Tariq Ba Odah, Hunger Strikes, and Why the Obama Administration Must Stop Challenging Guantánamo Prisoners in Court

Members of the campaigning group Witness Against Torture hold up a banner featuring an image of Tariq Ba Odah outside the White House in June 2015 (Photo: Matt Daloisio via Flickr).In June, I wrote an article, “Skeletal, 75-Pound Guantánamo Hunger Striker Tariq Ba Odah Seeks Release; Medical Experts Fear For His Life,” about the desperate plight of Tariq Ba Odah, a Guantánamo prisoner who has been on a hunger strike since 2007 and is at risk of death. His weight has dropped to just 74.5 pounds, and yet the government does not even claim that it wants to continue holding him. Over five and a half years ago, in January 2010, the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established when he took office in 2009 to review the cases of all the prisoners still held at that time, concluded that he should no longer be held.

The task force approved 156 men for release, although Tariq was one of 30 placed in a category invented by the task force — “conditional detention,” made dependent on a perception that the security situation in Yemen had improved or “an appropriate rehabilitation program or third- country resettlement option becomes available,” as his lawyers described it.

Collectively, the whole of the US establishment has — with one exception — refused to repatriate any Yemenis approved for release since January 2010 (after a foiled terror plot was revealed to have been hatched in Yemen), although, since last November, the administration has been finding third countries willing to offer new homes to Yemenis approve for transfer — in part became of persistent pressure from campaigning groups. 18 Yemenis have so far been found homes in third countries — in Georgia, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Estonia and Oman — so all that now ought to prevent Tariq Ba Odah’s release is if the US government proves unable to find a third country prepared to offer him a new home. Read the rest of this entry »

Who Are the Five Yemenis Released from Guantánamo and Given New Homes in Oman and Estonia?

One of the four Yemeni prisoners released in January 2015 in Oman - Abd al-Rahman Abdullah Abu Shabati (aka Abd al-Rahman Muhammad), in a photo from the classified military files relating to the Guantanamo prisoners, which were released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.Last week, on January 14, the population of Guantánamo was reduced again as five more men were released, leaving 122 men still held, 54 of whom have been approved for release. The released men are all Yemenis, and four were sent to Oman, in the Gulf, and one to Estonia. The releases reinforce President Obama’s commitment to closing Guantánamo, and mark the third release of Yemenis since the president’s promise to resume releasing prisoners in May 2013, after nearly three years in which the release of prisoners had almost ground to a halt because of opposition in Congress and the president’s refusal to spend political capital overdoing that opposition, and the specific lifting of a ban on releasing Yemenis that he had imposed after a failed airline bomb plot in December 2009 that had been hatched in Yemen.

Across the US establishment, there continues to be a refusal to countenance the repatriation of Yemenis, because of fears about the ongoing security problems in the country, and so third countries have had to be found — firstly, Georgia and Slovakia, then Kazakhstan, and now Estonia and Oman. Although Oman borders Yemen, Abdulwahab Alkebsi, an expert on Yemen at the Center for International Private Enterprise in Washington, D.C., described Oman to the Miami Herald as “one of the more stable countries in the Arab World with a vast desert between it and neighboring Yemen.” Socially, he said, “Oman will be a better place to reintegrate into life than Latin America or Europe,” with, as the Miami Herald put it, “a common language, stable economy, educational and business opportunities that provide a better quality of life than impoverished Yemen.”

The first of the four men released in Oman is Khadr al-Yafi (aka Al-Khadr Abdallah al-Yafi), ISN 34, who was 31 years old when he was seized crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan with a group of other men. Al-Yafi had been a farmer in Yemen, and had served for two and a half years in the Yemeni army before traveling to Afghanistan. He said that after hearing a sermon, he “decided to return home and sell his sheep so that he could travel to Afghanistan to teach.” Read the rest of this entry »

Judge Calls for An End to Unjust Provisions Governing Guantánamo Prisoners’ Habeas Corpus Petitions

In preventing the release of prisoners from Guantánamo, all three branches of the US government are responsible. President Obama promised to close the prison within a year of taking office, but he lacked a concrete plan, and soon caved in to criticism, blocking a plan by White House counsel Greg Craig to bring some cleared prisoners who couldn’t be safely repatriated — the Uighurs, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province — to live in the US, and imposing a ban on releasing all Yemenis after it was discovered that a failed plot to blow up a plane bound for the US on Christmas Day 2009 was hatched in Yemen.

Congress, in turn, imposed ban on bringing prisoners to the US mainland, and, in the last two versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, a ban on releasing prisoners to any country where even a single released prisoner has allegedly engaged in recidivism (returning to the battlefield), and a requirement that, if a prisoner were to be released, the Secretary of Defense would have to certify that they would not be able, in future, to engage in any terrorist activities — a requirement that appears to be impossible to fulfill.

Largely overlooked has been the responsibility of the judiciary — and specifically, the Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. (the D.C. Circuit Court), and the Supreme Court, but their role in keeping men at Guantánamo is also crucial.

Nine years ago, in June 2004, in Rasul v. Bush, the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights, a momentous ruling that pierced the veil of secrecy that had allowed the Bush administration to establish a torture regime at Guantánamo, and also allowed the prisoners to be represented by lawyers, who were allowed to visit them. Read the rest of this entry »

As Judges Kill Off Habeas Corpus for the Guantánamo Prisoners, Will the Supreme Court Act?

When it comes to Guantánamo, the prisoners held in the Bush administration’s experimental prison have mostly been abandoned by those who should have acted on their behalf in all three branches of government —  the executive branch, Congress and the judiciary.

In June 2004, for a brief moment, George W. Bush’s excesses were checked by the Supreme Court, which, in Rasul v. Bush, took the unprecedented move of granting habeas corpus rights to prisoners seized in wartime, after recognizing that the Bush administration had shunted aside the Geneva Conventions in favor of a unprecedented system of arbitrary detention.

In this system, the US government decided that all its actions relating to terrorism and the perceived threat from al-Qaeda and the Taliban (essentially regarded as interchangeable with al-Qaeda because they had “hosted” Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan) constituted part of a “war on terror,” and decided that everyone seized could be held, without anyone bothering to ascertain whether they had been seized by mistake, as “illegal enemy combatants,” who literally had no rights whatsoever, either as human beings or as prisoners. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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