25 Former Prisoners Urge President Obama to Close Guantánamo

8.5.13

From left to right, former Guantanamo prisoners Asif Iqbal, Jamil El Banna, Jamal al-Harith, Feroz Ali Abbasi, Bisher al-Rawi, Shafiq Rasul, Rhuhel Ahmed and Martin Mubanga, photographed by Andy Hall for the Observer in January 2012.As the prison-wide hunger strike continues at Guantánamo, the danger — following President Obama’s news conference last week, when he finally deigned to talk about Guantánamo — is that the mainstream media will think, as they did in 2009, that merely talking about the prison in a critical manner is equivalent to closing it.

The truth, four years on, is that the situation at Guantánamo is so horrendous that no prisoners are being released, even though 86 of the remaining 166 men were cleared for release by an inter-agency task force, appointed by President Obama, which issued its final report over three years ago.

56 of those prisoners — who include 26 Yemenis — are identified here. 30 others, whose names are not included, are also Yemenis, whose release was made contingent on a perceived improvement in the security situation in Yemen. The task force gave no indication of how this decision would be made, and who would take it, but in the event all the Yemenis had their release blocked by President Obama, following a failed bomb attempt by a Nigerian man recruited in Yemen, on Christmas Day 2009.

That ban, officials said last week, remains in place, prompting David Cole, in the New York Review of Books, to write on May 2:

The administration … says that it is concerned about the Yemeni government’s ability to prevent individuals from joining militant groups that may want to attack the United States. But if these men have been cleared for release, then the military has determined that their detention is no longer warranted by security concerns. Is it moral or legal to hold these men simply because their home country is unstable? Shouldn’t the onus be on us to uphold their right to freedom, and then provide whatever assistance we deem necessary to reduce any risk to an acceptable level?

The answer to that question is a resounding yes, but President Obama must also take immediate action to free the other 30 men cleared for release — either in the US, if they cannot be safely returned home, and no third countries are prepared to take them, or by returning them home as swiftly as possible, as in the cases of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident, whose family awaits his return in London, and the last five Tunisians.

To do so, President Obama needs to overcome Congressional opposition, in the form of onerous restrictions on the release of prisoners in the National Defense Authorization Act, but if lawmakers fail to cooperate, he can — and must — use a waiver in that legislation, allowing him to bypass Congress and free prisoners if he regards it as being “in the national security interests of the United States.”

In the hope of contributing to the necessity for keeping the injustice of Guantánamo in the public eye, and keeping the pressure on President Obama to do what needs to be done, rather than what is politically comfortable (doing nothing), I’m posting below an open letter to President Obama written by 25 former prisoners and published on Sunday in the Observer.

I also urge readers, if they have not already done so, to sign and circulate the petition to President Obama on Change.org, urging the President to renew his efforts to free prisoners and close the prison, which was launched last week by Col. Morris Davis, and which currently has over 180,000 signatures.

Open letter from former Guantánamo prisoners
The Observer, May 5, 2013

Former inmates of the notorious prison say Barack Obama must made good on his claim to want it closed

The hunger strike by our former fellow prisoners at the Guantánamo prison camp should have already been the spur for President Obama to end this shameful saga, which has so lowered US prestige in the world.

It is now in its third month and around two-thirds of the 166 prisoners there are taking part. They are sick and weakened by 11 years of inhumane treatment and have chosen this painful way to gain the world’s attention. Eighty-six of these men have been cleared for release by this administration’s senior task force. Who can justify their continuing imprisonment? This must be ended by President Obama.

Since the opening of the prison camp, numerous prisoners held at Guantánamo have sporadically taken part in hunger strikes to protest their arbitrary imprisonment, treatment and conditions. This, however, is the first time the overwhelming majority of the prisoners are taking part — and for such an extended period.

It will, in a few months, be 12 years since the first prisoners were sent to Guantánamo by the Bush administration to avoid fair treatment and fair trials. At first the world was shocked by the images of shackled kneeling men in orange jumpsuits wearing face masks, blacked out eye-goggles and industrial ear muffs — in order to prevent them from seeing, hearing and speaking. Then they were mostly forgotten.

However, over time their voices did get heard as recurrent and corroborative stories of torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment came out when some of the men who endured it were released. Of the 779 prisoners once held at Guantánamo, 612 have been released — without charge, or apology. We are among these men and it is through our testimony — and that of the prisoners left behind, via their legal teams — that the voices of those who know the evil of Guantánamo are finally being heard.

Last week, a report by the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, which included two former senior US generals, and a Republican former congressman and lawyer, Asa Hutchinson, who served as administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency from 2001 before being appointed in January 2003 as Undersecretary in the biggest division of the Department of Homeland Security, described the practice of torture by the US administration as “indisputable”. The report also stated bluntly that the treatment and indefinite detention of the Guantánamo prisoners was “abhorrent and intolerable” and called for the prison camp to be closed by next year. Despite these findings the US administration continues to employ tactics that include:

  • The abuse of the prisoners’ religious rights, such as the desecration of the Qur’an
  • The use of chemical sprays and rubber bullets to “quell unrest”
  • Regular and humiliating strip searches
  • Extremely long periods in total isolation
  • Interference in privileged client/attorney relationships
  • Lack of meaningful communication with relatives
  • Arbitrary imprisonment without charge or trial

The present hunger strikes are a result of the culmination of over a decade of systematic human rights violations and the closing of every legal avenue for release. The appalling methods of force-feeding several of the prisoners in a crude attempt at keeping them alive, by strapping down their arms, legs and heads to a chair and forcing a tube through their nostrils and forcing down liquid food into their stomachs, demonstrates the absence of any morals and principles the US administration may claim to have regarding these men.

President Obama claimed he wanted to close Guantánamo and promised to do so. Four years after his initial promise, he has again acknowledged that Guantanamo is not necessary and must close. Speaking on 30 April 2013, the US president reaffirmed his commitment as it was, “not necessary to keep America safe, it is expensive, it is inefficient … it is a recruitment tool for extremists; it needs to be closed.”

We hope that on this occasion, such words are not mere empty rhetoric, but a promise to be realised.

  1. We make the following recommendations:
  2. For the American medical profession to stop its complicity with abusive forced feeding techniques.For conditions of confinement for detainees to be improved immediately.
  3. That all detainees who have not been charged should be released and
  4. That the military commissions process should be ended and all those charged should be tried in line with the Geneva Conventions.

Signed, former prisoners,

Moazzam Begg, UK
Sami Al-Hajj, Qatar
Omar Deghayes, UK
Jamal al-Hartih, UK
Ruhal Ahmed, UK
Richard Belmar, UK
Bisher al-Rawi, UK
Farhad Mohammed, Afghanistan
Waleed Hajj, Sudan
Moussa Zemmouri, Belgium
Adel Noori, Palau
Abu Bakker Qassim, Albania
Adel el-Gazzar, Egypt
Rafiq al-Hami, Tunisia
Salah al-Balushi, Bahrain
Sa’d al-Azami, Kuwait
Asif Iqbal, UK
Shafiq Rasul, UK
Feroz Abbasi, UK
Jamil el-Banna, UK
Murat Kurnaz, Germany
Sabir Lahmar, France
Lahcen Ikassrien, Spain
Imad Kanouni, France
Mourad Benchellali, France

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

25 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Sorry to be posting so late. I was out all evening at an event for Bradley Manning in the Century Club on Shaftesbury Avenue, organised by Naomi Colvin and Katia Michael, and moderated by Jolyon Rubinstein. Delighted to share a panel with Chase Madar (lawyer and author) and Ben Griffin (ex-SAS, now Veterans for Peace UK), and also to have Julian Assange speak to the crowd via video link from the Ecuadorian embassy. Peter Tatchell also spoke, as did Vivienne Westwood. A very powerful evening!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Rosie Much wrote:

    thank you andy for all your work

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you for caring, Rosie.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Kathleen Kelly wrote:

    Andy, I keep emailing Obama, Hagel, my Senators and Congressman, every week. Bless you for keeping this issue in the forefront when so many others have just let it go.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Rosie Much wrote:

    and bless you Kathleen for your dogged determined work – it will work and i’m glad to hear via various Facebook friends in the US how the momentum is building.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Beyond Words wrote:

    Sad

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I echo Rosie, Kathleen. Thank you for your determination – and thanks also for the supportive words. They help me to keep going.
    And Beyond Words, yes, that’s an accurate response. But, as Kathleen shows, and I hope to have been demonstration through my work for the last seven years, we need to respond to the sadness with action.

  8. nasar says...

    God bless you andy, been following your articles and trying to keep up with your activism, God bless you and God help the people caged up in Guantanamo.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Nasar, for the wonderfully supportive words. Very much appreciated!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy thanks, we have to keep the pressure on Obama. Shared, tweeted.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Willy. Good to hear from you.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Sharing, Andy

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Doug Tarnopol wrote:

    Sharing, and keep up your great and I presume lonely and psychologically demanding work!

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Doug. Much appreciated. “Lonely and psychologically demanding” is very apt – it’s not always like that, but it certainly is sometimes.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Kathleen Kelly wrote:

    You roused me to action on this subject and I’m certain that your work has a wide-ranging impact that you can’t even comprehend. The American media silence on this issue has been deafening; it makes me ashamed.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, thank you, Kathleen. That really encourages me!
    I’ve not had the best day, to be honest, as I found out that one of my income streams is drying up. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s significant enough to mean that I don’t have enough money coming in to carry on working as I’m doing now. I have my thinking cap on …

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Terence Weyenberg wrote:

    Obama tried to close Gitmo, but Congress said no.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    But there’s a waiver in the legislation that Congress passed, Terence, which allows Obama to bypass Congress and release prisoners when doing so is “in the national security interests of the United States.” That time is now. Holding men forever and letting them die when they have been cleared for release is not is “in the national security interests of the United States.”

  20. Tom says...

    Like many others here, I’m really trying to focus not on others and what I don’t have control over. Instead, doing what you can in creative ways to get the message out.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. Much appreciated.

  22. Willy Bach says...

    Wow Andy

    Chase Madar, Ben Griffin, Julian Assange via video link and Peter Tatchell – that sounds like a really good event. Say hello to Ben for me.

    Regards
    Willy Bach

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Willy,
    Thanks for the good wishes. It was a very powerful event, actually. I hadn’t met Chase or Ben before, so that was a real pleasure for me. Peter was only around for a quick speech, and then had to go somewhere else, and Vivienne Westwood was also there, and also addressed the audience — twice!
    I’m hoping that video of the event will be available soon, and I’ll also be posting a call for support soon for the international day of action in support of Bradley Manning on June 1.

  24. Naziya says...

    Thank you for all your efforts.God bless you all.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    And thank you, Naziya, for the supportive message.

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Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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