Persistent Dehumanization at Guantánamo: US Claims It Owns Prisoners’ Art, Just As It Claims to Own Their Memories of Torture

23.11.17

"Empty glassware" (2015) by Guantanamo prisoner Ahmed Rabbani.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.

 

I wrote the following article (as “The Persistent Abuse of Guantánamo Prisoners: Pentagon Claims It Owns Their Art and May Destroy It, But U.S. Has Long Claimed It Even Owns Their Memories of Torture“) for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

After years of letting Guantánamo prisoners keep the artwork they have made at the prison, subject to security screening, the Pentagon has suddenly secured widespread condemnation for banning its release, and, it is alleged by one of prisoners’ attorneys, for planning to burn it.

The story was first reported on November 16 by Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, and updated on November 20. Rosenberg explained how, for years, prisoners’ art had been released “after inspection by prison workers schooled in studying material for secret messages under the rubric of Operational Security.”

However, as Rosenberg explained, “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay,” an exhibition in the President’s Gallery of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice until January 16, 2018, which features “paintings and other works by current and former captives” — and “which garnered international press coverage” — “apparently caught the attention of the Department of Defense,” because of an email address provided for people “interested in purchasing art from these artists.”

A Pentagon spokesman, Air Force Maj. Ben Sakrisson, said on November 15 that “all Guantánamo detainee art is ‘property of the US government’ and ‘questions remain on where the money for the sales was going.’” At the prison itself, Navy Cmdr. Anne Leanos said in a statement that “transfers of detainee made artwork have been suspended pending a policy review.”

Prisoners’ attorneys discovered the change in policy during recent visits to their clients, when prison staff suddenly “stopped returning art that had been submitted for inspection and release.” Rosenberg added that, according to two attorneys, “a commander told general population captives” (i.e. not the “high-value detainees”) that “they would no longer be allowed to give it away.”

One of the attorneys, Ramzi Kassem, a professor at City University of New York School of Law whose legal clinic represents Guantánamo prisoners, said that one particular prisoner was told “art would not be allowed out of the prison,” and added that, if any prisoner were to be allowed to leave Guantánamo (which, crucially, has not happened under Donald Trump), “their art would not even be allowed out with them and would be incinerated instead.”

Another attorney, Beth Jacob, said that another prisoner had “told her by telephone from the prison that ‘the colonel’ announced that ‘they could continue to make art. But the number of pieces each could have would be limited, and excess ones would be discarded.’”

Jacob was also told, “Not only were the captives no longer to give their lawyers works of art as gifts, but the prison would no longer let the International Red Cross receive artwork for their families.” According to the prisoner’s account, the unidentified colonel told prisoners that the change in policy “was at the direction of someone not at Guantánamo,” which I can only presume means that it was dictated by someone in the Trump administration in Washington, D.C.

Rosenberg noted that the change in policy contravenes Federal Bureau of Prisons policy, which “lets its inmates mail ‘arts and hobbycraft’ to family, give them to certain visitors and sometimes display it in public space, if it meets the warden’s standard of taste.”

At Guantánamo, however, it is rare for prisoners — nearly all held without charge or trial, with some about to enter their 17th year of imprisonment — to receive any perks that might be taken for granted by prisoners on the US mainland, who begin their imprisonment with a court conviction, and who, unlike the Guantánamo prisoners, are allowed family visits.

As Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch stated in a powerful tweet, however, the development was “no surprise” because the “Pentagon has long claimed it owns detainees’ own memories of torture.” She was referring in particular to the “high-value detainees,” brought to the prison from CIA “black sites” in September 2006, whose every word to their lawyers in the eleven years since has largely remained classified, but even for general prisoners, everything they say to their lawyers remains presumptively classified until the lawyers’ notes are reviewed by a Pentagon censorship team, which decides whether or not what the prisoners say can be made public.

Erin Thompson, Assistant Professor of Art Crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who curated the exhibition, which includes art from eight current or former prisoners, told the Independent that she “arranged the exhibit as a means of providing an insight into the minds” of the prisoners. She said it was “important to show the men as human beings, regardless of what they had or had not done.”

“Art is supposed to be a window into the soul,” she said, adding that the authorities were “‘shooting themselves in the foot’ if they were ignoring the art works produced by the prisoners.”

How did the prisoners get to make their art?

Explaining how the Guantánamo prisoners came to make any art at all, after the early years of the prison, when they were denied almost all “comfort items,” Carol Rosenberg stated that “art classes were among the first programs offered to the captives in the later years of the Bush administration as commanders explored ways to distract detainees who had spent years in single-cell lockups from getting into clashes with the guards.” She added, “Students would be shackled to the floor by an ankle inside a cellblock in Camp 6 and draw still-life displays or copy a picture set up by an Arabic linguist tasked to teach art.”

Rosenberg also stated, “Commanders called it the prison’s most popular, best attended program and would display examples, copies of original art, in a prison storage facility for books. Some showed seascapes and scenes from the home countries of the captives because, their attorneys said, the detainees knew it would be forbidden to show life at Guantánamo.”

As time passed, “Supplies became more bountiful. Captives at times were allowed to create art on the communal cellblocks, and drew their inspiration from elsewhere. At the John Jay exhibit, two different detainees had paintings of the Titanic. The detention center had permitted prisoners to watch the 1997 disaster epic whose theme song is ‘My Heart Will Go On.’”

The two artists are Muhammad Ansi (aka Mohammed al-Ansi), a Yemeni who was released in Oman just before President Obama left office, and Khalid Qasim (aka Qassim), who is still held, and is one of the hunger strikers who claim that the Trump administration is now neglecting them, and, having abandoned trying to feed them, is no longer even monitoring their health. Qasim, the art show’s website explains, “frequently experiments with the limited range of artistic materials Guantánamo affords; he has painted in coffee and on sand and gravel gathered from the prisoners’ exercise yard, and has created sculpture from various discarded materials, including MRE boxes.”

A model of a ship (2015) by Guantanamo prisoner Moath al-Alwi.Another prisoner who has explored the use of materials is Moath al-Alwi (aka Muaz al-Alawi), another Yemeni. He has “used castoff cardboard and other found objects to craft increasingly large models of ships he’d only seen in books.” Beth Jacob said that, the first time he met her, “he presented her with a replica gondola,” and the show’s website explains that his works “are intended as presents for his lawyers and family.”

Ramzi Kassem explained that all the artwork that has been released from the prison “has gone through rigorous censorship and contraband review,” adding that officials took an X-ray of Alwi’s model ships before allowing them to leave.

Other works in the exhibition are by released prisoners Ghaleb al-Bihani, a Yemeni who, like al-Ansi, was released in Oman in January 2017, Djamel Ameziane, who was repatriated to Algeria in 2013, and Abdualmalik (Alrahabi) Abud (aka Abd al-Malik al-Rahabi), a Yemeni who was released in Montenegro in 2016. He is featured in a very worthwhile PBS broadcast on the prisoners’ art that is available here.

Apart from Moath al-Alwi, the only prisoners still held whose work is displayed are Ahmed Rabbani, who is currently taking the government to court regarding its new policy regarding hunger strikers, and Ammar al-Baluchi, a “high-value detainee,” who painted the picture below, “Vertigo at Guantánamo.”

"Vertigo at Guantanamo" by Ammar al-Baluchi, a "high-value detainee" held and tortured in CIA "black sites," making reference to the lingering physical effects of his torture.Al-Baluchi is one of five “high-value detainees” held in CIA “black sites,” who are involved in interminable pre-trial hearings for their alleged role in the 9/11 attacks, but as Alka Pradhan, part of his legal team, explained in a tweet when posting this image, “Real reason @DeptofDefense wants to control @BaluchiGitmo’s art? He paints his deterioration from @CIA torture.”

Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve, told the Independent that the US authorities “had always censored art they considered sensitive,” and cited the example of a piece of art that Ahmed Rabbani had shown him, of him being tortured. He said that, “without giving a reason, the authorities at Guantánamo refused permission for that drawing to leave the prison.”

And so, as happened back in 2008 with censored drawings by the Sudanese prisoner and journalist Sami al-Haj, Stafford Smith “made a detailed note of the painting, and when he returned to Britain, he asked several artists and art students to recreate the drawing.” The version shown here is by a student from Colfox Academy in Bridport, Dorset, showing his interpretation of Rabbani’s art recreating his experience of being subjected to “a medieval form of torture, known to the Inquisition as the ‘strappado.’” As Rabbani explained to his lawyers, “They took me to a room and hung me by my hand to an iron shackle where my toes hardly touched the ground. They removed the mask away from my face and left me hanging from one hand, naked, thirsty, and hungry.”

An interpretation of Guantanamo prisoner Ahmed Rabbani's painting showing him undergoing “strappado” torture, which the US authorities refused to release. This interpretation, based on a description by his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, was painted by a student at the Colfox Academy in Bridport, Dorset.Who owns the prisoners’ art?

In dealing with the question of the art’s ownership, Maj. Sakrisson “suggested the art was not the captives’ to give away,” as Carol Rosenberg described it. In a statement, he said, “Items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the US government.” He also added, in a sentence that is difficult to read to the end because it is such bland admin-speak, “The appropriate disposition of this property has been clarified with our staff at the detention facility and will be accounted for according to applicable local procedures in the future.”

Beth Jacob told the Miami Herald that “she hadn’t heard of the possibility that somebody at the Pentagon was alarmed to discover the detainee art was for sale.” She explained that one of the former prisoners resettled in Oman “wanted his artwork sold so proceeds could go to his ailing mother in Yemen for costly medicine.”

At Guantánamo, Cmdr. Leanos “would neither confirm nor deny the prison’s plans to burn the art. Nor would she say how many works of art a captive could keep and how many he would have to designate for destruction.” In the meantime, as though unable to recognize that anything untoward had happened, she added that “art classes continue to be held each week and detainees have the opportunity to attend.”

As Rosenberg also explained, “The art program had been such a point of pride at the prison that instructors posted copies of the work on the walls of a library storage facility, and journalists being escorted through the prison were encouraged to photograph it.” In addition, “Two years ago, the prison’s now-defunct newsletter, The Wire, showed an Army officer admiring copies of the ‘vibrant paintings.’”

The article about the prisoners’ art was unambiguously titled, “Program enriches detainee life.”

Rosenberg also noted that the practice of releasing art from Guantánamo “had become so common that prison staff recently printed a form for attorneys to attach to have each work of art reviewed and assigned each piece a tracking number for the clearance process.”

Beth Jacob, who has represented eight Guantánamo prisoners, four of whom have been released, told Rosenberg that her clients “had been using art as a diversion for some time, and had been giving her pieces for years — sometimes as gifts and in other instances to safeguard for fear that the prison would not. She cited a previous time when artwork had been confiscated, never to be returned — during the prison-wide hunger strike in 2013, when, in a raid, “soldiers seized the detainees’ artwork and legal documents from their cells.” Jacob said that the legal documents were eventually returned, “but the detainees never saw that art again.”

It is to be hoped that the authorities back down from their current position, which, like the treatment of hunger strikers, and the atmosphere in general, as recently described by Saifullah Paracha, the oldest prisoner in Guantánamo, seems, across the board, to have taken a harsh turn of late, presumably under directions from those at the top of the government.

Nearly 16 years after the prison opened, it is time for the US government to be working out how to close this failed experiment once and for all, and not how to keep it going, whilst also making life harsher for the prisoners than it has been for many years.

To get involved, please sign this petition by Erin Thompson, “Stop the Destruction of Art at Guantánamo,” and you can also sign this petition by Reprieve, calling for Donald Trump to close Guantánamo, and to allow independent medical experts to visit and assess the health of the hunger strikers. Please also read Erin Thompson’s fine article about why she staged the exhibition, published in the Paris Review last month.

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.

15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the most recent disturbing news from Guantanamo – the decision by the authorities to no longer allow prisoners to keep the art they have made at the prison, or to give it away – to family members or their lawyers, for example. It seems to have been an exaggerated response to an exhibition of prisoners’ art that is currently on show in New York, but as Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch has noted, it is “no surprise” because the “Pentagon has long claimed it owns detainees’ own memories of torture,” essentially owning their memories unless they choose to allow them to be unclassified. Worryingly, it also seems to be part of a wider clampdown on the prisoners that, it seems reasonable to assume, is coming from Donald Trump and his closest officials. Cross-posted from CloseGuantanamo.org.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Jessy Mumpo wrote:

    Oh my god they want to burn prisoners art, that sent cold shivers to my core!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your interest, Jessy. Yes, you’re right. It’s chilling.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Jessy Mumpo wrote:

    Thank you for a brilliant piece, I hope it reaches a wide audience.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jessy. These are grim times at Guantanamo – the Trump regime getting authoritarian, it seems, with the treatment of the hunger strikers, with Guantanamo’s oldest – and best-behaved – prisoner, Saifullah Paracha, getting thrown in solidarity for protesting about how the hunger strikers are being treated, and now with this confrontation approach to the prisoners’ art. Very bad news.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    For those who missed it, this is the latest about the hunger strike story: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/11/guantanamo-detainee-changed-force-feeding-policy-171115161210148.html

  7. Andy Worthington says...

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Bill Gibbons wrote:

    Never ending imprisonment and torment in order to try and prove some lies about the Global War On Terror.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Bill. Yes, well put.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Disgraceful brutality. How much more degraded is the behaviour of these bullying oppressors going to become before self disgust finally sets in and they weep for who they have become? Art is like water… it finds a way. When my father was a political prisoner back before WW2… serving time for possession of left-wing literature, they used to play chess by making Illicit boards and pieces out of paper. The more they try to repress the better the chances that this story will become a blockbuster feature film some day and millions will see this wanton cruelty to protect a lie for what it is.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, David. Very powerful. I didn’t know your dad had been a political prisoner.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    The big step backward continues. Before long, Trump will be sending detainees to Gitmo again.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m very much hoping that won’t happen, Mary. The good news is that almost anyone with genuine legal experience – including those advising Trump, evidently – knows that Guantanamo is the equivalent of a legal abyss, and that the federal courts are the only viable place for prosecutions.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Jessy Mumpo wrote:

    I wasn’t able to join Clive’s hunger strike solidarity fast. It was a case of timing. If it’s ever right to do a fast with your easily printable posters, I’d be happy to help and to try and drum up a bit more interest. People I know are all having their attention drawn to so many atrocities accross the globe. I’m always for shouting about Guantanamo, so always let me know if your on another awareness raising campaign. X

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jessy. I’m currently trying to work out what to do for a new campaign initiative for January – the 1st anniversary of Trump as president, and the 16th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo. Watch this space! – and thanks for all your support!

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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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