Obama’s Failure to Close Guantánamo: Revisiting a Major Article in the New Yorker

"Inaugurate Justice, Close Guantanamo": a message from Witness Against Torture activists outside the White House on January 13, 2013, the 11th anniversary of the opening of the prison, just a week before President Obama's second term inauguration (Photo: Andy Worthington).With just over 100 days remaining for President Obama to fulfill his promise to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay that he inherited from George W. Bush, where men subjected to torture and other forms of abuse are still held without charge or trial, undermining the US’s belief that it is a nation that respects the rule of law, I continue to work to close the prison, through my writing here, and through the Close Guantánamo campaign that I established with the US attorney Tom Wilner in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the prison’s opening.

A specific initiative of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign is the Countdown to Close Guantánamo, in which, every 50 days, those who wish to see Guantánamo closed have been submitting photos of themselves with posters reminding President Obama how many days he has left. Please print off the latest poster, marking 100 days remaining for President Obama to fulfill his promise on October 11, take a photo of yourself with it, and send it to us to add your voice to those calling for the prison’s closure.

This January, as President Obama prepares to leave office after eight years as president, it will be 15 years since Guantánamo opened, unless he somehow manages to close it — by executive order, perhaps — in the brief period between the presidential election in November and the inauguration of the next president in January 2017. That seems unlikely, however, because Congress has, for years, imposed bans on spending any money to bring any prisoners to the US mainland for any reason, and overriding lawmakers will unleash a fury. Read the rest of this entry »

The American Lawyer’s Six Guantánamo Bar Profiles: Thomas Wilner, David Remes, Jennifer Cowan, Wells Dixon, David Nevin and Lee Wolosky

Thomas Wilner of Shearman & Sterling (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi).

The November 2015 issue of The American Lawyer featured a “Special Report: The Guantánamo Bar,” consisting of six interviews with attorneys who have worked on Guantánamo. I’m cross-posting them below, as I think they will be of interest, and I also estimate that many of you will not have come across them previously.

The six lawyers featured were: Thomas Wilner of Shearman & Sterling; David Remes, formerly of Covington & Burling; Jennifer Cowan of Debevoise & Plimpton; J. Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Public Defender David Nevin; and Lee Wolosky of Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Wolosky was appointed last June as the White House’s special envoy for Guantánamo closure, while the rest have represented prisoners held at Guantánamo.

Thomas Wilner represented a number of Kuwaiti prisoners, and also represented the prisoners in their habeas corpus cases before the Supreme Court in 2004 and 2008. He is co-founder, with me, of the Close Guantánamo campaign, launched in January 2012, through which, for the last four years, we have been attempting to educate people about why Guantánamo must be closed, and who is held there, and I’m pleased to note that The American Lawyer described him as “the most vocal proponent in the Guantánamo bar for the closure of the offshore prison.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fawzi Al-Odah Speaks: First Interview with Kuwaiti Released from Guantánamo in 2014

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.Via the Arabic language newspaper Al-Rai, the Kuwait Times last week featured the first interview with former Guantánamo prisoner Fawzi al-Odah since his release from the prison in November 2014, which I’m posting below with some minor changes of my own to the English language translation to make it more comprehensible.

Fawzi hasn’t spoken before, because he was in a rehabilitation center in Kuwait for a year after his release, and because no one in Kuwait wanted to do anything that might jeopardize the release of Fayiz al-Kandari, the last Kuwaiti in Guantánamo, who was freed just three weeks ago. I visited the rehabilitation center during a visit to Kuwait in February 2012, to work towards securing the release of Fawzi and Fayiz, and the photos below are from that visit. At the time the facility, located next to Kuwait’s main prison, was empty, but it had briefly been used for the two prisoners previously released, who returned to Kuwait in 2009. The government had staffed it, and had clearly spent money — and was still spending money — that was only for Fawzi and Fayiz, and yet they remained entangled in the absurd bureaucracy of Guantánamo.

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the story that Fawzi told the Kuwaiti media. In Guantánamo, for example, he always maintained, as I described it in 2007 in my book The Guantánamo Files, that he “took a short vacation and travelled to Afghanistan in August 2001 ‘to teach and to help other people.’ After finding a liaison in the Taliban, which ‘was necessary because that was the government in Afghanistan at that time,’ he was ‘touring the schools and visiting families,’ teaching the Koran and handing out money, until his activities were curtailed after 9/11.” As I explained after his release, “He said he was then advised to leave the country, and given instructions about how to do so, and ended up, with other men, crossing the border into Pakistan, where they were then handed over to the Pakistani authorities.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fayiz Al-Kandari is Free! The Last Kuwaiti in Guantánamo Is Released, Plus a Saudi: Now 103 Men Remain

Fayiz al-Kandari reunited with his father after his release from Guantanamo (Photo courtesy of Barry Wingard).For Fayiz al-Kandari, the last Kuwaiti held at Guantánamo, who turned 40 at the prison in 2015, there is finally justice, as he was released on Friday January 10 and sent back home, over 14 years after he was first seized in Afghanistan, where, he always maintained, he had traveled to engage in humanitarian aid work.

Fayiz’s release, and that of another prisoner, a Saudi, appears to provide a demonstration of President Obama’s renewed commitment to close Guantánamo in his last year in office, as four men have now been freed in the last few days, and 13 more releases are expected soon. Without a doubt, it also provides further vindication that the Periodic Review Board process at Guantánamo — established in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners not already approved for release or facing trials — is working. in the cases of both men, they were recommended for continued imprisonment after PRBs, but were then reviewed again, when they both worked harder to convince the boards that they pose no threat and want only to rebuild their lives in peace — as, it should be noted, do most of the 103 men still held.

Of the 18 cases so far decided in PRBs, 15 have ended with recommendation for the release of the prisoners — a great result when all were previously regarded as “too dangerous to release” — although the process is moving far too slowly. Those 18 cases took over two years, and 42 other men are awaiting reviews, which will not be completed until 2020 at the current pace. If President Obama is serious about closing Guantánamo, he needs to find a way to speed up the process considerably in his last 12 months in office. Read the rest of this entry »

Periodic Review Board Approves Release of Fayiz Al-Kandari, the Last Kuwaiti in Guantánamo

Fayiz al-Kandari, photographed at Guantanamo in 2009 by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.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 Thursday, the same day that it was announced that a Moroccan prisoner, Younous Chekkouri, had been repatriated from Guantánamo, it was also announced that Fayiz al-Kandari, the last Kuwaiti in the prison, had been approved for release by a Periodic Review Board.

The PRBs are made up 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, and they are slowly making their way through the cases of 46 men designated for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established in 2009, and 25 others initially recommended for prosecution until the legitimacy of Guantánamo’s military commissions was shredded by US judges in 2012 and 2013.

And in case you’re wondering — yes, it is unacceptable that a task force appointed by President Obama recommended 46 men for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial — on the basis that they are “too dangerous to release,” but that insufficient evidence exists to put them on trial — because that means it is not evidence, but dubious information that would not stand up to objective scrutiny — the fruits of torture or other abuse, or of the bribery or exhaustion of prisoners, who were relentlessly encouraged to rat on their fellow prisoners or to incriminate themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Fayiz Al-Kandari, the Last Kuwaiti in Guantánamo, and a Saudi Prisoner Ask Review Boards to Send Them Home

Fayiz al-Kandari. photographed at Guantanamo by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2009.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.

Since November 2013, 17 prisoners at Guantánamo have had their cases reviewed by Periodic Review Boards, panels 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 review boards are — albeit slowly — examining the cases of all the men still held who are not facing (or have faced) trials (ten of the 116 men still held) or who have not already been approved for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009 (44 of those still held).

Of these 17 men, ten have been approved for release (and two have been freed), while four others have had their ongoing imprisonment approved, on the basis that “continued law of war detention … remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.” Three other decisions have yet to be taken, and 47 other men are still awaiting reviews.

In recent weeks, reviews have also taken place for two of the four men whose review boards concluded that they should continue to be held — Fayiz al-Kandari (aka Faez, Fayez), the last Kuwaiti in Guantánamo, whose ongoing imprisonment was approved last July, and Muhammad Abd al-Rahman al-Shumrani (aka al-Shamrani, al-Shimrani), a Saudi whose ongoing imprisonment was approved last October. 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 »

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 »

Guantánamo Review Boards Clear Kuwaiti Prisoner Fawzi Al-Odah for Release, But Defend Ongoing Imprisonment of Fayiz Al-Kandari

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 July 14, the board members of the Periodic Review Boards at Guantánamo — 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 — approved the release of Fawzi al-Odah, one of the last two Kuwaiti prisoners in Guantánamo, but recommended that the other Kuwaiti, Fayiz al-Kandari, should continue to be held.

This is good news for Fawzi al-Odah, but the decision about Fayiz al-Kandari casts a dark cloud over the whole process. I have been covering the stories of both men for many years, and it remains as clear to me now as it always has been that neither man poses a threat to the US. Here at “Close Guantánamo,” we profiled both men back in February 2012, shortly after Tom Wilner and I, the co-founders of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, had been in Kuwait trying to secure their release (see here, here and here).

The Periodic Review Boards were established last year, to review the cases of 46 Guantánamo prisoners specifically detained on the basis that they are allegedly too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence exists to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »

Kuwaiti Prisoners Fawzi Al-Odah and Fayiz Al-Kandari Ask Periodic Review Board to Free Them from Guantánamo

Over the last few weeks, Periodic Review Boards have been held at Guantánamo for the last two Kuwaiti prisoners, Fawzi al-Odah and Fayiz al-Kandari, who have been held for the last 12 years.

The PRBs, 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, have been taking place since last November, and were established to decide whether 71 of the remaining prisoners should still be regarded as a threat, or whether they should be recommended for release.

As opposed to the 75 men still held who were cleared for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009, these 71 men were either recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial (on the dubious basis that they were too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial) or for prosecution (until most of the charges in the military commission trial system collapsed following legal challenges). Both Fawzi and Fayiz were recommended for ongoing imprisonment by the task force. 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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