as a result of the lack of evidence. I could not believe someone of my size — 12 stone frame — could be having attacked someone who weighed nearly 18 stone. The adjudicator was not interested that I was the one who was attacked and instead I got punished for defending myself, even though the staff witnessed everything.

Cageprisoners: During this time, you were charged under the Terrorism Act. Could you tell us more about those charges and your response to them?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: The first time I realised that Italy might extradite me was when I appeared in Court on the 1st of November 2002, when I applied for bail. I was never charged with any offence in the UK and should have been granted bail. Instead, they were making up the case and detaining me under immigration power, where I was kept in remand for another 10 months in Belmarsh. In the meantime, I applied for bail nearly four times but it kept getting refused. In the final attempt, the judge gave the prosecution one more week for some more evidence to be served against me in accordance with their claim, or he will release me on bail.

So before the end of the week and after 15 months’ detention in prison, I was charged on the 24th of June 2003 under the Terrorism Act, facing extradition to Milan, Italy. Now according to UK law, the police cannot detain anyone in custody for more then 28 days. But someone like me — a foreigner — can be detained in custody under the cover of immigration power for more then 450 days to allow the police to do their own investigations and build false cases against innocent people. They caged me and my co-defendants for having associated together with other unidentified person[s] for the purpose of performing acts of violence e.g. attacks, also in countries other than Italy for the purposes of terrorism and with complicity with other unidentified persons [who] forged and counterfeited a large number of documents such as passports, driving licence and residents’ permits, and the last charge was for complicity with other unidentified persons in order to benefit for themselves or for others [who] received blank forms for documents or genuine documents issued for other persons for the purpose of forging them.

In the case, I was described by the Italians as one of the major leaders of terrorist association, with a foremost role most likely in all Europe and certainly Italy, Holland and the UK, where I have relations with large number or persons belonging to the terrorist group or any sympathisers with the group ideology. I was finally found not guilty of all terrorism charges in my absence by the Court of Milan. It was a part of a drama these governments act [out against] innocent Muslims to assure their public that they are doing something to protect them from alleged terrorism attacks and so-called terrorists. I challenge them to come face to face in a court of law in front of juries. Although I won this case now, I challenge any government to bring those charges again if they are really sure of what they allegedly say about me.

Cageprisoners: You were also facing extradition to Italy. What were your concerns about being sent there?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: Actually, Italy was the county I was facing extradition to, where I was charged with terrorism, so it is the same case I was fighting. The reason I was fighting this extradition [was] because I was concerned about being deported back to Libya or handed to the Americans from there. In fact, I suggested to my solicitor that I was willing to face trial in Italy as I was innocent, on the condition that the Italian authorities give me an assurance signed from the court, which is approved by the Home Secretary in the UK, and in the event I am released in Italy, I can return to the UK to resume my application for asylum, but the Home Office did not accept this proposal. I wanted to fight this case in Italy, because I was confident there was no evidence against me and I was innocent of all the charges alleged against me, but as I said, Libya itself is a state of Italy and I had no doubt that once extradited to Italy I will deported back to Tripoli where I faced torture and even the death penalty.

Cageprisoners: Following this you were sent to Brixton prison. You say that “Allah knows how much I suffered in that prison.” Could you tell us more about the abuse you suffered there?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: Well, Brixton is a very famous area in London, so the prison in Brixton means that you get all the criminals residing in this prison. I was transferred to Brixton prison on the 28th of August 2003, where I spent nearly two and half years. In Brixton prison at least 60 percent of the inmates are drug addicts. So I always used to refuse sharing a cell with anyone and always requested a single cell, but the staff deliberately refused to give me a single cell. As a result of me sticking to my principles I would end up in segregation for days as I refused to go back to the wing until they found me a single cell.

Once I was speaking to the principal wing officer about something. While we were talking, a senior officer came towards us as said, “Don’t talk to him; he is a terrorist!” I kept silent and walked away from him without saying anything. So the following day, in the morning, I was doing some training in the exercise yard, [and] the principal officer said to me, “Are you preparing yourself for your Holy War?” I again walked away from him without any response. I put in a formal complaint but I never received a reply to my complaint. I came to this principal officer and asked him to move me to another wing, so he moved me straight away. However, once I was in my cell, suddenly [a] few officers came in and said, “We are going to search your cell.” I said, “It is yours, anyway.” After they finished searching the cell, they said, “We’ve found a screwdriver in your cell.” I had never had a screwdriver in my possession, nor did I know where it came from. When I was out on adjudication they found me guilty and said I was trying to stab one of the staff! They gave me 21 days’ loss of TV, canteen and association. I knew this was all planned by the staff.

I wish to highlight another example of the how prison officers abuse their position to set up prisoners so they get punished. On this occasion I was coming back from the gym. When I arrived on the wing I saw all the Muslim inmates, nearly 25 men, protesting against the principal officer who was so racist. The inmates were refusing to have their lunch or go back to their cells unless the Governor No.1 came to speak to them. As a Muslim I too joined this peaceful demonstration to demand our rights. The brothers all wanted me to speak on their behalf, so I explained everything to the staff, but the staff started to mobilise from other wings. They started attacking the brothers and four of the officers came and held me on one side. The officers knew that all the Muslim inmates respect me and would not tolerate seeing me on the floor, so they were telling them to stay where they were. While all this was happening I was speaking to the brothers in Arabic and telling them not to use any act of violence, even though the staff were so violent they broke one of the brothers’ arm.

I was taken to my cell over lunch, then after 2 pm they came to me and said that the Governor wanted to see me. When I went to see the Governor I saw at least 20 officers sitting with him. I said, “We have to speak privately.” So the Governor ordered the officers to take me down to segregation. I was in the segregation cell for [a] few days. Then I was told that that I could get charged by the police from outside for inciting others to declare jihad in prison! I just knew they were trying to set me up with this charge, as it carries a very high custodial sentence. In the end, Allah protected me, as the officers were found to be lying in their statements, because they said in their statements they allegedly heard me inciting and calling the other Muslim prisoners to fight, but they forgot I was speaking in Arabic, which none of the officers could understand! Therefore the case was dropped, Alhamdu’lillah. These are only a few of the many stories I have to tell, but I hope to deliver them another time, Insha’allah.

Cageprisoners: After your third appeal against your extradition, the request was withdrawn. What were the circumstances around this? How did you feel when you heard the news?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: In fact, while I was appealing for the third time in the House of Lords, my co-defendants were awaiting a verdict for their trial. They were all found not guilty of all terrorism charges but only found guilty of lesser charges of “forging documents.” They were convicted and sentenced to three and a half and four and a half years’ imprisonment. I was also given the same verdict in my absence at the time, which the British government kept a secret in order to use that against me, by saying the case was withdrawn because of the deadline in the Italians’ legal system to continue proceedings, which recently was submitted to SIAC [the Special Immigration Appeals Commission] by the Home Office. Of course, I was happy, because I knew the case was based on artificial evidence planted against me by the police, so being found not guilty is 100 percent by the Will of Allah.

Cageprisoners: It was around this time that the media portrayed you as the “European envoy to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi.” How do you respond to this allegation?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: As far as I remember, I explained to the Cageprisoners’ readers in my first letter that I was in Belmarsh the time the war began in Iraq. I heard about Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi only in the news when he emerged in the public domain nearly two and half years after the war in Iraq had started, so how can I be his envoy? Otherwise I am in America or already being charged in this country, the envoy of Al-Zarqawi would be a very big thing for them, I believe.

Cageprisoners: When the Home Office decided upon your deportation to Italy, what was the reason for this? What did you feel about this?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: When the extradition from Italy was dropped, I was happy, as it was the reason for me being in prison [and] I wanted to be out of prison. If I was a British citizen I should have been released straightaway, but because of my immigration matter I applied for bail and it was supposed to be on the 1st of November 2005. However, a day before my hearing I found an article about me in the Times newspaper — they mentioned all those things about Al-Zarqawi, which was all based on fabrication to stop me having bail. When I rang my solicitor I was told that the Home Office decided to send me to Italy by force after eight days under what is called the “Dublin Convention.” Even though I was fighting my extradition case in the House of Lords, they just wanted to break the law and get rid of me by any means, as they knew themselves they were losing the case in the House of Lords.

Two days later they were talking about my case in the House of Parliament, Tony Blair and the Conservatives. I just felt to get ready for deportation. I even asked my brother, who lives in London, to buy me some property to take with me to Libya, and asked to get a visit so I can see him for the last time in my life, as I knew Italy will send me back to Libya, where I will get the death penalty. I rang my wife in Pakistan and mother in Libya. I asked them to pray for me and forgive me if I have done anything wrong. Even I gave my wife the option if she wanted me to set her free, but she didn’t and was crying so much. It was a very emotional time for everybody, but then, Alhamdu’lillah, the deportation was suspended for another week. It was [then] completely stopped and I was put under the new drama, SIAC.

Cageprisoners: You were in HMP Long Lartin. Could you tell us about the regime there?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: The Home Office were planning to put the detainees in Long Lartin prison since 2002, when the brothers were detained under the terrorism laws, but the brothers refused to move to this prison; they wanted only their freedom. After these new memorandums were signed with Algeria, Jordan and Libya, they re-rearrested them and put them in Long Lartin. The wing we were in was segregated from all other wings, as they believed we would brainwash the other Muslims in prison. Every one of us had been classified as Category “A” to make it hard for us to make phone calls and visits. As for me, to get my brother named cleared for visiting took me one year.

Cageprisoners: In October 2006, Britain signed a Memorandum of Understanding with your home country Libya, to allow the return of refugees with a guarantee from the government that they will not be harmed. What is your opinion of these agreements?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: For this country to sign this Memorandum of Understanding with Libya that I would not be harmed means Libya practice[s] torture against its people, otherwise why would a Memorandum be needed?  By seeking this so called Memorandum of Understanding, the UK acknowledges that Libya does carry out torture. You can go and search yourself in the Human Rights.org website and read about the prisoners in Libya. More than 1,200 Muslim brothers were shot in the prison of Abu Salim in Tripoli by the same person who signed this memorandum! And they wanted me to be in the same prison where the blood of those innocent Muslims is still not dry yet. Britain simply forgot who Gaddafi is — the dictator who ordered to kill more than 258 people by bombing the Pan-Am aeroplane in Lockerbie in Scotland, and his bad reputation is well known to everyone in this country.

The funny thing is, the European who signed this Memorandum was himself expelled from Britain to Libya in the past decade as he was thought to be a threat to the national security for the UK, and he is currently wanted by the French authorities for bombing the French plane in the desert of Niger, which killed 140 passengers on board at the time. What I am trying to say is this so-called Memorandum was being dealt by a very big mafia in Libya, by people who themselves should be in prison for the crimes they have committed against humanity. By signing this so-called Memorandum of Understanding, the UK government was willing to sign our life away to these people who would not even ensure the rights of animals let alone human beings. It makes a mockery of the so-called civilised democracy and human rights the UK professes to uphold, and uses as an excuse to invade countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming to be bring democracy and human rights to these countries and removing dictatorship, when the UK itself deals with these very dictators as and when it suits it. The irony is how the UK government is courting Libya now, and in particular Gaddafi, when only less then twenty years ago Libya was denounced by the West as the country which harboured terrorists and Gaddafi was reviled as a enemy of the West in the same way Osama Bin Laden is today.

Most recently Tony Blair himself visited Libya and announced Gaddafi as the West’s ally against terrorism and resumed diplomatic relations with Libya! This is the same way the USA and UK courted and allied itself with Iraq in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein was murdering innocent people and any political opponents using weapons supplied by the UK, and the UK government now uses those same crimes against Saddam Hussein to invade Iraq, claiming it had a moral obligation to the world and the Iraqi people to remove a dictator! The double standards and the blatant hypocrisy of the UK government towards countries which torture is clear for everyone to see, and the UK government wonders why Muslims feel angry?

Cageprisoners: What were your concerns about being deported to Libya?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: Libya is [the] country where I was born and brought up. I love my country and hope to be around my mother and family there. Britain is not my place if I was not compelled, but because Libya is ruled by [a] dictatorial and tyrannical regime I would receive the death penalty. I would be treated very badly as soon as I reach there, as I am an Islamic opponent to the Gaddafi regime and also because of the charges against me in Italy. Libya also accused me of being affiliated with the Libyan Islamic [Fighting] Group who want overthrow the regime of Gaddafi. I deny this accusation. However, once an accusation is made, you can never clear your name and just live in fear of when Gaddafi’s secret police will arrest you and throw you into torture prisons. The charge of supporting any group which wants to overthrow the government in Libya is very serious and the punishment is the death penalty.

Cageprisoners: How many brothers are held with you in HMP Long Lartin?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: We were all 11 brothers — 5 Libyans, 2 Jordanians, and 4 Algerians. All these brothers are being detained without any charges and facing deportation to their countries.

Cageprisoners: How do you do you feel about the response of the Muslim community to your case and to other brothers like yourself?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: There are a few Muslim families that supported us and our families outside, may Allah reward them for their support and help. But I think many Muslims outside do not care about us, they never come forward even in the peaceful demonstration. It is a shame when you see non-Muslims come forward and supporting us instead of the ones who call themselves “brother’” and “sister’,” but do not know the meaning of words. As for [the] so-called MCB [Muslim Council of Britain], I would like to hear their voice for once. They only participated and appealed for the releases of hostages in Iraq but they do not regard us as hostages by the new crusader Tony Blair. They never sent us a letter of visited us or asked Blair about us in the House of Parliament. The thing that astonished me was that, one day in Belmarsh, I refused to be strip searched as it was against my religion. Officers showed me a fatwa signed by the Muslim Council of Britain saying that it is permissible for the staff to strip search us. So this is how we get supported in prison by the Muslim Council of Britain.

Cageprisoners: What support have you received from the Muslim and non-Muslim community in Britain? And could you tell us of the pros and cons of the letter writing campaigns for Muslim prisoners?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: I received a few letters from people, Muslims and non-Muslims. It was very nice for our souls and we really thank them for that. I do also believe that many other letters were sent, but the prison security confiscated them as they normally do, to stop us from being in contact with the outside world. So if anyone wrote to us and did not get a response, he or she must forgive us, as we always responded to people. They also must understand that one of the main reasons letters get confiscated is because some of the writers do not write their names and addresses at the back of the envelope, so they must always write them.

Cageprisoners: Finally, do you have a message for our readers, the British public and the Muslim community in Britain?

Faraj Hassan Alsaadi: I just want you to keep praying for all of the prisoners around the world. Take care of yourselves and stick to your religion and the Truth. Do not fear no one but Allah the Almighty and realise that this is only the beginning of the wave, so if it did not reach you, it will reach your children if the new Prime Minister is going to be like Tony Blair.

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 of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

For other articles dealing with Belmarsh, control orders, deportation bail, deportations and extraditions (over the last year), see Letting go of control orders (for the Guardian, September 2009), Another Blow To Britain’s Crumbling Control Order Regime (September 2009), UK Judge Approves Use of Secret Evidence in Guantánamo Case (November 2009), Calling Time On The Use Of Secret Evidence In The UK (December 2009), Compensation for control orders is a distraction (for the Guardian, January 2010), Control Orders Take Another Blow: Libyan Cartoonist Freed (Detainee DD) (January 2010), Control Orders: Solicitors’ Evidence before the Joint Committee on Human Rights, February 3, 2010 and Control Orders: Special Advocates’ Evidence before the Joint Committee on Human Rights, February 3, 2010 (both February 2010), Will Parliament Rid Us of the Cruel and Unjust Control Order Regime? (February 2010), Don’t renew control orders, CAMPACC, JUSTICE and the Joint Committee on Human Rights tell MPs (February 2010), Fahad Hashmi and Terrorist Hysteria in US Courts (April 2010), 98 MPs Who Supported Human Rights While Countering Terrorism (May 2010), UK Terror Ruling Provides Urgent Test for New Government (May 2010), An uncivilized society (in the Guardian), New letter to MPs asking them to oppose the use of secret evidence in UK courts, and to support the return from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer (May 2010), Torture Complicity Under the Spotlight in Europe (Part One): The UK (July 2010), Fighting Ghosts: An Interview with Husein Al-Samamara (July 2010), Ruling sends message on control orders (for the Guardian, July 2010), UK Judges Endorse Double Standards on Terror Deportations (August 2010).

In Memoriam: Faraj Hassan Alsaadi (1980-2010)

As I sit here trying to come to terms with the death of Faraj Hassan Alsaadi, who died in a motorbike accident on August 16, it seems to me that nothing can throw us as much as an unexpected death. In Faraj’s case, it is deeply distressing that he leaves behind a wife and three young children (aged nine, two and four months), and also that he had savoured freedom for such a short time before he passed away.

From May 2002, Faraj was imprisoned, initially pending extradition to Italy, and then, when that process failed, pending deportation back to Libya, for the invented crime of opposing the dictatorship of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, on the basis of secret evidence that he was unable to challenge in an adequate manner. He was held in a variety of prisons: Leicester, Wormwood Scrubs, Belmarsh, Brixton and Long Lartin, but when Britain’s secretive terror court (the Special Immigration Appeals Commission) ruled in April 2007 that he and another Libyan could not be deported because a “memorandum of understanding,” signed between the British and Libyan governments, which purported to guarantee the humane treatment of prisoners returned from the UK, was untrustworthy, he was placed under a control order — a form of house arrest, severely restricting his movement, his communications, and his social life — which was only finally revoked on December 21 last year. As a result, he had been a free man for less than eight months before his untimely death.

I never met Faraj, although I had the opportunity to do so. Back in spring, when former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes and I were touring the UK showing the film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” Omar proposed arranging for us to meet. I intended to follow up on this suggestion, but always seemed to be too busy working, although I presumed that an opportunity would arise at some point. What I failed to consider was that, on rare occasions, fate intervenes to rob us of the chance to meet people we would like to meet, at some unspecified point in the future, and as a result it occurs to me that we should never take these things for granted.

In an article to follow, I’ll cross-post an interview with Cageprisoners that Faraj undertook with in August 2007, shortly after his control order was imposed, which explains in detail the absurd circumstances of his detention, and reveals his spirit, passion and intelligence. Below are a number of videos featuring Faraj, including his last ever public appearance, at a rally for the former “ghost prisoner” Aafia Siddiqui, outside the US embassy in London on August 15. A website for Faraj has been established here, and I also recommend this post by Cageprisoners caseworker Feroz Ali Abbasi, who met Faraj for the first and only time just a week before his death.

Videos of Faraj Hassan Alsaadi

In the video below, made in 2007, after Faraj had been released from Long Lartin prison and placed on a control order, he explained the restrictions on his liberty, and sent a message to the British government appealing for fair trials for those imprisoned or held under control orders without charge or trial, on the basis of secret evidence:

In this interview on Press TV in February 2009, Faraj explained the impact of the control order on himself, and on his family:

On December 21, 2009, Faraj conducted his first interview following the British government’s decision to drop the control order against him, which was broadcast by Press TV:

The video below is of Faraj speaking at the Justice for Aafia Coalition’s “7 Days for 7 Years” vigil outside the US embassy in London on May 5 this year:

The video below is of Faraj speaking at the Justice For Aafia Coalition’s rally, “Aafia — the Last Stand”, on August 15 this year, just 12 hours before his death:

Note: Please see this page for information about how to donate to Faraj’s wife and his three children.

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 of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Lawlessness Haunts Omar Khadr’s Blighted War Crimes Trial at Guantánamo

On August 12, the US administration’s intention to proceed with the war crimes trial of Omar Khadr, a Canadian who was just 15 years old when he was seized after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, was temporarily delayed when Khadr’s military lawyer, Army Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, collapsed in the courtroom in Guantánamo while cross-questioning a prosecution witness on the first full day of Khadr’s trial by Military Commission.

Lt. Col. Jackson’s collapse was attributed to complications resulting from a gall-bladder operation six weeks previously, but as he was airlifted off the island, and deputy chief defense counsel Brian Broyles acknowledged that Khadr’s trial would be suspended for at least a month, no one in a position of authority — either in the United States or Canada — appeared willing to take the opportunity to find a last-minute way to avoid proceeding with a trial that, to critics, demonstrates only that the Obama administration is incapable of resisting the kind of sweeping and often indiscriminate desire for vengeance that fueled the Bush administration in its response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

If this sounds unnecessary, just consider two salient facts:

1. In the face of international concern about the recruitment of child soldiers in other countries, and attempts to recognize, through treaties and other agreements, that they are deserving not of punishment, but of rehabilitation, the Obama administration — and Stephen Harper’s government in Canada — are making a clear exception in Khadr’s case. This not only flies in the face of their commitment to the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which includes the agreement that all States Parties who ratify the Protocol “[r]ecogniz[e] the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities,” and are “[c]onvinced of the need [for] the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict,” but also involves them tacitly subscribing to the outrageous position regarding juvenile prisoners that was adopted by former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a press conference in May 2003, after the story first broke that juveniles were held at Guantánamo. On that occasion, Rumsfeld stated, chillingly, “these are not children,” and Gen. Myers, in a weird sporting analogy, added that they “may be juveniles, but they’re not on the Little League team anywhere. They’re on a major league team, and it’s a terrorist team, and they’re in Guantánamo for a very good reason — for our safety, for your safety.”

2. Although Khadr is charged with murder in violation of the law of war for allegedly throwing a hand grenade that killed a US Delta Force soldier, Lt. Col. David Frakt, defense attorney for two other Guantánamo prisoners, Mohamed Jawad and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, explained in April this year that even if Khadr did throw the grenade, “there is no evidence that he violated the law of war in doing so.” In an important analysis of the Commissions’ Congress-approved failings, Lt. Col. Frakt explained that the confusion arose initially because the Bush administration wanted to find a way to ensure that “any attempt to fight Americans or coalition forces was a war crime,” and that Congress, in enacting two pieces of legislation relating to the Military Commissions in 2006 and in 2009, maintained this unjustifiable position by refusing to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate actions during wartime. As Lt. Col. Frakt explained, the Bush administration’s original invented charge for the Commissions — “Murder by an Unprivileged Belligerent” — was, essentially, replaced by the Congress-endorsed “Murder in Violation of the Law of War,” even though it “conflated two different concepts — unprivileged belligerents and war criminals.” He continued:

Under Article 4 of the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention it is clear that while a member of an organized resistance movement or militia may be an unprivileged belligerent (because of not wearing a uniform or failing to carry arms openly, for example) he may still comply with the laws and customs of war, so not all hostile acts committed by unprivileged belligerents are war crimes. Attacks by unprivileged belligerents which comply with the law of war (in that they attack lawful military targets with lawful weapons) may only be tried in domestic courts. In Iraq, for example, insurgents who try to kill Americans by implanting roadside bombs are properly arrested and tried before the Central Criminal Court of Iraq as common criminals. Attacks by unprivileged belligerents which violate the law of war, such as attacks on civilians or soldiers attempting to surrender, or using prohibited weapons like poison gas, can be tried in a war crimes tribunal.

In Khadr’s case, whoever threw the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer was attacking a lawful military target with a lawful weapon, which makes a mockery of his war crimes trial, but this inconvenient truth remains hidden behind a smokescreen of colorful, though fundamentally irrelevant distractions: whether Khadr actually threw the grenade that killed Sgt. Speer (which seems impossible to prove), whether he could not have thrown the grenade because he was buried face-down under a pile of rubble (which the prosecution claimed, on that abortive first day of the trial, was a long-standing fiction maintained by the defense), and whether Khadr’s supposed confessions about his involvement in al-Qaeda were tainted by torture.

In a nine-page ruling issued on August 17 (PDF), Judge Parrish turned down Khadr’s motion to suppress any self-incriminating statements as “the product of torture, involuntary [and] unreliable,” finding that “There is no credible evidence that the accused was ever tortured,” and adding, “While the accused was 15 years old at the time he was captured, he was not immature for his age,” but all this really demonstrates is how spectacularly he has missed the point. Held for two years without access to a lawyer, for three years without ever being charged, and at no point treated as a juvenile deserving of rehabilitation, Khadr’s entire experience of US detention has been lawless and abusive, and, in any case, it should be irrelevant whether a 15-year old apparently made self-incriminating statements, when the focus should be on his father, Ahmed Khadr, an alleged fundraiser for Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for indoctrinating his child in the first place.

There are no circumstances in which President Obama comes out of this well. Instead, the decision to proceed with Khadr’s war crimes trial will forever stand as a stark example of his inability to stand up and publicly repudiate the wayward policies of his predecessor. However, as much blame must attach to the government of Stephen Harper, which has persistently refused to demand Khadr’s return to Canada, even though, in January this year, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the involvement of Canadian agents in interrogations of Khadr at Guantánamo constituted “state conduct that violates the principles of fundamental justice.” The Court added, “Interrogation of a youth, to elicit statements about the most serious criminal charges while detained in these conditions and without access to counsel … offends the most basic Canadian standards about the treatment of detained youth suspects.”

This was in marked contrast to Judge Parrish’s view of Khadr’s interrogations by American operatives, but sadly Canada’s Supreme Court stopped short of ordering the government to demand Khadr’s return, limply concluding that it was up to the government to “shape a response that reconciled its foreign policy imperatives with its constitutional obligations to Khadr,” as columnist Chantal Hébert explained in the Toronto Star as Khadr’s trial spluttered briefly to life.

Stephen Harper, of course, put Canada’s “foreign policy imperatives” above Khadr’s rights, just as President Bush did with America’s “foreign policy imperatives” after the 9/11 attacks, and as President Obama has continued to do — although in his case, his refusal to do the right thing seems to be driven more by a desire not to stir up uncomfortable domestic troubles.

The result, while Lt. Col. Jon Jackson recuperates, is that most commentators are still entranced by the sideshow of grenades and torture, and very few people have, like Lt. Col. David Frakt, gazed resolutely at the lawless void at the heart of the circus, and concluded that the show must not go on.

Note: The courtroom sketch above is by Janet Hamlin, and is courtesy of Janet Hamlin Illustration.

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 of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation. Cross-posted on Cageprisoners, The Public Record, Eurasia Review, United Progressives, Uruknet, New Left Project and Justice for Mohamed Harkat.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Predictable Chaos As Guantánamo Trials Resume (July 2009), David Frakt: Military Commissions “A Catastrophic Failure” (August 2009), 9/11 Trial At Guantánamo Delayed Again: Can We Have Federal Court Trials Now, Please? (September 2009), Torture And Futility: Is This The End Of The Military Commissions At Guantánamo? (September 2009), Resisting Injustice In Guantánamo: The Story Of Fayiz Al-Kandari (October 2009), Military Commissions Revived: Don’t Do It, Mr. President! (November 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), Rep. Jerrold Nadler and David Frakt on Obama’s Three-Tier Justice System For Guantánamo (November 2009), Guantánamo: Idealists Leave Obama’s Sinking Ship (November 2009), Chaos and Confusion: The Return of the Military Commissions (December 2009), Afghan Nobody Faces Trial by Military Commission (January 2010), Lawyers Appeal Guantánamo Trial Convictions (February 2010), When Rhetoric Trumps Good Sense: The GOP’s Counter-Productive Call for Military Commissions (March 2010), David Frakt’s Damning Verdict on the New Military Commissions Manual (May 2010), Prosecuting a Tortured Child: Obama’s Guantánamo Legacy (May 2010), The Torture of Omar Khadr, a Child in Bagram and Guantánamo (May 2010), Bin Laden Cook Accepts Plea Deal at Guantánamo Trial (July 2010), Defiance in Isolation: The Last Stand of Omar Khadr (July 2010), Omar Khadr Accepts US Military Lawyer for Forthcoming Trial by Military Commission (July 2010), A Letter from Omar Khadr in Guantánamo (July 2010), Bin Laden Cook Expected to Serve Two More Years at Guantánamo – And Some Thoughts on the Remaining Sudanese Prisoners (August 2010).

Ramadan Force-Feeding, and Renewed Secrecy Surrounding Hunger Strikers in Guantánamo

In a disturbing report in the Miami Herald, the ever-vigilant Carol Rosenberg reports that an unknown number of hunger strikers at Guantánamo are being force-fed between dusk and dawn — a mixture of cruelty (force-feeding) and respect (for Ramadan) that is sadly typical of the surreal, otherworldly reality of Guantánamo, over eight and a half years after the prison first opened.

In a statement, Navy Cmdr. Bradley Fagan, a spokesman for the authorities at Guantánamo, explained, “Detainees who are fasting get their meals before dawn.” As Rosenberg described it, he “disclos[ed] only the hours of that day’s feeding “in observance of the Ramadan schedule” — before 5:26 a.m. and after 7:28 p.m, adding, “Please note that not all hunger strikers are enteral feeders.”

Sadly, as Rosenberg also reported, Cmdr. Fagan has introduced “a new level of secrecy” regarding the hunger strikers at Guantánamo, stating that it is now the policy of the US “to no longer reveal the exact number of detainees being shackled by guards into restraint chairs for twice daily feedings.”

In contrast to February 2009, when the authorities acknowledged that 41 of the 245 prisoners held at the time were hunger strikers, and that 35 were being force-fed, Cmdr. Fagan stated only that “less than 10” of the remaining 176 prisoners “were last week counted as hunger strikers.”

Carol Rosenberg also noted that a fact sheet dated June 28, and available on the Guantánamo Joint Task Force’s official website, claimed that “Each detainee receives 5,500-6,000 calories per day and has six menus to choose from,” and that “Feast meals are served two times per week.” This, unfortunately, sounds like the kind of unrealistic spin that the authorities have used for many years in a cynical attempt to pretend that Guantánamo is something of a holiday camp, and not an experimental prison where the prisoners are held in a uniquely oppressive form of open-ended detention that, as long ago as October 2003, prompted Christophe Girod, of the normally reticent International Committee of the Red Cross, to tell the New York Times, “The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.”

More realistic was what the Pentagon described as the cost of catering for the prisoners’ “cultural and dietary needs,” which it estimated at approximately $3 million a year.

Such an insane amount of money would be better spent on releasing prisoners and closing the prison, as President Obama promised, rather than attempting to maintain a veneer of respectability that fails to disguise the mental anguish that clings to Guantánamo like a malevolent fog, and that will not be lifted until the prison finally closes.

Please spare a thought for the hunger strikers at Guantánamo — and the rest of their fellow prisoners — at this particularly difficult time.

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 of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners. Cross-posted on Eurasia Review, Dandelion Salad, Blog from Middle East, Uruknet and New Left Project.

Bin Laden Cook Expected to Serve Two More Years at Guantánamo – And Some Thoughts on the Remaining Sudanese Prisoners

Ibrahim al-Qosi at a pre-trial Military Commission hearing at Guantanamo, July 15, 2009 (sketch by court artist Janet Hamlin)On August 11, Ibrahim al-Qosi, a 51-year old former cook and driver for Osama bin Laden, was given a 14-year sentence by a military jury, after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy, and one count of providing material support to terrorism at an earlier hearing on July 7, as I reported here.

The sentence was the first under President Obama and only the fourth in the long and troubled history of the Military Commissions at Guantánamo. The trial system was dragged from the history books by Vice President Dick Cheney in November 2001, ruled illegal by the US Supreme Court in June 2006, revived by Congress later that year, suspended by President Obama on his first day in office, and then revived last November, in a move that was widely criticized as part of a hideously compromised three-tier system of justice for the Guantánamo prisoners, involving federal court trials or Military Commissions for 35 prisoners in total, and indefinite detention without charge or trial for 48 others.

As Reuters explained, al-Qosi, who is Sudanese, met Osama bin Laden in Sudan, traveled with him to Afghanistan, and “acknowledged that he knew al-Qaeda was a terrorist group when he ran one of the kitchens in bin Laden’s Star of Jihad compound in Afghanistan.” He also “admitted helping the al-Qaeda leader escape US forces in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan,” but added that he “had no involvement in or prior knowledge of terrorist attacks.” Putting these admissions in context, Renee Schomp, a Program Associate for Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program, stated:

[A]l-Qosi pled guilty to living on a compound with supporters of Osama bin Laden in Jalalabad, Afghanistan and acting as a cook. His wife and children were with him until about November 2001. Al-Qosi’s guilty plea states that his activities in Afghanistan were the sole means of support for them. Al-Qosi never acted as a bodyguard or security guard for bin Laden, but for 12-18 months he served on defensive lines in a mortar crew — before the “war on terror” began, and not against US forces.

Crucially, al-Qosi’s sentence was part of a plea bargain whose full details have not yet been made publicly available. According to the Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV network, his sentence was capped at two years, although it is clear from the negotiations during his trial — in which the prosecution and the defense called for the military jury to deliver a sentence of between 12 and 15 years — that the jury had not been given any information about the plea deal, and that, essentially, all the details had been worked out behind the scenes to use the jury to deliver a sentence that appeared to validate the system, even though it did no such thing.

What was also apparent during al-Qosi’s sentencing was typical confusion — of the kind that has undermined the Commissions throughout their troubled history — regarding practical considerations; in this case, where his sentence will be served.

As Reuters reported, al-Qosi’s sentencing “hit a snag” because of the military’s inability to develop a coherent policy regarding his desire not to be held in solitary confinement. His plea deal “required the convening authority overseeing the trial [Retired Vice Adm. Bruce MacDonald, who replaced President Bush’s appointee Susan Crawford in March this year] to recommend that Qosi serve his time in Camp Four, where detainees live communally under fewer restrictions than in the other camps.” However, “military rules forbid housing convicted criminals with other detainees.”

Of the three men previously convicted, only one, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, is still held, and he is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. Asked to explain the circumstances of al-Bahlul’s confinement, Navy Cmdr. Brad Fagan stated, “He is separated from the general population,” but “declined to elaborate” except to say that “he’s by himself.”

Al-Qosi’s judge, Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Paul, was clearly unimpressed by the military’s inability to establish a policy regarding the circumstances in which convicted prisoners are to be held. As Reuters explained, “an assistant defense secretary ordered two years ago that the army and the military’s Southern Command, which oversees the Guantánamo base, develop a detailed plan for housing prisoners after their conviction.” As Judge Paul noted, however, “This has not been done.” She added that the absence of an official policy was “especially troubling” because of the possibility of another conviction in the trial of Omar Khadr, the Canadian who was just 15 years old when he was seized in Afghanistan in July 2002.

As a compromise, Judge Paul ruled that al-Qosi’s plea agreement “was valid because it called only for a recommendation that he be housed in the communal camp, and did not guarantee he would be.” She ordered him to “remain in Camp Four for 60 days while the military worked out where he would serve the rest of his sentence.”

Press reports also noted that, at the end of his sentence, al-Qosi will be repatriated to Sudan, where, as the Wall Street Journal explained, the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service stated, in correspondence introduced at al-Qosi’s trial by one of his military defense lawyers, Maj. Todd Pierce, that “it would put Mr. Qosi in mandatory ‘rehabilitation,’ monitor his phone calls and email, and deploy ‘informants’ to ensure he ‘no longer [adheres] to a radical ideology.’”

The Wall Street Journal added that the Sudanese intelligence agency reported that its program, used to deal with nine Sudanese prisoners previously released from Guantánamo (between 2004 and 2008), was “85% effective,” and also suggested that the US government “has been working with the Sudanese government to repatriate detainees from Guantánamo Bay.” These men were not named in the report, but there are only two other Sudanese prisoners in Guantánamo, in addition to Ibrahim al-Qosi.

The other two Sudanese prisoners

The first, Ibrahim Idris, who has sometimes been listed as a Yemeni, is clearly of no great significance. Accused of attending al-Farouq (the training camp associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before the 9/11 attacks), and of fighting with the Taliban for two years, he attended a military review board in December 2007, in which he stated that he had actually been seized in Pakistan, where he had traveled for 40 days to work as a missionary. “No disrespect to the interrogators,” he explained. “I said what I had to say, and they made me say things that weren’t true.” This may or may not be accurate (although it is certainly possible), but no information has emerged in the last eight years to indicate that he was involved in any way with terrorist activities.

The case of the other Sudanese prisoner, Noor Uthman Muhammed, who was involved with the Khaldan training camp as a trainer, and who appears to have run the camp when its leader was away, is clearly more problematical for the government. Muhammed was one of 29 prisoners put forward for a trial by Military Commission under President Bush between 2007 and 2008, and was one of five prisoners whose military trials under President Obama were announced by Attorney General Eric Holder last November. Progress in his case has been slow in the months since, with inconclusive wrangling over his defense team’s request for his evaluation by an independent psychologist, but it would be surprising if the government were to be in any great hurry to proceed with the trial, as his case involves two men whose stories the government would prefer to keep hidden. The first is Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the camp’s leader, and the second is Abu Zubaydah, the camp’s mentally troubled gatekeeper.

Al-Libi, who died in mysterious circumstances in a Libyan jail last May, was the notorious CIA “ghost prisoner” who produced a false confession about links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, while being tortured in Egypt on behalf of the CIA, which was used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and Abu Zubaydah, as has become increasingly apparent over the last few years, is the supposed “high-value detainee,” for whom the CIA’s torture program was initially developed, who, in fact, was not part of al-Qaeda and had no knowledge of al-Qaeda’s terrorist plans.

In general, the government has spent the last few years removing all mention of Zubaydah from other prisoners’ cases, and Muhammed’s proposed trial is therefore a potentially disturbing aberration. As McClatchy Newspapers explained in an article on July 1 this year, when Muhammed boycotted a pre-trial hearing, “Declassified documents say Abu Zubaydah has told interrogators that the Khaldan training camp that Noor allegedly ran was a rival to training camps run and sanctioned by bin Laden, wasn’t associated with al-Qaeda, that it was first set up by the US-backed resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and was committed to a defensive, not offensive, jihad.”

As McClatchy also noted, there was “little likelihood” that Muhammed would be tried in the near future, because, in April this year, his judge, Navy Capt. Moira Modzelewski, “said it would take her until January or February to sift through classified evidence the prosecution intends to use against him and that the trial couldn’t begin before she’d done that.”

Pre-trial hearings are scheduled to continue next month, but with al-Qosi’s example, it may make more sense for the government to try to work out a plea bargain in Muhammed’s case that would bypass the potential embarrassment of an actual trial.

Whether any of these proposals have anything to do with justice is debatable. As Melina Milazzo, Pennoyer Fellow with Human Rights First’s Law and Security Project, stated after al-Qosi’s sentence was announced, Judge Paul’s decision that “it was in the best interest for both the government and al-Qosi that the details of his plea agreement should continue to be sealed until after his confinement was completed” was “unprecedented in both US federal court as well as US court martial,” adding, “Moreover, shrouding his plea agreement in secrecy does little to provide much needed transparency to a grossly opaque system.”

Noticeably, however, it is pragmatism and diplomacy rather than justice that have largely enabled prisoners to leave Guantánamo, and if President Obama is at all serious about closing the prison, then he should be aware that the Sudanese government has at least provided him with an opportunity to close one more chapter in Guantánamo’s sordid history by facilitating the repatriation of all three of the remaining Sudanese prisoners.

Note: The courtroom sketch above is by Janet Hamlin, and is courtesy of Janet Hamlin Illustration.

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 of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners. Cross-posted on New left Project.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Obama administration’s response to the Military Commissions, see: Don’t Forget Guantánamo (February 2009), Who’s Running Guantánamo? (February 2009), The Talking Dog interviews Darrel Vandeveld, former Guantánamo prosecutor (February 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Obama Returns To Bush Era On Guantánamo (May 2009), New Chief Prosecutor Appointed For Military Commissions At Guantánamo (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (May 2009), My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Many Failures Of US Politicians (May 2009), A Child At Guantánamo: The Unending Torment of Mohamed Jawad (June 2009), A Broken Circus: Guantánamo Trials Convene For One Day Of Chaos (June 2009), Obama Proposes Swift Execution of Alleged 9/11 Conspirators (June 2009), Predictable Chaos As Guantánamo Trials Resume (July 2009), David Frakt: Military Commissions “A Catastrophic Failure” (August 2009), 9/11 Trial At Guantánamo Delayed Again: Can We Have Federal Court Trials Now, Please? (September 2009), Torture And Futility: Is This The End Of The Military Commissions At Guantánamo? (September 2009), Resisting Injustice In Guantánamo: The Story Of Fayiz Al-Kandari (October 2009), Military Commissions Revived: Don’t Do It, Mr. President! (November 2009), The Logic of the 9/11 Trials, The Madness of the Military Commissions (November 2009), Rep. Jerrold Nadler and David Frakt on Obama’s Three-Tier Justice System For Guantánamo (November 2009), Guantánamo: Idealists Leave Obama’s Sinking Ship (November 2009), Chaos and Confusion: The Return of the Military Commissions (December 2009), Afghan Nobody Faces Trial by Military Commission (January 2010), Lawyers Appeal Guantánamo Trial Convictions (February 2010), When Rhetoric Trumps Good Sense: The GOP’s Counter-Productive Call for Military Commissions (March 2010), David Frakt’s Damning Verdict on the New Military Commissions Manual (May 2010), Prosecuting a Tortured Child: Obama’s Guantánamo Legacy (May 2010), The Torture of Omar Khadr, a Child in Bagram and Guantánamo (May 2010), Bin Laden Cook Accepts Plea Deal at Guantánamo Trial (July 2010), Defiance in Isolation: The Last Stand of Omar Khadr (July 2010), Omar Khadr Accepts US Military Lawyer for Forthcoming Trial by Military Commission (July 2010), A Letter from Omar Khadr in Guantánamo (July 2010).

London Guantánamo Campaign Asks Supporters to Write to Released Prisoners in Europe During Ramadan

The following article was published by the London Guantánamo Campaign on their new website, and I’m cross-posting it here in the hope of reaching new readers who may not have come across it, as its message is particularly strong during Ramadan. Readers may also want to consider writing to prisoners still held in Guantánamo, whose names and contact details can be found here, as part of a letter-writing project initiated in June.

Write to released Guantánamo Prisoners in Europe in Ramadan

Former prisoners speak

“Ramadan was more spiritual in Guantánamo. It was our time to be with our brothers — especially the more educated ones. They would talk in low voices from cage to cage. All brothers gave each other Salam. Being in prison we studied the Koran well and many learnt Arabic. Through all our suffering we were being tested by Allah. So we became strong. Physically, too: doing press-ups and star-jumps. Who’d have guessed it? Guantánamo became our school. A madrassa. The place which made us grow up, become closer to Habib; where, in the single voice calling for prayer every day as the sun was rising, we created beauty out of ugliness. And in that we gained victory over the disbelievers who stood guard on us.” (Based on statements by Moazzam Begg, Bisher Al-Rawi and the Tipton Three, and compiled by David Harrold).

Former prisoners in need of support

As part of his pledge in January 2009 to close Guantánamo Bay, Barack Obama’s government has been making arrangements to resettle prisoners in third countries when they cannot be safely returned to their country of origin. Many European countries including Ireland, Hungary, Belgium, France, Slovakia and Albania [as well as Bulgaria, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland] have agreed to settle ex-prisoners. However, life after Guantánamo can prove to be extremely challenging and difficult. Many men find themselves alone, attempting to rebuild their lives in countries where they are isolated and cannot speak the language, where they have difficulties making friends and accessing services.

In some cases their new living conditions are as bad as those they encountered in Guantánamo Bay. In January, three men were released to Slovakia. Upon entry into the country, they were interned at an asylum detention centre where they were only allowed to leave their room, consisting of a bed and a sink, for one hour a day. They were not permitted to speak to anyone other than their lawyer or staff at the centre. In June, in protest at their living conditions, the men went on hunger strike. The ensuing publicity finally resulted in them being released last month.

Over a dozen prisoners have been released in the last year [63 prisoners have been released from Guantánamo by President Obama, and 36 have been released in third countries, which also include Bermuda, Cape Verde, Georgia, Latvia and Palau]. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which started on 11 August, can be a particularly lonely time for men who, while at Guantánamo Bay, at least had the companionship of fellow prisoners. Ramadan is a time for togetherness and social activity, as well as for abstinence. This is the first time in over eight years that they will experience Ramadan alone.

Please consider writing to these ex-prisoners. A letter or card congratulating them on their release, wishing them well in their new life, asking them how they are, a short note, would all be greatly appreciated.

The three men released in Slovakia are:

Adel Al Gazzar [aka El-Gazzar], a 40-year old Egyptian accountant who speaks fluent English. He has a wife and three children in Egypt whom he has not seen for over nine years. He was captured while working for the Red Crescent in Afghanistan and was one of the first men to be cleared for release.

Rafiq Bin Al Hami, a 41-year old Tunisian who speaks English and Arabic, and who had previously worked in several European countries.

Polad Sirajov [aka Poolad Tsiradzho], a 35-year old economist from Azerbaijan who likes football, and who speaks English, Arabic and Russian.

You can send cards and letters:

FAO Chloe Davies
Reprieve
PO Box 52742
London, EC4P 4WS

You can also write to other former prisoners whom Reprieve is working with. Details can be found on their website.

Cageprisoners is also in touch with various former prisoners. Contact them for details.

Two Tunisians, who were transferred from Guantánamo Bay to Italy at the end of last year, are of particular concern. Although cleared for release by the US, the Italians sought their transfer in order to put them on trial on terrorism charges. Their trial is scheduled to take place next month. They are currently being held in prison at Macomer in Sardinia, under notoriously harsh and discriminatory conditions. Please write to them if you can:

Adil Bin Mabrouk and Riyad Bin Nasseri
Casa Circondriale Macomer Nuoro
Zona Industriale Bonu Trau
08015 Nuoro
Italy

Details of the stories of all these prisoners and others can be found on Andy Worthington’s website.

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 of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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 July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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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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