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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
As the 12th anniversary of the opening of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay approaches (on January 11, 2014), the run of good news regarding the situation at the prison continues, with the news that two prisoners — Ibrahim Idris, 52, and Noor Uthman Muhammed, 51, have been released to Sudan, and the Senate has voted to ease restrictions imposed by Congress over the last three years. The release of the two men brings the number of prisoners released this year to eight, and the total number of prisoners still held to 158.
Until recently, there had been three years of inaction regarding Guantánamo, when just five prisoners were released by President Obama. This inaction had been caused because of opposition in Congress and the president’s refusal to spend political capital overcoming that opposition. Of the five men released, two — Ibrahim al-Qosi and Omar Khadr — were amongst the handful of prisoners regarded as so significant that they had been put forward for military commission trials, and had agreed to plea deals that stipulated how much longer they should be held, and three — an Algerian and two Uighurs, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province — had their release ordered by a US judge, after they had their habeas corpus petitions granted (before the appeals court in Washington D.C. rewrote the habeas rules, so that no prisoner could be released through a legal challenge).
The three years of inaction came to an end in August, when two Algerian men — Nabil Hadjarab and Mutia Sayyab — were released, who, like over half the men still held, had been cleared for release by a high-level, inter-agency task force that President Obama appointed shortly after taking office in 2009. Their release followed a promise to resume releasing prisoners that President Obama made in a major speech on national security issues in May. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week, a panel of three appeals court judges in Washington D.C. (in the D.C. Circuit Court) heard an appeal from three Guantánamo prisoners — including the last British resident, Shaker Aamer — asking them to order the government to end the force-feeding of prisoners, and two of the three judges “asked sceptical questions of a government lawyer who argued that the courts have no jurisdiction” over conditions at Guantánamo, as Reuters described it.
At the height of the prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo this year, at least 106 of the remaining 164 prisoners were on a hunger strike, and 46 of those men were being force-fed. That total has now fallen to 15, but twice a day those 15 men are tied into restraint chairs, while liquid nutrient is pumped into their stomachs via a tube inserted through their nose, a painful and abusive process denounced by the World Medical Association and the United Nations.
In summer, two District Court judges turned down motions challenging the force-feeding of prisoners, ruling that they didn’t have jurisdiction in the case because of previous rulings involving Guantánamo and hunger strikes. Specifically, when Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, the legislation prevented prisoners from suing over their living conditions. Read the rest of this entry »
I wrote the following article — under the heading, “Progress on Guantánamo,” 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.
Progress towards closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay — or even getting men freed who have been cleared for release by a government task force — has become such a slow and difficult process that any positive developments must be greeted with a sense of relief that at least something is being done.
In the last week, three developments that offer some hope have taken place — the appointment of a “Special Envoy for Guantánamo closure” in the Pentagon; the decision by the Justice Department not to contest the habeas corpus petition of a severally mentally ill prisoner; and the start of a review process for the majority of the 80 prisoners still held at Guantánamo who are not amongst the 84 prisoners who were cleared for release by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010.
The fact that 84 prisoners who were cleared for release nearly four years ago are still held shows the extent to which progress towards closing Guantánamo has almost ground to a halt. Read the rest of this entry »
The prison at Guantánamo is such an extraordinarily lawless and unjust place that 86 prisoners cleared for release by an inter-agency task force established by President Obama when he took office in 2009 are still held.
Other prisoners recommended for trials languish, year after year, with no hope of justice, and 46 others were specifically recommended for indefinite detention without charge or trial, on the basis that they are too dangerous to release, even though there is insufficient evidence to put them on trial.
That means, of course, that the supposed evidence is fundamentally untrustworthy, a dubious melange of statements extracted through the use of torture and other forms of coercion, and unreliable intelligence reports, but the government refuses to acknowledge that unpalatable truth.
Instead, the men have been obliged to resort to a hunger strike, now in its sixth month, to wake the world up to their plight, and to put pressure on the administration to act. Eight weeks ago, President Obama delivered an eloquent speech about national security, in which he perfectly described how unjust and counter-productive Guantánamo is, and promised to resume releasing prisoners, but he has still not released a single cleared prisoner, and nor has he initiated reviews for the 46 men whose indefinite detention he authorized in March 2011, when he promised to establish Periodic Review Boards (PRBs) to review the men’s cases, to establish whether they continue to be regarded as too dangerous to release. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
Note: Please read the comments below for updates. As at 3pm GMT on June 1, there has been no confirmation of the releases. Sources in Mauritania are still saying the men have been freed, but are not yet reunited with their families, while the US authorities are denying it. Some reports claim that only the man from Bagram has been returned home.
Update June 2: It now appears clear that only the man in Bagram was returned, and that the human rights representative in Mauritania was mistaken about the releases from Guantánamo. This is very sad news, particularly for Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, who is one of the 86 prisoners still in Guantánamo who were cleared for release over three years ago by President Obama’s inter-agency task force, and who emphatically should have been freed. Further commentary to follow soon.
In news that has so far only been available in Arabic, and which I was informed about by a Mauritanian friend on Facebook, I can confirm that two prisoners from Guantánamo have been released, and returned to their home country of Mauritania. The links are here and here.
The two men are Ahmed Ould Abdul Aziz and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, and they were accompanied by a third man, Hajj Ould Cheikh Hussein, who was apparently captured in Pakistan and held at Bagram in Afghanistan, which later became known as the Parwan Detention Facility.
According to one of the Arabic news sources, US officials handed the men to the Mauritanian security services who took them to an unknown destination. They have also reportedly met with their families.
I have no further information for now, but this appears to be confirmation that President Obama’s promise to resume the release of prisoners from Guantánamo was not as hollow as many of his promises have turned out to be. It also follows hints, in the Wall Street Journal (which I wrote about here), indicating that he would begin not with any of the 56 Yemeni prisoners out of the 86 prisoners cleared for release by the inter-agency task force that he established in 2009, but with some of the 30 others. Read the rest of this entry »
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