Asadullah Haroon Gul: The Hunger Striking Afghan Forgotten at Guantánamo


Sehar Bibi, the mother of Guantánamo prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul, at the refugee camp in Peshawar where she lives with her son’s wife and daughter, and other family members. Gul has been held at Guantánamo without charge or trial since 2007. (Photo: AFP/Abdul Majeed).

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Regular readers will recall the sad story of Asadullah Haroon Gul, one of the last two Afghans amongst the 40 men still held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay. In correspondence from Guantánamo this year, Gul has written about the coronavirus, about being a “no value detainee”, and about the murder by police of George Floyd and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement.

As seems abundantly clear — to everyone except his captors — Gul, one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo, in June 2007, is a fundamentally insignificant prisoner whose ongoing imprisonment makes no sense. The US has quite nebulously alleged that he was involved with Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), led by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had supported Al-Qaeda at the time of the US-led invasion. However, as I explained in July, “Gul very clearly had no meaningful connection with HIG, his involvement extending only to having lived, with his wife and family, in a refugee camp that HIG ran, but, as in so many cases of mistaken identity at Guantánamo, the US authorities didn’t care.”

To add insult to injury, Hekmatyar’s status has now changed. He reached a peace agreement with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and at the start of this year a former Guantánamo prisoner with HIG associations, Hamidullah, was repatriated from the United Arab Emirates, where he had been sent with other Afghans in 2016, because of this agreement, surely undermining any efforts by the US to claim that Gul should still be held.

Furthermore, as I explained in April, he also spent the first nine years of his imprisonment without any representation whatsoever “until he finally secured an attorney, Shelby Sullivan Bennis of Reprieve, who described him as a ‘bright-eyed, chatty young man,’ after meeting him to try and help him prepare for his Periodic Review Board, a parole-type system set up under President Obama, which has, unfortunately, repeatedly refused to recommend his release, even though Sullivan Bennis told the board that, ‘Having completed a two-year university program in economics and mastered five different languages, Haroon is more able than most to begin a productive and peaceful life upon release. He wants nothing more than to return to his wife and daughter, whom he feels immensely guilty for having left to fend for themselves.’”

In July, Gul notified the world, via an article published on the Common Dreams website, that he was on a hunger strike, and weighed just 115 pounds. “I am an expert hunger striker now,” he wrote. “I have been going for almost nine weeks and have lost thirty pounds. I now weigh now 115 pounds — I checked this morning.”

He added, “The first three days were hard but after that, my stomach shrank and I was no longer hungry. I drink water because otherwise I would soon die, but I am not feeling thirsty. I am feeling very weak, though.”

As he also explained, “The new Senior Medical Officer is a decent guy. He comes by to check on me, and says he is sympathetic. He asks if I am going to harm myself or anyone else. I say no, it is just a peaceful protest. ‘Give me freedom or give me death.’ This principle is very important to me. I don’t want to just sit patiently in my cell until I die here. I do not want to die here at all, but I have to do something. I thought of a phrase I learned in English: ‘It’s a dog eat dog world.’ For now, I am the cannibal, because my body is eating itself. It has nowhere else to go for nutrition.”

As he also explained, “I have nightmares. They repeat and repeat. I am in a very dirty area. I try to avoid stepping, bare foot, in feces, though it turns out to be a land mine. Sometimes there are snakes, and I must find a path through them. I wake up suddenly, feeling cold, with my heart beating very fast. Maybe they will start force feeding me if I go under 110 lbs. They did it to me in 2013. They force you to take liquid nutrient. The nicer guards allow you to drink it in front of them but normally they put a 110 centimeter pipe up your nose. It is very painful. As it goes in you feel you must throw up and become desperate to take it out. It is more painful for me than when I was thrown out of the bus and my bones were broken. And this is every day. It can take an hour and a half but they cheat and do it quicker, which is actually more painful. All this time you are sitting in the Torture Chair, strapped down tightly.”

He also stated, “I am prepared to die, if it comes to it. I look ahead, and all I see is suffering. But what is the point of good health in life, if I cannot be home? My daughter was three months old when I last saw her. She is now thirteen, growing up without a father in a refugee camp where school has been closed for five months now because of the virus. If I was there I could help to teach her. I could even teach her the English I have learned here in Guantánamo. I am not hunger striking to make the military administration unhappy. After thirteen years detained without trial, it is the only form of protest left to me — the only way to assert my humanity. Guantánamo strips us of every human right but the right to life. Perhaps as my life ebbs away, the U.S. will at least be confronted with the pointless cruelty of keeping me here.”

Last week, Gul’s plight was once more publicized, with the AFP news agency reporting from Shamshatu refugee camp near Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar, where his mother, Sehar Bibi, said, “No one is bothered about my son still being in Guantánamo Bay. All the other prisoners have been released but he is still languishing there. I have no more patience. I have lost my mind.”

As the family described it, Gul “was working as a honey trader travelling between Peshawar and eastern Afghanistan’s Jalalabad when he was arrested in 2006 in what his family claims was likely a trap to claim a cash reward for fighters.”

As AFP noted, the US government’s “push to end its long military entanglement in Afghanistan has made his imprisonment all the harder for his family to accept.” As part of negotiations between the US and the Taliban in Doha, “the US pressured the Afghan authorities to release thousands of hardened fighters, including many behind deadly attacks on foreigners.” And yet, as was explained by Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of the legal NGO Reprieve, who represents Gul, although the US government “insisted that the Afghans should release 5,000 Taliban,” they “have not released the one no-value Afghan from Guantánamo.”

Stafford Smith added, “The thing he finds psychologically most difficult is that he’s a nobody and he’s randomly still there.”

Addressing the US’s reasons for continuing to hold Gul, Kate Clark, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said that it was clear that he “was no significant terrorist figure.” She explained that the allegations against him, which were “initially kept secret until revealed by WikiLeaks” in 2011, “relied on a lot of hearsay.” She added, “Whatever you think about Guantánamo, he was not important enough to be there … if he was anything, he was a bit player.”

With just two weeks to go until the US Presidential Election, everyone who opposes the continued existence of Guantánamo must be fervently hoping that Donald Trump will no longer be president so that the release of insignificant prisoners — like Asadullah Haroon Gul — can resume.

In the nearly four years of his horrendous presidency, Trump has effectively sealed Guantánamo shut, refusing to even contemplate assessing whether or not it is acceptable that, of the 40 men still held, only nine are facing, or have faced trials, with the 31 others apparently consigned to endless imprisonment without charge or trial, even though five of them were unanimously approved for release by high-level US government review processes under President Obama, and the only justification for the imprisonment of the 26 others is a review process set up under Obama, the Periodic Review Boards, that has become so discredited under Trump that the prisoners are boycotting it.

“I do a lot of things to cooperate with the Americans, but still they are not happy,” Gul said in a statement provided by Stafford Smith, with AFP noting that, “In video chats facilitated by the Red Cross, Haroon’s family has noticed changes in his physical appearance and speaking habits,” following his most recent hunger strike.

“I was 175 pounds and now I am down to 110 pounds,” he said in the statement. “At least 65 pounds of me has escaped from Guantánamo.”

* * * * *

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 see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison 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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from eight years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

18 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, an update in the story of Asadullah Haroon Gul, a genuinely insignificant prisoner, and one of the last two Afghans at Guantanamo, who has been on a hunger strike for five months, and weighs just 110 pounds.

    AFP recently visited his family in the refugee camp where they live, in north western Pakistan, and spoke to his mother, Sehar Bibi, at the refugee camp near Peshawar where she lives with her son’s wife and daughter, and other family members, where she said, “No one is bothered about my son still being in Guantanamo Bay. All the other prisoners have been released but he is still languishing there. I have no more patience. I have lost my mind.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Geraldine Grunow wrote:

    A heart-breaking account of hunger-striker Asadullah Haroon Gul’s situation on Guantanamo: “’I was 175 pounds and now I am down to 110 pounds,’ he said in the statement. ‘At least 65 pounds of me has escaped from Guantánamo.’”

    Thanks for your continued faithful accounting of conditions on Guantanamo. Let us hope that closing the detention center will be a priority for a new administration.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for caring, Geraldine!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    It breaks my heart to read about the hunger strikers … men are dying and tortured while doing so … forced fed for years … disappearing before the other inmates … that weigh nothing … forgotten and only few seem to care.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, all sadly true, Natalia. As Edmund Burke said over 200 years ago, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    “Pointless cruelty” sums it up doesn’t it? 😞 GTMO will forever cast a dark historical shadow on the successive administrations and their collective cowardice to end this dreadful chapter. I hope Biden wins and is able to finish what Obama started.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, David. It’s extraordinary, after Trump’s unprecedentedly disastrous performance as president over the last four years, that there should even be any doubt about him losing on Nov. 3, but such is the state of the world that it can’t be taken for granted. But reflecting on a Biden victory really ought to clarify how shameful Trump’s handling of Guantanamo has been. Hopefully, in two weeks’ time, we’ll have a change of government, and can begin to exert pressure again about the need for insignificant prisoners to be freed from Guantanamo, and for the prison to be closed.

  8. Anna says...

    “I do a lot of things to cooperate with the Americans, but still they are not happy,”
    That says it all, doesn’t it… ?
    Pointless cruelty, indeed.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Absolutely – trials for any left after a last clear out and immediate closure. What a breathtaking waste of money too.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    When it comes to money, no one in US politics ever seems to properly challenge the country’s insane “defense” budget, David. I don’t when you last visited, but every January, on my annual visits to call for the prison’s closure, I’m shocked at how the country has been bled dry by its military obsessions.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    I lived there and looked in amazement at how both State and Federal planning and budgets entirely fail to make meaningful improvements to the quality of life for the vast majority of people. With honest politicians not in the pocket of hard right so called think tanks and the corporate lobby, an awful lot could be very quickly accomplished but it seems inertia and conservatism runs deep within the Democratic Party. The US should serve as a warning not a beacon for other nations.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, the only place where the US seems to be highly regarded these days is within its own borders, David, where myopic self-regard is so actively encouraged. Not that the UK is that much different, if we’re being honest about it. One of the saddest aspects of Brexit has been the large numbers of our fellow citizens cutting themselves off from the wider shared history of Europe to fester in an adversarial nationalist narrative.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Welcome to the conversation, Anna! Yes, that’s a poignant quote from Haroon, and touches on Guantanamo’s fundamental injustice – an inability to reward good behaviour with a reduced sentence, because there’s no sentence in the first place.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Our loss over Brexit is so comprehensive on so many levels. It’s such a shit idea.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, David. My only hope now is that the Tory Brexiteers are finally going to be exposed, on the basis that you can only paint a rosy picture of an unmitigated disaster while that disaster is still in the future. Even with their most frantic spinning, I suspect people will realise, in significant numbers, that they will have dealt the most savage self-inflicted blow to a western country’s economy in living memory, while, at the same time, committing treason – enriching themselves and a relatively small number of cronies through the intentional destruction of the national economy.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    We have a £36 billion pound deficit for September and that’s before we really experience the revenue drop Brexit will deliver.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    I think it’s the food and medicine shortages, and Kent turned into a lorry park that will make people notice, David – food and drink that they can’t get hold of, or that’s suddenly much more expensive.

    The larger workings of the economy itself seem to be a mystery to most people, and understandably so. How can the markets be so buoyant unless they’re a bubble generating profits wherever they choose to, rather than being objectively ruled by reality?

    And does printing money, if you’re one of the large economies, really have a downside any more? One some level, it seems not, although I suspect that the real impact will be felt if we don’t get a new government, and are stuck with one – the Tories – that are absolutely committed to the false notion that austerity is the answer to deficits. What do they do when there’s nothing left to cut anymore, which seems to be the reality right now.

    Here’s the Guardian on that £36bn deficit:

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish translation, via the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Asadullah Haroon Gul: el huelguista de hambre afgano olvidado en Guantánamo’:

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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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