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 »

Plea Deals in Federal Court Mooted for Guantánamo Prisoners in Next Year’s National Defense Authorization Act

A campaigner wearing a President Obama mask calls for the closure of Guantanamo in London (Photo: AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth).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 there was an interesting development in relation to President Obama’s hopes of closing Guantánamo, when the Senate Armed Services Committee announced that it had included a provision in its version of next year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which, as Charlie Savage reported for the New York Times, would allow Guantánamo prisoners to “plead guilty to criminal charges in civilian court via video teleconference,” and would also allow them to be “transferred to other countries to serve their sentences.”

Last November, a number of lawyers sent a letter to the Justice Department, which the New York Times discussed here, in which they “express[ed] interest in exploring plea deals by video teleconference — but only in civilian court, not military commissions.”

Lawyers for six prisoners said that they “may wish” to negotiate plea deals — Abu Zubaydah, the “high-value detainee” for whom the CIA’s torture program was developed, Abu Faraj al-Libi, another “high-value detainee,” Sanad al-Kazimi, a Yemeni who recently went before a Periodic Review Board, Abd al-Rahim Ghulam Rabbani, a Pakistani, Abdul Latif Nasser, the last Moroccan in the prison, and Soufian Barhoumi (aka Sufyian Barhoumi), an Algerian whose PRB is taking place on May 24. As Savage described it, the letter also “said several others are interested, and that Majid Khan, who has pleaded guilty in the [military] commissions system but has not been sentenced, would like to plead again, in civilian court.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nine Yemenis Freed from Guantánamo to Saudi Arabia; 80 Prisoners Remain

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).Good news from Guantánamo, as nine prisoners have been released, bringing the remaining number of prisoners down to 80. The nine men freed are all Yemeni citizens, but all have a connection with Saudi Arabia. Four were born there to Yemeni parents, while the other five have close family members who live in the country.

Only one of the nine is at all well-known: Tariq Ba Odah, a long-term hunger striker, who, last year, asked a judge to order his release, via a habeas corpus petition, because of the precarious state of his health. After more than eight years on a permanent hunger strike, he weighed just 74 pounds, and, according to medical experts and his lawyers, was at risk of death. Disgracefully, the Justice Department challenged his habeas petition, and, at the end of the year, Reuters revealed that the Pentagon had prevented representatives from an undisclosed foreign country that was prepared to offer him a new home from having access to his medical records, so that the country in question dropped its resettlement offer.

The New York Times also discussed the long history of how Saudi Arabia came to take in the Yemenis, revealing how the move completed “a long-sought diplomatic deal ahead of a planned visit to Riyadh by President Obama in the coming week.” Read the rest of this entry »

Haji Ghalib, the Afghan Freed from Guantánamo Who Is Now Fighting Isis and the Taliban

Former Guantanamo prisoner Haji Ghalib, photographed after his release from Guantanamo in February 2007.When it comes to reports about prisoners released from Guantánamo, there has, since President Obama took office, been an aggressive black propaganda policy — firstly from within the Pentagon and latterly from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — painting a false picture of the alleged rate of “recidivism” amongst former prisoners, a trend that has also been echoed in the mainstream media, which has repeatedly published whatever nonsense it has been told without questioning it, or asking for anything resembling proof from those government departments that are responsible. For some background, see my articles here, here, here and here – and my appearance on Democracy Now! in January 2010.

The three outstanding problems with the supposed recidivism rate — beyond the lamentable truth that no information backing up the claims has been made publicly available since 2009, and that the media should therefore have been very wary of it — are, firstly, that lazy or cynical media outlets regular add up the numbers of former prisoners described as “confirmed” and “suspected” recidivists to reach an alarming grand total, which, in recent years, is over 25% of those released, when the numbers of those “suspected” of recidivism are based on unverified, single source reporting, and may very well be unreliable. Back in March 2012, for example, as I explained in my article, “Guantánamo and Recidivism: The Media’s Ongoing Failure to Question Official Statistics,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said, “Someone on the ‘suspected’ list could very possibly not be engaged in activities that are counter to our national security interests.” (emphasis added).

The second huge problem with the reports is that even the “confirmed” rate is, very evidently, exaggerated, as it is, to be blunt, inconceivable that as many former prisoners as alleged can have been engaged in military or terrorist activities against the US. In the latest DNI report, for example, made available in September 2015, it is claimed that 117 former prisoners (17.9% of those released) are “Confirmed of Reengaging,” but no indication is given of how that can be possible. Claims can certainly be made for a few dozen “recidivists” — primarily in Afghanistan, and amongst those few former Gulf prisoners who apparently set up an Al-Qaeda offshoot in Yemen — but the figure of 117 is simply implausible. Read the rest of this entry »

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Truth, Lies and Distortions in the Coverage of Shaker Aamer, Soon to be Freed from Guantánamo

Shaker Aamer, photographed at Guantanamo in 2012.In the week since it was announced that Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, is to be released, to be returned to his family in the UK, there has been a huge sigh of relief from the many, many people who campaigned for his release — supporters of the long-standing Save Shaker Aamer Campaign, which I have been involved with for many years, attending protests and speaking at events, of We Stand With Shaker, the campaign I established with Joanne MacInnes last November, which drew huge support for photos of celebrities and MPs standing with a giant inflatable figure of Shaker, and supporters of the Shaker Aamer Parliamentary Group, established last November by John McDonnell MP, a persistent supporter of worthy causes and fighter against injustice, who, with Caroline Lucas (our sole Green MP), Jeremy Corbyn and Shaker’s constituency MP, Jane Ellison, has been the most consistent MP supporting Shaker’s cause.

My article celebrating the news of Shaker’s forthcoming release was liked and shared by over 1,500 people on Facebook. Posted on the Close Guantánamo page, it has reached over 21,000 people; on the We Stand With Shaker page it has reached over 11,000 people. Thank you to everyone who has supported the various campaigns to secure Shaker’s release, including the MPs who traveled to Washington D.C. in May to call for his release, meeting with Senators and Obama administration officials — David Davis and Andrew Mitchell of the Conservatives, and Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Slaughter of the Labour Party.

Now, of course, Jeremy is the leader of the Labour Party, and John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor — a wonderful development for those who care about tackling injustice. Jeremy was elected on an anti-austerity platform, and because of his honesty and decency, and all of the above was apparent in his speech as leader to the Labour Party Conference, when he specifically thanked Shaker’s supporters, and in particular the Save Shaker Aamer Campaign: 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 »

Does President Obama Still Have a Plan for Closing Guantánamo?

A collaged image of President Obama and a guard tower at Guantanamo.Recently, there was a brief flurry of media interest in Guantánamo after the New York Times published an article by Charlie Savage entitled, “Obama’s Plan for Guantánamo Is Seen Faltering.”

Savage noted how the Obama administration’s “fitful effort” to shut down the prison at Guantánamo “is collapsing again,” pointing out how, in his first six months as defense secretary, Ashton Carter “has yet to make a decision on any newly proposed deals to transfer individual detainees,” and claiming that, according to unnamed officials, this delay, “which echoes a pattern last year by his predecessor, Chuck Hagel,” is “generating mounting concern in the White House and State Department.” The most recent transfers out of Guantánamo — of six Yemenis resettled in Oman —  were in June, but they were part of deal negotiated under Hagel, which saw four other Yemenis rehoused in Oman in January.

Savage wrote that, in mid-July, President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, “convened a cabinet-level ‘principals committee’ meeting on how to close the prison before the president leaves office in 18 months.” At that meeting, Carter “was presented with an unsigned National Security Council memo stating that he would have 30 days to make decisions on newly proposed transfers,” according to several officials familiar with the discussions. Read the rest of this entry »

Report Damns American Psychological Association for Collusion in US Torture Program

An image created by the Guardian to accompany its report about the American Psychological Association scandal following a highly critical report made public in July 2015.On July 11, a damning new report concluded that US psychologists, via their largest professional organization, the American Psychological Association (APA), betrayed their core principles by working far too closely with the CIA and the Pentagon on interrogations in the post-9/11 “war on terror,” and, in the process, provided what appeared to be justification for the Bush administration’s torture program.

The 542-page report, entitled, “Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture,” is “the result of a seven-month investigation by a team led by David Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer with the firm Sidley Austin at the request of the psychology association’s board,” as the New York Times explained in the article that broke the story. That article was by James Risen, and the APA had commissioned the report last year after the publication of Risen’s book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, which, as the magazine Science described it, “accused the organization of providing cover for torture.”

In his article, Risen began by pointing out how crucial the support of psychologists was for the Bush administration’s abusive treatment of prisoners during interrogations after the 9/11 attacks. He stated that the Hoffman report concluded that, although the CIA’s health professionals “repeatedly criticized the agency’s post-Sept. 11 interrogation program,” their protests “were rebuffed by prominent outside psychologists who lent credibility to the program.” Read the rest of this entry »

Despite His Conviction Being Quashed Three Times, Guantánamo Prisoner Ali Hamza Al-Bahlul Remains in Solitary Confinement

Guantanamo prisoner Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.For some prisoners held in the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, it seems there really is no way out. One example would seem to be Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a 45-year old Yemeni prisoner and a propagandist for al-Qaeda, who made a promotional video glorifying the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, in which 17 US soldiers died, and who received a life sentence for providing material support for terrorism, conspiring with al-Qaeda and soliciting murder after a one-sided military commission trial in the dying days of the Bush administration.

Al-Bahlul has been held in solitary confinement ever since — on what is known as “Convicts’ Corridor,” according to Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, even though, since January 2013, he has had every part of his conviction overturned in the US courts — most recently in a ruling by the appeals court in Washington D.C. (the D.C. Circuit Court) on June 12.

In January 2013, a three-judge panel in the D.C. Circuit Court overturned the material support and solicitation convictions, on the basis that the charges of which he was convicted were not recognized as war crimes at the time he was accused of committing them; or, to put it another way, that they had been invented as war crimes by Congress. That ruling drew on a ground-breaking ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court three months earlier, overturning the material support conviction against another man, Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden who was freed in December 2008. The decision in al-Bahlul’s case was confirmed by a full panel of judges in July 2014, and the judges last month overturned the conspiracy conviction — on the basis that conspiracy is not a crime under the international law of war. Read the rest of this entry »

The Path to Closing Guantánamo

Campaigners with the group Witness Against Torture occupy the national Museum of American History on january 11, 2014, the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo (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.

On Saturday, six Yemenis were freed from Guantánamo, and resettled in Oman, bringing the prison’s population down to 116 men, the lowest total it has been since the first few months of the prison’s operation back in 2002. I wrote about the release of the men here, and amended the details of our prisoner list here, and, in response to the releases, I thought it would also be useful to follow up by looking at where we stand with President Obama’s long-promised mission to close the prison.

President Obama made his promise to close Guantánamo on his second day in office, pledging to close it within a year. Since failing to keep the promise, he has sporadically stated again his desire to see the prison closed — most notably two years ago, when a prison-wide hunger strike prompted him to promise to resume releasing prisoners, after a period of nearly three years in which releases had almost ground to a halt, because of opposition in Congress and the president ‘s refusal to expend political capital overcoming those obstacles.

In April, as I wrote about here, the Washington Post reported, as I paraphrased it,  that all the men approved for release in Guantánamo — at the time 57 out of the 122 men still held — would be “freed by the end of the year, and, if Congress proves obstructive, the Obama administration might close the facility before the end of Obama’s presidency by unilaterally moving the remaining prisoners to the US mainland.” I added, however, that, realistically, “it might be wisest to view these suggestions as the administration stating its best-case scenario.” 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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