Guantánamo’s Oldest Prisoner Calls Conditions “Hell,” Says, “We Are Getting Collective Punishment Because of the Hunger Strike”


Guantanamo prisoner Saifullah Paracha in an updated photo taken by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and provided to his family, who made it public.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


The horrors of Guantánamo — ever present in a prison where men have been held for nearly 16 years without ever being charged with a crime, and with no notion of when, if ever, they will get to leave — seem to be being ramped up under Donald Trump, as we might have suspected from his aggressive stance towards the prison and the men held there, even before he took office in January, and from witnessing his racism, and glimpsing the violence that permanently seems to lurk beneath his blubbery exterior.

Despite threats to send new prisoners to Guantánamo — threats which have not, mercifully, transpired — Trump did nothing in his first eight months regarding the prison except shutting the door on it and refusing to contemplate releasing anyone, even the five men — out of the 41 still held — who were approved for release by high-level government review processes under President Obama.

Two months ago, however, according to hunger striking prisoners, whose story I reported before the mainstream media took an interest, Trump finally made his influence felt, changing the rules about the way they are treated. For over ten years, hunger striking prisoners were closely monitored, but now, according to those refusing food, new instructions, initiated from September 20 onwards, mean that they are no longer having their health assessed at all.

In addition, they claim, the authorities are no longer force-feeding them. For at least ten years, whenever a prisoner lost a fifth of their body weight, they were force-fed. Medical professionals argue that it is unacceptable to force-feed a mentally competent prisoner, who should be allowed to starve himself to death, if he wishes, but, to my mind, it is not acceptable to endorse the force-feeding of men who have never been charged or tried.

In an attempt to challenge the government, lawyers for one of the hunger strikers, Ahmed Rabbani, a Pakistani national, held and tortured in CIA “black sites” for two years before his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2004, submitted an emergency motion to the District Court in Washington, D.C. on October 16, asking for a judge to order the government to allow an independent medical expert to visit Rabbani, to assess his health, and also to compel the government to release his medical records.

The government then submitted a response claiming that Rabbani was lying, which his lawyers then challenged last week, and we are currently awaiting a ruling from the court. For more information, see my recent article for Al-Jazeera, Guantánamo detainee: US changed force-feeding policy.

In the meantime, however, another prisoner, Pakistani national Saifullah Paracha, a businessman seized in Thailand in July 2003, who was held and tortured in a secretive part of Bagram prison in Afghanistan before his arrival at Guantánamo at the same time as Rabbani, has spoken out about how he too has noticed a change in the way prisoners are treated in the last two months.

Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner, at 70 years of age, Paracha has a long list of medical problems — including coronary artery disease and gout — and, nine years ago, was described as being “on a list of high-risk detainees from a health perspective” in his classified military file, which was released by WikiLeaks in 2011, and yet, on October 15, according to an account he gave his lawyers, as reported by Newsweek, “25 guards rushed into [his] cell, one holding a video camera, and forced him on to his stomach before strapping him to a stretcher.” He was then “handcuffed, hoisted out of the lock-up and taken to a cell in solitary confinement.”

After this “forced cell extraction,” Paracha told his lawyer that “he languished alone in a cell for three days,” and that this “was the first time he had received this kind of treatment in over a decade.”

He added, “I’ve always been observing the camp rules. I’ve never been disciplined. I’ve never been told that I broke any of the rules.”

He proceeded to explain that, as Newsweek put it, he “believes the harsh treatment is a direct result of the changing of the guard in Washington, and the election of Donald Trump as president.” His theory is that, because Trump and his administration object to six men “being on hunger strike in protest at their many years of incarceration without charge,” prisoners in general “are being subject to collective punishment and increasingly harsh treatment by guards.”

Paracha reinforced the claims made by hunger striking prisoners that, as Newsweek described it, “military officials are allowing hunger-strikers to weaken past the point of medical intervention, when prisoners were previously subjected to the force-feeding of nutritional supplements through nasogastic tubes,” with prisoners accusing officials of “allowing them to waste away to the point of near-death.”

As the treatment of the hunger strikers “worsened,” as Newsweek put it, Paracha — who said he had “never participated in a hunger strike because of his age” — intervened, “writing a letter to the commander of the facility about their mistreatment.” He said that the guards rushing into his cell and taking him to solitary confinement took place just 30 minutes after he sent it.

He told his lawyer, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis of Reprieve, “We are getting collective punishment because of the hunger strike. It felt like when we were brought in to Gitmo. Not since the beginning days of Guantánamo has it been like this. It’s a hell.”

Paracha, who lived in the US in the 1980s, is accused of meeting Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and working on a plot in the US, for which his son Uzair has been convicted and is serving a 30-year sentence, but he has never been formally charged, and it is difficult to know how accurate the claims are. What is certain is that at Guantánamo he is regarded as “very compliant,” and has been a constructive mentor and father figure to numerous younger prisoners.

Like most of the men still held — 26 of the remaining 41 — who are neither approved for release nor facing trials, Paracha is eligible for Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process that began under President Obama, and led to 38 men being approved for release, all but two of whom were free before Obama left office. Paracha’s first review took place in March 2016, but his ongoing imprisonment was approved the month after. A second review took place in March this year, but in April the board again approved his ongoing imprisonment.

As Newsweek described it, he had offered “to close his businesses upon release …  as evidence that he had no ill intent toward US citizens or desire to fund extremist groups,” but the board “said he would remain in detention for his ‘continued refusal to take responsibility for his involvement with Al-Qaeda’ and lack of remorse for prior actions.” But as his lawyers have always argued, “he cannot show remorse for activities that he is adamant he never participated in.”

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis called on Paracha to be tried or released.

“My 70-year-old client Saifullah is aging and sick,” she told Newsweek. “When I heard that he had been dragged from his cell and thrown into solitary confinement for the first time ever, I knew the new crackdown at Gitmo had reached fever pitch.”

She added, “After 13 years of detention without charge, and two heart attacks, Saifullah needs to be tried or released. It is downright barbaric that instead, he is facing physical abuse and the anguish of solitary confinement.”

As Newsweek described it, however, Paracha’s concerns “are less about his own health [than] the wider treatment of the few dozen prisoners remaining at the camp, which has long out-lived its own projected life-span.”

“They are just humiliating us and punishing everyone,” he said. “The policies are getting worse.”

In an op-ed published by Newsweek today, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis expanded on her criticisms, stating that “Saifullah’s ordeal — like the fiasco of the military commissions [where the chief defense counsel, a brigadier general, was recently imprisoned for refusing to accept the resignations of three civilian lawyers, who had resigned because they had found out that the government had been spying on them] — shows to any casual observer that Guantánamo’s continued existence beyond 2017 is untenable. More than ever, this offshore prison is a repudiation of basic American values, like due process and the right to a speedy and public trial. The Trump administration’s attempts to break up a peaceful protest at the prison is as futile as it is cruel.”

She added, “The US has no justification for holding men like Saifullah, much less assaulting them and throwing them into solitary confinement. They should be charged, or released, and the prison closed for good.”

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 music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), 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.

4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following up on Newsweek’s coverage of the case of Saifullah Paracha, a Pakistani and Guantanamo’s oldest prisoner, who has told his lawyer, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis of Reprieve, about worsening conditions at the prison, not just for hunger strikers, who claim that the authorities are no longer interested in feeding them, and are no longer monitoring their health. Paracha, a model prisoner, said that when he complained to the prison’s commander about the treatment of the hunger strikers, he was dragged from his cell and thrown into solitary confinement. “They are just humiliating us and punishing everyone,” Paracha said.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. It’s really important that those of us who care about the closure of Guantanamo get the story out to as many people as possible that there’s a new, more brutal regime in place at Guantanamo, under Donald Trump, even though it is a tired place that “has long out-lived its own projected life-span,” as Newsweek described it.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Anne Morgan wrote:

    An absolute disgrace. Obama promised to close it within a year but failed because the US military opposed its closure and refused. Trump of course thinks Guantanamo is great and we all know what a prat he is.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Well said, Anne. I suspect Trump has avoided being called a prat to his face, just as Americans failed to titter every time his name was mentioned while he was running for president, which would have happened in the UK if someone called Trump sought high office!
    On a more serious note, Obama intended only to close the physical facility at Guantanamo. He intended to bring men to the US mainland to continue to be held without charge or trial, and ended up with left-leaning lawyers and NGOs opposing him because they feared the precedent it would set. That very US-centric view revealed how they don’t care enough about foreigners held without rights, and myself and a few lawyers also felt that new legal challenges would open up if they were moved to the US mainland. Unfortunately, we never got to find out …

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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