Two weeks ago, when lawyers in the US Justice Department decided — for the first time — not to contest the habeas corpus petition of a prisoner in Guantánamo, it was a cause for celebration. The man in question, Ibrahim Idris, a Sudanese man in his early 50s, is severely mentally ill, as he suffers from schizophrenia, and is also morbidly obese. As his lawyer Jennifer Cowan explained, “Petitioner’s long-term severe mental illness and physical illnesses make it virtually impossible for him to engage in hostilities were he to be released, and both domestic law and international law of war explicitly state that if a detainee is so ill that he cannot return to the battlefield, he should be repatriated.”
As I explained in my most recent article, “Some Progress on Guantánamo: The Envoy, the Habeas Case and the Periodic Reviews,” it is disgraceful that the Justice Department lawyers responsible for dealing with the Guantánamo prisoners’ cases have “vigorously contested every petition as though the fate of the United States depended on it.” I have long been outraged that, in particular, “petitions have been fought even when the men in question have been cleared for release by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force,” as I described it.
I am unable to explain why there has been no cross-referencing of cases between the task force (which involved officials from the Justice Department) and the Civil Division of the DoJ, or why Attorney General Eric Holder has maintained the status quo, and no other senior official, up to and including the President, has acted to address this troubling lack of joined-up thinking. However, it is to be hoped that it signals the possibility for further successful challenges by prisoners who are ill — as well as opening up the possibility for cleared prisoners to call for their release through the habeas process.
As I also mentioned, the Associated Press followed the news about the Justice Department refusing to contest Ibrahim Idris’ habeas petition (and Judge Royce Lamberth’s subsequent ruling, ordering his release) by reporting that, as I described it, “lawyers for another severely ill prisoner, Tariq al-Sawah (aka Tarek El-Sawah), an Egyptian, are also seeking his release, and lawyers for Saifullah Paracha, a Pakistani who is very ill with cardiac problems, also spoke to the AP about their client’s case. Noticeably, neither man was cleared for release by the task force, but it is clear their illnesses are not something that the authorities can endlessly ignore.”
As the AP explained, Saifullah Paracha, who is 66 years old, “has a heart condition serious enough that the government brought a surgical team and a mobile cardiac lab” to Guantánamo to treat him, although he “refused the treatment because he didn’t trust military medical personnel.” As I explained in an article in 2007, Paracha is regarded as an al-Qaeda sympathizer by the US, but he has always disputed their arguments, claiming that he is nothing more than a businessman.
Tariq al-Sawah, an explosives expert for al-Qaeda who became disillusioned with his former life and has cooperated extensively with the authorities in Guantánamo, is also seriously ill. As the AP described it, he is “in terrible shape after 11 years as a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, a fact even the US military does not dispute.” 55 years old, his weight “has nearly doubled” in his long imprisonment, “reaching more than 420 pounds at one point, and his health has deteriorated as a result, both his lawyers and government officials concede.”
His lawyers — and a doctor who has examined him — paint what the AP described as “a dire picture” of “a morbidly obese man with diabetes and a range of other serious ailments,” who “is short of breath, barely able to walk 10 feet, unable to stay awake in meetings and faces the possibility of not making it out of prison alive.”
Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason, a military lawyer appointed to represent him when he was charged in the military commissions at Guantánamo in 2008 (and who still represents him even though the charges were subsequently dropped), told the AP, “We are very afraid that he is at a high risk of death, that he could die at any moment.”
In August, his lawyers filed an emergency motion with a federal court in Washington D.C., asking a judge to order the military to provide “adequate” medical care. As the AP described it, this includes “additional tests for possible heart disease and a device to help him breathe because of a condition they say is preventing his brain from receiving enough oxygen.”
As the AP added, the judge hasn’t yet ruled on the motion, but the request about medical care is secondary to a request for the US to release him. As with Ibrahim Idris’s case, they state that “his health is too poor for him to pose any kind of threat.” As Lt. Col. Gleason noted, “It boggles the mind that they are putting up a fight on releasing him.”
Callously, Justice Department lawyers responded by stating that, although al-Sawah “is currently in poor health, his life is not in imminent danger.”
The AP also noted that al-Sawah, who is average height (5′ 10″), weighed 215 pounds when he arrived at Guantánamo in May 2002, although another of his lawyers, Mary Petras, told the AP “he was obese by the time she first met him in March 2006.”
His lawyers hope that a judge will grant their motion, but if not they hope that the newly established Periodic Review Boards (for 71 prisoners, out of 164 in total, who have not been cleared for release) will reverse the decision, made in January 2010 by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, to recommend him for prosecution.
As the AP noted, al-Sawah has high-level support for his claim, because he has “received letters of recommendation from three former Guantánamo commanders,” which they describe, accurately, as “a rare string of endorsements.”
In one letter, retired Army Maj. Gen. Jay Hood called him “a unique prisoner” who was “unlike the violent Islamic extremists who formed much of the population at Guantánamo.” Another, Rear Adm. David Thomas, noted his “restricted mobility due to obesity and other health issues.” Adm. Thomas recommended his release in his Detainee Assessment Brief in September 2008, which was released by WikiLeaks in 2011, and only later contradicted by the task force.
“Most striking,” as the AP noted, is “a letter from an official whose name and job title are redacted for security reasons,” who spent several hours a week with al-Sawah over the course of 18 months. He noted that al-Sawah has been “friendly and cooperative” with US personnel, and stated, “Frankly, I felt Tarek was a good man on the other side who, in a different world, different time, different place, could easily be accepted as a friend or neighbor.”
These are powerful statements in support of al-Sawah, but what I find just as persuasive — and which is only alluded to above, and was not mentioned at all by the AP — is the fact that, back in March 2010, in an important article for the Washington Post, Peter Finn reported that al-Sawah and another prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Muaritanian, “had become two of the most significant informants” in Guantánamo. As a result, they were “housed in a little fenced-in compound at the military prison, where they live[d] a life of relative privilege — gardening, writing and painting — separated from other detainees in a cocoon designed to reward and protect.”
What was particularly shocking about this was the refusal of the authorities to reward the men for their extensive cooperation by releasing them.
As Finn noted:
Some military officials believe the United States should let them go — and put them into a witness protection program, in conjunction with allies, in a bid to cultivate more informants.
“I don’t see why they aren’t given asylum,” said W. Patrick Lang, a retired senior military intelligence officer. “If we don’t do this right, it will be that much harder to get other people to cooperate with us. And if I was still in the business, I’d want it known we protected them. It’s good advertising.”
Peter Finn also noted that a military official at Guantánamo at the time of his article had “suggested that that argument was fair,” although he stated that it was “a hard-sell argument around here.”
The only possible acknowledgement of al-Sawah’s status referred to in the recent discussions came at one point in the AP article, when it was noted that, although he had “faced charges of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism,” the government “withdrew those charges and told his lawyers that prosecutors had no intention of filing them again for reasons that have not been made public.”
As those charges were dropped, not to be reinstated, despite the task force’s recommendation that he be prosecuted, those dealing with al-Sawah’s case should acknowledge W. Patrick Lang’s comments about informants, as well as accepting that some prisoners are too ill to hold.
In addition to the severely ill prisoners under discussion at the moment (Ibrahim Idris, Tariq al-Sawah and Saifullah Paracha), there are undoubtedly other prisoners who are severely ill. I know of a handful of cases, but do not feel it appropriate to discuss them unless their lawyers believe it to be useful.
As the AP also noted, ”two prisoners have died from natural causes — one from a heart attack, the other from colon cancer,” and several prisoners have “raised medical complaints” related to their participation in this year’s prison-wide hunger strike.
Cori Crider, the Strategic Director of Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent 15 Guantánamo prisoners, said, “There are a whole slew of people with a whole slew of serious health problems.”
Note: In an article to follow, I will analyze Tariq al-Sawah’s story as reported in the last 15 months in the Egyptian media, and specifically by Tom Dale in the Egypt Independent.
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).
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How could someone become obese in prison? The prison controls the calories. They are killing him with food.
Thanks, Sandy. Yes, that’s certainly one way of putting it. It’s clear that, when Tariq put on a colossal amount of weight, it coincided with his usefulness as an informant, so I think we can state with some certainty what his reward was for his bountiful cooperation – yes, as much food as he wanted. Pretty disgusting behavior, really.
Mui JS wrote:
Actually the weight thing may not be on purpose. It’s a problem with prisoners on US mainland as well, particularly those not guilty by reason of insanity. It may have to do with meds, but other factors as well like general unhappiness. diabetes becomes apparently an issue.
Kinda why you don’t want to lock up people who’ve never done harm.
Thanks, Mui. Yes, those are very good points as well. I think what we can say for certain is that whatever has been driving Tariq is unhealthy, and certainly involves a profound unhappiness. When I think about his case, I must say that I continue to be appalled that the reward for being an apparently useful informant, post-9/11, is not release, but just a few comfort items. What a great advert for cooperation from would-be informants (not)!
Mui JS wrote:
Yes, as one person said to me once about involuntary confinement: I’d eat myself sick too if I was locked up.
I don’t know, Andy. Who says anyone had any useful info to begin with? And what wasn’t tainted by torture? You’d think they’d bag the whole ghastly gulag, but it continues for reasons we can only guess at. I’m thinking embarrassment (for CIA, Bush, Blair, MI5 etc.), legal issues, contractors and so on. It’s certainly not about honesty. And then we had senators calling for the latest kidnap victim from Libya to be gulagged.
I think hardly anyone had any useful information to begin with, Mui, and I certainly hope I didn’t give the opposite impression, as it’s a crucial part of the story – the false statements provided by the prisoners under duress or through bribery provide an indictment of the incompetence and cruelty of the authorities on a scale that is almost impossible to believe.
However, in the specific case of Tariq al-Sawah, while he may not have been the useful informant that the US stated he was in 2010, the US’s own position makes no sense if people regarded as useful informants (whether they are or not) continue to be imprisoned with only a few perks to differentiate their cooperation from that of the “uncooperative” prisoners.
As for the reasons the whole sordid, shameful existence of Guantanamo has not been brought to an end, you are certainly partly right about the major players and government departments and intelligence agencies implicated. However, it’s also become a stand-off between those who should be doing much more to close it – Obama, in particular, who has been made fearful in case any released prisoner “returns to the battlefield” – and those who, for cynical reasons, or because they are wedded to an Islamophobic worldview, exaggerate everything abut the prisoners, and have done from the beginning, when Rumsfeld spoke about “the worst of the worst.” Check out J.d.Gordon’s regular comments here for proof.
Oh, and Mui, yes, the regular calls for new “terror suspects” to be sent to Guantanamo, as with Abu Anas al-Liby, are profoundly misguided, and another big reason why Guantanamo must close. Its continued existence allows people who enjoy imprisoning people for life without having to explain why – and torturing these people with impunity – a dangerous opportunity to indulge themselves. One of the few good things that Obama has done, with regard to national security, is to refuse to bow to these demands. Kidnapping and questioning on ships both remain unacceptable policies, but at least the end destination is federal court.
Mui JS wrote:
hard core islamophobes are well compensated according to a report by CAIR.
Nicer people are always underfunded.
Yes, there never seems to be a shortage of money for right-wing think tanks, Mui.
[…] 27. Tarek El-Sawah (aka Tariq al-Sawah) (ISN 535, Egypt) was charged on December 12, 2008. In April 2012, the charges against him were dropped on the advice of Michael C. Chapman, the legal advisor to the convening authority. In October 2013, I reported how his lawyers were seeking his release because he is physically and mentally ill. See, “Lawyers Seek Release from Guantánamo of Tariq Al-Sawah, an Egyptian Prisoner Who is Very Ill.” […]
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