15 Years of Torture: The Unending Agony of Abu Zubaydah, in CIA “Black Sites” and Guantánamo

Abu Zubaydah: illustration by Brigid Barrett from an article in Wired in July 2013. The photo used is from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2013.Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

In the eleven years since I first began working on Guantánamo full-time, researching its history and the stories of the men held there, writing about them and working to get the prison closed down, one date has been burned into my mind: March 28, 2002, when Abu Zubaydah (Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn), an alleged “high-value detainee,” was seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan. That night dozens of prisoners were seized in a number of house raids in Faisalabad, and some were taken to CIA “black sites” or sent abroad on behalf of the CIA to torture facilities in other countries, run by their own torturers. Most ended up, after a few months, in Guantánamo, and most — through not all — have now been released, but not Abu Zubaydah.

He, instead, was sent to a CIA “black site” in Thailand, where he was the first prisoner subjected to the CIA’s vile post-9/11 torture program, revealed most clearly to date in the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report about the program, published in December 2014. Although the executive summary was heavily redacted, and the full report has never been made public, it remains the most powerful official indictment of the torture program, which, it is clear, should never have been embarked upon in the first place.

After Thailand, where he was subjected to waterboarding (an ancient form of water torture) on 83 occasions, Abu Zubaydah was sent to Poland, and, after other flights to other locations (a “black site” in Guantánamo, briefly), and others in Morocco, Lithuania, and — probably — Afghanistan, he ended up back at Guantánamo, though not covertly, in September 2006, when President Bush announced to the world that he and 13 other “high-value detainees” had been removed from the CIA “black sites” whose existence he had previously denied, but which, he now admitted, had existed but had just been shut down. Read the rest of this entry »

Humanizing a Torture Victim: Abu Zubaydah’s Letters from Guantánamo

Abu Zubaydah as a young man (Photo by Abu Zubaydah’s childhood friend, Muhammad Shams al-Sawalha).Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo for the next three months.

 

On Tuesday, I wrote about the recent decision, by a Periodic Review Board, to approve the ongoing imprisonment of Abu Zubaydah, one of 14 men described as “high-value detainees,” who were brought to Guantánamo from CIA “black sites” just over ten years ago, in September 2006.

Zubaydah — whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn — was actually the first victim of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 torture program, but although the US government initially touted him as a significant figure in al-Qaeda, by 2010 they had backed down from their claims, accepting that he was not a member of al-Qaeda, and was not involved in the 9/11 attacks. In legal documents, the government claimed that they had “not contended … that Petitioner was a member of al-Qaeda or otherwise formally identified with al-Qaeda” and had “not contended that Petitioner had any personal involvement in planning or executing either the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, or the attacks of September 11, 2001.”

Nevertheless, in approving Zubaydah’s ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, the members of the 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 — sought to still identify him with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and drew on a videotaped interview, made by militants after the 9/11 attacks, in which he spoke of how closely he and bin Laden had been working together for ten years, a claim that sounds suspiciously like Zubaydah making false claims about his own significance. In contrast, at a tribunal at Guantánamo in 2007, Zubaydah stated that he was tortured by the CIA to admit that he worked with Osama bin Laden, but insisted, “I’m not his partner and I’m not a member of al-Qaeda.” Read the rest of this entry »

Torture Victim Abu Zubaydah, Seen For the First Time in 14 Years, Seeks Release from Guantánamo

Abu Zubaydah: illustration by Brigid Barrett from an article in Wired in July 2013. The photo used is from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.On August 23, 2016, the most notorious torture victim in Guantánamo, Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, better known as Abu Zubaydah, became the 61st prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board, and was seen for the first time by anyone outside of the US military and intelligence agencies, apart from representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, his attorneys and translators, since his capture 14 years and five months ago.

For the Guardian, David Smith wrote, “His dark hair was neat, his moustache and beard impeccably trimmed. His shirt was high-collared and spotlessly white. He sat at the head of the table with a calm, composed mien. It was the first time that the world has seen Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Husayn, also known as Abu Zubaydah, since his capture in Pakistan 14 years ago.” He added that, “[a]fter a brief technical hitch, a TV screen showed a room with a plain white wall and black shiny table. Anyone walking in cold might have assumed that Abu Zubaydah, with the appearance of a doctor or lawyer, was chairing the meeting. To his left sat an interpreter, dressed casually in shirtsleeves, and to his right were two personal representatives in military uniform with papers before them. A counsel was unable to attend due to a family medical emergency.”

Smith also noted that he “sat impassive, expressionless and silent throughout, sometimes resting his head on his hand or putting a finger to his mouth or chin, and studying his detainee profile intently as it was read aloud by an unseen woman.” Read the rest of this entry »

US Government Turns Down Request for Trial by Guantánamo Prisoner and CIA Torture Victim Abu Zubaydah

Last week, lawyers for Abu Zubaydah, an alleged “high-value detainee” in the “war on terror,” who was held in secret CIA prisons for four and a half years until his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2006, submitted a letter to the Convening Authority for the military commissions at Guantánamo, Retired Vice Admiral Bruce MacDonald, asking for their client to be charged, after more than ten years in US custody. I followed up on this by writing an article pointing out that seven other “high-value detainees” held at Guantánamo — mostly since September 2006, but in two cases since 2007 and 2008 — have also not been charged, and asked, with regard to these eight men, “Are there any plans to try them? Or is the Obama administration happy for them to be held for the rest of their lives without charge or trial — a confirmation, if any were needed, that indefinite detention without charge or trial has, through Guantánamo, become normalized?”

Today, I had planned to publish the letter that Joe Margulies and the other lawyers for Abu Zubaydah wrote to Bruce MacDonald, which Marcy Wheeler made available on her website Empty Wheel, and I am proceeding with that plan, as the letter contains an important summary of the Bush administration’s disgraceful and illegal torture program, for which no one in authority has yet been held accountable, as well as summarizing the scandalous treatment of Abu Zubaydah, and how the claims about his significance have melted away with the passage of time. It also is an indictment of the Obama administration’s unwillingness to deal adequately with the toxic inheritance left by the Bush administration.

In addition, however, I am also publishing the response to the letter that Bruce MacDonald wrote on May 17, in which he pointed out that the decision on whether or not to prosecute lies with the Office of the Chief Prosecutor — and that therefore, by inference, it is a decision that also involves defense secretary Leon Panetta and President Obama as the Commander in Chief — and also pointed out that  Abu Zubaydah can “challenge the legality of his detention by seeking a writ of habeas corpus.” 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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