Tariq Ba Odah, Hunger Strikes, and Why the Obama Administration Must Stop Challenging Guantánamo Prisoners in Court

5.8.15

Members of the campaigning group Witness Against Torture hold up a banner featuring an image of Tariq Ba Odah outside the White House in June 2015 (Photo: Matt Daloisio via Flickr).In June, I wrote an article, “Skeletal, 75-Pound Guantánamo Hunger Striker Tariq Ba Odah Seeks Release; Medical Experts Fear For His Life,” about the desperate plight of Tariq Ba Odah, a Guantánamo prisoner who has been on a hunger strike since 2007 and is at risk of death. His weight has dropped to just 74.5 pounds, and yet the government does not even claim that it wants to continue holding him. Over five and a half years ago, in January 2010, the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established when he took office in 2009 to review the cases of all the prisoners still held at that time, concluded that he should no longer be held.

The task force approved 156 men for release, although Tariq was one of 30 placed in a category invented by the task force — “conditional detention,” made dependent on a perception that the security situation in Yemen had improved or “an appropriate rehabilitation program or third- country resettlement option becomes available,” as his lawyers described it.

Collectively, the whole of the US establishment has — with one exception — refused to repatriate any Yemenis approved for release since January 2010 (after a foiled terror plot was revealed to have been hatched in Yemen), although, since last November, the administration has been finding third countries willing to offer new homes to Yemenis approve for transfer — in part became of persistent pressure from campaigning groups. 18 Yemenis have so far been found homes in third countries — in Georgia, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Estonia and Oman — so all that now ought to prevent Tariq Ba Odah’s release is if the US government proves unable to find a third country prepared to offer him a new home.

However, lawyers in the Justice Department disagree. In June, Tariq’s lawyers asked the District Court to reinstate his habeas corpus petition, which he previously launched in September 2006, but dropped in March 2014, because, as his lawyers put it, “in his already weakened state, Mr. Ba Odah could not effectively participate in mounting a defense to the government’s allegations against him.”

Tariq’s request provided a perfect opportunity for the government to avoid a potential death at Guantánamo of someone they no longer want to hold, but his lawyers at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights have, in the last week, stated that lawyers for the government, in the Civil Division of the Justice Department, have announced their intention to challenge Tariq’s habeas corpus petition.

The Civil Division of the Justice Department has been a key player in maintaining the existence of Guantánamo throughout its long and unjustifiable history. The Civil Division’s lawyers have persistently made life as difficult as possible for lawyers attempting to visit their clients at Guantánamo, and have fought tooth and nail against every single habeas petition submitted by the prisoners, with just one exception — the severely ill Sudanese prisoners Ibrahim Idris, whose petition was granted unopposed in 2013.

Disgracefully, the Justice Department lawyers have repeatedly challenged habeas petitions submitted by prisoners whose release has already been approved by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, as in Tariq’s case, and, just as disgracefully, no one in the mainstream US media has challenged them — until now.

As I explained back in October 2013, when Idris’ habeas petition was granted unopposed:

What is particularly noteworthy about the Justice Department’s decision in the case of Ibrahim Idris is that it marks the first time that the Civil Division lawyers — those responsible for dealing with the prisoners’ habeas petitions — have backed down. In place since the days of George W. Bush, the lawyers have vigorously contested every petition as though the fate of the United States depended on it. This may make sense given the adversarial nature of the law, but what doesn’t make sense is that petitions have been fought even when the men in question have been cleared for release by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force.

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.

Prisoners subjected to this lack of joined-up thinking (see my definitive habeas list here for further details, and the full prisoner list here) include Saeed Hatim, a Yemeni whose habeas petition was granted in December 2009. He was then approved for release by the task force, but the government appealed his successful habeas petition, and the court of appeals — heavily biased in favor of ongoing detention — vacated his successful petition in February 2011. In February 2010, judges turned down the habeas petitions of two other Yemenis approved for release by the task force, Suleiman al-Nahdi and Fahmi al-Assani, a process repeated in March 2010 in the case of another Yemeni, Mukhtar al-Warafi.

In July 2010, Hussein Almerfedi, another Yemeni approved for release by the task force, had his habeas petition granted, but that ruling was overturned on appeal in June 2011. Hussein was finally freed in Slovakia in November 2014, but Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, another Yemeni, was not so fortunate. Approved for release by the task force, he had his habeas petition granted in July 2010, but it was overturned on appeal in October 2011. In September 2012, Latif died at Guantánamo, and, as I explained at the time, all three branches of the government bore responsibility for his death.

Also in July 2010, Abdul Rahman Sulayman, a Yemeni approved for release by the task force (but placed in the “conditional detention” category) has his habeas petition denied, as did Shawali Khan, an Afghan, in September 2010. Khan was finally freed in December 2014. In October 2010, Tawfiq al-Bihani, another Yemeni, had his habeas petition turned down, even though he had been approved for release by the task force (and had also been placed in the “conditional detention” category).

In August 2011, Fadel Hentif (aka Fadil Hintif), another Yemeni approved for release by the task force, had his habeas petition turned down, although he was finally released in Oman in January 2015. The same thing happened in October 2011 with Abdul Qader Ahmed Hussein (aka Abdul Qader Ahmed Hussein, Ahmed Abdul Qader), who was finally released in Estonia, also in January 2015 — and please see here for a powerful dissenting opinion by Judge Harry T. Edwards after Hussein’s appeal was turned down in June 2013. By 2012, lawyers for the prisoners more or less gave up on the habeas petitions they had fought for for so long, because of the appeals court’s scandalous rewriting of the rules, which effectively killed habeas corpus for the prisoners, and also because of the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to intervene.

Finally, however, in an editorial in July 29, the New York Times has provided a high-level call for the Justice Department to police itself in the name of justice for the men held at Guantánamo. As the editors note, following the example of Tariq Ba Odah’s case, President Obama could “instruct the Justice Department not to stand in the way of low-risk inmates who are actively seeking their release through habeas corpus petitions,” so that “[j]udges could approve release without having to rule on the merits of each case or rule on the government’s detention authority.”

The editors also note that there are currently around ten men with active habeas corpus petitions, and that instructing the Civil Division not to challenge the habeas petition of men already approved for transfer out of Guantánamo “could expedite the release of several of the 52 men who have been cleared for release,” and “would take the country one step closer to correcting a legal travesty that began more than 13 years ago,” when the prison at Guantánamo Bay opened.

I hope the administration pays attention to the Times‘ editors’ proposal, which would bypass the cumbersome need for the defense secretary — currently dragging his heels on Guantánamo — to provide 30 days’ notice to Congress prior to any prisoner release, and to certify to lawmakers that every effort to mitigate the potential risk posed by a released prisoner has been taken. I’d also like to see the administration revisit some of those cases when the Guantánamo Review Task Force’s decisions were ignored by the Justice Department (Saeed Hatim, Suleiman al-Nahdi, Fahmi al-Assani, Mukhtar al-Warafi, Abdul Rahman Sulayman and Tawfiq al-Bihani) as well as other decisions taken before the task force issued its report, of prisoners whose habeas petitions were turned down, but who were then approved for release by the task force.

The first of these is Adham Ali Awad, a Yemeni whose habeas petition was turned down in August 2009. He was then approved for release by the task force (and placed in the “conditional detention” category) in January 2010, but he had his appeal denied in June 2010. Also in August 2009, Mohammed al-Adahi, another Yemeni, had his habeas petition granted, but that was overturned on appeal in July 2010, six months after the task force recommended his release (and also placed him in the “conditional detention” category).

Below I’m cross-posting the New York Times editorial, and also, for those who missed it, an article in Rolling Stone about Tariq, written by his lawyer, Omar Farah, a tireless campaigner for justice whom I have met on many occasions, and with whom I spoke at an event in New York in January.

While Guantánamo Logjam Endures, Some Prisoners Could Be Freed
New York Times editorial, July 29, 2015

American national security officials concluded more than five years ago that Tariq Ba Odah, a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, should be released because he doesn’t pose a major risk. Mr. Ba Odah, a Yemeni citizen who has been on a hunger strike since February 2007 and is subject to forced feeding, is emaciated. Fearing that he could starve to death in the near future, his lawyers recently filed a petition challenging his detention.

Senselessly, the Department of Justice has said it will fight it, according to Mr. Ba Odah’s lawyer.

The Obama administration’s plan to shut down the prison at Guantánamo Bay has been hamstrung by Republican lawmakers and by President Obama’s current and former secretaries of defense, who have been slow to sign off on individual releases, as required by law.

While Mr. Obama’s aides wrestle with these political and bureaucratic logjams, cases like that of Mr. Ba Odah and some other inmates present the president with options. He may instruct the Justice Department not to stand in the way of low-risk inmates who are actively seeking their release through habeas corpus petitions. Judges could approve release without having to rule on the merits of each case or rule on the government’s detention authority.

That could expedite the release of several of the 52 men who have been cleared for release. It would take the country one step closer to correcting a legal travesty that began more than 13 years ago when the first prisoners arrived at the prison President George W. Bush created for the particular purpose of evading American constitutional and moral constraints. Of the 116 remaining prisoners at Guantánamo, approximately 10 have active habeas corpus petitions.

Mr. Ba Odah, who was never charged with a crime, began refusing to eat more than eight years ago. Since then, military personnel have fed him forcefully by inserting a liquid formula through his nostrils. Medical experts who have studied his case say Mr. Ba Odah, whose weight dropped to 74 pounds earlier this year from 140 pounds in 2007, “is gravely malnourished and in danger of catastrophic physical and neurological impairment and even death.”

If he were to die in custody, Mr. Ba Odah would become the first inmate at Guantánamo Bay to die from malnutrition. That would be a shameful outcome that Mr. Obama can easily prevent.

Using habeas petitions to release a handful of inmates in the near future would be sensible. Significantly reducing the population at Guantánamo, though, will require Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to start authorizing transfers. His predecessor, Chuck Hagel, was forced to resign in large part because White House officials felt he was being too slow to authorize the release of detainees. But Mr. Carter, who has been on the job since February, has yet to authorize new proposed transfers. Under current law he is required to assert to Congress that the United States has taken adequate measures to mitigate the risks posed by the release of any inmate from Guantánamo.

There is a practical need for Mr. Carter to stop dragging his feet: Several members of Congress are attempting to impose even stricter restrictions on inmates’ release than currently exist. Lawmakers are in the process of reconciling the House and Senate versions of the annual National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate version retains the current restrictions, which bar the transfer of prisoners to American soil. The House bill includes provisions that would make it practically impossible to release new inmates to any destination.

The lawmakers’ indefensible overreach on detainee policy was aptly described by the retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens during a speech he delivered in May. “These onerous provisions have hindered the president’s ability to close Guantánamo, make no sense, and have no precedent in our history,” Justice Stevens said. “Congress’s actions are even more irrational than the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II.”

Tariq Ba Odah’s Eight-Year Hunger Strike at Guantánamo Bay
By Omar Farah, Rolling Stone, July 6, 2015

Tariq Ba Odah would be a slight man, even if he were willing to eat. His shoulders are barely wide enough to keep his orange prison uniform in place. His wrists are childlike and his hands delicate, veins visible all the way to the ends of his fingers. When his arm is straightened, he can almost touch the tip of his pinky to his thumb around his own bicep. The combination of his raised cheekbones and beard cast a shadow down the side of his face. His eyes and nose are naturally large, though they take on particular prominence now that his weight has fallen under 80 pounds. Ba Odah’s curly black hair, which he keeps shoulder-length, does little to fill out his profile. The office chairs in the cells in Camp Echo, where Guantánamo prisoners and attorneys typically meet, appear to swallow Ba Odah up. Sores plague him. The pain in his stomach and back cause him to shift in place moment to moment. All of this gives Ba Odah the appearance of, as a fellow prisoner put it, a bird about to take flight. But Ba Odah has been caged at Guantánamo for more than 13 years, despite being cleared for release by the nation’s top national security agencies. He is 36 years old.

Ba Odah arrived at Guantánamo like so many other prisoners who have passed through its wire gates. For reasons he does not understand, he says he was arrested by local police in Pakistan and handed over to American forces. A stubborn myth about the men at Guantánamo is that at some point they were all squared off against U.S. soldiers with guns drawn, and were captured and shipped off to Guantánamo to neutralize the threat they posed. The well-documented but little known reality is that following its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. military ran a slipshod, bounty-based dragnet that ensnared hundreds of men and boys whose worst crime was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Ba Odah says he was among them – sold into U.S. custody and then rendered to Guantánamo at roughly 23 years old. The trip was a harbinger of what lay ahead. For two days on the transport plane he says he was drugged, and his hands, legs and waist were tied “to the point of feeling that his body would be ripped apart.” A rotten black cover was placed over his head. He says he was “dying a thousand times every moment because of the inability to breathe.”

Today at Guantánamo, Ba Odah is what is known as a “long-term” hunger striker. Ba Odah has not eaten – not voluntarily, at least – since February of 2007. As a result, he is force-fed, usually in the morning and again in the evening. Guards remove Ba Odah from his cell, several at a time in protective gear, strap him to a restraint chair, and medical staff force a liquid supplement through his nose and into his stomach. “Waterboarding,” Ba Odah calls it, both for the obvious torture analogy and because, at times, it has caused him to urinate and vomit.

I traveled to Guantánamo to see Ba Odah in March. I met with him again on April 21. Ba Odah had recently passed the eighth anniversary of his hunger strike, but he was not in the mood to reflect: “I don’t feel the days anymore.” Ba Odah doesn’t feel much of anything anymore. “My body gets so numb; no sensation,” he said, rapping his knuckles on the arm of his chair to illustrate the point. Apparently, this is a symptom of starvation. And with military doctors saying Ba Odah is now only 56 percent of his ideal body weight, there is no doubt he is starving. The Defense Department’s force-feeding regimen is not working. When Ba Odah lifted his prison smock, I had to look down. All I managed to write in my legal pad was “does not look like body of human; every bone visible.” Imagine liberation photos of Holocaust survivors, and you will have a sense of what I saw. Ba Odah sat back in his chair and said, “My life is not like it was. This is the hardest I have ever had it.”

My visit in April was the most recent in a series of meetings that began five years ago. By the time Ba Odah and I first met face-to-face in 2010, I had already been his lawyer for two years. Agreeing to introduce himself to me in person was a decision Ba Odah weighed carefully. Guantánamo has taught him to be leery of leaving his cell. What follows is rarely pleasant: over the years, he has endured more humiliating interrogations than he can remember; when the prison administration rotates him to a new cellblock, typically it is to make his confinement more isolative. Even visits to the prison clinic are coercive; Ba Odah complains of an array of physical ailments, from a collapsing nostril to bloody stools, but says simple medical assistance is withheld to compel him to abandon his strike. Worse still, in recent years, the prison administration implemented pretextual searches of the prisoners’ genital areas whenever they enter or leave the cellblock. So it was understandable that Ba Odah consistently declined my meeting requests. Indeed, much of our initial contact was through “refusal” notes – handwritten messages attorneys send to persuade Guantánamo prisoners to attend a scheduled legal meeting.

No matter how challenging attending meetings may be, it must still seem odd to those unfamiliar with Guantánamo that someone enduring what amounts to an indefinite sentence without ever being charged or tried would refuse the assistance of counsel. But Ba Odah has seen well-meaning lawyers come and go at Guantánamo for a decade, while little has changed for him. As he observes, only the cells change, becoming rustier and more decrepit by the year – a visual reminder of the time that has elapsed.

There is no shortage of blame to go around for Guantánamo’s continued operation. My March trip to the prison happened to coincide with Tom Cotton’s tightly scripted media tour – one would have thought the freshman senator would visit Guantánamo before his “rot in hell” stunt at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February. My visit in April followed the launch of Marco Rubio’s presidential bid, during which he called for Guantánamo’s expansion and declared the six prisoners recently freed to Uruguay, each unanimously cleared by multiple national security agencies, “a danger … for our country and the world.” Meanwhile, Republican senators are seizing on ISIL’s bloodthirst to ram through legislation intended to halt all Guantánamo releases indefinitely. Yes, fearmongering around Guantánamo is old news, but the stakes remain high – higher now than ever. With less than two years left in the White House, President Obama now says he failed to close Guantánamo only because of politics, rhetoric and fear. It is a haunting admission considering the suffering Ba Odah so easily could have been spared.

Unsurprisingly, in Ba Odah’s view, lawmakers, the courts and the president are all part of the same system that keeps him locked up and far from his family. To make his point, Ba Odah often gestures to the lock on the cell door where we meet and says, “The men who brought me here on the first day, those are the only ones with the power to let me out when it’s my last.” I am hard-pressed to disagree. But, surely, as the person with ultimate power over Ba Odah’s fate, President Obama bears unique responsibility for the fact that today, Ba Odah remains in isolation at Guantánamo, bracing himself for his next feeding.

Ba Odah believes the Obama administration is consistent only in that it never does what it says it will. Upon taking office, President Obama vowed not only to close Guantánamo within a year, but also to ensure living standards for the prisoners were compliant with the Geneva Conventions. Yet, in some objectively measurable ways, Ba Odah’s detention was more tolerable before President Obama took office.

Ba Odah says it was not until May 2009 that he was transferred to Guantánamo’s notorious Camp 5, where prisoners are held in isolation cells. Almost without interruption, Ba Odah has been committed to solitary confinement ever since. “Days go by and I do not speak to a soul,” Ba Odah said during a March 2012 meeting. And the little recreation time he is allowed – sometimes just two hours per day – has been scheduled during hours not customarily devoted to physical fitness. “As I have already mentioned to you,” Ba Odah wrote to me in a letter, “I’ve been spending 24 hours a day inside the cell for a long period of time, and that is due to the myriad problems I have been facing. The prison officials scheduled my two-hour recreational walk for three o’clock in the morning. The purpose of such scheduling is to increase the pressure on me. At that hour, I will still be on my own, even in the rec area.” In response, Ba Odah has also gone on “no wash” protests, once refusing to leave his cell, shower or cut his nails for four months. “I looked like I crawled out of a grave. Finally the military asked me to stop and gave me back my full rec privileges.” The sad reality is that, whether alone or not, Ba Odah is often too weak to take advantage of the little sunlight he is permitted.

For allowing his Department of Defense to mismanage Guantánamo, President Obama should come in for withering criticism. Of course, even if Guantánamo were the “state-of-the-art” detention facility it is often said to be, it would do little to ameliorate Ba Odah’s suffering. Like most at Guantánamo, he is tormented by the rational fear that, after more than a decade, his cell may one day become his coffin. Nine Guantánamo prisoners have already met that fate. The failing of the judiciary and Congress notwithstanding, the president alone is empowered to avert such a disaster. From November 2014 through January 2015 – in just three months – he freed 27 men. That was more than in the prior three years combined. The White House wields remarkable power to effect transfers when it chooses to do so. Yet, all too often, it shows little interest in martialing that power.

Though Ba Odah does not despair, he is under no illusions about the Gordian knot ensnaring him at Guantánamo. No matter the occupant of the Oval Office, the partisan makeup of Congress, the base-commander presiding or the guards on duty, his detention is a game with a predetermined outcome: the prisoners lose until someone more powerful spares them. In the interim, they pay a heavy price. As Ba Odah puts it: “Freedom should be much more precious for the human being than all the desires on earth.” Detention, therefore, is brutal; indefinite detention, mercilessly so.

At Guantánamo, however, indefinite detention is compounded by the indignity inherent in a system that seems to encourage prisoners’ participation only to mock them. Why else create elaborate administrative and judicial processes – Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT), Administrative Review Boards, Periodic Review Boards, Inter-Agency Task Force reviews and habeas corpus hearings – that after 13 years still have so little to show for themselves? Ba Odah, like so many others at Guantánamo, sees it as little more than the elevation of process over justice. The purpose, he says, is to pacify a prison population enduring unspeakable suffering. This is why he easily draws comparisons to the institution of slavery. “I was arrested on the second day of Eid Al-Fitr,” he writes, “then sold into the United States’ 21st century slavery market. As far as I am concerned, all of this pressure, humiliation, limitless injustice have been solely aimed at breaking me and breaking my brothers so that they could manipulate us … and plant in us despair and mentally enslave us just like they have physically enslaved those before us.”

Ba Odah finds redemption in protest, one organized around the principle of non-participation. Ba Odah refused to submit to a CSRT – the sham tribunals established by the Bush administration to determine who, among the hundreds of men then at Guantánamo, were “enemy combatants.” Ba Odah was similarly reluctant (and, in any event, physically unfit) to litigate his habeas petition. And, as I recounted, from 2008 until 2010, he would not even sit down with his own lawyer. It goes without saying, however, that Ba Odah’s refusal to eat is the most uncompromising form of resistance through non-participation. “I tell them again and again that I don’t want any food from them … I just don’t want it. All I want is for them leave us alone, lingering in these cells. They want me to eat, but first I have to be subjected to humiliation … The provocation is never-ending.” Therefore, Ba Odah says, his hunger strike will never end. “My method of delivering my message is through hunger strike. You can cut me to pieces, but I will not break it. I will stop on one of two conditions: I die, or I am freed and allowed to return to my family.”

Ba Odah’s discipline is humbling. His typical day is “split between praying, reading Qur’an…and contemplating memories of the past.” Sometimes he will practice walking in his cell for exercise, “three steps forward and three backwards.” The monotony is interrupted only when guards arrive to force-feed him. Ba Odah has explained that he views these as moments when his will is tested against the guards’. All too often discussion of force-feeding fails to go beyond the shocking physical details. That is understandable. According to Ba Odah, violently force-feeding prisoners has been the Department of Defense’s preferred approach to breaking strikes. Ba Odah’s descriptions of feeding sessions in 2006 and 2007 are grisly: “I was tortured with the restraining chair when they were filling my belly with two packs of Ensure. The doctors would introduce a 14 size tube with a metal end inside my nose to reach my stomach and sometimes my lungs, and when they would take it out it would be filled with blood.” Yet, for Ba Odah, hunger striking is an expression of his vitality. The physical pain, therefore, pales in comparison to the psychological trauma of having the very jailors responsible for his ordeal overbear his will in such an intimate way.

Though powerless to prevent the feedings, Ba Odah nonetheless takes pride in his fortitude. He believes he has accomplished a rare feat that, while a far cry from actual freedom, is profoundly liberating. As in any detention setting, much of the prison administration’s control at Guantánamo comes from providing (and depriving) prisoners of “comfort items” – books, recreational time, communal living assignments, anything that makes imprisonment more tolerable. Through his hunger strike, however, Ba Odah has removed the ultimate mechanism of leverage. In an environment as hostile as Guantánamo, for Ba Odah, even the primal drive to eat is a vulnerability to be conquered. He explained in a series of letters in 2013: “My body has become frail and weak, but spiritually I feel that I am a thousand times stronger than I was before. It has been seven years since I have tasted food.” He wrote later that “even the pungent smell that used to stay on my fingers after eating” is a lost memory. “I have prevailed over man’s innate weakness towards food and drink. I feel honored and proud because I sacrificed food and drink for the sake of my freedom.” By his own definition, Ba Odah has prevailed, and yet that victory has surely taken its toll.

During one of our meetings in 2014, Ba Odah looked particularly weary. His physical deterioration is the predictable result of his protest, but it is no less unsettling. We talked for a little while about how he is holding up. I try not to dwell on the subject, however. Ba Odah chose this course with eyes open; it is arduous enough without worrisome questioning. In any case, he knows all too well how he has been transformed. Other than the occasional wry smile, his face recalls a death mask more than that of a man in his thirties. As Ba Odah writes, “one day, I looked at my face in the mirror and was shocked; I would say more saddened. I felt the mirror was looking at me [and] asking if that was really me.” During this particular meeting, Ba Odah shared more than he usually does about how it feels to be bed-ridden in a filthy cell, carried away by force to be fed with tubes. He wondered openly how much more he will have to endure, but soon pivoted: “I am fine; deep inside, I feel fine. If I accepted all this without protest, that would destroy me.”

I had heard variations on that reassuring theme before, and yet, witnessing him persevere through this advanced stage of his strike, I found myself fixating on his physical condition: His eyes were more sunken than usual. His hands shook more noticeably. It seemed as though he could have slid his ankle out of the shackle in the floor if he had tried.

Back in my Guantánamo housing facility after our meeting, I returned to some of Ba Odah’s letters to remind myself why Guantánamo provokes in him such fierce resistance. There are many clues in the way Ba Odah describes his life before Guantánamo:

1978 is my year of birth; but my real birth has not come yet. I have been waiting for it for 11 years. My place of birth is the Shabwah district of Yemen. I left Shabwah when I was one year old and spent my entire life in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I am the middle child. My mother and father were kind parents in a simple family untouched by typical familial problems. All that my father cared about was how to ensure happy and peaceful living for his family by providing us with education. Regarding my loving mother, she was and remains smiling all the time. I do not recall a day when she was harsh to me. We lived a wonderful family life, but all this changed since my capture …

My 11 years of time spent in solitary confinement is trying to kill the 11 years of childhood I spent in Wadi Jamilah in Saudi Arabia. Now, I live on just the imagination of my wonderful childhood …

At the moment when I am released, I would pray and kneel twice to Allah for the blessing of freedom, then go to my mother and hug her. As for my father, my chance to serve him is now gone because he passed away.

Ba Odah’s suffering is as unnecessary as it is unforgivable. He was cleared for release more than five years ago. Virtually no one disputes at this point whether he ought to be freed. And it is possible that those men Ba Odah describes, the ones who brought him to Guantánamo on the first day, will, at long last, come to release him. Perhaps even one day soon. In the meantime, Ba Odah has taken to scrawling the word “homesick” on the walls of his cell.

This article was adapted from the essay “Nourishing Resistance: Tariq Ba Odah’s 8-Year Hunger Strike at Guantánamo Bay” by Omar Farah, which appears in Obama’s Guantánamo: Stories from an Enduring Prison, edited by Jonathan Hafetz, to be published in June 2016 by NYU Press.

Note: See more of Matt Daloisio’s photos of Torture Awareness Week in Washington D.C., in June 2015, here.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ was released in July 2015). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign, the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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 six-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, the full military commissions 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.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following a call by the New York Times for the Justice Department to stop contesting the habeas corpus petitions of ‪Guantanamo‬ prisoners approved for release. This is something I’ve been calling for for years, but it’s the first time the mainstream media have picked up on it. The trigger was the Justice Department’s announcement that it would challenge the habeas petition submitted by Tariq Ba Odah, a hunger striker since 2007, who is close to death. I also cross-post the NYT editorial, and Tariq’s lawyer’s harrowing article for Rolling Stone.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I also wrote:

    This is an important article for me, as it reinforces something I have been pointing out for many years – that the Justice Department’s Civil Division, which deals with Guantanamo, contests everything, without any outside guidance, and with no joined-up thinking between government departments. Just one habeas petition has not been contested by the DoJ, and I appreciate the New York Times calling for seriously ill hunger striker Tariq Ba Odah’s petition not to be contested by the DoJ, which, nevertheless, has said that it will be challenged. I also look at the cases of five current prisoners who were approved for release by Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force but had their habeas petitions turned down by judges through the DoJ’s obsession with contesting every case regardless of its merits.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Scott Camil wrote:

    Thank You for everything that you do for others. We need more people who work to improve the conditions for Humanity.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Scott. Your supportive words are very much appreciated.

  5. arcticredriver says...

    Thanks Andy!

    With regard to the Joint Review Task Force…

    I thought the officials who sat on the Joint Review Task Force panels were supposed to be senior officials from six Cabinet level Departments, that included the Department of Justice. I thought those panels didn’t recommend the transfer of any individual unless the senior officials from all six departments had agreed. If this is the case this means the Justice Department had ALREADY signed off on these transfers. That would make the intransigence of the Civil Division’s lawyers doubly troubling.

    If a more senior Justice official had already agreed, on behalf of the Secretary, that an individual could safely be transferred, then the Civil Division’s lawyers were directly challenging the Secretaries authority.

    In a normal organization that would probably result in disciplinary measures, a demotion, a letter of censure in their file, or even termination, or prosecution.

    Why aren’t these lawyers being punished? Maybe because they know wild-ass right-wing Congressional Representatives and Senators would support them, would oppose punitive measures. Perhaps it is believed that, even if it was unequivocally established they knew they were flouting the Secretary’s intentions, enough right-wing types would intercede on their behalf, claiming the rogue lawyers were “well-intentioned”.

    One sees even really senior guys, like George Tenet, ignoring their official duties and responsibilities, and acting like they could assume a self-defined mandate to act as one of America’s unofficial vengeance takers.

    In my opinion, in democratic countries, governed by the rule of law, there is no place for officials who unofficially rewrite their job descriptions.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi arcticredriver,
    Good to hear from you.
    I believe you are correct to point out the insubordination. However, the normal rules don’t apply to Guantanamo, as you know, so the task force’s recommendations weren’t binding, and the Civil Division was therefore free to ignore them. However, that doesn’t explain why no one in a position of greater authority – Eric Holder, for example, or Obama, or his close advisors – didn’t intervene to bring some logic and fairness to the whole process. I wouldn’t want to tar everyone in the Civil Division with the same brush, but I do know that some of the people there, who worked in the Division under Bush, seem to have relished the power they have had at Guantanamo, regarding the movements of lawyers, for example, and I think it would be difficult not to conclude that, in general, their actions regarding the habeas cases have been driven by the mentality that prevailed under George W. Bush. More needs to be written about it all one of these days …

  7. arcticredriver says...

    Just in the last few hours Government spokesmen have explained why his habeas was opposed. They asserted that, if they didn’t oppose an expedited transfer for one detainee whose hunger strike had brought them to death’s door, they would be setting the example that other captives had to do would be to go on a hunger strike so extreme they too were at death’s door.

    It is a callous gamble, a “doubling down”. They are gambling that, in spite of being on the brink of death, he won’t die.

    I am afraid that camp authorities will be intransigent, until his death is unequivocally imminent, and they will rush to repatriate him days before a death their treatment made imminent.

    I am reminded of the death of Saad Memon. Memon was a well-off Pakistani businessman who owned a property where that high-profile American journalist, Daniel Pearl, was held, prior to having his head cut off.

    Memon’s location was unknown, for four years. In 2007, he was dumped on the driveway of his family home. He weighed only 80 pounds. He was unable to speak, and unable to recognize his family. In spite of them making sure he got the best medical care possible, he died within a week or three of his reappearance. Press reports said he had lost all his memory.

    His family said he had nothing to do with Pearl’s murder, or with terrorism, in general. They didn’t dispute that Pearl’s body was found in a shed on one of Memon’s properties, but they pointed out he was well-off enough to own multiple properties, properties the murderers may have used without his knowledge.

    Maybe Pakistani and American security officials thought they had evidence against him, but, if so, they never made it public.

    Given their predilection to go off half-cocked, and jump to wild conclusions I think his family’s account remains credible.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the update, arcticredriver. I’ve been in transit all day, and am now on vacation in Turkey for two weeks. My internet use will be sporadic.
    I agree that the authorities are taking a horrible, cynical gamble with Tariq’s life, and can only hope that, behind the scenes, efforts are being made to find him a new home.
    As for Saad Memon, I did not recall that story. Very sad – and indicative of the horrors of the “war on terror.” We still, I think, don’t know where all the bodies are buried.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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