Life After Guantánamo: Attorney Tells the Story of a Father and Son Freed, But Separated By 1,850 Miles

Former Guantanamo prisoner Muhammed Khantumani is one of the four boys in this photo, taken many years before his eight-year ordeal in Guantanamo. The photo is a screenshot from an interview on Democracy Now with his lawyer, Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights.Back in 2006, when I began working full-time on Guantánamo, researching the stories of the men held there for my book The Guantánamo Files, which was published in September 2007, the main research I undertook involved a detailed analysis of 8,000 pages of documents relating to the prisoners that had been released in 2006 as a result of freedom of information submissions and federal lawsuits submitted by the Associated Press.

The documents consisted primarily of unclassified allegations against the prisoners and transcripts of various review processes — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) and Administrative Review Boards (ARBs) — that had been conducted from 2004 onwards, purportedly to establish the status of the prisoners, although these processes were so one-sided and what passed for evidence was generally so poor that, as the AP put it, all the transcripts generally revealed about the prisoners was “the often vague reasons the United States used for locking them up.”

Also included in the releases by the Pentagon were the first ever lists of the prisoners that had been made public, and, although all the files released required significant cross-referencing to create a coherent account of all the prisoners held at Guantánamo, past and present, I was able, over a period of 14 months, to do just that, producing the first — and still the only — comprehensive account of all the prisoners who, in such a cavalier and unsubstantiated manner, had been described by the Bush administration as “the worst of the worst.”

The overwhelming majority of the men held — I would say as many as 97 percent of the 779 men held throughout Guantánamo’s history (of whom 116 remain) — had no involvement with terrorism, and were either humble foot soldiers for the Taliban or civilians unlucky enough to be in the wrong time and the wrong place while the US was handing out substantial bounty payments to its Afghan and Pakistani allies for anyone who could be packaged up as being involved with al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban. Read the rest of this entry »

Huge Victory for Prison Reform as California Ends Indeterminate Long-Term Solitary Confinement

A tiny windowless cell in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) in Pelican Bay State Prison in California.On Tuesday, a significant victory took place in the long struggle by campaigners — and prisoners themselves — to improve detention conditions in US prisons, when a settlement was reached in Ashker v. Governor of California, a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners held in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent a decade or more in solitary confinement.

In a press release, the Center for Constitutional Rights, whose lawyers represented the prisoners, with co-counsel from other lawyers’ firms and the organizations California Prison Focus and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, stated that the “landmark” settlement “will effectively end indeterminate, long-term solitary confinement in all California state prisons,” resulting in “a dramatic reduction in the number of people in solitary across the state and a new program that could be a model for other states going forward.”

As CCR noted, the class action “was brought in 2012 on behalf of prisoners held in solitary confinement at the Pelican Bay prison, often without any violent conduct or serious rule infractions, often for more than a decade, and all without any meaningful process for transfer out of isolation and back to the general prison population.” The case argued that California’s use of prolonged solitary confinement “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and denies prisoners the right to due process.” Read the rest of this entry »

Mohammed Kamin, an Insignificant Afghan Prisoner in Guantánamo, Asks Review Board to Recommend His Release

Prisoners in Guantanamo's Camp 6, photographed on a press visit by Jason Leopold. I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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.

On August 18, Mohammed Kamin, an Afghan prisoner at Guantánamo who is 36 or 37 years old, became the 17th prisoner to have his case reviewed by a Periodic Review Board, consisting of representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The PRBs were established in 2013 to review the cases of 71 men who had either been recommended for ongoing imprisonment in 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established after taking office in 2009, or had been recommended for trials — recommendations that were taken off the table when judges ruled that the majority of the charges in those trials (the military commissions) had been invented by Congress, and were not legitimate war crimes at all.

46 men were in the former category, and 25 in the latter, and readers paying close attention will realize that 17 reviews in 21 months is slow progress, and, frankly, an insult to the men whose cases have not yet been heard. At this rate, it will take until 2021 for all the reviews to take place. Read the rest of this entry »

Yemeni Prisoner Zaher Hamdoun Says He Is “Buried in a Grave Called Guantánamo”

Guantanamo prisoner Zaher Hamdoun (aka Zaher bin Hamdoun) in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.On Friday, the Guardian published words from Guantánamo written by Zaher Hamdoun (ISN 576), also identified as Zaher bin Hamdoun (or Zahir bin Hamdoun), a Yemeni held at the prison since May 2002. Hamdoun’s words were interspersed with commentary by his lawyer, Pardiss Kebriaei, a Senior Staff Attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

I’m cross-posting the article below, which is worth reading not only for Hamdoun’s own words about his long ordeal, but also for Pardiss Kebriaei’s frustration with the review process — the Periodic Review Boards — established by President Obama in 2013 to examine the cases of all the prisoners still held when he took office who were not subsequently approved for release in 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force he appointed (44 of the 116 men still held) or who have not been put forward for trials (just ten of the men still held).

Hamdoun is one of 47 men awaiting a chance to pitch for his release through a Periodic Review Board, a process that, as Kebriaei notes, is appallingly slow. “At the rate prisoners’ reviews are going,” she writes, “the administration will not finish by the time Obama leaves office.” Just 17 reviews have taken place since November 2013, and, as a result, ten men have been approved for release (but just two have been freed), four others have had their ongoing detention approved (but two are awaiting the results of a second review), and three others are awaiting the results of their reviews. Read the rest of this entry »

Disgraceful US Justice Department Secretly Blocks Release from Guantánamo of Gravely Ill Hunger Striker Tariq Ba Odah

Guantanamo hunger striker Tariq Ba Odah, photographed at Guantanamo before the long-term effects of his eight-year hunger strike took hold. He now weighs just 74.5 pounds.“Wonderful.” This is the only word that Guantánamo prisoner Tariq Ba Odah said, over and over, as he “looked through photos of vigils and protests, tweets and Facebook posts, and dozens of articles about efforts to free him” from Guantánamo, at a meeting last week with his lawyer, Omar Farah, of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

Tariq, as regular readers will know, is a Yemeni, and a long-term hunger striker, who has been refusing food since 2007, and is force-fed on a daily basis. He now weighs just 74.5 pounds, and is at risk of death, but the Obama administration refuses to help him. Three weeks ago, I wrote about his lawyers’ efforts to have a US judge order his release because of the very real risk he faces of imminent death.

Tariq’s plight sparked media interest — and gasps of horror from anyone still sensitized enough, after nearly 14 years of the “war on terror” declared by the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to realize that a man weighing just 74.5 pounds would look like a survivor of — or a corpse at — the concentration camps run by the Nazis. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Skeletal, 75-Pound Guantánamo Hunger Striker Tariq Ba Odah Seeks Release; Medical Experts Fear For His Life

A restraint chair at Guantanamo, used to force-feed prisoners (Photo by Jason Leopold).I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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.

For the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, introduced by the United Nations in 1997 to mark the entry into force of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on June 26, 1987, a vivid reminder of the horrors of Guantánamo emerged the day before, when lawyers for Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni prisoner identified by the US authorities as Tarek Baada, sought “a court order granting his habeas petition and compelling the government to facilitate [his] immediate release” because of fears that, otherwise, he will die at the prison. The submission to the court is here.

Tariq, who was picked up in Pakistan by the local authorities at the end of 2001 and turned over to the US military, arrived at Guantánamo shortly after the prison opened in 2002, when he was 23 years old. He is now 36, and he is still held despite being approved for release in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009. He is one of 30 men, all Yemenis, who were placed in a category invented by the task force — “conditional detention,” which was made dependant on perceptions of the security situation in his home country improving, although it was never made clear who would make that decision, or how it would come about.

However, since President Obama began finding new homes in third countries for Yemenis approved for release last November, the only obstacle to his release now is the difficulty of finding a country to accept him, as well as countries prepared to offer new homes to the 29 other Yemenis in “conditional detention,” and 13 other Yemenis approved for release by the task force — or approved for release in the last year and a half by Periodic Review Boards — but still held. Since last November, 18 Yemenis have been released from Guantánamo to third countries. Read the rest of this entry »

“Petty and Nasty”: Guantánamo Commander Bans Lawyers From Bringing Food to Share with Prisoners

The meeting room in Camp Echo, mentioned in Guantanamo commander Rear Adm. Cozad's May 2015 memo prohibiting lawyers from bringing food into meetings with the clients, as seen from one of the cells. Camp Echo is where prisoners used to be held in isolation.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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.

In the latest news from Guantánamo, the prison’s military commander, Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, has issued a memorandum banning lawyers for the prisoners from bringing food to meetings with their clients. The memorandum, entitled, “Modification to Rules Regarding Detainee Legal and Periodic Review Board Meetings,” states, “Food of any kind, other than that provided by guard force personnel for Detainee consumption, is prohibited within meeting spaces.”

That innocuous sounding ban is, nevertheless, a huge blow to many lawyers and prisoners. Since lawyers were first allowed to visit prisoners ten years ago, and to represent them, after the Supreme Court granted them habeas corpus rights in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, it has been an opportunity for bonding between lawyers and prisoners, and an opportunity for the prisoners to receive something from the outside world, in a place where, initially, they were completely cut off from the outside world, and where, even now, over six years after Barack Obama became president, they are still more isolated than any other prisoners held by the US — unable, for example, to meet with any family members, even if their relatives could afford to fly there, and, in almost all cases, held without charge or trial in defiance of international norms.

As veteran Guantánamo reporter Carol Rosenberg explained in an article for the Miami Herald, “the custom of eating with a captive across a meeting table at Camp Echo — with the prisoner shackled by an ankle to the floor — took on cultural and symbolic significance almost from the start when lawyers brought burgers and breakfast sandwiches from the base McDonald’s to prison meetings in 2005.” Read the rest of this entry »

Rights Groups Send An Open Letter to President Obama and Ashton Carter: Free the 57 Guantánamo Prisoners Approved for Release

A collaged image of President Obama and a guard tower at Guantanamo.Below is an open letter that has just been made available by 13 human rights organizations and lawyers’ groups calling for immediate action by President Obama and defense secretary Ashton Carter to secure the release of the 57 men still held at Guantánamo (out of the 122 men still held) who have been cleared for release — or approved for transfer, in the administration’s careful words. The signatories also call on the administration to try or release the other men, and to move towards the eventual closure of the prison, as President Obama first promised when he took office in January 2009.

The spur for the letter, which I initiated on behalf of Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker, is the second anniversary of President Obama’s promise to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, after Congress raised legislative obstacles, which he made in a major speech on national security issues on May 23, 2013.

Also of great relevance is the arrival in Washington, D.C. today of a British Parliamentary delegation calling for the release and return to the UK of one of the 57, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison. The four MPs involved are the Conservative MPs David Davis and Andrew Mitchell, and the Labour MPs Andy Slaughter and Jeremy Corbyn, who are part of the cross-party Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group, and they will be meeting administration officials and Senators to try to secure a timeline for Shaker Aamer’s release. Read the rest of this entry »

Cliff Sloan, Former Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, On Why Cleared Prisoners, Including Shaker Aamer, Must Be Freed

Campaigners with Witness Against Torture show their support for Shaker Aamer in an action outside the British Embassy in Washington D.C. in January 2015.Last Wednesday, the Washington Post reawakened discussions about the future of Guantánamo, in an article entitled “Facing threat in Congress, Pentagon races to resettle Guantánamo inmates.” As I described it in my analysis of the article, the Post aired “the suggestion … that all the men approved for release in Guantánamo — 57 out of the 122 men still held — will be freed by the end of the year, and, if Congress proves obstructive, the Obama administration might close the facility before the end of Obama’s presidency by unilaterally moving the remaining prisoners to the US mainland.”

I was at pains to point out that, “[r]ealistically … it might be wisest to view these suggestions as the administration stating its best-case scenario,” but I found it convincing that, “[a]s a first step, officials plan to send up to 10 prisoners overseas, possibly in June,” and that one of these prisoners is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, and I was reassured when a journalist friend explained that a source within the administration had told her that there was “cautious optimism” that these releases will indeed take place.

Following up on the story, Ian Woods of Sky News interviewed Cliff Sloan, the former State Department envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, who was appointed by President Obama in 2013. A veteran diplomat, Sloan left his job at the end of last year, but has continued to discuss Guantánamo, and the need for the prison’s closure, ever since. See his op-ed in the New York Times in January, for example. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Campaigning investigative journalist and commentator, author, filmmaker, photographer, singer-songwriter and Guantánamo expert
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