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 »

Who Are the Two Libyans Freed from Guantánamo and Given New Homes in Senegal?

Salem Gherebi, in a photo from Guantanamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.On April 3, two Libyans — former opponents of Colonel Gaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011 — were freed from Guantánamo and resettled in Senegal, whose Ministry of Foreign Relations issued a statement pointing out that the two men were granted “asylum … in accordance with the relevant conventions of international humanitarian law, also in the tradition of Senegalese hospitality and Islamic solidarity with two African brothers who have expressed interest in resettlement in Senegal after their release.”

The two men — Omar Mohamed Khalifh, 44 (ISN 695), and Salem Gherebi, 55 (ISN 189) — are the first former prisoners to be resettled in the west African country, and with their release 89 men remain in Guantánamo, of whom 35 have been approved for release — 23 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009, and 12 other approved for release since January 2014 by another high-level review process, the Periodic Review Boards.

Khalifh, also identified as Omar Khalif, went before a Periodic Review Board in June 2015 and was approved for release in September, bringing freedom within sight for an amputee with numerous other health problems who, as the Libyan-born British resident Omar Deghayes (released from Guantánamo in December 2007) told me in 2010, was not who the Americans thought he was: Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo Lawyers Complain About Slow Progress of Periodic Review Boards

Guantanamo prisoner Ravil Mingazov, who us one of 36 men eligible for Periodic Review Boards, but who have not yet been given a date when their reviews will take place. This photo is of Ravil with his family, in a photo taken before his capture.Yesterday I published an article about the most recent Periodic Review Board to take place at Guantánamo, and I was reminded of how I’ve overlooked a couple of interesting articles about the PRBs published in the Guardian over the last six weeks.

When it comes to President Obama’s intention to close Guantánamo before he leaves office next January, the most crucial focus for his administration needs to be the Periodic Review Boards, featuring representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, and the offices of the Director of National Intelligence and Joint Chiefs of Staff, as I have been highlighting through the recently launched Countdown to Close Guantánamo. Of the 91 men still held, 34 have been approved for release, and ten are undergoing trials (or have already been through the trial process), leaving 47 others in a disturbing limbo.

Half these men were, alarmingly, described as “too dangerous to release” by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009, even though the task force acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »

Pentagon Blocks Prisoner Releases from Guantánamo – Including 74-Pound Yemeni Hunger Striker

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).As the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba begins its 15th year of operations, there has been a flurry of mainstream media interest, in part because 2016 is President Obama’s last year in office, and yet, when he was first inaugurated in January 2009, he promised to close Guantánamo within a year, an unfulfilled promise that is bound to tarnish his legacy unless he can make good on that promise in his last twelve months in office.

A major report was recently published by Reuters, which focused in particular on the ways in which the Pentagon has been obstructing the release of prisoners, as was clear from the title of the article by Charles Levinson and David Rohde: “Pentagon thwarts Obama’s effort to close Guantánamo.”

Blocking the release of 74-pound hunger striker Tariq Ba Odah

The article began with a damning revelation about Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni prisoner who has been on a hunger strike for seven years, and whose weight has dropped, alarmingly, to just 74 pounds (from 148 pounds on his arrival at the prison in 2002), and who is at risk of death. Ba Odah has been unsuccessful in his recent efforts to persuade a judge to order his release, but he is eligible for release anyway. Back in 2009, when President Obama established the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force to assess all the prisoners’ cases, he was one of 30 Yemenis approved for release but placed in “conditional detention,” a category invented by the task force, which recommended that those placed in this category should only be freed when it was assessed — by whom, it was not explained — that the security situation in Yemen had improved. Read the rest of this entry »

Obama’s Mixed Messages on Guantánamo, as Justice Department Tells Judge Not to Intervene in Case of 75-Pound Hunger Striker at Risk of Death

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).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.

One day, when we’re looking back on Guantánamo and apportioning blame to those who contributed most powerfully to its cruelty, and to keeping it open long after the most senior officials in two governments conceded that it should be closed, a spotlight will be shone on the lawyers in the Civil Division of the Justice Department who have worked so assiduously to prevent prisoners from being released.

I have criticized these lawyers occasionally, but I have rarely heard any criticism of them in the mainstream media, and yet, from the moment that the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, they have been making life difficult for lawyers representing the prisoners, micro-managing their meetings with their clients and their travel arrangements, and often, it is impossible not to conclude, in an effort to obstruct the lawyers’ ability to represent their clients.

In addition, as I noted in an article in August, the Civil Division lawyers “have fought tooth and nail against every single habeas petition submitted by the prisoners, with just one exception — the severely ill Sudanese prisoners Ibrahim Idris, whose petition was granted unopposed in 2013.” I added, “Disgracefully, the Justice Department lawyers have repeatedly challenged habeas petitions submitted by prisoners whose release has already been approved by the Guantánamo Review Task Force,” the high-level, inter-agency task force set up by President Obama shortly after taking office in January 2009, which issued its final report a year later, recommending 156 men for release, 36 for trials and 48 others for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the alarming basis that they were “too dangerous to release,” but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »

Disgraceful US Justice Department Secretly Blocks Release from Guantánamo of Gravely Ill Hunger Striker Tariq Ba Odah

Guantanamo hunger striker Tariq Ba Odah, photographed at Guantanamo before the long-term effects of his eight-year hunger strike took hold. He now weighs just 74.5 pounds.“Wonderful.” This is the only word that Guantánamo prisoner Tariq Ba Odah said, over and over, as he “looked through photos of vigils and protests, tweets and Facebook posts, and dozens of articles about efforts to free him” from Guantánamo, at a meeting last week with his lawyer, Omar Farah, of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

Tariq, as regular readers will know, is a Yemeni, and a long-term hunger striker, who has been refusing food since 2007, and is force-fed on a daily basis. He now weighs just 74.5 pounds, and is at risk of death, but the Obama administration refuses to help him. Three weeks ago, I wrote about his lawyers’ efforts to have a US judge order his release because of the very real risk he faces of imminent death.

Tariq’s plight sparked media interest — and gasps of horror from anyone still sensitized enough, after nearly 14 years of the “war on terror” declared by the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to realize that a man weighing just 74.5 pounds would look like a survivor of — or a corpse at — the concentration camps run by the Nazis. 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 »

Skeletal, 75-Pound Guantánamo Hunger Striker Tariq Ba Odah Seeks Release; Medical Experts Fear For His Life

A restraint chair at Guantanamo, used to force-feed prisoners (Photo by Jason Leopold).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.

For the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, introduced by the United Nations in 1997 to mark the entry into force of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on June 26, 1987, a vivid reminder of the horrors of Guantánamo emerged the day before, when lawyers for Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni prisoner identified by the US authorities as Tarek Baada, sought “a court order granting his habeas petition and compelling the government to facilitate [his] immediate release” because of fears that, otherwise, he will die at the prison. The submission to the court is here.

Tariq, who was picked up in Pakistan by the local authorities at the end of 2001 and turned over to the US military, arrived at Guantánamo shortly after the prison opened in 2002, when he was 23 years old. He is now 36, and he is still held despite being approved for release in January 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009. He is one of 30 men, all Yemenis, who were placed in a category invented by the task force — “conditional detention,” which was made dependant on perceptions of the security situation in his home country improving, although it was never made clear who would make that decision, or how it would come about.

However, since President Obama began finding new homes in third countries for Yemenis approved for release last November, the only obstacle to his release now is the difficulty of finding a country to accept him, as well as countries prepared to offer new homes to the 29 other Yemenis in “conditional detention,” and 13 other Yemenis approved for release by the task force — or approved for release in the last year and a half by Periodic Review Boards — but still held. Since last November, 18 Yemenis have been released from Guantánamo to third countries. Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo Violence: Prisoners Report Shaker Aamer “Beaten,” Another Man Assaulted “For Nearly Two Hours”

In a recent letter to the British foreign secretary Philip Hammond, Clive Stafford Smith, the founder and director of the legal action charity Reprieve, described how he has “just received a series of unclassified letters from various detainees who we represent in Guantánamo Bay,” which “tell a disturbingly consistent story” — of “a new ‘standard procedure’ where the FCE team [the armored guards responsible for violently removing prisoners from their cells through ‘forcible cell extractions’] is being used to abuse the prisoners with particular severity because of the on-going non-violent hunger strike protest against their unconscionable treatment.”

With particular reference to Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who is still held despite being cleared for release since 2007, Stafford Smith noted in his letter, dated August 22,  “I have not received a recent letter from Shaker Aamer as I understand that he is seriously depressed — which is not surprising given all that he has been through.”

He added, “However, our other clients have reported that ‘[o]n Sunday, Shaker ISN 239 was beaten when the medical people wanted to draw blood.'”

In a press release, Reprieve noted that Mr. Aamer “has previously described being beaten by the FCE team up to eight times a day,” and added that he “has been held for long periods of solitary confinement since 2005 and is in extremely poor health.” Read the rest of this entry »

Long-Term Guantánamo Hunger Striker Emad Hassan Describes the Torture of Force-Feeding

Yesterday, two disturbing letters from Guantánamo were released by Reprieve US, the US branch of the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent 15 of the 154 men still held at the prison, and I’m posting them below, because they shed light on what Reprieve described in a press release as the “escalating, brutal punishment of hunger strikers,” who continue to be force-fed, even though the World Medical Association denounced force-feeding in the Declaration of Malta, in 2006, calling it “unjustifiable,” “never ethically acceptable,” and “a form of inhuman and degrading treatment,” if inflicted on a patient — or a prisoner — who is capable of making a rational decision about his refusal to eat.

The letters were written by Emad Hassan, a Yemeni prisoner who has been on a hunger strike — and force-fed — since 2007, even though he was cleared for release by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010. 77 of the men still held have been cleared for release — 75 by the task force, and two in recent months by a Periodic Review Board — and 57 of these men are Yemenis, but they are still held because of US fears about the security situation in Yemen — fears which may be legitimate, but which are an unacceptable basis for continuing to hold men that high-level review boards said should no longer be held.

In February, I made available a harrowing letter written by Emad, and in March he launched a historic legal challenge, becoming “the first Guantánamo Bay prisoner to have his claims of abuse at the military base considered by a US court of law,” as Reprieve described it. 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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