Adel Abdul Hakim, the asylum seeker from Guantánamo: a transcript of Sabin Willett’s recent speech in Stockholm


Adel Abdul HakimFollowing up on my exclusive report yesterday about the former Guantánamo detainee Adel Abdul Hakim and his application for permanent asylum in Sweden, his lawyer Sabin Willett, who first alerted me to Adel’s story, has kindly allowed me to reproduce a talk that he gave to the Swedish Helsinki Committee’s War & Peace Seminar in Stockholm on November 19, the day before Adel filed his application. Like Sabin’s other comments over the last few years on Guantánamo and the plight of his clients, it is both eloquent and emotionally engaging, with a controlled and well-directed fury aimed at those in charge of his own country –- the United States –- who have turned their back on rules observed “in all civilized nations,” which, he is “ashamed to say,” are “no longer rules honored in my country.”

Sabin’s speech

Jag vill tacka alla våra nya vänner i Sverige för att de har bjudit Adel och mig till detta seminarium. Hans återförening med sin familj igår var ett fantastiskt ögonblick. [I would like to thank our many new friends in Sweden for inviting Adel and me to this seminar. His reunion with family yesterday was a wonderful moment.] But it will be better if I proceed in English.

Guantánamo has many faces. The face of the prison, so familiar from the photographs. The faces of political sponsors, like Vice President Cheney, who told the world that it holds killers picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan, or former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who famously called the prisoners “Among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.”

For this American lawyer, Guantánamo has a different face –- the face of the prisoner I first met in an isolation cell in July 2005, where he was chained to the floor. The face of an innocent, who never was a soldier, never was a terrorist, but was swept up in the madness post 9-11. Adel’s face.

There are still more faces of Guantánamo, of families left behind, of children who cannot remember a father soon to enter his seventh year in the Guantánamo prison. Children not so different from yours, or mine. Perhaps Guantánamo’s ultimate face is the face you never see –- the 320 men still in the prison. Regulations forbid us from photographing them. The state knows that what the world cannot see, it forgets. That it will accept all manner of propaganda, of lies, of empty rhetoric, of social engineering so long as it is spared a glimpse of the human face. The state knows that Abu Ghraib was never intolerable until there were photographs.

Even in this audience, I wonder who you think is at Guantánamo. In your heart. Terrorists, right? Enemies? Surely. Here we believe in human rights and in fair treatment, in fair and open trials, for everyone, but in our hearts, we all believe they must be, well, dangerous, right?

We forget that propaganda has power even on us. So let’s look at the numbers. And in doing so let’s accept military allegations at face. Let’s ignore everything the prisoners and their lawyers say. So how many men does the military allege that it captured on battlefields? Five percent. How many does the military say engaged in a single act of hostility? Fewer than half. In six years, how many have been charged with a crime –- any crime? (Remember, at all relevant times, terrorism has been a crime). Ten. Just ten. Of those, how many have been convicted? One. And that one wasn’t an Arab, by the way. The Australian David Hicks would have done or said anything to get out of there. He will be home at New Year’s.

How strong is propaganda’s reach? Even the sponsors of this seminar refer in the materials to Adel as a “terror suspect.” Yet no one, no US soldier, prosecutor or politician, has ever suspected Adel –- ever –- of involvement in terrorism.

How did this happen? How did we get it so wrong?

Leaflets had a lot to do with it. The slide shows you one. What does the smiling fellow say? “Get wealth and power beyond your dreams … You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch al-Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.”

The notorious psyops leaflet referred to by Sabin

The US dropped these all over northeastern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, in late 2001. How many did we distribute? Leaflets are “dropping like snowflakes in December in Chicago,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

In 2001, Pakistanis who got these leaflets turned in Adel and seventeen companions to US Forces for $5,000 a head, quite a lot of money in that part of the world. These men are Uighurs, a Muslim minority group from central Asia. Their republic was overrun by Mao Tse Tung in 1949. Ever since, Uighur poets and patriots have argued for independence. Under the law of Communist China, this is known as “terrorism.”

Many Uighurs have fled communist oppression. But since 9/11, Communist China had been exploiting our “war on terror,” urging that its political dissident Uighurs were terrorists. The State Department’s annual China report said this was wrong, but in the summer of 2002, the US had begun its massive effort to prepare for an invasion of Iraq. It needed UN support. That summer the Chinese, who sit on the Security Council, and the US cut a deal. The Chinese would not object to the US invasion of Iraq. The Americans would agree to a list of concessions, including branding the Uighurs as terrorist. That was the summer that Adel was sent to Guantánamo, and President Jiang came to Texas to meet President Bush.

So Adel sat in Guantánamo. And sat. In mid-2004, the US Supreme Court ruled that the men in Guantánamo had access to the U.S. courts –- a decision Congress would revoke two years later. But at the time the Bush administration was terrified someone might learn the facts. It hastily convened military review panels to rubber-stamp the men as “enemy combatants.” Secret proceedings, without evidence or lawyers. They put the Uighurs through this. A senior official confessed to the New York Times that this was a sham.

Now most of the Uighurs were rubber-stamped as enemy combatants with everyone else. But a strange thing happened. Some nameless, honorable military officers rebelled against the political command. They cleared five of the Uighurs. Adel was one of them. The officers cleared him, and then the government kept the fact secret and sent him back to his cell.

The following spring, my law firm took the first two Uighur cases for Adel and his friend. The government had kept their innocence secret, and we didn’t learn of it until July 2005, when at last we met them at the base.

It was soon after that that I spoke for the first time to Kavser, Adel’s sister, who is here today. I’ll never forget that call. I do not speak Uighur, but weeping is the same in every language. For long years she had supposed her brother was dead.

In the US courts, a furious court battle ensued. A key hearing was scheduled for May 8, 2006. On May 5, the government sent Adel and four companions to Albania. So I got on an airplane and flew to Milan, and thence to Tirana, and on Monday morning, I took his photograph. Adel’s beard had grown long in Guantánamo. Adel had exchanged GTMO for an Albanian refugee center in the midst of an epic slum. There was no Uighur community for support. In Europe only Moldava is poorer. Still, he was out of the prison.

For the men left behind, conditions have worsened gravely. In the new Camp 6, men are held in solitary –- even men who have been cleared for release. No window, no sunlight, no fresh air, no companions. For two hours in twenty-four, which might be during day or night, a man is shackled and led to a 3 x 4 meter space, surrounded by concrete walls two stories high. In effect, a chimney. Occasionally, the sun may be glimpsed above the wire mesh above the chimney, but often “rec time” is at night.

For the other 22 hours, a man is entirely alone. He eats alone. He prays alone. At night he lies alone listening to the roar of the HVAC. There is no difference between one hour and the next, between today and tomorrow, between yesterday and forever. No one touches this man, except MPs wearing rubber gloves. Did you ever spend 22 hours alone in a room? With the shades pulled, and no phone or TV or radio or computer or i-Pod or book or magazine or companion? Don’t try it for longer than a day. After that, the studies say, people soon begin to go mad.

“It is like we are underground here,” one man said to me. He thought he was already entombed. Another sent a message to his wife: “Tell her to remarry.” A third said he was hearing voices. His foot tapped uncontrollably against the floor. His face was inexpressibly sad. He had only one question for me: “Sabin, why do they hate us so much?”

I leave that question to the historians.

Now I suppose it would be irrelevant in a discussion of Guantánamo to digress with law, but it is a core principle of international law that a soldier of the enemy is no criminal. He has broken no law. You may hold him as a prisoner only so long as the shooting war lasts. You must treat him with honor, as you would treat your own soldier.

If we suspect an enemy soldier is also a criminal –- say, a terrorist complicit in the murder of civilians –- then he is to be treated like one. Charged, represented by counsel, tried with evidence in an open proceeding, before a court. Terrorism is, of course, a crime. If you think you have a terrorist, charge him and try him. If a person is neither of these things –- if he is a civilian, as Adel is, as the other Uighurs are, then he must be released immediately. Those are the rules under the Geneva Conventions. They are the rules in all civilized nations. I am ashamed to say they are no longer rules honored in my country.

The fact is that my government has made a hash of things. Most dishonorable of all, we have left the mess for others to clean up. In the days when my Grandfather served in the U.S. Navy, we Americans could claim to have helped clean up the messes of others. Now the tables have turned, and his grandson comes to Europe, to ask you to help remedy the errors of my generation.

It is a dark time, and the dark time is not over. Yet there are fleeting glimpses of sunshine. Your ministry granted a four-day visa, and the sun rose again for these people yesterday at Arlanda, when after so many years these people embraced again.

Perhaps the most important contribution to yesterday’s joyful reunion was that of six-year-old Fatima, Kavser’s daughter. It was to save her from China’s compulsory abortion policy that Kavser and her husband Abdulatif fled western China seven years ago. The Chinese seized Abdulatif in retaliation, and so a young mother with two children under four and another on the way wandered destitute on the streets of Islamabad. And it was Sweden –- again, Sweden! –- that gave these people refuge. Adel came to Kavser last evening; but Fatima had led her journey here. So in a very real way it was Fatima who brought these people together at Arlanda last night. I’m reminded that in a few weeks, when my own tradition revisits an ancient message of peace, we will reread the words, “And a little child shall lead them.”

When I met Fatima yesterday, she wore the pink dress and tiara of the fairy godmother. It seemed only right.

Please welcome my client and friend, Adel Abdul Hakim.

Adel and Fatima

Adel and Fatima.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Uighurs in Guantánamo, see: The Guantánamo whistleblower, a Libyan shopkeeper, some Chinese Muslims and a desperate government (July 2007), Guantánamo’s Uyghurs: Stranded in Albania (October 2007), Former Guantánamo detainee seeks asylum in Sweden (November 2007), Support for ex-Guantánamo detainee’s Swedish asylum claim (January 2008), A Chinese Muslim’s desperate plea from Guantánamo (March 2008), Former Guantánamo prisoner denied asylum in Sweden (June 2008), Six Years Late, Court Throws Out Guantánamo Case (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (July 2008), From Guantánamo to the United States: The Story of the Wrongly Imprisoned Uighurs (October 2008), Guantánamo Uyghurs’ resettlement prospects skewered by Justice Department lies (October 2008), A Pastor’s Plea for the Guantánamo Uyghurs (October 2008), Guantánamo: Justice Delayed or Justice Denied? (October 2008), Sabin Willett’s letter to the Justice Department (November 2008), Will Europe Take The Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), Guantanamo’s refugees (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), and the stories in the additional chapters of The Guantánamo Files: Website Extras 1, Website Extras 6 and Website Extras 9.

3 Responses

  1. Mrs Thorn-Seshold says...

    The above was a while ago. Have you changed your perception now?
    How can you assume that the Guantanomo inmates are innocent? Did anyone assume that former Nazi supporters hiding in other countries were innocent?

    Having asked those questions, I would like to know how you can live ‘quietly’ in south London when so many live in appalling conditions both in England and in the world at large.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Mrs Thorn-Seshold,
    I try not to make assumptions, but I do think it’s absolutely crucial to understand that the majority of the prisoners were seized not by the Americans, but by their Afghan and Pakistan allies, at a time when bounty payments were widespread, that they were not given “competent tribunals” (aka battlefield tribunals) at the time of capture according to Article 5 of the 3rd Geneva Convention, that the US military was prohibited from screening out those seized by mistake in the prisons at Kandahar and Bagram that were used to process the prisoners for Guantanamo, and that they have never received adequate screening in Guantanamo either, as the tribunals used to assess their status as “enemy combatants” were a demonstrable sham.
    As for Adel, I have no doubt that the Uighurs had only one enemy — the Chinese government — as they have all maintained throughout their imprisonment.

  3. jastice says...

    All the uighurs in Guantanamo are innocent. they exiled to afhanistan and pakistan because of chinese supression in the name of “terorism”. they should be allowed to stay in USA . never let them back to china otherwise they will be excuted by chinese authority.

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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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