Archive for March, 2011

Guantánamo in America (Part Two): The Nation Reveals More About the Secretive Prison Units for Muslims and Other Perceived Threats

Following a major feature on NPR, covering the little-known Communications Management Units (CMUs), located in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Marion, Illinois, where the inmates are mostly Muslims, who are subjected to surveillance 24 hours a day, have their mail monitored, and are prevented from having any physical contact whatsoever with their families during prison visits, I’m delighted to keep the focus on this story by cross-posting another incisive article about the CMUs, this one written by Alia Malek and published in The Nation, which focuses on a handful of particularly interesting and moving stories, and also explains in greater detail the often alarming methods whereby these novel facilities were introduced without adequate scrutiny.

As a result, the article spells out clearly how the CMUs, uniquely in the detention system on the US mainland, restrict “the communications of inmates with a ‘link to terrorist-related activity’ to one six-page letter per week, one fifteen-minute call per month and one one-hour visit per month, limited to immediate family members,” whereas, in general, prisoners are allowed 300 minutes of calls per month and few caps are placed on the number or duration of visits prisoners may receive. Even at the only federal Supermax prison, where conditions in general would be expected to be harsher than in any other facility, “inmates are allowed thirty-five hours of visits a month”).

The article also highlights the largely arbitrary manner in which prisoners are designated for CMUs, which, in turn, serves only to highlight how scattershot is the US government’s approach to terrorism, with peaceful fundraisers for Muslim charities regarded as fronts for terrorism and young men caught in FBI entrapment cases held in the same facilities as genuinely dangerous convicted terrorists — and I must admit that, from my point of view, this is what disturbs me the most about the story of the CMUs: how it demonstrates that the scapegoating of Muslims is still so prevalent, nearly nine years after the 9/11 attacks, and how it demonstrates that there is still an unwillingness, in government and in the intelligence agencies, to distinguish between fundraising for terrorism and fundraising for humanitarian purposes. In addition, of course, all these lies, misconceptions and distortions also remind me of another prison that has consumed so much of my time over the last five years, where justice for Muslims has also been mislaid or deliberately discarded — and that, of course, is Guantánamo.

Gitmo in the Heartland
By Alia Malek, The Nation, March 10, 2011

On the evening of May 13, 2008, Jenny Synan waited for a phone call from her husband, Daniel McGowan. An inmate at Sandstone, a federal prison in Minnesota, McGowan was serving a seven-year sentence for participating in two ecologically motivated arsons. It was their second wedding anniversary, their first with him behind bars. So far his incarceration hadn’t stopped him from calling her daily or surprising her with gifts for her birthday, Valentine’s Day and Christmas. But Jenny never got a call from Daniel that night — or the next day, or the next.

It was only days later that Jenny heard from a friend that Daniel was in transit, his destination Marion, Illinois. She quickly researched Marion and learned that it housed both a minimum- and a medium-security facility. Daniel, however, was classified as a low-security prisoner, a designation between minimum and medium. Even though he had a perfect record at Sandstone and had been recommended for a transfer to a prison closer to home, Jenny still didn’t think it was likely that Daniel would be stepped down to minimum security. But it made no sense that he would be moved up to medium security.

By May 16 the inmate locator on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) website showed Daniel in a variety of places, including a federal correctional facility in Terre Haute, Indiana. After speaking with several people at the BOP, Sandstone and Terre Haute to no avail, Jenny e-mailed friends, “This is seriously like pulling fucking teeth.”

Finally on June 12, one month after their missed call, Daniel telephoned Jenny. He was still in transit and had only a few moments to speak. He was definitely going to Marion, where he heard he would be housed in something called a Communications Management Unit (CMU). He had no idea why he was being transferred. He simply had been told he was moving, given thirty minutes to pack and thrown into “the hole” until he was moved. All he knew was that the CMUs were supposedly run out of Washington and placed severe restrictions on phone calls, mail and visits. He was anxious about his new placement and asked Jenny to find out all she could about Marion.

But Jenny couldn’t find much. There was nothing on the BOP website about CMUs or a special unit at Marion. She did find a few scattered articles, all about a Terre Haute CMU, described as a secret experimental unit for second-tier terrorism inmates who were almost all Arab and Muslim Americans.

There was, in fact, little to be found; the Bush administration had quietly opened the CMUs in Terre Haute and Marion in December 2006 and March 2008, respectively, circumventing the usual process federal agencies normally follow that subjects them to public scrutiny and transparency. The first whisper of what the government was planning reached public ears in April 2006, when the BOP — in accordance with the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) — published its proposed rule for “Limited Communication for Terrorist Inmates.” Under the APA, federal agencies like the BOP must publish notice of any new regulations and solicit public comments in order to operate legally. After a period of review, the agency publishes the finalized rule.

In the 2006 rule, the BOP proposed restricting the communications of inmates with a “link to terrorist-related activity” to one six-page letter per week, one fifteen-minute call per month and one one-hour visit per month, limited to immediate family members. The rule left it to the discretion of the warden whether visits would be contact or noncontact. (As a point of comparison, the BOP generally allows most prisoners 300 minutes of calls per month and places few caps on the number or duration of visits prisoners may receive. Even at the only federal Supermax, inmates are allowed thirty-five hours of visits a month.)

Several civil rights groups, led by the ACLU, submitted comments criticizing the proposed rule as flawed and potentially unconstitutional. The rule also appeared to be unnecessary, as the law already allowed monitoring and restricting inmates’ communications to detect and prevent criminal activity. After the period for comments closed in June 2006, observers waited for the BOP to publish its finalized rule.

Then in February 2007 came a stunning revelation: the BOP had not only abandoned the rule-making process; it had apparently bypassed it altogether by opening a prison unit in December 2006 in which all the inmates were subject to communications restrictions almost exactly like those described in the proposed rule. This secret unit came to light when supporters of an Iraqi-born American physician, Rafil Dhafir, made public a letter he had written describing his harrowing transfer to a new prison unit in Terre Haute. He called it “a nationwide operation to put Muslims/Arabs in one place so that we can be closely monitored regarding our communications.”

(In 2005 Dhafir had been sentenced to twenty-two years in prison for violating sanctions against Iraq by sending money to a charity he had founded there, as well as for fraud, money laundering, tax evasion and a variety of other nonviolent crimes. He had no terrorism convictions or charges.)

In his letter Dhafir reported that at the time there were sixteen men in the CMU, fourteen of whom were Muslims and all but one of those were Arab. They had been told by prison officials that the unit was an experiment. Written material they received informed them that they would be entitled to one fifteen-minute call a week, that their communications had to be in English only and that their visits would all be noncontact; it made no mention of “terrorism.” According to Dhafir, the inmates were particularly devastated at the prospect of not being able to hug or kiss their families and of having so little time to talk with them. For those who didn’t speak English, there was particular panic.

Legal advocates were shocked by the discovery — and by the BOP’s impunity. According to William Luneburg, former chair of the American Bar Association’s administrative law practice section and a professor of administrative law, the BOP action was “grossly irregular” and arguably illegal. “It is not a normal thing for agencies legally bound by the APA to propose some new program, to start through the public rule-making process and then basically not complete it, and then to decide to go ahead and do it on their own.” Or as David Shapiro of the ACLU’s Prison Project says, “Essentially these CMUs are being operated in the absence of any rules or policies that authorize them.”

The media, however, paid scant attention to the CMUs, save for a few articles, the most notable by Dan Eggen in the Washington Post, which Jenny found during her frantic Internet search for information. All the articles noted that the CMUs were almost entirely filled with Muslim and Arab prisoners.

Then in March 2008, the BOP established by memo a second CMU, at Marion. Two months later, Daniel McGowan, who is neither Muslim nor Arab, was moved there. In June 2008, Andy Stepanian, another non-Arab, non-Muslim low-security inmate, was sent to Marion for the last six months of his three-year sentence for conspiring to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992. The only notice he received after his transfer said that he “has known connections to Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), groups considered to be domestic terrorist organizations.” “Enhanced review and control of inmate communications,” it claimed, “is required to assure the safe functioning of the correctional facility, surrounding community and American public.”

According to Stepanian, prison staff referred to non-Arab and non-Muslim inmates as “balancers.” One white guard comforted Stepanian, who had received biweekly visits from his fiancée at his previous prison, saying, “You’re nothing like these Muslims. You’re just here for balance. You’re going to go home soon.”

* * *

Based on these and similar reports, observers began to speculate that because of criticism, the BOP was trying to improve the CMUs’ racial and ethnic demographics.The BOP, however, told The Nation, “Race, religion and ethnicity are not a basis for designation decisions.” Nonetheless, as of this writing, the BOP reports that eighteen of thirty-three prisoners at Terre Haute (55 percent) and twenty-three of thirty-six at Marion (64 percent) are Muslim. Muslims make up just 6 percent of the federal prison population.

The BOP declined to disclose the CMU inmates’ names or convictions. It did, however, provide a partial list of “examples” of activities that might land an inmate inside a CMU, including being convicted of or associated with international or domestic terrorism; repeated attempts to contact victims or witnesses; a history of soliciting minors for sexual activity; a court-ordered communication restriction; coordinating illegal activities from inside prison and a disciplinary history that includes continued abuse of communications methods. According to the BOP, twenty-four (73 percent) and twenty-three (64 percent) of the inmates at Terre Haute and Marion, respectively, were assigned to the CMUs because of terrorism-related reasons.

As the populations of the CMUs grew, civil rights groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights began to receive letters from inmates. Eventually, CCR attorneys Alexis Agathocleous and Rachel Meeropol communicated with a majority of the inmates. They quickly noticed that in many cases there was nothing in inmates’ disciplinary records — many of which were clean — or security-level designations that would suggest they warranted such drastic isolation. Indeed, convicted terrorists like Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad and shoe bomber Richard Reid are housed not in a CMU but in high and maximum security prisons in Colorado. Many of the CMU inmates will eventually be released; eleven already have been. Nine others have been transferred back to general population housing.

Of the CMU inmates who are there because of a link to terrorism, Meeropol says, “The vast majority of these folks are there due to entrapment or material support convictions. In other words, terrorism-related convictions that do not involve any violence or injury.”

Bound by confidentiality, Meeropol declined to name these inmates, but The Nation was able to identify several. They include the officers of the Holy Land Foundation — a now-defunct US-based Islamic charity that sent funds to social programs administered by Hamas, a US-designated terrorist organization — and the Lackawanna Six, who admitted to traveling to an Al-Qaeda training camp before the 9/11 attacks. Some of the notable entrapment cases include those of Shahawar Matin Siraj, convicted for taking part in a plot planned by a paid FBI informant to bomb Herald Square, and Yassin Aref, whose underlying act was simply witnessing a loan in another plot planned by an FBI informant.

CCR attorneys also noticed the presence of CMU inmates who had neither links to terrorism nor communications infractions. They fell into three general groups, with occasional overlaps. The first had made complaints against the BOP either through internal procedures or formal litigation, and their placement appeared retaliatory. The second held unpopular political views, both left- and right-leaning, from animal rights and environmental activists to neo-Nazis and extreme antiabortion activists. The third seemed to be Muslims, including African-American Muslims, whose convictions had nothing to do with terrorism and ranged from robbery to credit card fraud.

The brief reasons given for transferring these prisoners into CMUs varied, but in several cases their designation was based on conduct that had already been successfully managed at other institutions without restricting communications or family visits. The reasons were often vague: for example, that inmates had engaged in conduct while incarcerated to “recruit and radicalize” other inmates. When pressed for specific evidence about such allegations in interviews and FOIA requests, the BOP declined to provide additional information.

On March 30, 2010, CCR filed a lawsuit against the government on behalf of several CMU inmates and their families, including Jenny and Daniel. In Aref v. Holder, CCR charges that the government not only violated the APA in establishing the CMUs but also violated the First, Fifth and Eighth Amendments. CCR alleges that designation to the CMUs was discriminatory, retaliatory and/or punitive in nature and not rationally related to any legitimate penological purpose or based on substantiated information. Rather, CCR contends that the inmates’ designation was based on their religion and/or perceived political beliefs. Moreover, since there had been no real notice, hearing and appeal, CCR alleges due process violations as well. The extreme nature of the restrictions also raises the issue of cruel and unusual punishment. CCR also argues that the communications restrictions impeded the free speech and association rights of the family members.

Eight days after CCR filed suit, the BOP suddenly gave notice of a proposed rule titled “Communication Management Units.” In it the Obama administration kept the Bush-era communication restrictions while broadening their scope. While the 2006 proposed rule was limited to people with “an identifiable link to terrorist-related activity,” the Obama-era rule can be applied to “any inmate,” including “persons held as witnesses, detainees or otherwise.”

The ACLU’s Shapiro says, “When Obama came into office, we hoped that the use of CMUs would be revisited, and we recommended that BOP withdraw the first rule-making.” But it is unclear if any such review took place. The BOP declined to say if the Obama administration had conducted a review before deciding to maintain the CMUs, or even if it had reviewed the assignment of current inmates.

Starting his presidency with two CMUs established by the Bush administration outside the APA process, Obama, says Luneburg, essentially had two choices. “He could totally abandon it or try to make lawful what was perhaps arguably an unlawful situation.” Taking the latter approach, the BOP accepted comments about the new rule until June 7, 2010. It recently announced it would publish the finalized rule in October — sixteen months after the close of the comment period. According to Luneburg, that delay is surprising, given that the rule consists largely of legal issues, as opposed to complex scientific claims that underlie rules published by agencies like the EPA.

During the comments phase, submissions poured in from civil rights groups, current and former CMU inmates, inmates’ families and mental health professionals. One theme was common to many: the communications restrictions (including the inability to touch) were devastating to family integrity. The writers argued that strong connections to family were essential for a variety of reasons, such as mental health, rehabilitation, prison order and safety, staying recidivism and societal reintegration—truths long recognized by psychologists, corrections professionals and the BOP alike.

As University of Delaware professor of sociology and criminal justice Christy Visher explains, “The lack of connection to family makes it harder to think of a plan for post-release, and if they have no hope for life after release, then they’re less likely to be making behavior change.” Visher, who has looked at the question of how best to reintegrate released convicts for the National Institute of Justice, says, “Contact visits where you can hold a child on your lap or touch your wife are very important.”

* * *

This past November, before driving the 650 miles from Dallas to see her husband, Ghassan Elashi, at the Marion CMU, Majida Salem cut and colored her hair. “Why bother?” one of her daughters asked, alluding to the fact that since Majida’s visit would not be private, her head would be covered by her hijab.

“Because I’m going to be sitting with Baba,” she answered, referring to the man she had married twenty-six years before in Jordan, choosing him after turning away many others. She had felt that his devotion to God mirrored her own.

To the government, however, Ghassan — co-founder of the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest US Muslim charity — was a material supporter of terrorism. Ghassan has never been accused of engaging in violence, but because the HLF sponsored schools and social welfare programs in the Occupied Territories alleged by Washington to be controlled by Hamas, he was charged with materially supporting terrorism. He was convicted in November 2008, following a 2007 mistrial in which the government failed to convince jurors of its case.

Majida hadn’t seen Ghassan since the previous Thanksgiving, when he was still at the low-security prison in Seagoville, Texas, not far from their home. He was moved to Marion in April 2010. The distance ended their weekly visits and essentially left Majida to raise a family of six children, the youngest of whom had Down syndrome, by herself.

They tried to maintain contact nonetheless. Majida shared her weekly fifteen-minute call with her children and in-laws, co-parenting with Ghassan in these morsels and through e-mails, which arrived days after they were written and only after a detour through Washington. Other CMU families had given up on visits or stopped bringing the children, who were often traumatized by the inability to touch their fathers or speak to them in a native language. But the Elashis were determined to make it work, so on Thanksgiving morning, with three of her children and her mother-in-law, Majida set out for Marion.

Once inside the prison, they were led toward the CMU, passing through a series of sliding barred doors. In the periphery, they could see the general population visitation room, spying a few families, UNO cards and a play area for kids. They were ushered into a 5-by-7 room with a Plexiglas wall at its center. Behind the Plexiglas, in a room that mirrored theirs, Ghassan waited to greet them.

The five of them crowded around three receivers, which would record their conversation and transmit it to BOP officials in Washington. When they gushed at how healthy Ghassan looked, he lifted his sleeve and flexed his bicep. “Pilates,” he told them. When he told them he now had a six-pack, his teenage sons begged him to show them, but he demurred. Soon they realized they could hear through the glass, so they hung up the receivers and spoke naturally. Quickly a guard reprimanded them: all communication had to be through the receivers.

Majida and Ghassan spoke about the boys, how they were doing in school and how the second-to-youngest was acting up. Ghassan turned to him, doing his best to advise him from behind the barrier. His son burst out, “I need you! I need you!”

Toward the end of the visit, to keep things light, Ghassan began demonstrating Pilates exercises. Having put the receiver down, he flashed with his fingers the amount of seconds he held each pose. Guards rushed in on both sides, demanding to know what Ghassan was doing. “Teaching them Pilates,” he answered.

They stayed until they were kicked out, the kids signing off with pantomimed high-fives and Majida blowing him a kiss while touching the glass. She wanted to be alone with him, without the barrier, and there was so much more she wanted to express. But that would have felt like stealing from the children.

* * *

Ghassan’s incarceration at Marion demonstrates one of the biggest problems with the CMUs and with the terrorist designation generally — how broadly and capriciously they are applied. “It is one thing to use restrictive isolationist tactics against the leader of a gang or terror group who, if he could communicate freely with the outside world, would wreak violence on innocent people — that’s not an illusory concern,” says David Cole, of Georgetown University Law School and The Nation’s legal affairs correspondent. “But when you define ‘terrorist activity’ to include material support that can involve no violent activity and no intentional support of violent activity, then you are relegating nonviolent offenders to these very extreme conditions that are entirely unwarranted.”

The BOP declined to say whether it differentiates between nonviolent — even humanitarian — activities and violent activity in determining CMU assignment for a “terrorist-related link.” The profiles of inmates like Ghassan would suggest it doesn’t, and that, in fact, the link to terrorism can be quite tenuous.

Consider, for example, the case of Sabri Benkahla, whose CMU incarceration the ACLU challenged in 2009. In 2003 the government accused Benkahla of materially supporting a terrorist-related group. When prosecutors failed to secure a conviction at trial, he was charged and convicted of grand jury perjury. At his sentencing, the US District Judge declared unequivocally that “Benkahla is not a terrorist” and noted having received more letters on Benkahla’s behalf than any other defendant in twenty-five years, including one from Congressman James Moran, who described Benkahla as “an upstanding and productive member of society.” Although Benkahla lacks a terrorism-related conviction, he was nonetheless transferred to a CMU because of a terrorist-related link, asserted by the government. Before the court could reach a decision in the ACLU case, which challenged the legality of the CMUs on APA grounds, the BOP moved Benkahla back to the general population, and the case was dismissed.

David Shapiro, who was also on Benkahla’s team, sees a lack of clear criteria for CMU placement as the crux of the problem. “People are overclassified,” he says, “and the level of restriction they are placed under bears no rational relationship to the security threat that they actually pose.”

Visher concurs. “We are not making good decisions about who is dangerous,” she says. To remedy the problem and to balance family and penological interests, Visher proposes risk profiles and careful examination by an independent party. Factors that should be considered, she says, are a person’s pattern of communication with terrorist groups, his history of violence, good behavior and strong connections to the community.

On July 21, 2010, the government answered CCR’s lawsuit with a motion to dismiss. In its written arguments, it pleaded that it deserves deference in determining what restrictions are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. It also argued that several of the claims, including those of Jenny and Daniel, are moot, as on October 19, after more than two years, Daniel was moved out of the CMU and back to the general population.

Last Thanksgiving, Jenny was finally able to wait for Daniel in Marion’s general visitation room, which she used to walk wistfully past when she visited the CMU. That was behind her now, she thought, as were the once-a-week fifteen-minute calls. When she saw Daniel, she embraced him and gave him a big kiss. They spent the hours talking and playing UNO. When they didn’t feel like saying anything, they sat in the silence they felt they could finally afford, letting a simple touch speak for itself.

A few hours into their visit, Jenny saw the Elashi family as they were led down the hall to the CMU. She felt her eyes tear up. She found it especially hard to watch a whole family going to visit their father, their husband, their son under such conditions. They looked so solemn; Jenny felt guilty that they wouldn’t be able to embrace as she and Daniel could. Later that night she posted on Facebook: “Thankful for hugs and brief kisses.”

But time for hugs and brief kisses would remain short-lived. On February 24, Daniel was suddenly transferred back to the CMU, this time to Terre Haute. The government gave the court notice that in light of Daniel’s reassignment, it was withdrawing its defense that Daniel’s claims were moot; CCR has since asked the court to expedite its consideration of the motions to dismiss.

The notice was almost identical to the one Daniel had been given the last time, but it included a new sentence. The BOP asserted that Daniel’s “incarceration conduct has included attempts to circumvent communication monitoring policies, specifically those governing attorney-client privileged correspondence.” In keeping with BOP practice, Daniel’s notification does not state what evidence or acts serve as the basis for these claims. Neither he nor Jenny knows why he is there. They know only that their next visit will be brief and behind glass.

Note: For more information about Muslims in the US and dubious terrorism cases, please see the Project Salam 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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Guantánamo in America (Part One): NPR Explains How Muslims Are Deprived of Fundamental Rights in Secretive Prison Units

It has long been a regret of mine that I don’t have enough time to write about the domestic prison system in the US, because of the distressing scale of incarceration in the US (the highest per capita rate in the world, by far) and also because of the violence and brutality, and the use of prolonged isolation, that mirrors much of what has been taking place at Guantánamo and elsewhere in the “War on Terror” for the last nine years.

Fortunately, two weeks ago NPR ran a major feature on a disturbing aspect of the isolation regime in domestic US prisons, focusing on the little-known Communications Management Units (CMUs), located in Terre Haute, Indiana, and Marion, Illinois, where the inmates are mostly Muslims, who are subjected to surveillance 24 hours a day, have their mail monitored, and are prevented from having any physical contact whatsoever with their families during prison visits –behavior that is more reminiscent of Guantánamo than of the rest of the domestic prison system.

Although Muslims make up the majority of the prisoners in the CMUs, there appears to be little internal logic regarding who is held and why, as those held range from foreign nationals involved in major acts of international terrorism to American citizens involved in fundraising for organzations acting as alleged fronts for terrorism and others caught in US government sting operations, which rather tends to enforce the notion that a large part of the CMUs’ rationale involves racial and religious profiling.

The prisoners also include — or have included — individuals involved in various forms of political activism, including environmental activism, and others for whom the rationale for keeping them under 24-hour surveillance appears to be that they “have spoken out at other prison units and advocated for their rights” and/or “have taken leadership positions in religious communities in those other prisons,” and/or because “officials worry that they could recruit other inmates for terrorism or direct people in the outside world to commit crimes.”

If you didn’t come across the NPR feature, I’ve cross-posted below the main article, “Guantánamo North”: Inside Secretive U.S. Prisons, but I also recommend a shorter follow-up article, Leaving “Guantanamo North”, and two other parts of the NPR feature that are not reproduced here: TIMELINE: The History Of ‘Guantanamo North’ and, in particular, DATA & GRAPHICS: Population Inside The CMUs, which contains the names and details of the 86 prisoners (and ex-prisoners) identified in the NPR report.

And if this subject interests you, then please read my follow-up article, Guantánamo in America (Part Two): The Nation Reveals More About the Secretive Prison Units for Muslims and Other Perceived Threats.

“Guantánamo North”: Inside Secretive U.S. Prisons
By Carrie Johnson and Margot Williams, NPR, March 3, 2011

Reports about what life is like inside the military prison for terrorism suspects at Guantánamo Bay are not uncommon. But very little is reported about two secretive units for convicted terrorists and other inmates who get 24-hour surveillance, right here in the U.S.

For the first time, an NPR investigation has identified 86 of the more than 100 men who have lived in the special units that some people are calling “Guantánamo North.” The Communications Management Units in Terre Haute, Ind., and Marion, Ill., are mostly filled with Muslims. About two-thirds of the inmates identified by NPR are U.S. citizens.

Civil rights groups have filed lawsuits that accuse the U.S. facilities of some of the same due process complaints raised by people at the island prison.

Who Belongs In The Prison Units?

Avon Twitty, 56, knows a lot about these Communications Management Units, or CMUs. He spent three years in one. These days, he lives in a house with chipped white paint, next to a highway in Washington, D.C.

This is the first time he has talked about his experience.

Twitty spent 27 years in prison for shooting a man dead after a neighborhood argument in the 1980s. Years before that, he converted to Islam. He has never been convicted of a terrorist offense.

But prison officials sent him to one of the special units in Terre Haute to finish out the remaining few years of his sentence. Twitty says he never found out why. He has a piece of paper saying he allegedly took part in “radicalizing” people, but the transfer document doesn’t explain who, or why. Twitty reads from one of the many letters he wrote to prison leaders, asking for answers.

“So my question was, what government agency labeled me a terrorist?” Twitty asks. “… What terrorist offense did I commit against the American government or any American citizen? What evidence demonstrated my guilt? Why was I not afforded my constitutional right to a due process hearing?”

Inside The Special Units

Prison officials opened the first CMU with no public notice four years ago, something inmates say they had no right to do under the federal law known as the Administrative Procedures Act.

The special unit in Terre Haute contains 50 cells housing some of the people the U.S. describes as the country’s biggest security threats, including John Walker Lindh.

He was picked up on the battlefield in Afghanistan, after fighting on the side of the Taliban. Prison officials have never released the names of inmates in Terre Haute or in a companion unit in Marion. But an NPR investigation found out who some of them are.

The units’ population has included men convicted in well-known post-Sept. 11 cases, as well as defendants from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1999 “millennium” plot to bomb the Los Angeles airport, and hijacking cases in 1976, 1985 and 1996.

Also under surveillance in the CMUs are men who have threatened officials from behind bars, ordered murders using contraband cell phones, or engaged in other communications that officials want to monitor.

The population also includes several black Muslims who have been disciplined for alleged radicalization and recruitment while incarcerated for other crimes.

When the Terre Haute unit opened in December 2006, 15 of the first 17 inmates were Muslim. In August 2008, 38 prisoners signed up for Ramadan observances.

As word got out that the special units were disproportionately Muslim, civil rights lawyers say, the Bureau of Prisons started moving in non-Muslims.

The group included tax resisters, a member of the Japanese Red Army and inmates from Colombia and Mexico. Inmates say the guards there called them “balancers.”

The Bureau of Prisons says a total of 71 men now live in the units.

Segregation Allegations

Alexis Agathocleous, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, has a hunch about how the population came to be.

“We were concerned about what appears to be racial profiling and also a pattern of designations to the CMUs of people who have spoken out at other prison units and advocated for their rights and have taken leadership positions in religious communities in those other prisons,” he says.

They are segregated from other prisoners because officials worry that they could recruit other inmates for terrorism or direct people in the outside world to commit crimes.

American University law professor Stephen Vladeck reviewed NPR’s findings. He says he has some questions about the secrecy surrounding the units and whether the prison is sending the right people there.

“I think the real question is, what are the constraints and how are we sure that the right people are being placed in these units and not the wrong ones?” Vladeck says.

“Mixing prisoners from different backgrounds who actually don’t necessarily live up to those criteria I think is troubling,” Vladeck adds, because it means some inmates might not belong there, and others who do belong may not be getting the attention they deserve.

NPR found two reports, marked “law enforcement sensitive,” from 2009. In them, intelligence analysts for the Bureau of Prisons describe religious tension among different Muslim groups in the special units, including at least one violent episode involving a man described as an enforcer.

In those units, people convicted of international terrorism mingle with more conventional criminals. So Omar Mohammed Ali Rezaq, who hijacked an EgyptAir flight with other members of a Palestinian terrorist group in 1985, lives in the CMU along with Muslims who were convicted in U.S. government sting operations but who didn’t have the resources to carry out a plot on their own.

Eavesdropping And Restrictions

Guards and cameras watch the CMU inmates’ every move. Every word they speak is picked up by a counterterrorism team that eavesdrops from West Virginia. Prison officials budgeted more than $14 million for the snooping operation last year, according to appropriations documents and congressional testimony.

Restrictions on visiting time and phone calls in the special units are tougher than in most maximum security prisons. Inmates who lived in the CMUs and their spouses talked to NPR about them for the first time.

Hedaya Jayyousi’s husband, Kifah, served in the U.S. Navy. He also taught engineering. Then he was convicted of supporting groups in Bosnia and Chechnya that the U.S. government says are tied to terrorism. Kifah Jayyousi has lived in both CMUs.

Mrs. Jayyousi now looks after their five children. Unlike most other prison inmates, the people in the CMUs are not allowed so-called contact visits, where they can touch their families. They get fewer hours of visiting time and fewer phone privileges, too.

“What happens is we really get very stressful because the way the visit [is] set,” Hedaya Jayyousi says, “we need to hold the phone in our hands, very thick glasses. You can’t hear him. [The girls] can’t touch him.”

A History Of Lawsuits

For the past year, Twitty and other inmates have been suing the Federal Bureau of Prisons. They say the special units were set up outside the law and raise serious due process issues. Unlike prisoners who are convicted of serious crimes and sent to a federal supermax facility, CMU inmates have no way to review the evidence that sent them there or to challenge that evidence to get out.

Twitty says he actually spent months longer in prison than he had to because of his designation to the special CMU unit. The halfway house in Washington wouldn’t accept him for several months.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., is considering whether to let the prisoners go forward with the lawsuit.

Agathocleous, from the Center for Constitutional Rights, is representing the CMU inmates in their ongoing civil rights case (Aref, et al. v. Holder, et al.). He says he’s noticed something about his clients:

“There is a tenfold over-representation of Muslim prisoners at the CMUs,” he says. “So 6 percent of the national prison population is Muslim, and somewhere in the neighborhood of between 66 and 72 percent of prisoners at the CMUs are Muslim.”

Harley Lappin, who leads the Bureau of Prisons, described the special units to Congress in 2009.

“You’ve got a second tier where we don’t have to have them as restricted, but we want to control their communications,” Lappin told members of the U.S. House of Representatives. “They are housed in Communications Management Units where we can target, again, communication, both written and verbal, and oversee visits more adequately than in our general population facilities.”

The unit at Terre Haute includes open cells, an outdoor basketball court and a dining room with checkerboards painted on some of the tables, according to Ken Falk, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union in Indiana. He is one of the few people to see inside the unit at Terre Haute and is representing several inmates in a lawsuit (Arnaout et al. v. Warden) that alleges that the Communications Management Unit violates their religious rights.

He says Muslim inmates are allowed to do all kinds of things together, except pray. That, he says, is breaking a law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law requires the federal government to follow the least burdensome approach when it comes to peoples’ religious faith and practice.

“The problem from our perspective in the CMU is that the prisoners are out anyway and they’re allowed to engage in all sorts of activity, and they’re not allowed to engage in group prayer,” Falk says. “In fact, prisoners have been punished when two prisoners have gone back to their cells together to pray.”

Ed Ross, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, didn’t want to comment on the court cases. He says the special units help make sure inmates are monitored at all times. The units are designed for people convicted of terrorism, prisoners who have dealt drugs or tried to recruit or radicalize others behind bars; and prisoners who have abused their communications privileges by harassing victims, judges and prosecutors, Ross says.

Terrorism experts say all those restrictions in the special units might minimize radicalization inside U.S. prisons. The Justice Department inspector general and some members of Congress say that has been a big problem in the past.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Andy Worthington’s YouTube Channel Is Now Available, Featuring Guantánamo, Torture, Aafia Siddiqui, WikiLeaks and More

Just to let you know that I’ve finally got my YouTube Channel up and running, featuring some of the various films, TV shows and events I’ve been involved in for the last six months, to which new material will be added as and when it happens — and original material, if I ever get round to making my own broadcasts (but don’t hold your breath on that one!).

My YouTube Channel features the first five minutes of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (which I co-directed with Polly Nash, and which is currently on tour in the UK), videos of protests, panel discusions, and TV broadcasts filmed during my visit to the US in January to raise awareness of Guantánamo on the 9th anniversary of the prison’s opening (including an appearance on Democracy Now! and a forum on WikiLeaks and torture in New York, a panel discussion on the future of Guantánamo at the New America Foundation in Washington D.C., and the three parts of a 27-minute interview I did with Press TV), some videos from my previous US visit, as part of Berkeley Says No to Torture Week (October 2010) in October 2010, and the three parts of an interview I conducted with former Guantánamo prisoners Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed, at an event for Aafia Siddiqui in London in September 2010.

I haven’t included older material, as I wanted to keep it fairly topical, but there is older material out there, dating back to 2008, and if you think any of this should be available on the channel then please let me know. Also, because it doesn’t appear to be available on YouTube, I’m posting below the 13-minute film that Sari Gelzer of Truthout made in November 2009, featuring an interview with me, and clips from the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (which I co-directed with Polly Nash) to coincide with a visit to the US to promote the film.

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 FacebookTwitter and Digg). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Revolution in the Middle East: Brave Protestors in Syria Call for Freedom

Yesterday, as the video below shows, hundreds of Syrians braved the retaliation of the forces of President Bashar al-Assad by marching in the streets of Damascus — and also, apparently, in Aleppo — calling on Allah, demanding peace and freedom, and asking why their fellow Syrians were not out on the streets to join them on their self-proclaimed “Day of Rage,” which was inspired by similar “Days of Rage” throughout the Middle East in the past few months. Boldly, they also called for political reform, and for the removal from power of President Bashar al-Assad.

Today (March 16) around 150 protestors took to the streets of Damascus again, although they were soon stopped by the police, who arrested five people. Mainly supporters and relatives of 21 jailed human rights activists, including human rights lawyers Anwar Bunni and Muhannad al-Hassani, as well as engineers, doctors and writers, they had announced plans to lobby Interior Minister Saeed Sammur for the release of the prisoners, in a statement posted on Saturday on the website of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In the statement, in which they urged the Syrian authorities to free “prisoners of conscience” and to “stop using the politics of arbitrary detention against political opponents and civil society activists,” they said, “We have decided to give the interior minister next Wednesday at noon a letter outlining our complaints and suffering. After a long wait and rumours of an impending release of prisoners of conscience in Syria, our hopes have vanished.”

Dissent in Syria does not have the momentum of the ocean of protestors in Tahrir Square in Cairo, where, as in Tunisia, the aging bullies of the old regime were outnumbered on an almost unimaginable scale, in part because those marching yesterday not only carried the hopes of many, many others with them, but also their fears.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera five weeks ago, just before the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Lebanon, said that the biggest obstacle to large-scale protest in Syria was the notorious brutality of the ruling regime.

“First of all, I’d argue that people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt,” Houry explained. “The groups who have mobilized in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price — Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli [PDF] and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in the Massacre of Hama, in February 1982.” On that dreadful occasion, the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama to suppress a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, and murdered at least 20,000 people, and possibly as many as 40,000, in an act described by the author Robin Wright as being possibly “the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East.”

Houry continued, “I think that, in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if something [i.e. protests] would happen the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”

As Al-Jazeera also noted, “Demonstrations are unlawful under the country’s emergency law, and political activists are regularly detained.” According to the Haitham Maleh Foundation, a Syrian human rights organisation based in Brussels, “There are an estimated 4,500 ‘prisoners of opinion’ in Syrian jails,” which have a bleak reputation. In one of the unlikelier twists of the “War on Terror,” the administration of George W. Bush chose Syria as one of a handful of countries entrusted to torture prisoners on its behalf, and although one of these men — Maher Arar, a joint Syrian/Canadian national — escaped with his life (as did other Canadian citizens picked up and tortured on behalf of the Canadian government), at least ten other prisoners, including teenagers, who were rendered to Syria by the CIA, mostly from Pakistan, and mostly in 2002, have never been heard from again.

Further explanation of the Syrian people’s unwillingness to protest was described by Suhair Atassi, an activist in Damascus, who has a fearlessness that others will need to find if they are to rise up in significant numbers. She told Al-Jazeera, when asked why no anti-government protests had taken place:

Syria has for many years been a “kingdom of silence.” Fear is dominating peoples’ lives, despite poverty, starvation and humiliation … When I was on my way to attend a sit-in against [the monopoly of] Syria’s only mobile phone operators, I explained to the taxi driver where I was going and why.

He told me: “Please organise a demonstration against the high cost of diesel prices. The cold is killing us.” I asked him: “Are you ready to demonstrate with us against the high diesel price?” He replied: “I’m afraid of being arrested because I’m the only breadwinner for my family!”

Although there have been marginal changes for the better — in terms of the freedom of the Syrian people — since the death of Hafez al-Assad in 2000, when his western-educated son Bashar took over, the emergency laws enacted in 1963, when all opposition parties were banned, are still in place, and just two months ago Human Rights Watch stated that the Syrian authorities were amongst the world’s worst violators of human rights last year, as Reuters explained.

In its report, Human Rights Watch stated that, in 2010, it had received “credible reports” that there had been no fundamental improvement in the human rights situation in Syria, and that “security agencies arbitrarily detained dissidents and criminal suspects, held them incommunicado … and subjected them to ill-treatment and torture.” Researchers had also heard that “At least five detainees died in custody in 2010, with no serious investigations into their deaths by the authorities.” The report also criticized Syria for continuing to subject the minority Kurds (who number about 1 million out of a population of 21 million) to “systematic discrimination,” and concluded, “There can be no rule of law in Syria as long as its feared security services remain above the law.” Announcing the report, Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director, said, “Syria’s bleak human rights record stood out in a region where bad performers are legion.”

Nevertheless, protests have begun to take place in Syria, despite the ban on public congregations contained in the emergency laws. On February 3, Human Rights Watch reported that a small group of about 15 people, who had been holding a candlelight vigil for Egyptian demonstrators in Bab Touma, Old Damascus, had been set upon by larger group of plainclothes police, and also noted with disapproval that, the day after, Ghassan al-Najjar, the elderly leader of a small group called Islamic Democratic Current, had been arrested and briefly detained after he “had issued public calls … for Syrians in Aleppo to demonstrate to demand more freedoms in their country.”

On February 18, a much larger protest, involving 1,500 people, took place outside the central Hamidiyah souq. Apparently a spontaneous response to the beating of a local shop owner by the police, it nevertheless took on a political tone, when the crowd shouted, “The Syrian people will not be humiliated,” “Shame, shame,” and “With our soul, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Bashar.” It would have slipped no one’s attention that the revolution in Tunisia was spurred by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizia, a young man who had been humiliated by the police, or that, in Egypt, one of the main inspirations for the revolution was the cold-blooded murder, by the police, of Khaled Said, a businessman who was dragged out of an internet café in Alexandria and killed in the street in June last year.

On February 23, another protest took place in Damascus, when about 200 people staged a peaceful sit-in outside the Libyan embassy to show support for the revolutionaries in Libya, who have dared to take on Colonel Gaddafi. Again risking the escalation of a peaceful event into something far more politically charged, the Syrian authorities responded with violence.

As the Guardian described it, the authorities “warned the group to disperse but they reconvened shortly afterwards in the central neighbouring suburb of Sha’alan. When they tried to march back to the embassy they were met with a heavy police presence” — nearly twice as many police as protestors, according to witnesses — and they were then “punched, kicked and beaten with sticks.” The police also took the names of everyone present, and detained 14 of the protestors, although they were subsequently released. One witness also noted that “at least two women were among those beaten,”  and another said, “They hit two girls, I saw them on the ground crying. There were so many of them [the police], we didn’t know where they all came from.”

Perhaps demonstrating that a politicized form of dissent is beginning to take root in these transgressive gatherings in Syria, the protestors not only carried placards that read, “Down with Gaddafi,” but others with more open-ended messages — for example, “Freedom for the people.” Moreoever, the protestors also chanted slogans that were loaded with specific intent, such as, “Traitors are those that beat their people.”

Just last week, Ribal al-Assad, the director of the Organization for Democracy and Freedom in Syria (and a cousin of Bashar al-Assad, who has been in exile in London since 1999), asked, in an article for Al-Jazeera, “Is Syria the next domino?” Noting that Syria’s “secular, militarised dictatorship, [which] most closely resembles the fallen regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, may not be next in line” for revolution, he nevertheless added that it seems “to be approaching a tipping point.”

As he explained:

Most ordinary Syrians face extremely difficult economic and social conditions, including high unemployment, rising food prices, constraints on personal freedom, and endemic corruption. These factors are no different from those that brought people to the streets in North Africa and the Middle East. What began as protests over living conditions became full-scale demands for freedom and democracy.

The regime in Damascus is fearful of similar unrest, as it should be. The best way to avoid a confrontation between the people and the security forces is a process of genuine reform leading to elections and a government of national unity. The ingrained inertia of the current regime, however, seems to preclude any early move toward that.

This certainly appears to be true. Although Ribal al-Assad noted, acidly, that “Syria’s rulers are offering inducements to ensure key constituencies remain in line — laptops for teachers, subsidies for public-sector workers, and empty reformist rhetoric,” elsewhere the regime is responding with typical brutality to the first few flowerings of public protest.

Anas Qtiesh, a a Syrian human rights and anti-censorship activist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explained in an article for the Guardian last week that, although the Syrian government recently unblocked Facebook, YouTube, and Blogspot, and “Media outlets close to the Syrian regime raced to proclaim that step as a token of the government’s trust in the people,” the truth was far darker. As he pointed out, “On Valentine’s Day, Syrian blogger Tal al-Mallouhi was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly leaking info to a foreign country, namely the US.”

Qtiesh also mentioned the blogger Ahmad Abu al-Khair, who was arrested on 20 February. Although al-Khair was released after his article was written (and after a week in detention), it was clear that his reported interrogation by military intelligence officials “for posting advice on how to circumvent online censorship and demanding the release of political prisoners in Syria” was intended to send out a clear message to protestors. As Anas Qtiesh put it:

The message from the Syrian government is unmistakable: keep quiet and you will be given the trust to go about your day. A reward of an Orwellian nature, I must say. If, however, you dare to speak up, you will be disappeared faster than you can say “freedom!”

In addition, as the Guardian also explained, many Internet users who “previously used international proxy servers to bypass local firewall restrictions” are now avoiding Facebook, fearing that it is being “closely monitored,” and civil rights campaigners have pointed out that the regime has once more resorted to initimidation, with activists — or potential activists — receiving visits from the feared agents of the Mukhabarat, Syria’s military intelligence service. Some activists have apparently been “warned not to leave the country,” and it is also feared that the regime is engaged in close monitoring of internet and telephone conversations.

Even so, the “Day of Rage” on Tuesday was apparently “organized mostly through a Facebook page, which had nearly 42,000 followers.” Will the regime pursue them all, or is something building up that will be too big to quash before the authorties realize what is happening?

Reinforcing his claim that Syria may indeed be “approaching a tipping point,” Ribal al-Assad sent a message to the cousin he has not seen since 1994 via an interview with Bloomberg last Monday, in which he called on the President to “take steps to liberalize the country’s political system and allow more freedom to prevent the regional turmoil spreading to Syria.” Outlining a number of key points, Ribal al-Assad said that the President should:

  • end the state of emergency, which would be a symbolic and tangible step;
  • call on all political players to come to the table and discuss how to move forward and to form a national unity government;
  • allow all independent political parties who genuinely believe in democracy to be established;
  • release all political prisoners;
  • allow peaceful freedom of expression and association;
  • end media and Internet censorship: and
  • start processes to end state corruption.

“They have to do it, and they have to do it right away,” Ribal al-Assad added, explaining that sweeping changes in the Arab world are “long overdue.” He concluded:

People in that region have been waiting for democracy and freedom a long time, and it was time for this change to happen. We are in the 21st century. People cannot continue as is. You have satellite-television channels, mobile phones and the Internet. You cannot see how the world is advancing and accept to continue living under a dictatorship.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

BMA Emergency Meeting Calls on Government to Drop NHS Privatization

Yesterday, the British Medical Association (BMA), the union that represents 140,000 doctors and medical students in the UK and worldwide, dealt a major blow to the coalition government’s plans for the biggest overhaul of the NHS since its foundation in 1948 by voting to tell the health minister Andrew Lansley to “call a halt to the proposed top down reorganisation of the NHS” and to “withdraw the Health and Social Care Bill” that he presented to the House of Commons in January. The meeting, attended by 400 representatives of doctors’ groups from around the country, also specifically condemned Lansley’s plans as “too extreme and too rushed,” and complained that they “will negatively impact on patient care.”

Widely regarded as ideologically driven, unnecessary, ill-conceived and chaotic, and as a vehicle for the privatization by stealth of the NHS, Lansley’s bill proposes “to abolish all of England’s 152 primary care trusts,” and ten strategic health authorities, “which currently plan services and decide how money should be spent,” and to transfer all of these decisions to GPs, who will form consortia “which will take control of 80% of the NHS budget [£80 bn a year], buying services from providers in the public, private and charity sectors.”

Hamish Meldrum, the chair of the BMA, said that Lansley’s plans “could have ‘irreversible consequences’ on the organisation and on patient care,” as the Guardian explained. Although Meldrum “acknowledged that involving doctors more in decision-making” and providing more information for patients was a good idea, he specifically pointed out that, “on so many occasions, it’s the reality not the rhetoric that counts and it’s the reality that is causing all the problems.”

In carefully chosen words that will be hard for the government to dismiss, he also described the bill — and the pace of change pushed for by the government — as follows:

What we have is an often contradictory set of proposals, driven by ideology rather than evidence, enshrined in ill-thought-through legislation and implemented in a rush during a major economic downturn.

The BMA’s vote (which was enormously important, as I explained in a previous article, Save the NHS! Will the BMA Do the Right Thing, and Reject the Coalition Government’s Privatization Bill?) follows another defeat for the government at the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in Sheffield at the weekend, where a grassroots rebellion, “fuelled by fear of privatization and an undue emphasis on competition,” as the Guardian put it, and led by Shirley Williams and former MP and doctor Evan Harris, saw party members vote almost unanimously to “give councillors a central role in GP commissioning and in scrutinising foundation trusts.” Members also called for “a ban on all cherry-picking by private companies offering treatment services.”

The Lib Dems’ complaints certainly addressed some of the problems with Lansley’s bill, but the only way to address all of them is to follow the lead of the BMA, and to call for the entire wretched project to be scrapped. Few people, I’m sure, would deny that savings need to be and can be made within the NHS, as with all aspects of government spending, but unlike other areas — university funding, for example, where the main complaint is that tripling fees and withdrawing 100 percent funding from the arts, humanities and social sciences is too much of a change, over too short a time, which risks endangering the viablity of the entire university sector — the complete restructuring of the NHS has no rational basis, as the NHS is widely regarded as working well after Labour’s years of substantial investment. Even so, Hamish Meldrum identified several areas in which persistent problems remain — as he explained in his report prior to the meeting — although as he also pointed out, “Even if we were successful in preventing the whole Health and Social Care Bill being passed — which would be no mean, and probably, unachievable feat — these massive challenges will still remain.”

Despite the BMA’s vote, and that of the Liberal Democrats, Downing Street  responded to the criticism by describing the BMA’s emergency meeting as “unrepresentative of the BMA membership,” adding that it was “disappointed it had decided to oppose reforms it had previously supported.” This was particularly insulting to Hamish Meldrum, as it attempted to play down his role as chair of the BMA — and hence his powerful criticism — whilst also ignoring the fact that the representatives present were speaking and voting on behalf of the wider membership.

The criticism also ignored the fact that the BMA’s “previous support” of the reforms actually consisted of a policy of “critical engagement” with the health minister, seeking “to amend key aspects of the bill while not opposing its central tenets,” and that this failed not because of the BMA, but because, as Dr. Kevin O’Kane, chairman of the BMA’s London region, said at the weekend:

The BMA has until now attempted to have dialogue with the health secretary since he released his NHS reform white paper last summer. But unfortunately Andrew Lansley has totally ignored our concerns and has behaved in a high-handed fashion with the concerns of the BMA, other health unions, the medical royal colleges, patients’ groups and health thinktanks.

For his part, Lansley has insisted that he will “only be making minor changes” to the language of the bill in response to the Liberal Democrats’ vote on Saturday. He has yet to respond directly to the BMA, but it now seems probable, as the Guardian explained, that either “some influential cabinet figures,” who are also dissatisfied with the progress of the bill, will have to persuade the minister “to recast a bill that is losing support daily,” or the bill will be savaged at its report stage in Parliament, “where the medical profession is a strong lobby and could rip the bill apart,” especially because the vote in Sheffield “will free previously loyal Lib Dem MPs to voice opposition inside the parliamentary party.”

Should either of these approaches fail, those of us who care about the NHS — and do not want American-style privatization to take place under the watch of a minister who exemplifies the arrogance and the malignant ideology of this government — will have to take to the streets to keep Nye Bevan’s dream of universal healthcare alive. If Lansley wants a fight, then I for one am up for it. Care to join me?

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Jail Without Trial Forever: Andy Worthington Discusses Obama’s Backsliding on Guantánamo on Antiwar Radio

Last week, for our 24th Antiwar Radio interview (19 minutes, available here), the tireless Scott Horton and I discussed the latest bleak news from Guantánamo, which sets the seal on Barack Obama as the man who not only failed to close Guantánamo, but, in many crucial respects, deliberately continued the policies of the Bush administration, which he had been opposed to as a Senator.

This is how Scott described the show:

Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, discusses the quarterly fund drive that helps keep his website going; Obama’s decision to resume Military Commissions for Guantánamo prisoners; how plea bargains allow the government to avoid embarrassing issues of prisoner torture and bogus “war crimes” charges, yet may be the only way Guantánamo will ever be emptied; and Obama’s executive order that essentially recreates Bush’s Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which the Supreme Court found inadequate.

During our interview, in which, as Scott noted, he also mentioned my quarterly fundraising appeal, I explained the full story of Obama’s recent announcement regarding Guantánamo, which set the seal on his “ownership” of the prison, rather than just as someting he inherited from George W. Bush that is a legacy problem.

I discussed this in depth in my recent article, Guantánamo: Obama Turns the Clock Back to the Days of Bush’s Kangaroo Courts and Worthless Tribunals, but it was great to run through it with Scott, and to add some extra incredulity to the proceedings. Obama is not to blame for Congress’s refusal to allow him to pursue federal court trials for any of the prisoners still held, but it is his fault that the Military Commissions — a second-tier system of justice, complete with bogus war crimes — were revived, and it is not fundamentally reassuring that, in recognizing the Commissions’ weaknesses, the administration has shown itself unwilling to proceed with actual trials, and is settling instead for plea deals.

Whether this will change — as, for example, in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 — is unclear, but it seems unlikely that anyone in charge would be recommending that al-Nashiri should be freed after a plea deal, unlike two men convicted in the last year (whose charge sheets were inherited from the Bush administration) — Ibrahim al-Qosi, a sometime al-Qaeda chef, whose sentence expires in July 2012, and Noor Uthman Muhamed, a training camp instructor whose sentence expires in January 2015.

Obama is also to blame for the fact that — if these plea deals are honored, and the men are not immediately thrown back into the general population at Guantánamo (which would surely be a step too far, even for America’s hysterical lawmakers) –they are more fortunate than the 89 other men who may never be released, even though they were cleared for release by Obama’s own interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which reviewed all the men’s cases throughout 2009.

58 of these men are Yemenis, and Obama has refused to release any Yemenis since January 2010, apparently agreeing with scaremongering lawmakers and fervent supporters of Guantánamo that, since the failed Christmas Day plane bombing that year, the fact that the would-be bomber was recruited in Yemen makes it acceptable to judge all Yemenis as potential terrorists, and of “guilt by nationality.” A moratorium announced by the President last January is now 14 months old, and there are no signs of when, if ever, it will be lifted.

The other 31 are from countries where they face the risk of torture if returned, and are therefore waiting for third countries to offer them new homes. This is a process that may have run out of steam, and that once more casts Obama in a poor light, as it was the President who vetoed a plan hatched by White House Counsel Greg Craig in the spring of 2009 to bring a handful of these men to live in the US — not only because it was the right thing to do, but also because it would encourage other countries to help out.

Dispiriting though it is to realize that, ten years after Guantánamo opened, men charged with war crimes have more chance of leaving Guantánamo than men charged with nothing and cleared for release, the most unfortunate group of men in Guantánamo — who Scott and I also discussed — may well be the 47 men recommended by the Task Force for indefinite detention without charge or trial, on the basis that they are considered too dangerous to release, but that there is insufficient evidence to put them on trial.

Fundamentally, what this means is that much of the information relied upon by the Task Force was extracted from the prisoners themselves, or from their fellow prisoners, through the use of torture or coercion, and is therefore fundamentally unreliable. Examples of this kind of dubious information have regularly been exposed by judges reviewing the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions in the District Court in Washington D.C., where it has often been dismissed, contributing to the tally of 38 cases won by the prisoners, compared to 21 won by the government.

In an attempt to deflect criticism, Obama signed an executive order last week guaranteeing that these 47 men would receive periodic reviews of their cases, to ascertain whether they should continue to be held. This sounds reassuring on the face of it, although the format of the hearings is remarkably similar to the Combatant Status Review Tribunals established by President Bush in 2004, to review the prisoners’ cases, which was found to be “inadequate” in 2008, when the Supreme Court granted the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights.

Moreover, references to the prisoners’ habeas petitions serve only to highlight how the establishment of the Guantánamo Review Task Force deliberately sidlelined the habeas court, making pronouncements on the fate of the men held, even though many of them had habeas petitions outstanding, in which the judges may well have reached different conclusions.

This, plus the refusal — even after nine years — to distinguish between prisoners who are terrorist suspects and those who were nothing more than foot soldiers (and should, therefore, have been held all along as prisoners of war), makes the disposition of the 47 men a deeply politicized process, and reveals that, fundamentally, the executive order is about nothing more than attempting to justify the unjustifiable by applying a veneer of accountability to it.

In addressing these issues, I was interested to note that, last week, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a senior fellow in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, who, previously, served for 23 years as a CIA intelligence officer, denounced Obama’s plans in a blog post in which he noted:

As a retired CIA officer, I’m not “soft” on terrorism. I’m not advocating that we release dangerous terrorists. I am not saying that US laws should apply to the detainees as for citizens. But even our enemies deserve due process under the law. Even our enemies — especially our enemies — deserve a form of swift and fair justice. If some of these men are released and return to threaten us one day, then so be it; we must not be guided by fear. Terrorists can never achieve their aims through violence if we do not allow them to subvert our values. The far greater threat lies in not defending what this country stands for. Give these men their rights, as we would like for ourselves, as Americans. Then close Guantánamo.

There’s more integrity in that one line — “If some of these men are released and return to threaten us one day, then so be it” — than there has been in the entire debate, both inside and outside the administration, since May 2009, when Obama first flagged up the revival of the Military Commissions, and first announced his intention to hold some men idefinitely without charge or trial.

What it shows is that, by pandering to right-wing pressure on Guantánamo, and by living in fear of making a single “mistake” when it comes to releasing any of the prisoners, President Obama has ended up in a position where he can attempt to justify indefinite detention without charge or trial, rather than redefining soldiers as prisoners of war and holding them until the end of hostilities (which would have the same effect, but would not be a continuation of the Bush administration’s policies), where he fails to release men cleared for release by his own executive review board, and where he settles for a second-rate trial system that he denounced as a Senator.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Save the NHS! Will the BMA Do the Right Thing, and Reject the Coalition Government’s Privatization Bill?

At the heart of the coalition government’s unprecedented plans to butcher the British state — under cover of the financial crisis caused by their chums in the City – and to privatize everything that has not been privatized over the last 30 years, there is so much bad news that it is hard to keep up, let alone to organize opposition effectively. To mention just a few topics, there is university education, in which student fees are set to rise from £3290 a year to £9000 a year, and arts, humanities and social sciences courses face a 100 percent cut in funding, there is the £18 bn cut to the welfare bill, in which the poor, the poorly paid, the unemployed, the sick and the disabled are under attack, and there is the proposal to lay waste to legal aid funding, which will have a disastrous effect on the ability of ordinary people to have access to the judicial system.

Also under threat, as I discussed in a recent article, Battle for Britain: Resisting the Privatization of the NHS and the Loss of 100,000 Jobs, is the NHS, Britain’s favourite institution by a mile, despite its citizens’ persistent grumbling, which, for the most part, still does what it was set up to do over 60 years ago: look after everyone who is ill, without a penny changing hands on entry or exit from the system, and the entire mechanism operating as a giant insurance scheme for everyone, paid for through taxation.

This miracle — and if you’ve ever had a premature baby you will know what a miracle it is — is under grave threat from health secretary Andrew Lansley, whose  aim, as laid out in the government’s health and social care bill, is “to abolish all of England’s 152 primary care trusts,” and ten strategic health authorities, “which currently plan services and decide how money should be spent,” and to transfer all of these decisions to GPs, who will form consortia “which will take control of 80% of the NHS budget [£80 bn a year], buying services from providers in the public, private and charity sectors.”

As the Guardian reported on February 4, Lansley’s plans to transform the NHS in England “have united in opposition doctors, health thinktanks (and the right-of-centre thinktank Civitas), unions representing the 1.4m-strong NHS workforce, health academics, MPs on the health select committee, the NHS’s major employers, and patients’ representatives,” and this opposition has not diminished in the last five weeks, Just ten days ago, for example, Dr. Mark Porter, the chairman of the British Medical Association’s hospital consultants committee, warned that the reforms risked turning the NHS into “an increasingly tattered safety net” for those with complicated ailments (diabetes and obesity, for example), because private firms would “cherry-pick” easy patients, and could also lead to local hospitals being shut down and patients refused by private providers because their treatment would cost too much. Dr. Porter explained, in particular:

Very deliberately the government wishes to turn back the clock to the 1930s and 1940s, when there were private, charitable and co-operative providers of healthcare. But that system failed to provide comprehensive and universal service for the citizens of this country. That’s why health was nationalised. But they’re proposing to go back to the days before the NHS.

On Tuesday (March 15), there will hopefully be a decisive showdown between medical professionals and the government, leading to a climbdown on the government’s part. The trigger is a special representative meeting (SRM) — essentially an emergency general meeting — of the BMA (the trade union for 140,000 doctors and medical students in the UK and worldwide) in London, where, as the Guardian reported, “Doctors are considering passing a vote of no confidence in the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, amid mounting anger over his plans to radically restructure the NHS.”

The vote of no confidence in Lansley has been submitted by the BMA’s London regional council (its biggest branch, representing 34,000 doctors), and is just one of many motions taking careful aim at Lansley’s plans. My favourite urges the BMA, as the Guardian described it, “to reject the whole of the health and social care bill,” and to drop its policy to date, which has involved “critical engagement” with the health minister, seeking “to amend key aspects of the bill while not opposing its central tenets,” even though Lansley has shown no willingness to engage with his critics.

The motion calls on the BMA “to oppose the bill in its entirety, publicise and oppose the damaging elements of the bill [and] consider what form of action should be taken by the medical profession,” and in explaining the need for concerted action to effect a complete rethink on the government’s part, Dr. Kevin O’Kane, chairman of the BMA’s London region, said:

There’s an enormous groundswell of opinion among doctors from all around the country that they lack confidence in the secretary of state for health. The SRM is not a kneejerk response to the government’s proposed legislation. The BMA has until now attempted to have dialogue with the health secretary since he released his NHS reform white paper last summer. But unfortunately Andrew Lansley has totally ignored our concerns and has behaved in a high-handed fashion with the concerns of the BMA, other health unions, the medical royal colleges, patients’ groups and health thinktanks. Mr Lansley seems determined to plough his very lonely furrow, which will inevitably lead to the breakup of our NHS. Under the circumstances I will be very surprised if we find many doctors who have confidence in his proposals or his manner of pursuing them. Doctors are disappointed and frustrated at being sidelined by the government, and deeply concerned for the future of the NHS.

Another motion, from doctors in Buckinghamshire, states that opposition to the entire bill is appropriate because Lansley has “reneged on a pre-election promise not to reorganise the NHS,” which is correct, and has also “demonstrated his desire to destroy the public’s trust in their GPs” and “pursued policies despite a lack of evidence that they will improve either patient care or the NHS’s pressurised finances.”

Another motion, put forward by doctors in Birmingham, expands on the important question of the lies told by the government during the election campaign, proposing that the BMA “would not buy a used car off someone who had trumpeted no ‘top-down’ reorganisation of the NHS prior to being elected and then proceeds to introduce a massive and clearly long-planned reorganisation of the NHS after being elected.”

Lansley is also accused of deliberately distorting the NHS’s record to further its agenda. Several motions criticise “the government’s use of misleading and inaccurate information to denigrate the NHS” and the “cynical and misleading use of statistics by Andrew Lansley and colleagues to denigrate the achievements of the NHS over recent years.” Others claim that “this wilful misrepresentation of the achievements of the NHS shows contempt for both the public and for health professionals” and accuse Lansley of “ignoring recent successes, such as record patient satisfaction levels and fewer deaths from heart attacks and cancer.” For more on this, see this excellent Guardian article by Ben Goldacre, which includes the classic lines:

[W]hen Lansley says all the evidence supports his interventions, as he has done repeatedly, he is simply wrong.His wrongness is not a matter of opinion, it is a fact, and his pretence at data-driven neutrality is not just irritating, it’s also hard to admire. There’s no need to hide behind a cloak of scientific authority, murmuring the word “evidence” into microphones. If your reforms are a matter of ideology, legacy, whim and faith, then, like many of your predecessors, you could simply say so, and leave “evidence” to people who mean it.

I leave the final word to Kailash Chand, a GP since 1983 and the chairman of Tameside and Glossop NHS, who wrote in the Guardian yesterday:

This mother of all reforms plans to further extend the healthcare market within the health service in England, fronted by GPs, herded en masse into commissioning consortiums. They will be given £80bn of public funds to buy healthcare from a system of competing providers under an “any willing provider” policy that will see private hospitals able to provide NHS care.

For professionals delivering care, the commercialisation of the health service will lead to a situation where clinical decision-making is increasingly influenced by financial considerations leading to the erosion of the social contract between doctors and patients. This is an affront to the public service ethos that glues the NHS together. The traditional role of doctors as the true advocates of patients will soon become history, just as it has in the US. [...]

The BMA must grasp the nettle and unmask Lansley’s reform agenda for what it is – the final step in the privatisation of the service. No amendments are going to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse, and the special representatives’ meeting needs to vote in favour of rejecting the bill in its entirety. This would send out the strongest possible message that the grassroots of the medical profession have understood and rejected Lansley’s ideologically driven plans.

Note: For further action, readers can visit the following websites, where there are a number of petitions and letters:

Save the NHS: A petition (hosted by 38 Degrees) telling the government, “Don’t break up our health service and hand it to private healthcare companies” and “Listen to the the real experts — doctors, nurses and patients — when they give warnings about these plans” (over 72,000 signatures so far).
Save Our NHS: A petition urging MPs to vote against the bill (over 35,000 signatures so far).
Keep Our NHS Public: A statement “call[ing] on organisations, healthcare workers, patients and the public to campaign to protect the NHS from further privatisation and fragmentation, and to keep our NHS public.”
Royal College of Nursing: A letter opposing the cuts.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Six New UK Screenings of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” in London, Portsmouth and Sheffield, March 2011

“‘Outside the Law’ is a powerful film that has helped ensure that Guantánamo and the men unlawfully held there have not been forgotten.”
Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK

“[T]his is a strong movie examining the imprisonment and subsequent torture of those falsely accused of anti-American conspiracy.”
Joe Burnham, Time Out

As featured on Democracy Now!, ABC News and Truthout. Buy the DVD here (£10 + £2 postage in the UK, and worldwide) or here if in the US ($10 post free), and please click on the image to enlarge the poster.

Throughout 2011, Andy Worthington, investigative journalist and author of The Guantánamo Files, is touring the UK, showing the documentary “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington) and attending post-screening Q&A sessions. Amnesty International UK is providing publicity and some support for the tour, which has already involved Andy attending screenings in Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh and Nottingham, and at King’s College and SOAS in London, with other screenings already confirmed over the next few weeks in Warwick (on Monday March 14), and at the Bradford International Film Festival (on Saturday March 26 and Sunday March 27). For full details, see “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” — UK Tour Dates 2011: The “Save Shaker Aamer” Tour.

The 2011 UK tour follows a 35-date UK tour undertaken by Andy last year (often in the company of Omar Deghayes), and, for the most part, involves events arranged by Amnesty International student groups, following an initiative launched at the Amnesty International Student Conference at the Human Rights Action Centre in London in November 2010, where Andy was a speaker, and where he invited student groups to hold screenings. The tour also follows screenings in the US last October and in January this year, and a week-long tour of Poland in the first week of February 2011.

The intention of the tour, as with every screening, is to raise awareness of the truth about Guantánamo, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons and torture, explaining how the Bush administration turned its back on domestic and international laws, rounding up men and boys in Afghanistan and Pakistan without adequate screening (and often for bounty payments), and also explaining why some of these men may have been in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons unconnected with militancy or terrorism (as missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, for example).

The film focuses on the stories of three prisoners — Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who is still held, and Binyam Mohamed and Omar Deghayes (both released) — and features interviews with former prisoners Moazzam Begg and Omar Deghayes, lawyers Clive Stafford Smith and Tom Wilner, and journalist Andy Worthington, plus appearances from Guantánamo’s former Muslim chaplain James Yee, Imam Shakeel Begg, and the British human rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

Take action for Shaker Aamer!

In addition, this year’s tour focuses specifically on the ongoing plight of Shaker Aamer. Although he was cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2007, Shaker, a Saudi national with a British wife and four British children, is still held, despite the fact that, last November, he was included in a financial settlement that the British government reached with 15 former prisoners (which he obviously cannot conclude while held in Guantánamo), despite the fact that the Metropolitan Police are investigating his claims that British agents witnessed his abuse by US soldiers in a prison in Afghanistan, before his transfer to Guantánamo in February 2002, and despite the fact that the coalition government’s planned judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture abroad, announced by Prime Minister David Cameron last July, cannot legitimately start while he is still held.

In seeking to understand why Shaker Aamer has not been released, his lawyers, and everyone else who has studied his case closely, has been obliged to conclude that it is not because he poses a threat to anyone, or that he was engaged in any kind of terrorist activity, but because, as the foremost defender of the prisoners’ rights, he knows too much about the dark workings of Guantánamo, and, in particular, because, on the night in June 2006 that three men died in Guantánamo under mysterious circumstances (in contrast to the authorities’ claim that they committed suicide), Shaker has stated that he was subjected to brutal torture, and thought that he would die.

Letters to the British and American governments will be available at these events, but if you want to write now to demand Shaker’s return to his family in the UK, please visit this Amnesty International campaign page, where you can write directly to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In addition, via my site, you can also write to Foreign secretary William Hague using the template here, or write to your MP here, or write to Hillary Clinton and Daniel Fried, the US Special Envoy on Guantanamo, here.

Below is a list of six new screenings throughout the rest of March. Please note that all events are free. Further screenings (for May and June) will be added to a dedicated page for the 2011 tour, and announced via new blog entries.

March 2011

Wednesday March 16, 3 pm: Film screening – “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Followed by Q&A with Andy Worthington.
Brunel University, Brunel Law School, Lecture Centre, Room C, Kingston Lane, Uxbridge, Middlesex, UB8 3PH.

This event is organized by Brunel Law School. For further information, please contact Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos, Assistant Deputy Head, Brunel Law School.

Friday March 18, 4 pm: Film screening – “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Followed by Q&A with Andy Worthington.
Middlesex University, Room C115 , Hendon College Building, The Burroughs, Hendon, London, NW4 4BT.

This event is organized by Middlesex University Amnesty International Society. For further information, please contact Ugo Nelson. Also see the Facebook page, and see here for a map.

Monday March 21, 6.30 pm: Film screening – “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Followed by Q&A with Andy Worthington.
Queen Mary University of London, David Sizer Lecture Theatre, Francis Bancroft Building, Mile End Road, London, E1 4NS.

This event is organized by QMUL Amnesty International Society. For further information, please contact Ellen Kiely. Also see the Facebook page, and see here for a map.

Wednesday March 23, 5 pm: Film screening – “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Followed by Q&A with Andy Worthington.
Greenwich University, Lecture Theatre QA180, Queen Anne Court, 30 Park Row, London, SE10 9LS.

This event is organized by Greenwich University Amnesty International Society. For further information, please contact Rachael Pembroke. Also see the Student Union page here, and see here for a map.

Monday March 28, 5 pm: Film screening – “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Followed by Q&A with Andy Worthington.
Portsmouth University, Park Building, Room 1.23, King Henry I Street, Portsmouth, PO1 2DZ.

This event is organized by Portsmouth University Amnesty International Society. For further information, please contact Adam Bright. Also see the Facebook page, and see here for a map.

Wednesday March 30, 6 pm: Film screening – “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Followed by Q&A with Andy Worthington.
Sheffield Hallam University, Lecture Theatre 6620, City Campus, 38-40 Howard St., Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S1 1WB.

This event is organized by Hallam Isoc and Sheffield Hallam University Amnesty International Society. For further information, please contact Shezana Hafiz.

For further information, interviews, or to inquire about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Polly Nash or Andy Worthington, and please see below for the first five minutes of the film:

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

In Tunisia, the Revolution Rolls On with the Abolition of the Secret Police and the Joyful Return Home of Former Political Prisoners

In Tunisia, where the revolutionary impulses that are sweeping the Middle East began less than three months ago, with the self-immolation of 26-year old Mohamed Bouazizi, the flight of the dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14, was not just the end of a hated 31-year tyranny, but also the start of a determination on the part of Tunisia’s revolutionaries to make sure that the transition to democracy would not be derailed by remants of the old regime.

On February 27, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was the Prime Minister in the transitional government that took over from Ben Ali, responded to the largest protests since the dictator’s fall — a weekend of violent protests that left five people dead — by tendering his resignation. Ghannouchi, who had been the Prime Minister under Ben Ali for ten years,  had struggled — and failed — to convince a significant number of the Tunisian people that he represented a break with the old regime — hence the protests that led to his resignation.

His successor, Béji Caïd Essebsi, 84, is a lawyer, with a reputation for being “a political liberal,” as AsiaOne explained, noting that he “was a close aide of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president after independence,” and served in several ministerial posts. After Ben Ali came to power in 1987, he was elected a member of parliament (in 1989), and was president of the House of Deputies until 1991, when he resumed his profession as a lawyer.

Untainted by close association with Ben Ali, Essebsi immediately spoke of the elections planned for July 24, saying, “We will see to it that this election will be the first one in Tunisia’s history to take place in total credibility and transparency, which is an important step on the path of democracy,” and moved swiftly to distance himself still further from the Ben Ali years by asserting that “all persons proved guilty under the old regime will be brought to justice, starting with the deposed Head of State who committed the crime of ‘high treason,’ not to mention all those key figures of the ousted system,” as AllAfrica.com explained. He also announced a new government that “includes no new members from the old regime,” as the Guardian pointed out, although the Ministers of Defence, the Interior, Justice and Foreign Affairs kept their posts. The Guardian added that “All the newcomers are technocrats rather than career politicians,” and that they will help to facilitate the election of “a constituent assembly in late July to rewrite the Constitution.”

On March 3, the July 24 elections were offcially announced by interim President Fouad Mebazza, to choose a constituent assembly that will rewrite the Constitution and chart the country’s transition to democracy. A source close to the President’s office told Reuters that, “once elected, the constituent council could either appoint a new government or ask the caretaker executive to carry on until presidential and parliamentary elections were held.”

On March 7, Béji Caïd Essebsi also fulfilled one of the key demands of the popular revolution that overthrew Ben Ali by announcing the abolition of the hated secret police. In an official communiqué, the interim government stated that abolishing the secret police was done “in harmony with the values of the revolution.”

A brutal fixture of Ben Ali’s repressive regime, the secret police — the state security agency — had a fearsome reputation as human rights abusers. As the Guardian explained, the agency “functioned largely as a domestic spy agency and had wide powers to act against people deemed disloyal by the regime. Its officers, [who] monitored opposition politicians and journalists, could arrest people randomly” and regularly tortured those in its custody.

Ben Ali had remorselessly targeted political dissidents, including Ennahdha, a moderate Islamist party opposed to his dictatorship. In 1989, after Ennahda came second to the ruling party in elections, “officially winning about 17% of the ballot in a count widely suspected to favour the ruling party,” as the BBC put it, the party was banned. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, fled the country during a crackdown soon after, as did many members of the party, some of whom ending up living in Afghanistan or Pakistan, where a handful were unlucky enough to be picked up after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and sent to Guantánamo as terrorists. This was a label that suited Ben Ali, who had sentenced them all in absentia on charges related to terrorism that were widely regarded as being based on confessions derived from their co-defendants through the use of torture.

On March 1, Ennahdha was given legal status as a political party, paving the way for its participation in the forthcoming elections under the leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi, who returned from exile after Ben Ali’s fall. Speaking of the announced dissolution of the secret police, Ali Larayedh, a member of Ennahdha, who spent 14 years in prison for political reasons, told Reuters, “It is a dream come true for everyone. People have suffered because of them. They wrecked politics, the media and the judiciary in this country.”

Although Egypt generally seems to have been mirroring events in Tunisia, overthrowing its own dictator, Hosni Mubarak, on Febuary 11, and then forcing the resignation, on March 3, of Mubarak’s tainted Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, it is not known if events in Egypt, on the weekend immediately before the Tunisian interim government’s announcement of the dissolution of the state security agency, had influenced its neighbor’s decision. In Egypt, protestors had stormed the headquarters of the state security agency in Cairo, and several offices in other locations, including Alexandria, rescuing files, videos and torture instruments after hearing that agents had been shredding and burning documents. The events may be related, or it may simply be that, as the Guardian described it, Tunisia “has gone further than neighbouring Egypt in seeking to rid itself of an apparatus associated with decades of repression.”

Nor was this the end of the changes. Two days after this momentous announcement, on March 9, a Tunisian court dissolved Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s party, the Rally for Constitutional Democracy (RCD), announcing that it had decided “to liquidate its assets and funds.” The RCD, which has said it will appeal, was suspended from official activities in February by the Interior Ministry, after Ben Ali fled the country. As Al-Jazeera reported, “The party, which claimed a membership of two million people out of a population of around 10.4 million, was accused of violating the constitution to set up a one-party ‘totalitarian regime’ under Ben Ali.” The Interior Ministry noted that, “Since it was created in 1988, the party had never been audited and had never filed annual accounts.”

Confirmation of the extent of the changes enacted in Tunisia since Ben Ali was deposed came from a friend of mine in the UK, Ann Alexander, who told me:

On a happy note, I had a call today from Fathi Messaoudi, a Tunisian friend in London. A charismatic blind man, he had successfully sought political aslyum here, having been given a 75-year prison sentence by the Ben Ali regime.

He asked, “Guess where I’ve been?”

“Tunisia,” I said. And I was right.

He had been home for the first time in nearly 20 years and was reunited with his family and friends. He said that although he is back in London, he still feels that he’s dreaming. He told me that all the police stations were burned down. I reminded him that he told me less than a year ago that his only hope for Tunisia would be after the death of Ben Ali and we agreed that miracles happen.

He also was happy to report that all political prisoners had been released including Sayfullah Ben Hassine, his friend, who was sentenced by a military court a few years ago to 60 years imprisonment. He was on his way back to the airport when he got a call from Sayfullah to say he was released so he didn’t get the chance to meet him but they have spoken a lot on the phone since.

I have been told, although not by Fathi, that the Tunisian embassy in London contacted dissident Tunisians and offered them Tunisian passports so I think he had plenty of company on the plane.

I was delighted to hear about Fathi’s story, especially as I had the pleasure to meet this resolutely positive man a few years ago, and also to hear about the abolition of the security services in Tunisia that caused so much misery and devastation to people’s lives. I really hope that it signals the end of the false presumption, cultivated for nearly ten years now in the “War on Terror,” that devout Muslims are terrorists and that we, in the West, must support the most vile dictators to ensure that they are imprisoned and tortured and killed.

If a new world is to be formed from the ashes of these dark decades of tyranny, it will, if there is finally to be real representation of the people, include all those who contributed so decisively to Tunisia’s revolution — young people, trade unionists, women and groups like Ennahdha — and will never again lead to a dictatorship dominated by a brutal state security apparatus that, for 31 years, as in Tunisia, violently suppressed almost every murmur of dissent, and when it suited the Bush administration, was a willing partner in the disastrous “War on Terror” that, to his shame — and despite praising the will of the people in Tunisia — President Obama has done so little to overturn.

In Tunisia after Ben Ali, Abdallah Hajji (also identified as Abdullah bin Amor), a 55- year old former member of Ennahdha, was recently freed from prison, where he was serving a seven-year sentence after a show trial that followed his repatriation from Guantánamo by the Bush administration in 2007.

In Guantánamo, meanwhile, five Tunisians still languish, even though one, Lotfi bin Ali, was cleared for release by the Bush administration in 2007, and was only prevented from being repatriated after what happened to Abdallah Hajji. He, presumably, could be released immediately, and it is also likely that the other four men would now be willingly repatriated.

Instead, however, Obama seems intent on holding them indefinitely — perhaps because, after all, America likes dealing with dictators, but also, presumably, because lawmakers in Congress have insisted that they have the right to interfere in decisions regarding the disposition of prisoners, and many of them, if pushed, would state explicitly that they do not regard Tunisia as a safe country for the release of any Guantánamo prisoners — even one cleared by President Bush four years ago.

As hope continues to spring to life throughout the Middle East, it seems that, in the corridors of power in the United States, it is missing, presumed dead.

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.

Quarterly Fundraiser Day 3: Sponsor One of My Articles for $50!

Please support my work!


It’s Day 3 of my quarterly fundraising appeal, in which I take a short break from pounding my typepad into submission with despair at Obama’s cowardice, disdain for US lawmakers and the right-wing judges of the D.C. Circuit Court, and, instead, harangue you, my readers (in the nicest way possible, hopefully) for financial support to supplement my income as an independent investigative journalist. My target is $1,500, and thanks are due to the friends and supporters who have so far donated $540.

If you can help out at all, please click on the “Donate” button above to make a payment via PayPal. All contributions are welcome, whether it’s $25, $50, $100 or $500, and you can pay via PayPal without even having to log in to the system. As one of my supporters explained, “Just type your details and when they ask you to use PayPal, do not log in. It says, ‘continue without log in.’ Simple. Straightforward.”

Readers can pay via PayPal from anywhere in the world, but if you’re in the UK and want to help without using PayPal, you can send me a cheque (address here — scroll down to the bottom of the page), and if you’re not a PayPal user and want to send a check from the US (or from anywhere else in the world, for that matter), please feel free to do so, but bear in mind that I have to pay a $10/£6.50 processing fee on every transaction. Securely packaged cash is also an option!

In an attempt to keep things creative, I’m revisiting a proposal I slipped into a fundraising update yesterday, providing links to the 28 original articles I have written for free for this website since my last fundraising appeal in December. These articles, written in between my regular assignments for my part-time employers at Cageprisoners and the Future of Freedom Foundation, cover some of my usual turf — Guantanamo and torture — but also cover the revolutionary upheavals in the Middle East, the unprincipled assaults on the British state (in the areas of education, welfare, the NHS and much more) that are being undertaken, with indecent haste and relish, by the arrogant, inexperienced and ideologically driven coalition government in the UK, the reawakened stirrings of labor activism in the US, the saga of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and the plight of the alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning.

On the spur of the moment while writing that article, I suggested that readers could, if they wished, cover the otherwise unpaid hours I spent writing these articles (which are published exclusively here on my website, at the rate of two a week, on average) by sponsoring an article that they particularly liked. I was reassured when one supporter immediately offered to sponsor one of these articles, for $50, which now has a note thanking him for his support.

In a way, I suppose, this idea arose out of the “Like”, “Share” and “Retweet” buttons that we encounter all the time in our browsing, crossed with the “Donate” buttons that many of us in the reader-funded new media — as opposed to the advertising-led traditional media — rely on to supplement our income from other sources. I think it could catch on as another way of supporting writers who, all too often, end up unrewarded for their work, so if you want to try it out, please go ahead, and I’ll have you added as a sponsor of your chosen article in no time!

Thanks again for all your support, which I appreciate wholehearedly, whether or not you choose to — or are able — to support me financially. I haven’t forgotten — and I hope I never will — that spreading the word about injustice and encouraging people to take action is in many ways its own reward, and that I’m fortunate to have so many people who follow my work with such great enthusiasm.

Andy Worthington
London
March 11, 2011

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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
Email Andy Worthington

The Guantánamo Files book cover

The Guantánamo Files

The Battle of the Beanfield book cover

The Battle of the Beanfield

Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion book cover

Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion

Outside The Law DVD cover

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo

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