“A Big Black Stain That Provides No Benefit Whatsoever”: Lawyers Urge Joe Biden to Close Guantánamo

5.12.20

An unidentified prisoner in the recreation yard of Camp 6 at Guantánamo Bay, probably photographed in 2015 (Photo: AFP).

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One month since the Presidential Election, and with less than seven weeks until Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States, it’s reassuring that the need for the prison at Guantánamo Bay to be closed is being discussed in the US media. 40 men are still held at Guantánamo — five approved for release by high-level government review process under President Obama; nine facing or having faced trials in the military commissions; and 26 others officially held indefinitely without charge or trial.

For the Associated Press — in a story entitled, “Biden’s win means some Guantánamo prisoners may be released,” which was widely picked up on and reported across the US and around the world — longtime Guantánamo watcher Ben Fox began by speaking to attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who was at  Guantánamo for her client Saifullah Paracha’s latest Periodic Review Board hearing.

Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner, Paracha, 73, whose case I have covered extensively, has diabetes and a heart condition, and is one of the 26 “forever prisoners,” held on an ongoing basis without charge or trial because the US authorities allege that they pose some kind of “threat” to national security. However, as Ben Fox explained, he “went to his latest review board hearing with a degree of hope, something that has been scarce during his 16 years locked up without charges at the US base in Cuba,” because, as he added, he “had two things going for him that he didn’t have at previous hearings: a favorable legal development and the election of Joe Biden.”

The Periodic Review Boards had been set up under President Obama, providing parole-type reviews of the cases of men regarded as too dangerous to release, even though the US authorities also conceded that there was insufficient evidence to put them on trial. 64 men had their cases reviewed under Obama, and 38 of those were recommended for release, but when Trump took office the PRBs — now under a commander in chief who had no interest whatsoever in releasing prisoners from Guantánamo — stopped recommending prisoners for release, and, in response, the prisoners began boycotting their hearings, having correctly concluded that they had become a sham process.

Under Joe Biden, it is now reasonable to expect that the PRBs will once more consider recommending prisoners for release. By phone from Guantánamo on November 19, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis said, “I am more hopeful now simply because we have an administration to look forward to that isn’t dead set on ignoring the existing review process. The simple existence of that on the horizon I think is hope for all of us.”

Ben Fox describes Guantánamo as having once been “a source of global outrage and a symbol of US excess in response to terrorism,” but it “largely faded from the headlines after President Barack Obama failed to close it, even as 40 men continue to be detained there.” That analysis rather misses the point that it also dropped off the radar because Trump, after an initial flurry of belligerent rhetoric, simply sealed it shut, entombing the 40 men still held there, and the media and the American people then largely forgot about it.

He is, however, accurate in stating that those pushing for the closure of Guantánamo “now see a window of opportunity, hoping Biden’s administration will find a way to prosecute those who can be prosecuted and release the rest, extricating the US from a detention center that costs more than $445 million per year.”

Ben Fox notes that Joe Biden’s “precise intentions for Guantánamo remain unclear,” and that Ned Price, a spokesman for the transition team, said only that Biden “supports closing it, but it would be inappropriate to discuss his plans in detail before he’s in office.”

According to Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch, Biden’s reticence is welcome as a contrast to President Obama’s very prominent promise to close Guantánamo, which, as Fox describes it, “has come to be seen as a strategic mistake that undercut what had been a bipartisan issue.”

As Andrea Prasow explained, “I think it’s more likely to close if it doesn’t become a huge press issue.”

Ben Fox also spoke to two other attorneys, Wells Dixon of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, and Joseph Margulies, a professor at Cornell Law School, regarding what should happen with Guantánamo under Joe Biden, with options including Biden “authoriz[ing] more military commission plea deals,” the suggestion that some prisoners “could plead guilty in federal court by video and serve any remaining sentence in other countries, so they wouldn’t enter the United States,” and the suggestion that “Biden could defy Congress and bring prisoners to the US, arguing that the ban wouldn’t stand up in court.”

Wells Dixon said, “It’s either do something about it or they die there without charge.”

Ben Fox also notes that, beyond the five men approved for release who need freeing, advocates for the prison’s closure also want the Biden administration “to review the rest, noting that many, had they been convicted in federal court, would have served their sentences and been released at this point.”

As Joseph Margulies said, “Whittle it down to the folks who are being prosecuted and either prosecute them or don’t, but don’t just hang on to them. At great expense, we walk around with this thing around our necks. It does no good. It has no role for national security. It’s just a big black stain that provides no benefit whatsoever.”

Ben Fox also notes that, for Saifullah Paracha’s PRB, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, speaking by teleconference, “raised his health issues, which include a heart attack in 2006,” and “also raised an important legal development”; namely, the release of his son Uzair, who was “convicted in 2005 in federal court in New York of providing support to terrorism,” but was released and sent back to Pakistan in March this year, after a judge threw out his conviction on the basis that it relied on untrustworthy witness statements, and the government decided not to seek a new trial. As I explained in an article at the time, Uzair Paracha, Victim of Tortured Terrorism Lies, is Freed from US Jail; Why Is His Father Still at Guantánamo?, the release of Uzair makes a mockery of his father’s continued imprisonment, because the case against Saifullah Paracha, which involves al-Qaeda connections that he has always denied, in large part relies on the same witnesses discredited in his son’s case.

As Ben Fox explains, if Saifullah Paracha had “been convicted in the US, his fate might have been the same” as that of his son. Instead, however, “it will likely be in Biden’s hands,” and, as Shelby Sullivan-Bennis described it, time is of the essence. If he is not released, she said, “It could be a death sentence.”

* * * * *

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.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, 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.

7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following up on a recent Associated Press article, in which veteran Guantanamo watcher Ben Fox spoke to attorneys for some of the 40 men still held at the prison, with their messages for Joe Biden about why he must close it, finishing the job that Barack Obama started but failed to complete, and which has been shamefully derailed for the last four years by Donald Trump.

    Included are Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who was at Guantanamo for the latest Periodic Review Board hearing for her client Saifullah Paracha, and law professor Joseph Margulies, who provided the powerful quote in the title of this article.

    His full statement – which began with him referring to demands that Joe Biden starts his presidency with a commitment to reducing the prison’s population – was, “Whittle it down to the folks who are being prosecuted and either prosecute them or don’t, but don’t just hang on to them. At great expense, we walk around with this thing around our necks. It does no good. It has no role for national security. It’s just a big black stain that provides no benefit whatsoever.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Are these 40 men ever going to be free? Will Biden do the right thing for once?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I think we’ll definitely see some of these men released, Natalia. The questions are: how many, and how much will we have to fight for it?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Andy, we will keep fighting! You’re the lead!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    🙂 Natalia!

  6. Ethan Winters says...

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Ethan. I had already heard about Said Nashir’s case, but hadn’t heard that Omar al-Rammah and Moath al-Alwi had – yet again – had their ongoing imprisonment approved. As you say, it is surprising that a recommendation for release was reached under Trump.

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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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