Playing Politics with the Closure of Guantánamo

A campaigner reminds President Obama of his promise to close Guantanamo on January 11, 2013, the 11th anniversary of the opening of the prison (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.

Supporters of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign have long been aware that the very existence of the “war on terror” prison at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba is an affront to all notions that the United States respects justice and the rule of law, and we remember that as the closure of the prison becomes, yet again, an undignified game of political football, with Congress continuing to erect obstacles to the release of prisoners and the transfer of anyone to the US mainland for any reason, and the Obama administration trying to come up with a workable plan for the prison’s closure.

Although Congress, the week after the 9/11 attacks, passed a law — the Authorization for Use of Military Force — that purports to justify the detention of prisoners without charge or trial at Guantánamo, and the Supreme Court ruled in June 2004 that the government can hold them until the end of hostilities, this thin legal veneer has persistently failed to disguise the fact that everything about Guantánamo is wrong.

The Bush administration established the prison to be beyond the reach of the US courts, and for nearly two and a half years the men — and boys — held there had no rights whatsoever. In a second decision delivered in June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that they had habeas corpus rights, a decision that allowed lawyers into the prison, breaking the veil of secrecy that had shrouded the prison for all that time, enabling torture and other forms of abuse to take place. Even so, it was not until June 2006 that the Supreme Court, in another ruling, reminded the administration that no one can be held without rights, and that Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits torture and “humiliating and degrading treatment,” applied to everyone in US custody. 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 »

Former Guantánamo Prisoner Betrayed by Morocco: Are Diplomatic Assurances Worthless?

Guantanamo prisoner Younous Chekkouri (aka Younus Chekhouri), repatriated to Morocco  on September 16, 2015 (Photo collage by Reprieve).I’ve been so busy with the news of the planned release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, that I have a few other stories to catch up on, one being the case of Younous Chekkouri (aka Younus Chekhouri), a Moroccan who was repatriated on September 16, but is now imprisoned and awaiting a trial, in defiance of the diplomatic assurances agreed between the US and Moroccan governments prior to his release.

Immediately after his release, as I wrote about here, Younous was imprisoned incommunicado, in an unknown location. His brother was then allowed to speak to him, and he “said he sounded OK and in good spirits.” However, on September 20, AFP reported that “he was under investigation on suspicion of terror-related offences and would appear before a public prosecutor,” noting that, in Morocco, terror suspects “can be held without charge for 48 hours, which is renewable once,” and Younous “could therefore appear in court on Monday [September 21].”

By September 21, he had has been “placed in ‘provisional detention’ in Morocco’s notorious Salé prison without bail.” He had been allowed to meet with a local lawyer, but the news was not good. Reprieve noted that he was “facing the possibility of charges of ‘attempts to disrupt the security of the country,’” which Cori Crider, his lawyer in London, described as “utterly baseless.” 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 »

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 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 »

US Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Force-Feeding Tapes, Condemns Government Delays

Former Guantanamo prisoner Abu Wa'el Dhiab after his release (in Uruguay in December 2014). This is a screen shot from a TV broadcast in Argentina, where Mr. Dhiab travelled in February, to call for the government to offer new homes to other Guantanamo prisoners.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.

Sick of delaying tactics, a US federal court judge has ordered the government to stop wasting time with “frivolous” appeals against her rulings, and to release videotapes showing a Guantánamo prisoner being brutally force-fed.

On October 3 last year, in the District Court in Washington D.C., Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the government to prepare for public release 32 videotapes of a Guantánamo prisoner, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, being dragged from his cell and force-fed. The tapes contained 11 hours of footage in total, and, as I explained at the time, Judge Kessler responded to the government’s concerns about the need for anonymity for US personnel by ordering them to be “redacted for ‘all identifiers of individuals’ other than Mr. Dhiab.”

That was over nine months ago, and on Friday (July 10), Judge Kessler ordered the government to “complete all national security-related redactions to the first eight tapes — which show Abu Wa’el Dhiab being forcibly removed from his cell and tube-fed — by August 31, and to complete other key redactions by September 30,” as Mr. Dhiab’s lawyers at Reprieve explained in a press release. 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 »

Appeals Court Refuses to Allow Government to Block Release of Guantánamo Force-Feeding Tapes

Abu Wa'el Dhiab photographed after his release in Uruguay with a picture he painted after his release (Photo: Oscar Bonilla).Last Friday, the appeals court in Washington, D.C. — the D.C. Circuit Court — kept alive hopes that the US government will be forced to release footage of a hunger striking Guantánamo prisoner being violently removed from his cell and force-fed, when a three-judge panel — consisting of Chief Judge Merrick Garland, Judge Patricia Millett and Judge Robert Wilkins — refused to accept an appeal by the government arguing against the release of the videotapes.

When the court heard the case last month, Justice Department attorneys “argued that the courts cannot order evidence used in trial to be unsealed if it has been classified by the government,” as The Intercept described it. Justice Department lawyer Catherine Dorsey told the judges, “We don’t think there is a First Amendment right to classified documents.” The Intercept added that the judges “appeared skeptical. Chief Judge Merrick Garland characterized the government’s position as tantamount to claiming the court ‘has absolutely no authority’ to unseal evidence even if it’s clear the government’s bid to keep it secret is based on ‘irrationality’ or that it’s ‘hiding something.'”

The tapes are of Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian prisoner who spent last year challenging the government’s force-feeding program in the courts. Dhiab was freed in Uruguay in December, but his case continues. In June, Cori Crider, one of Dhiab’s lawyers at the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, said after viewing the videos, which have only to date been seen by the lawyers, “While I’m not allowed to discuss the contents of these videos, I can say that I had trouble sleeping after viewing them.”

Writing of the ruling, Reprieve noted that the court “ordered the Obama Administration to redact 12 hours of secret Guantánamo force-feeding footage in preparation for its public release, rejecting the Administration’s argument that not one single frame should be seen by the public.” Read the rest of this entry »

Former Hunger Striker Abu Wa’el Dhiab and Other Guantánamo Prisoners Freed in Uruguay Discuss Their Problems

Abu Wa'el Dhiab (aka Jihad Dhiab) photographed for the Washington Post by Joshua Partlow in March 2015, four months after his release from Guantanamo.

To donate to support the six men released in Uruguay, please follow this link to a Just Giving page set up by Cage for Reprieve.

A month ago, I wrote a well-received article, “Guantánamo Prisoners Released in Uruguay Struggle to Adapt to Freedom,” looking at the problems faced by the six former Guantánamo prisoners given new homes in Uruguay in December. The six men, long cleared for release, couldn’t be safely repatriated, as four are from war-torn Syria, one is from Tunisia, where, it appears, the US is now concerned about the security situation, and the sixth is Palestinian, and the Israeli government has always prevented Palestinians held in Guantánamo from being returned home.

As I pointed out in my article, and in a follow-up interview with a Uruguayan journalist, “Strangers in a Strange Land: My Interview About the Struggles of the Six Men Freed from Guantánamo in Uruguay,” the former prisoners are struggling to adapt to a new country, in which they don’t speak the language and there is no Muslim community, and in which they are still separated from their families, over 13 years since they were first seized in Afghanistan or Pakistan by or on behalf of US forces.

Most of all, however, I believe that, while there have been murmurings in Uruguay about the men’s apparent unwillingness to work, those complaining are overlooking the fact that all six men are evidently grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after their long ordeal in a experimental prison where abusive indefinite detention without charge or trial is the norm. Read the rest of this entry »

Sen. Dianne Feinstein Urges Pentagon to End “Unnecessary” Force-Feeding at Guantánamo

Released Guantanamo prisoner Abu Wa'el Dhiab in a screenshot of an interview he did with an Argentinian TV channel in February 2015, two months after his release in Uruguay with five other men.Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently sent a letter to Ashton Carter, the new defense secretary, urging him to “end the unnecessary force-feedings of detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”

Sen. Feinstein, who, until recently, was chair of the committee, and oversaw the creation of the hugely important report into the CIA’s use of torture whose executive summary was released in December, has long been a critic of Guantánamo. After a visit to the prison in July 2013, with Sen. Dick Durbin, she and Durbin “asked President Barack Obama to order the Pentagon to stop routinely force-feeding hunger strikers at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo and adopt a model that feeds out of medical necessity, like in the federal prison system,” as the Miami Herald described it.

As she noted in her letter to Ashton Carter, “The hunger strikes themselves stem in part to the fact that many detainees have remained in legal limbo for more than a decade and have given up hope. Therefore, it is imperative that the Administration outline a formal process to permanently close the Guantánamo facility as soon as possible. I look forward to continue working with you to achieve that end.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. 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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