Video: On the 12th Anniversary of the Opening of Guantánamo, Former Prisoner Sami Al-Haj Speaks

A hallucinatory image of force-feeding at Guantanamo by Sami al-Haj, as reproduced by British artist Lewis PeakeLate last year, as the coalition of groups calling for the closure of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba began deliberations for this year’s protest on the anniversary of the prison’s opening (on January 11), I reached out — as part of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign — to Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity, founded and led by Clive Stafford Smith, whose lawyers represent 15 prisoners still held at Guantánamo.

As we discussed ways to publicize the plight of the prisoners on the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, Reprieve suggested asking Sami al-Haj, a Sudanese prisoner released in 2008, to record a video statement that could be used, and I’m delighted to note that Sami agreed, and his video message to President Obama is posted below.

Sami is the only journalist to have been held at Guantánamo, and he was working as a cameraman for Al-Jazeera when he was seized on assignment crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan in December 2001. I subsequently covered his story, in particular in the months before his release, when he had embarked on a hunger strike and was providing information to the world about it via Clive. In this period, he also made a number of drawings about the hunger strike. When these were seized by the Pentagon’s censors, Reprieve described them to a British cartoonist, Lewis Peake, who recreated them based on the descriptions, and I told Sami’s story, and reproduced the drawings, in an article entitled, “Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo.” Read the rest of this entry »

On the 12th Anniversary of the Opening of Guantánamo, Please Write to the Prisoners

Every six months, I put out a call for people to write to the prisoners in Guantánamo, to let them know that they have not been forgotten, and to let the US authorities know that people are watching what they do at Guantánamo.

The letter-writing campaign was started three years ago by two Facebook friends, Shahrina J. Ahmed and Mahfuja Bint Ammu, and it has been repeated every six months (see here, here, here, here and here).

In previous calls for people to write letters, I specifically referred to the men still held as the “forgotten prisoners,” but I have not chosen to do so this time, because, last year, people began to wake up, in significant numbers, to the fact that Guantánamo is still open and to remember the men who had indeed been largely forgotten, at least since 2010, when the one-year deadline for President Obama’s promise to close the prison expired with a whimper.

Last year over a million people signed two petitions calling for the closure of Guantánamo (see here and here), and it was because of the prisoners themselves that their plight was brought back into the international spotlight. The prisoners did this through a prison-wide hunger strike, which reminded the world’s media that Guantánamo is a legal, moral and ethical abomination, a place where the men still held — 155 in total — are, for the most part, indefinitely detained without charge or trial, even though nearly half of them — 76 men — were cleared for release four years ago by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force. Read the rest of this entry »

Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo with Chris Cook on Gorilla Radio

On Monday evening in Canada (early on Tuesday morning in London), I was delighted to speak to Chris Cook for his well-respected and long running Gorilla Radio show in British Columbia, in Canada. The MP3 of the hour-long show is here, and Chris and I spoke for the first half-hour.

In reviewing my activities, I see that Chris and I spoke for the first time three years ago, in January 2011, when we spoke about Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks, and, of course, Guantánamo, and this week we were revisiting Guantánamo, on the eve of the 12th anniversary of its opening (On Saturday January 11), as I prepared to fly out to the US for a two-week tour to call for the prison’s closure, and, hopefully, to help people understand why it is so important that the prison is finally closed, five years after President Obama first took office, promising to close it within a year. My itinerary, for my visit from January 8-21, is here.

Even putting aside the torture that was official policy at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2004, the Indefinite detention without charge or trial that is at the very heart of Guantánamo’s operations is an affront to the values that America claims to believe in, and this is true every second that the prison remains open.

Chris and I talked about the progress made recently — the action promised by President Obama last year after a prison-wide hunger strike awakened the world to the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo, and the release, in the last few months, of eleven prisoners. Read the rest of this entry »

Close Guantánamo Now: Andy Worthington’s US Tour on the 12th Anniversary of the Prison’s Opening, January 2014

To interview Andy Worthington, please contact him by email.

January 11, 2014 is the 12th anniversary of the opening of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, an experiment in extraordinary rendition, torture and indefinite detention without charge or trial that should never have opened. Since 2011, I have been visiting the US on the anniversary, to take part in events to raise awareness of the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo, and to call for the prison’s closure (see here, here and here), and this year is the fourth occasion on which I have braved the sometimes inhospitable weather of America in January to add my voice to those of others calling for Guantánamo to be closed, and the third year in which I have done so as the co-founder, with the attorney Tom Wilner, of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, which we established on the 10th anniversary of the opening of the prison in January 2012.

This year, I will be visiting from January 8 to 21, and taking part in events in New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles (my first ever visit!) from January 9 to 17, mostly with Debra Sweet, the National Director of the campaigning group the World Can’t Wait, who has organized my trip. Debra has been organizing my visits to the US since 2009, and it will be wonderful to spend time with her and with the other participants in the various events we have planned — who include the investigative journalist Jason Leopold, psychologist and anti-torture writer and activist Jeffrey Kaye, the former SERE instructor and anti-torture campaigner Michael Kearns, and Todd Pierce, a former military defense attorney, who represented men at Guantánamo who were put forward for trials by military commission. We will, at some events, be showing the excellent documentary film “Doctors of the Dark Side,” directed by Martha Davis, and the full itinerary is below (also see the Facebook page here, and see here for Debra’s post about the tour). POSTSCRIPT Jan. 10: Debra is unable to take part in the tour because of a head injury sustained just before it began. Everyone involved in the tour wishes her a speedy recovery.

For the last five years, of course, the ownership of Guantánamo has been in the hands not of George W. Bush and the Republican Party, but of Barack Obama and the Democrats, and it has, for the most part, been a dispiriting experience watching as fine words turned to inaction. After promising to close the prison by January 2010, President Obama failed to keep that promise, and although he released 64 prisoners from February 2009 to September 2010, those releases almost ground to a halt for the next three years, after Congress imposed onerous restrictions on the release of prisoners, and the president didn’t think it was worthwhile spending political capital overriding lawmakers, even though he had the power to do so. Read the rest of this entry »

How Congress Is Finally Helping President Obama to Release Prisoners from Guantánamo

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.

Following three years of presidential inertia on Guantánamo — after Congress imposed onerous restrictions on the release of prisoners, and President Obama refused to spend political capital bypassing or challenging lawmakers — legislative amendments proposed by the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Sen. Carl Levin, have been accepted by Congress. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2014, which contains the amendments, was approved by the House of Representatives last week and passed the Senate by 84 votes to 15 on Thursday night.

The changes, which I wrote about last month in an article entitled, “Senate Passes Bill to Help Close Guantánamo; Now President Obama Must Act,” emerged from the committee in June. They were accepted by the Senate last month, after what the Associated Press described as “a quiet yet effective lobbying push” by senior administration officials, including President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser Lisa Monaco and Cliff Sloan, the veteran diplomat appointed this year, along with Paul Lewis at the Pentagon, to be an envoy for the closure of Guantánamo. However, the House of Representatives, where Republicans have a majority, had voted to keep all the restrictions in place.

After the Senate vote last month, a compromise had to be thrashed out between the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, in which proposals to remove the onerous restrictions on the release of prisoners survived, but other proposals — allowing prisoners to be brought to the US for detention, for trials or for medical treatment — did not. Without these particular changes, it is still not possible for Guantánamo to be closed, but for now, at least, these amendments make it easier for the president to release prisoners who were cleared for release four years ago by his own high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force — and, perhaps even more importantly, reassure him that he has support for releasing prisoners in Congress. Read the rest of this entry »

Two Sudanese Prisoners Released from Guantánamo, 79 Cleared Prisoners Remain

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 »

Omar Khadr Condemns His Guantánamo Plea Deal, As Canada Concedes He Is Not A “Maximum-Security Threat”

Good news from Canada, finally, as former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Khadr has been “reclassified as a medium-security risk,” and will be moved from Edmonton, where he is currently held as a maximum-security prisoner, to Bowden Correctional Institution, north of Calgary. The move will probably take place in the next few weeks, as the Edmonton Journal described it on Friday.

Khadr, who was just 15 years old when he was seized after a firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002, has persistently been treated with disdain by the Canadian government, which, for ten years, failed to stand up for his rights as a Canadian citizen and a juvenile prisoner.

When Khadr finally agreed to a plea deal at Guantánamo, just to be sent home, the Canadian government dragged its heels regarding its own part of the bargain. After the plea deal was agreed, during his trial by military commission at Guantánamo in October 2010, Khadr was supposed to spend just one more year at Guantánamo followed by seven years’ imprisonment in Canada after his repatriation, but it took 23 months for him to be returned, and, since his return, he has been held as a maximum-security prisoner, even though he has never been a high-risk prisoner.

Dennis Edney, the Edmonton lawyer who has been representing Khadr for ten years, explained how the decision to reclassify Khadr as “medium-security,” which was taken by Kelly Hartle, the warden at Edmonton, “reflects a ‘plethora of evidence’ from US authorities and Canada’s prison ombudsman that Khadr never was a maximum-security threat,” as the Edmonton Journal described it. Read the rest of this entry »

The Stories of the Two Guantánamo Prisoners Released to Saudi Arabia

I wrote a version of the following article, under the heading, “Who Are the Two Guantánamo Prisoners Released to Saudi Arabia?” 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 Monday December 16, the Pentagon announced that two Guantánamo prisoners — Saad al-Qahtani and Hamoud al-Wady — had been released to Saudi Arabia over the weekend. In the Miami Herald, veteran Guantánamo reporter Carol Rosenberg noted that, ”according to government sources, the Saudi repatriations, carried out in a secret operation Saturday night, were voluntary.”

The Obama administration is to be commended for releasing these two men, as it shows a commitment to the promise to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo that President Obama made in May, after a two and a half year period in which just five prisoners were released, even though over half of the 160-plus prisoners held throughout this period were cleared for release in January 2010 by a high-level, inter-agency task force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009. These releases bring the prison’s total population to 160 prisoners, of whom 80 have been cleared for release.

The release of prisoners had largely ground to a halt because Congress had imposed onerous restrictions on the Obama administration, requiring certifications to be made guaranteeing that no released prisoner would be able to take up arms or engage in terrorism against the US — promises that were extremely difficult, if not impossible to make. Read the rest of this entry »

“Close Guantánamo,” Says Prison’s First Commander, Adds That It “Should Never Have Been Opened”

In an important op-ed for the Detroit Free Press, Maj. Gen. Mike Lehnert of the Marines, the first commander of Guantánamo, has called for the closure of the prison. Maj. Gen. Lehnert built the open air cages of Camp X-Ray, the “war on terror” prison’s first incarnation, in just four days prior to the arrival of the first prisoners on January 11, 2002.

As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files, Lehnert initially bought into the hyperbole and propaganda about the prisoners, stating, soon after the prison opened, “These represent the worst elements of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. We asked for the worst guys first.” However, he soon changed his mind. In early February 2002, he provided an important insight into how, contrary to what senior Bush administration officials were saying in public, the uncomfortable truth was they they had no idea who most of the prisoners were. “A large number claim to be Taliban, a smaller number we have been able to confirm as al-Qaeda, and a rather large number in the middle we have not been able to determine their status,” he said, adding, “Many of the detainees are not forthcoming. Many have been interviewed as many as four times, each time providing a different name and different information.”

Unfortunately, the Bush administration responded not by acknowledging that it had, with a handful of exceptions, bought and rounded up civilians and low-level Taliban conscripts, but by aggressively interrogating the men over many years and, in many cases, introducing a torture program involving prolonged sleep deprivation, isolation, humiliation, the use of loud music and noise, and the exploitation of phobias. This produced copious amounts of information, as was revealed when WikiLeaks released classified military files relating to the prisoners in April 2011, but much of it was fundamentally unreliable. Read the rest of this entry »

Read My Latest Article for Al-Jazeera About the Problems with Guantánamo’s New Review Boards

Dear friends and supporters,

I do hope you have time to read my latest article for Al-Jazeera, “Guantánamo’s secretive review boards,” and to share it if you find it worthwhile. It was posted yesterday, and I’m glad to note that it has been in the top ten most viewed articles.

It deals with the Periodic Review Boards at Guantánamo, established to review the cases of the majority of the prisoners who have not been cleared for release. Of the 162 men still held, 82 were cleared for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office, while the other 80 were either recommended for ongoing detention without charge or trial, or for prosecution.

In March 2011, President Obama issued an executive order authorizing the ongoing detention without charge or trial of 48 men based on the task force’s recommendations, on the unacceptable basis that they were too dangerous to release but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial — which meant, of course, that what purported to be evidence was no such thing, and consisted largely of dubious statements by the prisoners, produced in circumstances that were not conducive to truth-telling. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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