Guantánamo Lawyer’s Moving Memories of Her Client Obaidullah, an Afghan Released in the UAE in August

25.11.16

Obaidullah’s mother, at her home in Haiderkhil, Afghanistan, holding photos of her son on August 16, just after his release from Guantanamo (Photo: AP/Nishanuddin Khan).Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo until the end of the year.

 

In August, a long-suffering Afghan prisoner at Guantánamo, Obaidullah, was finally released after 14 years of imprisonment without charge or trial, sent to the United Arab Emirates rather than to his home village, because the US Congress had, with a rather hysterical disregard for any sense of proportion, passed a law preventing any Afghan prisoner at Guantánamo from being repatriated. Below I’m cross-posting a moving account of Obaidullah himself, and of his wrongful imprisonment, by one of his attorneys, Anne Richardson. Other civilian lawyers who worked on his case include Dan Stormer and Cindy Pánuco of Hadsell Stormer & Renick LLP in Pasadena, CA, where Richardson worked before moving to Public Counsel, the US’s largest pro bono firm, where she is the directing attorney of the Consumer Law Project.

Obaidullah, who has just one name like many Afghans, was seized in July 2002, when he was around 22 years old (he doesn’t know his exact year of birth), and was accused of having “stored and concealed anti-tank mines, other explosive devices, and related equipment,” and it was also claimed that he “concealed on his person a notebook describing how to wire and detonate explosive devices”; and that he “knew or intended” that his “material support and resources were to be used in preparation for and in carrying out a terrorist attack.”

The charges were listed when he was, absurdly, put forward for a trial by military commission in September 2008. Even if the allegations were true, putting forward a minor insurgent for a war crimes trial was a disgracefully overblown response to his alleged activities, but as an investigation by his military lawyers found in 2011, it appears that the US authorities were mistaken about Obaidullah’s role in any kind of plot against US forces. His wife had just given birth, and blood found in his car, interpreted as being a sign that someone was wounded in an attack, seems to have been from his wife’s labor, which he failed to mention because speaking about such things is not something an Afghan man does.

Nevertheless, Obaidullah’s efforts to secure his release from Guantánamo by having a judge rule on his habeas corpus petition were unsuccessful, when, in October 2010, the judge in question, Judge Richard Leon of the District Court in Washington, D.C. concluded, as I described it at the time, that “his account was full of evasions and inconstancies,” and, although his military commission charges were finally abandoned in June 2011 (but only after he had been charged for a second time under President Obama), he had to wait until April 2016 to have his case reviewed again — this time by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process set up in 2013, which was reviewing the cases of 64 men who were not facing trials but had not already been approved for release — and he was finally approved for release in May 2016.

Anne Richardson’s article, via the Huffington Post, is cross-posted below, and I hope you find it useful, and will share it if you do. Richardson runs through his story, including the torture he was subjected to after capture, which led to him making false, self-incriminating statements, and how her relationship with him developed, despite the difficulties of establishing trust in a place like Guantánamo. When she eventually gained his trust, and he asked why she was helping him, she said, “I told him that I believed that everyone should have the right to present his or her evidence in court, that I understood he had little hope that my government would do the right thing but that I was committed to doing everything I could to allow him to have a hearing.” As she added, “It sounded pretty pie-in-the-sky, even to me.”

She also establishes poignantly Obaidullah’s character, noting the movies he liked, and the food, but also his “compassion, his ability to express empathy and appreciation, even humor.” As she states, “He began our visits with inquiries into the wellbeing of our families, and recalled what we’d told him about their interests in soccer and science. When one of our lawyers dropped her cell phone into the bay he found that a rich vein for relentless teasing, as he did if we were late to a meeting. He loved it when my dog barked when we were talking on the phone. It was a small but vivid reminder of the real world.”

Sometimes, she wrote, she and Obaidullah “talked about having a proper meal together outside the prison, after he was free,” and I look forward to hearing about that when it happens; when, eventually, she and her family will be allowed to visit him in the Emirates, where, currently, he is in “a government rehabilitation program” — another example of the US authorities (again, particularly inspired by hysterical Republican lawmakers) not wanting to finally let go of men they have wrongly held for longer than the First World War and the Second World War combined.

Wrongfully Imprisoned in Gitmo for Years, This Man Finally Won His Freedom
By Anne Richardson, Huffington Post, November 21, 2016

I first visited Obaidullah at Guantánamo Bay in the spring of 2009. Before that first meeting, all I knew were the disturbing accusations against him, that he had fired his last habeas attorney and that I wasn’t sure why.

Prior to the visit, my family and colleagues were supportive. When I confessed to a close friend that I was nervous, he said, “Time to get out of your comfort zone.” That was an understatement. My law partner gave me the pep talk about everyone being entitled to representation, but I wasn’t even a criminal defense attorney. Hardly any of us in the “Gitmo Bar” were.

According to what had been scared up through a Freedom of Information Act request, Obaidullah was accused of being part of an al Qaeda-affiliated cell that was preparing roadside bombs against U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. Official reports said he confessed while in custody in Afghanistan. Later, at Guantánamo, he’d recanted, saying he’d been tortured and the confession coerced. Was my client guilty of terrorism? There had never been any test of guilt or innocence, just six years of reported interrogations and torture.

My first day on the base, after being thoroughly patted down and every piece of paper removed of its staples, I met Obaidullah in a small concrete bunker. He wore a simple tan smock and trousers, and his ankles were shackled to the floor. He was about five-feet-seven and 150 pounds. He seemed young. Captured at age 22 or so (he doesn’t know exactly what year he was born), he had grown into a man in this prison. He told me he was not guilty of the claims made against him. He was polite but skeptical that I or anyone else could help him. He spoke his native Pashto in a soft voice with an occasional strain that would end in a note of incredulity. “Tell your government that all I want is to go back to my family,” he said through an interpreter. “Why do they keep us here, without giving us a chance to prove we are not guilty?”

In those days, most of the Americans he met were military or intelligence personnel. His first attorney had failed to gain his confidence. So many lawyers were fired by their clients at Gitmo that it was a running joke among the attorneys. Just stay hired, I told myself. That’s the first step.

For me, this journey to Gitmo had started with a simple request. My law firm was asked by the Center for Constitutional Rights to represent a single detainee in Guantánamo Bay in his habeas proceedings. CCR had filed the first lawsuit on behalf of the roughly 780 men detained there as enemy combatants and was co-counsel in the 2008 Supreme Court decision securing their right to judicial review. But a large number of these men, who had been detained for up to six years, still did not have attorneys who were willing, pro bono, to contest their imprisonment. CCR was reaching out to law firms nationwide, building a “Gitmo bar” to take these cases. Would our small firm be willing to handle one?

Obaidullah (like many Afghans, he has only one name) had been arrested at his home, during a raid in the middle of the night. No charges were leveled against him until 2008 (after six years of detention). They included conspiracy and material support for terrorism. Later, in 2011, a military lawyer assigned to his defense team found evidence to support Obaidullah’s claims of innocence, including substantiating his family’s claims that the seemingly incriminating mines had actually been left there during the Soviet occupation, while he and his family were in Pakistan. Although his military lawyers sought a speedy trial, the U.S. government simply dropped the charges. The government didn’t need them. They could rely on indefinite detention instead, as they did with most of the other Guantanamo detainees ― detention without charge.

How do you establish rapport with someone without any shared cultural reference points? Obaidullah had been living on a small farm and working in a general store in rural Afghanistan outside of Khost, a 4-hour drive from Kabul. His family had no love for the Taliban. He had an 11th grade education and had learned a little English in school.

Once captured, he had no access to any outside information about his fate; he relied on what other detainees, guards or interrogators told him. He also had no way to find out anything about me. It wasn’t until after our habeas hearing ― in which he had been allowed to listen remotely to my public opening statement (the rest was classified and not even he was allowed to hear it), and saw how hard we had worked for him ― that I think he let himself believe in me.

For my part, meeting Obaidullah face-to-face removed any doubt about what I was doing. At the time of his capture he was recently married — his daughter had been born just days before U.S. forces took him from his home. My own son had been born the same month.

Obaidullah told me he was tortured at Bagram Air Base and that the abuse continued in interrogations at Guantánamo. Not until later, after we’d known each other for several years, did he tell me what happened. He signed a statement that we filed in court describing what the judge called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” International law calls it torture. Obaidullah described being beaten on the head with a gun and threatened with death by a guard who was sharpening a long knife. He was forced to carry sandbags all night and not allowed to sleep. He was kept in a small barbed-wire cage. His hands were tied above his head for hours. He was subjected to extreme heat and cold over many months.

Obaidullah asked me why I was trying to help him. I told him that I believed that everyone should have the right to present his or her evidence in court, that I understood he had little hope that my government would do the right thing but that I was committed to doing everything I could to allow him to have a hearing. It sounded pretty pie-in-the-sky, even to me. We talked about President Obama’s promise to close Guantánamo Bay, which had been delivered just months before my first visit. We talked about the political battles that made it hard for Obama to fulfill that promise.

Over the next seven years, I went to Guantánamo Bay a dozen times to meet with Obaidullah. For his habeas hearing we coordinated multiple attorneys and expert witnesses and pulled together a brief that was over a hundred pages long with more than a hundred exhibits. But we still lost.

My colleagues and I were the only ones allowed to meet with Obaidullah. We talked about movies, children, pets, family, books. He liked “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and the “Fast and Furious” franchise. He was a fan of “How I Met Your Mother.” Over the years, we had shared with tales of honeymoons, camping trips and trekking tours around the world, and in one of our last conversations before his release, he told me that he liked our habit of taking vacations with our families. Family travel, he told me, was not something he had heard of. He looked forward to trying it with his.

We lawyers were sometimes allowed to bring in food, and we tried to anticipate what he might like — mocha ice cream was a favorite (though it nearly melted by the time we got it to him). Nutella spread onto a biscuit with a military-issue spork was also a hit. Sometimes we talked about having a proper meal together outside the prison, after he was free.

What amazed me the most was Obaidullah’s compassion, his ability to express empathy and appreciation, even humor. He began our visits with inquiries into the wellbeing of our families, and recalled what we’d told him about their interests in soccer and science. When one of our lawyers dropped her cell phone into the bay he found that a rich vein for relentless teasing, as he did if we were late to a meeting. He loved it when my dog barked when we were talking on the phone. It was a small but vivid reminder of the real world.

Since 2002, nine detainees have died at Guantanamo. In 2013, with the situation looking hopeless, with transfers out at a complete standstill, the prisoners felt that refusing to eat was the one means they had to register their protest. The majority of the men in the camp began a hunger strike. In part as a result of those desperate hunger strikes — my client withered to about 120 pounds — Obama instituted “periodic review board” hearings that would assess whether each detainee currently constituted a threat, regardless of what he may or may not have done in the past.

In December of 2015, Obaidullah was informed that he was scheduled for a hearing. In April 2016, I went down for 10 days to prepare for and participate in the hearing as his private counsel. In May, we were notified that he had been cleared for transfer. This past August, he was finally released from Guantánamo Bay to the United Arab Emirates. He has been placed in a government rehabilitation program there.

I won’t be able to hear from him for months. It will not be easy for him to readjust to the world after suffering what he has been through, or to live as an Afghan immigrant in the UAE. His future is unclear — after a few years he should be able to return to Afghanistan.

But one thing is clear. The minute I am given the go-ahead, I plan to take my son and husband, go meet his family and share that meal outside the prison walls.

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’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), 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.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a cross-post, with my own commentary, of a moving article by attorney Anne Richardson about her Guantanamo client Obaidullah, an Afghan finally released in the UAE in August after 14 years in US custody, in which he had to contend with an absurd war crimes charge, and having his habeas corpus petition turned down, until finally, earlier this year, a Periodic Review Board – a parole-type process about which I have written extensively – reviewed his case and decided that there was no reason to hold him. Unfortunately, because Congress has imposed a fairly hysterical ban on repatriating any Afghans, he has ended up in a rehabilitation center in the UAE, but hopefully he will soon be able to be reunited with his family (including the daughter who was born just days before his capture), and also to meet with Richardson, who very much wants, with her family, to enjoy a meal with him as a free man.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Please note that Obaidullah’s story is also included in “Kafka in Cuba: The Afghan Experience in Guantánamo,” a 68-page report by Kate Clark of Afghanistan Analysts Network, which was published at the start of the month.
    The other seven men are Haji Wali Mohammed (ISN 560), Abdul Zahir (ISN 753) and Boston Karim (ISN 975), all approved for release by PRBs but still held, Mohammed Kamin (ISN 1045) and Haji Hamidullah (ISN 1119), also released in the UAE in August and, like Obaidullah, “believed [to be] still in detention,” and two men whose PRBs recommended their ongoing imprisonment, Harun Gul aka Haroon al-Afghani (ISN 3148) and Muhammad Rahim (ISN 10029).
    The introductory article is here: https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/publication/aan-papers/kafka-in-cuba-new-aan-report-on-the-afghan-experience-in-guantanamo/
    The report is here: https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/20161101-Kafka-final-SV.pdf
    For more, see my definitive Periodic Review Board list: http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Periodic-Review-Boards
    Some reporting on the AAN report here: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-guantanamo-idUSKBN12Y01Q
    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/02/guantanamo-bay-afghanistan-detainees-gross-incompetence
    http://www.dw.com/en/in-the-world-of-kafka-the-afghan-experience-in-guantanamo/a-36264281 (an interview with Kate Clark)
    Isn’t it interesting that the US media – engrossed in the election – really weren’t bothered about this story at all?

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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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