A Coronavirus Lament by Guantánamo Prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul

Guantánamo prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul, known to the US authorities as Haroon al-Afghani, who has been held at the prison without charge or trial since 2007.

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I wrote the following article 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.

Last week, on my own website, I published an article looking at the threat posed to the prisoners at Guantánamo by the coronavirus, following up on the alarming news that a US sailor had been diagnosed with the virus, and was in isolation. My article also included a cross-post of a related article written for Just Security by Scott Roehm, the Washington Director of the Center for Victims of Torture.

Roehm pointed out that a number of the prisoners have serious underlying health problems, including Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner, Saifullah Paracha, and Sharqawi Al-Hajj, who tried to commit suicide last year, both of whom we have written about (see here and here).

Roehm also called for a number of appropriate responses from the Trump administration, beginning with letting the prisoners and their lawyers know what policies are in place to deal with the virus, and also including a call for Congress to allow prisoners to be transferred to the US mainland if they need urgent medical care.

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The Coronavirus and Guantánamo’s Extraordinarily Vulnerable Prison Population

A collage of Guantánamo and the coronavirus.

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Ever since the coronavirus began its alarming global spread, those who work with, and on behalf of prisoners have been aware of the threat that it poses to those who are incarcerated. This applies, as commentators have noted, whilst urging urgent action, to the many million of prisoners worldwide who are imprisoned after being tried and convicted of crimes, as well as, in some countries, political prisoners.

In the UK, lawyers urged the government, to no avail, to release Julian Assange, who is held in Belmarsh maximum security prison in London, fighting efforts by the British government to extradite him to the US to face entirely inappropriate espionage charges relating to his work with WikiLeaks, and in the US, as well as highlighting the dangers faced by the country’s 2.2 million domestic prisoners — the largest prison population per capita in the world — some activists have also been highlighting the dangers the virus poses to the 40 men still held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, all held for between 12 and 18 years, and almost all held indefinitely without charge or trial.

The plight of the Guantánamo prisoners was particularly highlighted eight days ago, on March 24, when the US Navy announced in a press release that a sailor stationed at the base had “tested positive for COVID-19” and was “currently undergoing evaluation and treatment.” The Navy’s press release added that the Department of Defense had “notified public health authorities of the positive test” and had “taken prudent precautions” to ensure that the service member was “receiving the appropriate care.” It was also noted that the sailor was “currently isolated at their home and restricted in movement in accordance with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Guidelines,” and that efforts were underway to trace recent contacts made by the sailor.

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Imagining a Post-Coronavirus World: Ending Ravenous Capitalism and Our Consumer-Driven Promiscuity

A tug leading Royal Caribbean’s insanely-misnamed ‘Harmony of the Seas’ into Southampton Harbour. Cruise ships are environmentally ruinous, helped spread the coronavirus, and needs to be high on the list of enterprises that mustn’t be bailed out after the coronavirus crisis ends, if we are to secure a better world (Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA/AP).

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It’s too early to begin creating a post-coronavirus world when we’re still in the throes of the crisis, but we can beginning thinking about it, and planning for it; otherwise, the dark forces that led us to this point — helped by many of our least helpful habits — will only return with a vengeance once the worst of the crisis is over.

When we think about the post-coronavirus world, there are, I presume, two camps: those who want everything to go back to how it was before, and those who don’t. The latter camp, for now, contains many more people than it has within living memory — those who recognize that running the world solely for the unfettered profits of the few has been a disaster.

This group includes many environmentalists — those who, in the last year and a half, helped to amplify the messages of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion to try to alert everyone else to an uncomfortable but vitally necessary truth: that we are facing an unprecedented man-made environmental crisis, which threatens humanity’s very existence.

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Coronavirus: How Did 8,900 Deaths Worldwide Lead to the Complete Shutdown of the Global Economy?

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I don’t mean to sound wilfully contrarian, but, as the UK enters a phase of coronavirus lockdown so surreal that it feels as though we’re all, almost overnight, living in an apocalyptic sci-fi movie, I have found myself struggling to cope with the imminent collapse of the entire global economy because of a virus that, to date, has killed less than 8,900 people worldwide [Note: as of 10am on March 21, the global death count was 11,554 people, and by 6pm on March 22 it had reached a total of 14,444. By 6pm on March 29, however, it had reached a total of 33,526, and, by the morning of April 3, the total had reached 53,458].

Don’t misunderstand me. I recognise that the coronavirus is infectious, and that in China, where it began, and in Italy, where it subsequently took a sudden hold, the local health services were overwhelmed with the scale of its spread. As a result, I understand why the notion of a total lockdown in response has seemed so necessary. And in the UK, responding to the initial response of the government of Boris Johnson, which was to let the virus spread freely, and to let us, the livestock, develop “herd immunity” or die, I wholeheartedly joined in the cries of outrage of those opposing such an invitation to rates of infection and death that would, it seemed clear from the examples of China and Italy, overwhelm our own health service.

And so, in response, as the notion that people should self-isolate — perhaps for a two-week period, perhaps for a month, or two at the most — took hold, I also remained supportive, but now, suddenly, as the reality of a lockdown becomes apparent, with the prospect of total economic collapse, and the unchecked rise of unprecedented authoritarian impulses on the part of governments, and with isolation now being portrayed as something that may need to be implemented for a much longer period, I suddenly find myself in revolt.

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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 (The State of London).
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