Playing Politics with the Closure of Guantánamo

A campaigner reminds President Obama of his promise to close Guantanamo on January 11, 2013, the 11th anniversary of the opening of the prison (Photo: Andy Worthington).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.

Supporters of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign have long been aware that the very existence of the “war on terror” prison at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba is an affront to all notions that the United States respects justice and the rule of law, and we remember that as the closure of the prison becomes, yet again, an undignified game of political football, with Congress continuing to erect obstacles to the release of prisoners and the transfer of anyone to the US mainland for any reason, and the Obama administration trying to come up with a workable plan for the prison’s closure.

Although Congress, the week after the 9/11 attacks, passed a law — the Authorization for Use of Military Force — that purports to justify the detention of prisoners without charge or trial at Guantánamo, and the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that the government can hold them until the end of hostilities, this thin legal veneer has persistently failed to disguise the fact that everything about Guantánamo is wrong.

The Bush administration established the prison to be beyond the reach of the US courts, and for nearly two and a half years the men — and boys — held there had no rights whatsoever. In a second decision delivered in June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that they had habeas corpus rights, a decision that allowed lawyers into the prison, breaking the veil of secrecy that had shrouded the prison for all that time, enabling torture and other forms of abuse to take place. Even so, it was not until June 2006 that the Supreme Court, in another ruling, reminded the administration that no one can be held without rights, and that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits torture and “humiliating and degrading treatment,” applied to everyone in US custody. Read the rest of this entry »

Five Yemenis Freed from Guantánamo, Given New Homes in the United Arab Emirates

Three of the five prisoners released from Guantanamo and given new homes in the United Arab Emirates on November 13, 2015. From L to R: Ali al-Razihi, Khalid al-Qadasi and Sulaiman al-Nahdi.There’s good news from Guantánamo, as five Yemenis, approved for release from the prison in 2005, 2007 and 2014, have finally been freed, and given new homes in the United Arab Emirates.

As the New York Times reported, the resettlement “was the first of its kind to the United Arab Emirates, which had previously taken in just one former Guantánamo detainee, in 2008 — its own citizen,” Abdullah al-Hamiri, whose story I discussed here.

The Times also explained that, “In May, President Obama met at Camp David with leaders or representatives of the six Middle Eastern countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, including a representative from the United Arab Emirates. The main topic of discussion was the nuclear agreement with Iran, but officials familiar with the deliberations said Mr. Obama had also pressed them to consider resettling groups of detainees. The deal announced on Sunday appears to be the first fruits of those talks.” Read the rest of this entry »

WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Roger Waters Writes About the Release of Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo

Andy Worthington and Joanne MacInnes of We Stand With Shaker with music legend Roger Waters (ex-Pink Floyd) at the launch of the campaign outside the Houses of Parliament on November 24, 2014 (Photo: Stefano Massimo).A friend of mine for several years now — and a great supporter of the campaign to get Shaker Aamer released from Guantánamo — the musician Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd, has written an article about Shaker’s release, which he has made available exclusively to me, on behalf of all those who have campaigned for Shaker’s release. Thank you, Roger!

A relentless campaigner against injustice, unlike far too many high-profile musicians, Roger became involved in the campaign to free Shaker after he was sent a letter from Shaker about a year and a half ago, via his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve, in which Shaker had been quoting from Roger’s song “Hey You” (from the album “The Wall”). The song begins:

Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely getting old
Can you feel me?
Hey you, standing in the aisles
With itchy feet and fading smiles
Can you feel me?
Hey you, don’t help them to bury the light
Don’t give in without a fight Read the rest of this entry »

Obama’s Mixed Messages on Guantánamo, as Justice Department Tells Judge Not to Intervene in Case of 75-Pound Hunger Striker at Risk of Death

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).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.

One day, when we’re looking back on Guantánamo and apportioning blame to those who contributed most powerfully to its cruelty, and to keeping it open long after the most senior officials in two governments conceded that it should be closed, a spotlight will be shone on the lawyers in the Civil Division of the Justice Department who have worked so assiduously to prevent prisoners from being released.

I have criticized these lawyers occasionally, but I have rarely heard any criticism of them in the mainstream media, and yet, from the moment that the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, they have been making life difficult for lawyers representing the prisoners, micro-managing their meetings with their clients and their travel arrangements, and often, it is impossible not to conclude, in an effort to obstruct the lawyers’ ability to represent their clients.

In addition, as I noted in an article in August, the Civil Division lawyers “have fought tooth and nail against every single habeas petition submitted by the prisoners, with just one exception — the severely ill Sudanese prisoners Ibrahim Idris, whose petition was granted unopposed in 2013.” I added, “Disgracefully, the Justice Department lawyers have repeatedly challenged habeas petitions submitted by prisoners whose release has already been approved by the Guantánamo Review Task Force,” the high-level, inter-agency task force set up by President Obama shortly after taking office in January 2009, which issued its final report a year later, recommending 156 men for release, 36 for trials and 48 others for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the alarming basis that they were “too dangerous to release,” but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »

War Is Over, Set Us Free, Say Guantánamo Prisoners; Judge Says No

Guantanamo prisoner Mukhtar al-Warafi, in a photo from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.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.

Back in March, as I explained in an article at the time, lawyers for five Afghan prisoners still held at Guantánamo wrote a letter to President Obama and other senior officials in the Obama administration, in which they sought their release, on the basis that, as the lawyers put it, “Their continued detention is illegal because the hostilities in Afghanistan, the only possible justification for detention, have ended. Therefore, these individuals should be released and repatriated or resettled immediately.” They referred to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, on January 20 this year, at which the president said, “Tonight, for the first time since 9/11, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over.”

In my article, I also mentioned a federal court filing submitted on behalf of a Yemeni prisoner, Mukhtar al-Warafi, at the end of February calling for his release for similar reasons. I stated, “One of al-Warafi’s lawyers is Brian Foster, who, with colleagues at the law firm Covington & Burling, represents prisoners accused of being involved with the Taliban as well as others accused of having some involvement with al-Qaeda. Foster said they ‘chose al-Warafi’s case as a first test because he was only ever named as a member of the Taliban, offering a clearer argument for why he should be set free now,’ as opposed to men accused of having al-Qaeda connections.”

As I also discussed recently, al-Warafi was approved for release by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010, but had his habeas corpus petition subsequently challenged by the Justice Department, in an example of a lack of joined-up thinking within the government. Al-Warafi’s habeas petition was subsequently turned down by a judge in March 2010. 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 »

800 Years of Magna Carta: The Stench of Hypocrisy Regarding Habeas Corpus for Shaker Aamer and Other Guantánamo Prisoners

The giant inflatable figure of Shaker Aamer, which is at the heart of the We Stand With Shaker campaign, at the Not the Global Law Summit opposite Parliament  on February 2015, a lawyer-led protest against the Global Law Summit, a corporate monstrosity that purported to celebrate Magna Carta prior to the Runnymede anniversary on June 15, 2015 (Photo: Andy Worthington).Sometimes the stench of hypocrisy is so overpowering that one wonders how those mired in it can avoid gagging while they deliver their outrageous lies.

That was the case today in Runnymede, west of London, where, 800 years ago today, the barons of England forced King John to sign Magna Carta (the Grand Charter), a document that arose out of their anger at being made to pay for the king’s foreign wars, and which, significantly, limited his power.

Its most famous clause — Clause 39 — introduced habeas corpus to the world — the right not to be imprisoned without a fair trial. It states, “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned … except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land,” and its lasting significance is generally considered with Clause 40 as well, which states, “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay justice.” 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 »

Fawzi Al-Odah Freed from Guantánamo, Returns Home to Kuwait

In this photo released by the al-Odah family, Fawzi al-Odah is shown with an unidentified relative on the left and his father Khalid on the right on his arrival in Kuwait on November 6, 2014.Congratulations to the Obama administration for arranging for Fawzi al-Odah, one of the last two Kuwaiti prisoners in Guantánamo, to be sent home, a free man, on the day after the US mid-term elections — although he will be held in Kuwaiti custody for a year and required to take part in a year-long rehabilitation program.

With control of the Senate passing from the Democrats to the Republicans, and the House of Representatives maintaining its Republican majority, it may be difficult for President Obama to engage constructively with lawmakers on the eventual closure of the prison during his last two years in office.

However, by releasing al-Odah, leaving 148 men still held at the prison, including the last Kuwaiti, Fayiz al-Kandari, the president has sent a clear signal that his administration remains committed to releasing prisoners approved for release by governmental review boards, following the rules laid down by Congress, which require the administration to give them 30 days’ notice prior to any release, and for the defense secretary to certify that he is satisfied that it is safe for the prisoner or prisoners in question to be released.

Al-Odah, who was born on May 6, 1977 and is 37 years old, was seized crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001 and transferred to US custody on January 2, 2002. He arrived at Guantánamo on February 13, 2002, and, as a result, spent over a third of his life at the prison, without ever having been charged or tried. Read the rest of this entry »

Updated: My Definitive List of the Guantánamo Habeas Corpus Results

Campaigners for the closure of Guantanamo outside the US Supreme Court on January 11, 2012, the 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison (Photo: Andy Worthington).

See the updated Guantánamo habeas list here.

Sometimes life takes us down unexpected routes, and yesterday, while looking for links for my last article, a transcript of a talk I gave in Los Angeles during my recent US tour calling for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay on the 12th anniversary of its opening, I found myself visiting a page I first created in May 2010, entitled, “Guantánamo Habeas Results: The Definitive List.”

The page is a list of all the prisoners whose habeas corpus petitions were ruled on by judges in the District Court in Washington D.C. following the Supreme Court’s important ruling, in June 2008, in Boumediene v. Bush, granting the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights. At the time I created the list, there had been 47 rulings, and in 34 of those cases, after reviewing all the evidence, the judges concluded that the government had failed to demonstrate that they were connected in any meaningful manner with either al-Qaeda or the Taliban, an ordered their release.

This was humiliating for those who sought to defend Guantánamo, especially as the habeas hearings involved a low evidentiary hurdle — requiring the government to establish its case through a preponderance of the evidence rather than beyond any reasonable doubt. It was, moreover, a vindication for those like myself and some other journalists, as well as lawyers for the men, NGOs and others concerned by the existence of Guantánamo, like Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who had worked on the tribunals at Guantánamo, who had long maintained that the supposed evidence against the men was flimsy and untrustworthy, in large part because it was gathered using torture or other forms of coercion, or, in some cases at Guantánamo, because certain prisoners were bribed with better living conditions if they told lies about their fellow prisoners. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. 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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