As the 12th anniversary of the opening of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay approaches (on January 11, 2014), the run of good news regarding the situation at the prison continues, with the news that two prisoners — Ibrahim Idris, 52, and Noor Uthman Muhammed, 51, have been released to Sudan, and the Senate has voted to ease restrictions imposed by Congress over the last three years. The release of the two men brings the number of prisoners released this year to eight, and the total number of prisoners still held to 158.
Until recently, there had been three years of inaction regarding Guantánamo, when just five prisoners were released by President Obama. This inaction had been caused because of opposition in Congress and the president’s refusal to spend political capital overcoming that opposition. Of the five men released, two — Ibrahim al-Qosi and Omar Khadr — were amongst the handful of prisoners regarded as so significant that they had been put forward for military commission trials, and had agreed to plea deals that stipulated how much longer they should be held, and three — an Algerian and two Uighurs, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province — had their release ordered by a US judge, after they had their habeas corpus petitions granted (before the appeals court in Washington D.C. rewrote the habeas rules, so that no prisoner could be released through a legal challenge).
The three years of inaction came to an end in August, when two Algerian men — Nabil Hadjarab and Mutia Sayyab — were released, who, like over half the men still held, had been cleared for release by a high-level, inter-agency task force that President Obama appointed shortly after taking office in 2009. Their release followed a promise to resume releasing prisoners that President Obama made in a major speech on national security issues in May.
That speech — and the appointment of envoys in the Pentagon and the State Department to help with the release of prisoners and the eventual closure of the prison — was prompted by a prison-wide hunger strike, undertaken by the majority of the men still held at Guantánamo, who had lost hope of ever being released, or of being given anything resembling justice, and with good reason.
The release of those two Algerians was followed at the start of December with the repatriation of Djamel Ameziane and Belkacem Bensayah, two more Algerians who had long been cleared for release, although, sadly, both of these men feared being sent home, and, last week, by the return to Saudi Arabia of two more cleared prisoners, Saad al-Qahtani and Hamoud al-Wady, the latter of whom had long been regarded as a Yemeni.
The releases of the two men to Sudan are to be commended, although the circumstances were rather different to the six men released in the last four months.
The first, Ibrahim Idris, had, like these six, been cleared for release by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, but, as Carol Rosenberg explained in the Miami Herald, “Congress has blocked transfers from Guantánamo to nations designated by the United States as a ‘state sponsor of terror’ [and] Sudan is on the list.”
What particularly spurred Idris’s release was a decision by the Justice Department not to contest his habeas corpus petition, the first time that the Justice Department has done so, which was followed by a judge ordering him to be freed. As I explained in an article in July, “The Schizophrenic in Guantánamo Whose Lawyers Are Seeking to Have Him Sent Home,” this was because Idris, as the Miami Herald described him, is “an obese, diabetic, schizophrenic Sudanese man who has mostly lived at Guantánamo’s psychiatric ward since he got to the US terror prison in Cuba on the day it opened.”
In her habeas submission to Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the District Court in Washington D.C., Idris’s lawyer, Jennifer Cowan, described Idris’s predicament, and why he should be freed, as follows:
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. When interpreted in accordance with domestic law and the principles of international law, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (“AUMF” [the law passed by Congress after 9/11, which authorizes the detention of prisoners at Guantánamo]) does not permit the continued detention of Mr. Idris.
The other man, Noor Uthman Muhammed, was not cleared for release, but is another of the seven prisoners who have been subjected to military commission trials and have either been sentenced after trials (in two cases) or have agreed to plea deals (in the five others). Like David Hicks and Salim Hamdan (released under George W. Bush), and Ibrahim al-Qosi and Omar Khadr (previously released under President Obama), Muhammed agreed to a plea deal when his case came to trial in February 2011.
A sometime trainer at a military training camp in Afghanistan — one that, it should noted, was not aligned with Al-Qaeda — Muhammed agreed to a plea deal that gave him 34 months of additional imprisonment prior to his release, a 34-month period that came to an end this month.
As I explained at the time of his plea deal, I believed that one reason the authorities wished to avoid a trial was because the camp Muhammed attended, Khalden, was run by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who, under torture in Egypt (where he had been rendered by the CIA after his capture in Afghanistan), made lies about connections between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, which were used to justify the US-led invasion of Iraq, and who died in a Libyan prison in 2009 after being returned to Col. Gaddafi. Another reason for the plea deal, I thought, was because the camp’s gatekeeper was Abu Zubaydah, still held at Guantánamo, an alleged “high-value detainee,” for whom Bush’s torture program was first approved. Initially touted as Al-Qaeda’s number 3 and subjected to waterboarding (an ancient form of torture, involving controlled drowning) on 83 occasions after his capture in 2002, Zubaydah, it turns out, was never a member of Al-Qaeda at all.
For further information about Noor Uthman Muhammed, I recommend Tyler Cabot’s detailed article for Esquire from 2011, which I cross-posted with additional commentary here.
As with all the plea deals arranged at Guantánamo — and the two military commission convictions after trials — the US has always claimed that it could continue to hold prisoners as “enemy combatants” even after their sentences have come to an end, but this is, of course, an unacceptably outrageous proposal, and even under President Bush it was never attempted. More significantly for the Obama administration, however, it has been considered important to release prisoners on the date agreed to in their plea deals because the authorities have been trying hard to persuade other prisoners to agree to plea deals, generally in exchange for providing information about their fellow prisoners.
As the time approached for Noor Uthman Muhammed’s release, Charlie Savage reported for the New York Times about the delays in processing him for release, but by the start of December, as Reuters reported, it was clear that he would be repatriated.
On their return to Sudan, Idris said, at a press conference, “We have been subjected to meticulous, daily torture,” and added that the prisoners who embarked on a hunger strike were “double tortured … on an isolated island, surrounded by weapons.” He also said, “We were helpless.”
He also explained that Noor Uthman Muhammed was not able to be at the press conference because he had been taken to hospital to convalesce.
It is, of course, extremely important that the Obama administration sticks to the agreements it has made in plea deals at the military commissions, but it remains unavoidably true that another prisoner regarded as significant enough to be put forward for a trial (even though he was not any kind of major player) has been released while 79 prisoners who are so insignificant that they were cleared for release are still held.
Two-thirds of these men are Yemenis, and action needs to be taken in the new year to begin releasing these men. It is almost exactly four years since President Obama imposed a ban on releasing the Yemenis who had been just cleared for release by his own task force because of the uproar that followed a failed airline bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009 that had been hatched in Yemen.
In May, when President Obama promised to resume releasing prisoners, he also dropped his ban, but no Yemenis have yet been freed. It is now time that President Obama begins to release some of these men, who, for the last four years, have been held on the basis of “guilt by nationality.” No more excuses are acceptable.
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, and “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.
See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 77 prisoners released from February 2009 to December 16, 2013, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 —1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; October 2009 — 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody; December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah); December 2009 — 2 Somalis, 4 Afghans, 6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Uzbek to Switzerland, 1 Egyptian, 1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania, 1 Palestinian to Spain; March 2010 — 1 Libyan, 2 unidentified prisoners to Georgia, 2 Uighurs to Switzerland; May 2010 — 1 Syrian to Bulgaria, 1 Yemeni to Spain; July 2010 — 1 Yemeni (Mohammed Hassan Odaini); July 2010 — 1 Algerian, 1 Syrian to Cape Verde, 1 Uzbek to Latvia, 1 unidentified Afghan to Spain; September 2010 — 1 Palestinian, 1 Syrian to Germany; January 2011 – 1 Algerian; April 2012 — 2 Uighurs to El Salvador; July 2012 — 1 Sudanese; September 2012 — 1 Canadian (Omar Khadr) to ongoing imprisonment in Canada; August 2013 — 2 Algerians; December 2013 — 2 Algerians, December 2013 — 2 Saudis.
On Facebook, J.d. Gordon wrote:
Thanks for your detailed analysis, Andy. Perhaps you & friends interested in Gitmo might like to see my latest column for a second opinion. While your analysis may sound reasonable at first read, my question for you is, “how many more innocent civilians will die at the hands of ex-Gitmo terror suspects you have fought so hard to help release?” You are aware that ex-Gitmo men have included leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and a suicide bomber, right?
“Americans should brace for shock.” Really, J.d.? I saw that scaremongering headline the other day. One of these two men was released because he is severely mentally ill, and the other was released because he made a plea deal that stipulated that he would be released in December 2013. You really don’t have a case of any kind to make, and nor, frankly, does Fox have the right to publish such one-sided drivel.
J.d. Gordon wrote:
Andy, if you take just a minute read the column carefully… you’ll see I was writing about the two Saudis released earlier in the week, one a suicide mission volunteer, even according to NYT. And then I discuss the next wave of 80 who will be released soon under terms on the NDAA. Please at least read my columns before posting a response. Believe it or not, I do read all of your blog posts.
Yes, I’ve just followed the link, J.d. The New York Times, bless them, are just reporting what has been claimed by the US military, so that they can claim to be objective, but that’s just a lazy way of not challenging the allegations head-on. I think it’s extremely unlikely that al-Qahtani had “volunteered for a suicide mission,” as his file states. It was, you will note, an unnamed “senior al Qaeda member” who reportedly said this. He wasn’t identified, but it could have been Abu Zubaydah, or another “high-value detainee” held in CIA “black sites” and subjected to torture – oh, sorry, “enhanced interrogation” – which makes it more likely than not a lie, something that was made up to please the interrogator, or to get them to stop what they were doing.
As for the “next wave” of releases, J.d., you should know as well as I do that 49 of the men who may be released because of the easing of restrictions imposed by Congress were cleared for release (“approved for transfer”) by Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force in its final report in January 2010. This task force consisted of around 60 sober and responsible officials from the main government departments and the intelligence agencies, so I think they were more qualified to make decisions than either you or I.
25 of these 49 men are Yemenis, and another 30 Yemenis were also cleared for release by the task force, but only when it is decided by the authorities that the security situation in Yemen has improved sufficiently for that to be a safe outcome.
That will obviously need further discussion, but the same is not true of the 49 others. They need to be released, J.d., and that should be the end of the story. Otherwise, I’d like to know why you think that you’re better informed than Obama’s task force.
J.d. Gordon wrote:
Thanks, Andy. I appreciate the fact that you read my column this time. And I’m very glad you asked that important question. My response: Pres. Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force of 2009 was suspect from the start, as it clearly had political marching orders from the White House to clear as many detainees for release as humanly possible. I know this because I was the Pentagon spokesman for the Western Hemisphere at the time, and thus, partially responsible for officially speaking for the task force as part of my official duties. This “task force” included Jennifer Daskal, who became an Obama senior political appointee in early 2009 directly from her job as Senior Counsel, Human Rights Watch, where she made her career out of lobbying for closing Guantanamo. I know this because Jennifer and I spent a considerable amount of time together at Guantanamo over several years. Though we disagreed on the merits of Guantanamo, we were always cordial and professional, unlike some of the other visiting NGOs. She is a nice person, and I have a lot of respect for her. The newly appointed Attorney General, Eric Holder, had come from his post as Senior Partner, Covington & Burling, one of the top Washington, DC law firms providing pro bono services to Gitmo detainees since the beginning. There were a total of 9 senior political appointees with Team Obama who had made a significant portion of their careers out of legal defense for Al Qaeda suspects. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I bear them no malice or grudge for doing so. However, placing such individuals both on the Guantanamo task force, and more importantly, with top political positions senior to the task force was something of a sham. It was hardly an objective, credible task force. So to answer your question, yes, after my 4 years, and hundreds of interagency senior meetings on Gitmo detainees including at the White House, and over 30 extended visits to Guantanamo, I was infinitely more qualified than most of the people on that so-called interagency review. I hope that is responsive to your question. And after the task force weighed in to clear every detainee they could, including Jenn Daskal, she eventually had a change of heart, coming to a very different conclusion from when she started. Jenn is brave to admit her previous position on closure Gitmo was wrong. And unlike retired Marine Major General Mike Lehnert, no one can say Jenn’s NYT Op/Ed in Jan. 2013 was politically motivated, as there is absolutely no chance political benefit for her to write such things while Barack Obama still has years left in office. I’m sure you are aware of her NYT Op/Ed, but for our friends, I’m re-posting it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/11/opinion/dont-close-guantanamo.html?_r=0
Where to begin, J.d.? Jen Daskal didn’t change her mind about the need to close Guantanamo; just about the options for doing so, as anyone can see if they read her opinion – which, for the record, was an opinion she should have kept to herself, as it was not helpful to those of us trying to get Guantanamo closed.
As for yourself, well, thanks for coming clean on your self-regard. So you believe you are better qualified to decide what should happen to the men held at Guantanamo than 60 officials on President Obama’s task force, on the basis that you think that some of these people were political appointees with an agenda who were incapable of being objective. Would you like to tell me exactly how many of the 60 people on the task force were incapable of analyzing the prisoners’ cases objectively, and who all of them are? For your argument to work out, you need to be able to give me at least 31 names of people who, it can be established objectively, approved the release of prisoners, instead of approving their ongoing detention without charge or trial, or their prosecution, not because of the supposed evidence against them, and the military’s analysis of who they were and what risk they supposedly posed, but because of purely political considerations.
And perhaps afterwards you can explain why it would make sense to approve the release of people who might be dangerous if these supposedly biased task force members had Obama’s best interests at heart, because releasing anyone who subsequently engaged in activities against the US would be damaging to the president. Your argument really doesn’t make any sense at all.
And while you’re at it, perhaps you can explain what the political bias was when dozens of men still held were approved for transfer by military review boards under President Bush?
J.d. Gordon wrote:
Thanks, Andy. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but I don’t believe you’ve ever held a senior government post, or been involved in the decision making process @ 10 Downing St., or anywhere in the U.K. govt. Is this correct? Thus you really don’t know how it is to be given marching orders from political leaders running your country. The Guantanamo Review Task Force was given marching orders, which they obeyed carefully. Some were political appointees, some were not. Though since it was an interagency project spearheaded by DoJ and DoD, one of the top officials presiding over the work was Attorney General Eric Holder, who had been a senior partner with a law firm that represented Gitmo detainees. Ever hear of conflict of interest? The law of self-preservation would have made it foolhardy for those 60 officials with the task force to challenge him, or President Obama on this. As for the years of detainee review boards under Pres. Bush, they also let too many go… due to intense U.S. domestic and international political pressure. So congratulations, your grass roots activism helped to free about 200 detainees who returned to terrorism, including leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and a suicide bomber. I hope you are proud. Which is why I’ve always advocated “Andy’s Half-Way House” for ex-Gitmo men. Easy to romanticize the story of Gitmo detainees when you don’t actually know them. Or have to live with the risk they pose. Cheers.
This could go on forever, J.d., and I’m signing off for the night now. So just before I go, I’d like to make it clear to anyone reading that I don’t believe that the Guantanamo Review Task Force had marching orders to approve the release of as many prisoners as possible. I believe that they took seriously the responsibility only to approve for release those who they thought would not harm the US in any way after their release because to do otherwise would have been counter-productive for the US and for the president.
J.d., I repeat that your ideas make no sense, as it would have been disastrous for Obama if released prisoners ended up causing harm to the US. The decisions had to be made on the individual merits of each case.
J.d. Gordon wrote:
O.K., thanks Andy. In closing, my only retort is that my ideas make sense… though Obama’s counter-terrorism policies do not. How else can one explain the obsession with closing Gitmo and releasing Al Qaeda & Taliban suspects who are likely to rejoin the fight, with a paradoxical obsession on drone strikes which have increased six-fold from under the Bush administration, combined with NSA surveillance on the entire world, including US citizens. Until the next time then.
Beyond Words wrote:
Dear Andy, I wonder if they’re human beings. Torturing innocent cleared prisoners like this is utterly horrifying and cruel. This torture is way beyond human tolerance. God have mercy on these helpless innocent beings. May such barbaric torture exist no more.
Thanks for the comments, Beyond Words. Good to hear from you.
Mui JS wrote:
Good article, Andy. Good picture of Idris.
Not to bait any trolls, but jd’s the one who was arguing the danger of mentally ill patients who psychiatrists would refer to as practically “moribund.”
I hope this patient can recover.
Thanks, Mui. Much appreciated.
Sharon Askew wrote:
“The Guantánamo Bay Naval Base: The United States and Cuba—Dealing with A Historic Anomaly”
By Michael Parmly
Thanks for the links, Sharon. That looks like an interesting article.
your self-congratulatory, smug diatribes increasingly make me feel like I’m listening to the distorted -so as to not sound human anymore- voice of Big Brother (the original one, not his TV reality show epigones) trying to lecture me. Luckily, we haven’t arrived at that reality yet and endlessly repeating government propaganda does not make it any more true.
May I quote you:“how many MORE innocent civilians will die at the hands of ex-Gitmo terror SUSPECTS?”
Before being able to answer that question though, one needs more information from your side.
In order to guess how many MORE such civilians will die, we first need to know how many already have died? And was that before or after the suspects were holidaying in GTMO?
You seem to agree that they in the worst case were terror SUSPECTS, so until a lawfull court has proven otherwise there’s no reason to believe that they ever killed anyone at all, let alone innocent civilians, whether before ending up in Guantanamo or after having been allowed to leave it.
I understand that you would so much want were it only one of them to kill some one, just so he would prove your point, so I write this question of yours down to wishful thinking.
On the other hand, there is ample evidence of how many innocent civilians already have died at the hands -so to speak- of the government you so proudly represent, including some eight weddings and counting. Scores of innocent clvilians -mainly women and children- murdered on the basis of unverified sloppy intelligence, by bombs which supposedly never ever target civilians. In reality however, it would seem that even the slightest suspicion -whether true or false- that there might be a suspected person among the revellers, is reason enough to blast all of them off the surface of the earth.
So kindly spare us your sanctimonious lectures about poor Americans having to be protected at all cost -including kidnap, torture, indefinite detention, murder- against a few thoroughly destroyed human beings which might manage to get out of Guantanamo. If you want to protect your fellow countrymen -an excellent idea as such- don’t let them keep so many guns under their mattrasses as they evidently are not mature enough to use them exclusively when in mortal danger; don’t feed them computer games full of murdering for the sake of patriotism which confuses them as to whether criminal behaviour is ever acceptable; don’t support TV stations which glorify murder and torture in their sit-coms.
Ever heard of something called overkill?
And while we’re at it, next time think twice before arming and financing shady groups like AlQaida when you think it’s to your advantage. Yet you[r government] keep doing it.
They might just turn against you some day and when they do, don’t blame the wrong -innocent-people for your own folly.
As for Mr. Mike Lehnert and revolving doors : beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So is filth.
And finally, as for offering hospitality to a released Guantanamo prisoner, do not worry, no one expects you to volunteer.
That however, should not be a reason to sneer at those who do.
Who knows what perfectly sane fancies you have that other people would find equally weird, yet refrain from ridiculising?
Thank you as always, Anna, for your comments. I hope the Christmas season treats you well, and I look forward to the next time our paths cross!
[…] in which, in exchange for a guilty plea, he received a sentence of two years and ten months. He was repatriated to Sudan in December 2013. On January 9, 2015, he was the third prisoner to have his conviction overturned, […]
Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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