Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government


Although I reported last week about an important court case in favor of Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, a Yemeni prisoner in Guantánamo, there was little in the way of progress, during the first 115 days of the Obama administration, for the men who are still held, despite the President’s pledge to close the prison within a year. Just one prisoner, Binyam Mohamed, had been released, out of the 241 prisoners still in Guantánamo, but that, it was clear, was simply because his well-chronicled torture in Morocco and Afghanistan had become a persistent irritant to both the British and American governments in court rooms on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was, therefore, no surprise that, as Tim Reid reported for London’s Times on Friday, after a recent visit to the prison, the mood of many of the prisoners is angry, despairing, and suicidal. Reid explained how one prisoner’s face “appeared at the narrow cell window, eyes dark and raging,” and how, with “his arms gesticulating wildly, he made violent slashing motions across his wrists, pounded the side of his head, and jammed imaginary feeding tubes up his nose.”

“Alpha-3,” he kept mouthing as he tried to tell us that the inmate in Alpha-3 cell was suicidal and on hunger strike. Then he began to place family pictures up against the glass, including two little boys staring at the camera clutching a fluffy toy deer. Soon another face appeared at another cell window — he covered his face with the Koran and disappeared from view — and another, screaming: “What is freedom? Ask them, what is freedom?”

Reid went on to explain that, on the night of the Presidential election, “a celebratory chant of ‘Obama! Obama! Obama!’ spread through the jail,” as the prisoners learned that he had won, and that when, on his second day in office, he issued his Executive Order stating that he would close Guantánamo, “detainees were excited, shouting at guards: ‘Have you heard? We’re getting out of here!’

Now, however, as lawyers for the prisoners explained, “All the excitement of January has gone,” and “a joke is making the rounds among the detainees, told with gallows humor: ‘At least Bush released people.’”

Obama finally releases a second prisoner

As Reid’s article was published, there was, at least, good news for one prisoner in Guantánamo, Lakhdar Boumediene. A 43-year old Algerian, and a former resident of Bosnia, Boumediene will always be known for the case named after him, Boumediene v. Bush, which led, last June, to the Supreme Court ruling for the second time — after setbacks imposed, unconstitutionally, by Congress — that the prisoners at Guantánamo had habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right, six years and five months after Guantánamo opened, to challenge the basis of their detention in a court of law.

In November, this led to another significant victory for Lakhdar Boumediene, when the judge in his habeas case, Bush appointee Richard Leon, demolished the government’s case against him — and against four of the five other men seized with him in Bosnia in January 2002 in connection with a non-existent plot to blow up the US embassy in Sarajevo — and ordered their release (as I explained in a detailed article at the time, “After 7 Years, Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Kidnap Victims”).

However, although three of the men — Mustafa Ait Idr, Hadj Boudella and Mohammed Nechla — were released soon afterwards, to be reunited with their families in Bosnia, Boumediene and the other man, Sabir Lahmar, remained in Guantánamo, apparently because neither man had Bosnian citizenship.

The limbo in which Boumediene found himself was finally resolved when, in a gesture of support for the Obama administration, the French government agreed to accept him. After his kidnapping in Bosnia, Boumediene’s wife and two children returned to Algeria, but he was accepted by the French government because he has relatives in the south of France. On May 6, when a French Foreign Ministry spokesman stated that Boumediene had been “cleared of all charges relative to participation in eventual terrorist activities,” the government also announced that, as well as accepting Boumediene, it was prepared to offer residency to his wife and children.

Rob Kirsch, one of Boumediene’s lawyers, who explained that he had been meeting with French officials for the last two months, and that a French diplomat had spoken to Boumediene by phone in recent weeks, declared, “The French have just taken an amazing leadership role here. [They] have looked at a real humanitarian disaster and have taken steps to address it.”

Kirsch also explained that, on Wednesday, when he and a French diplomat arrived at Guantánamo to sort out the documentation required for Boumediene’s arrival in France, his client, who had been on a hunger strike for 18 months, tried to eat some French food that he had requested, but was unable to cope with it, and, instead, symbolically broke his hunger strike by eating rice and beans, bought from a restaurant on the naval base.

However, while Boumediene’s release is another tiny step towards the closure of Guantánamo, it will do little to reassure those still held that their bleak joke about the Obama administration’s inability to release prisoners has any less weight.

Paralysis in government

Boumediene leaves behind not just Sabir Lahmar, for whom no third country has been found that is willing to accept him, but also the 20 other prisoners cleared for release by the US courts: Mohammed El-Gharani, a Saudi resident and Chadian national, who was just 14 years old when he was seized in a random raid on a mosque in Pakistan, two Yemenis (Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, whose case was comprehensively demolished two weeks ago, and Yasim Basardah, whose release was ordered six weeks ago), and, most controversially of all, 17 Uighurs, Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province.

In October, after an appeals court had dealt the first major blow to a specific Guantánamo case, ruling in June that the government’s supposed evidence against one of the Uighurs, Huzaifa Parhat, was akin to a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered the Uighurs to be released into the United States, because their continued detention was unconstitutional, because it was unsafe to return them to China, and because no other country had been found that was prepared to accept them.

Shamefully, this ruling was appealed by the government, and the appeal was upheld by two of the three judges, A. Raymond Randolph and Karen LeCraft Henderson. Judge Randolph, in particular, has a long history of backing up Bush administration “War on Terror” detention policies in cases that were finally overturned by the Supreme Court, and, as a result, a Supreme Court ruling may well be required yet again to deliver both justice and freedom to the Uighurs.

Nevertheless, it is profoundly disappointing that the Obama administration did nothing to counter its predecessor’s abysmal disregard for the Uighurs’ unacceptable plight when the case was finally decided in February, and it is no less troubling that, ever since, despite tentatively proposing that the government may be required to accept at least some of the Uighurs into the US to encourage other countries to accept prisoners cleared for release who, like the Uighurs, cannot be repatriated, both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have failed to turn their words into actions.

In this, moreover, their apparent paralysis reflects their failure to act on behalf of any of the other prisoners at Guantánamo who believed, last November, that change they could believe in was about to be delivered at Guantánamo. I have recently written two articles examining the new administration’s general failure to comprehensively overturn the Bush administration’s policies of detention and interrogation in the “War on Terror,” and to hold those responsible to account, in which I expressed dismay that the government is entertaining plans to legitimize the policy of “preventive detention,” in the cases of 50 to 100 prisoners, that is at the heart of Guantánamo’s unjust existence.

In addition, although the government has not yet made public the fine print of its decision to reintroduce a sanitized version of the Military Commissions, the system of “terror trials” conceived by former Vice President Dick Cheney and his chief of staff David Addington, I note that reports anticipate that they will apply to less than 20 of the prisoners — those, presumably, who were actually involved in the terrorist attacks on the United States that were supposed to justify Guantánamo’s existence, and not the teenagers, like Omar Khadr and Mohamed Jawad, the irrelevant minor Afghan insurgents, and others previously charged, whose activities, even if proven to have taken place, should never have been regarded as “war crimes.”

As ever, the Obama administration needs to show that it has been listening to officials in the intelligence agencies who have been stating, for many years, that no more than a few dozen prisoners had any meaningful connection to al-Qaeda, and that, with the exception of most, or all of the 14 “high-value detainees” transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006, none “could possibly be called a leader or senior operative of al-Qaeda,” and to Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former Chief of Staff, who recently stated that “no more than a dozen or two of the detainees” had any worthwhile intelligence.

Obama and Holder also need to listen to the judges who, little by little, and despite willful obstruction by the Justice Department, are, as Judge Gladys Kessler demonstrated in the case of Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, destroying the cases against the majority of the prisoners, for one simple reason. In the absence of any knowledge about them when they first came into US custody (because they were mostly bought from the US military’s Afghan and Pakistani allies, because the military was prohibited from screening them in Afghanistan to ascertain whether they were combatants or civilians, and because the Bush administration equated Taliban foot soldiers with al-Qaeda terrorists) the cases against them are, for the most part, built on a web of lies produced by prisoners who were tortured, coerced or bribed into making false confessions, and on a “mosaic” of intelligence that is based on second- or third-hand hearsay, guilt by association and unsupportable suppositions.

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, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the Guantánamo habeas cases, see: Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: the most important habeas corpus case in modern history and Guantánamo and the Supreme Court: What Happened? (both December 2007), The Supreme Court’s Guantánamo ruling: what does it mean? (June 2008), Guantánamo as Alice in Wonderland (Uighurs’ first court victory, June 2008), What’s Happening with the Guantánamo cases? (July 2008), Government Says Six Years Is Not Long Enough To Prepare Evidence (September 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), Guilt By Torture: Binyam Mohamed’s Transatlantic Quest for Justice (November 2008), After 7 Years, Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Kidnap Victims (November 2008), Is Robert Gates Guilty of Perjury in Guantánamo Torture Case? (December 2008), A New Year Message to Barack Obama: Free the Guantánamo Uighurs (January 2009), The Top Ten Judges of 2008 (January 2009), No End in Sight for the “Enemy Combatants” of Guantánamo (January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (January 2009), How Cooking For The Taliban Gets You Life In Guantánamo (January 2009), Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (February 2009), Bad News And Good News For The Guantánamo Uighurs (February 2009), The Nobodies Formerly Known As Enemy Combatants (March 2009), Farce at Guantánamo, as cleared prisoner’s habeas petition is denied (April 2009), Obama’s First 100 Days: A Start On Guantánamo, But Not Enough (May 2009), Guantánamo: A Prison Built On Lies (May 2009), Free The Guantánamo Uighurs! (May 2009), Guantánamo And The Courts (Part One): Exposing The Bush Administration’s Lies (July 2009), Obama’s Failure To Deliver Justice To The Last Tajik In Guantánamo (July 2009), Obama And The Deadline For Closing Guantánamo: It’s Worse Than You Think (July 2009), How Judge Huvelle Humiliated The Government In Guantánamo Case (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), As Judge Orders Release Of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner, Government Refuses To Concede Defeat (Mohamed Jawad, July 2009), Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave (August 2009), Judge Orders Release From Guantánamo Of Kuwaiti Charity Worker (August 2009). Also see: Justice extends to Bagram, Guantánamo’s Dark Mirror (April 2009), Judge Rules That Afghan “Rendered” To Bagram In 2002 Has No Rights (July 2009).

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the eleven prisoners released from February to June 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

18 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    It seems obvious to me that the million or so members of the coalition that are calling for disbarment of the torture lawyers cited in your previous post have to now ask for the speedy processing and release of the victims of torture and illegal detention from Guantanamo. It is the next logical step.

    The Talking Dog should take the lead on this, and by this I mean that he should at this moment, when his country needs him, have the courage of his convictions and come out from behind his veil of anonymity for this just cause. The question as posed by the prisoners, “What is freedom?” is a legitimate question; it is not rhetorical and must be answered. Must be answered.

    Talking Dog can make the case, like no one else can, on behalf of the prisoners both to the coalition members and to his former law school classmate, President Barack Obama. His argument, sure to persuade, will be the final hammer blow to the damned lock on the damned cage.

    I believe destiny has knocked at your garden gate. Talking Dog, are you man enough to answer it?

  2. 5th Estate says...

    It’s 1.35 am where I am, so I’ve only briefly scanned the post, and thus don’t have much to offer right now except this:

    I’ve learned to appreciate many of the particulars of politics over the last ten years–what matters to politicians is nothing like what matters to citizens. But I am mighty displeased with Obama’s ‘faffing’ about with the fate of these illegally incarcerated and horribly abused people.
    Political realities often temper a thinking politician’s rhetoric and Obama has a lot on his plate, but COME-ON already!,

    I’m just an outraged US citizen who wants to see reason and impartial law restored. but the equivocation of Obama in this regard has to be yet another level of torture for those in Gitmo.
    I voted for Obama and I think he’s doing damn well considering, but I’m having a really hard time fathoming Obama’s actions and inactions–and I’m in my comfy apartment, not in some 7-year hellhole.

    So, time for bed. I’ve bookmarked this site, and I’ll be back.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi 5th Estate.
    Thanks for the comments. Drop by again when you’ve had some rest! I’ll be here, hammering away at injustice and trying to get the word out.

  4. the talking dog says...

    Frances, I thank you and greatly appreciate your confidence in my abilities, but I assure you that my soft and pathetic little voice will not materially add to the loud cacophony of more articulate, powerful and impressive voices than I that are already calling for professional discipline against the torture-memo-writers and other lawyers now in the proverbial hot seat; indeed, in my humble station, I have come to realize that such efforts on my part would likely only result in more harm to me than to the torture-memo-writers.

    Sorry to correct you, but I was actually in the President’s college class, on the very same campus in whose law school you and I probably both sat last year to hear a panel that included Andy, along with Jon Hafetz, Joanne Mariner and Wells Dixon (Andy happened to be staying over at my house at the time). As that college class is, by and large, a rather humble one, and full of our society’s simple functionaries (such as myself), the President rarely acknowledges having been in it. This is in stark contrast to his law school class, of course, which, consisting of masters of the universe such as himself (and the First Lady), he rarely fails to acknowledge having been in (did I mention he was The First African American President of the Harvard Law Review?).

    I do intend to maintain my existing efforts at public outcry against not merely the relevant torture lawyers but their political overlords, and to express the appropriate righteous outrage at their current political enablers, who, by strategically both stoking the calls for investigation with selective document releases and then insisting that such investigation is “off the table,” are emboldening the archest right-wingers like Dick Cheney in a way that, say, a humble approach in the first instance (“we are still looking into this, and must be very careful about what we release lest national security be compromised, despite our philosophical differences with the prior Administration”), might not have.

    As to appeals to my manhood, I further assure you that we humble functionaries, particularly those of us who suffered through the Ivy League’s very, very last all-male college class, are pretty much immune to such things, and over the course of our humility-inspiring lives have more than reconciled our feelings viz our own manhood; discretion, of course, remains the better part of valour.

  5. turning the page on tyranny « seeking spirit says...

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  6. Life After Guantánamo: Lakhdar Boumediene Speaks by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] for them to return to Algeria.  And finally, two weeks ago, I was relieved when Boumediene was finally released in France, after the government of Nicolas Sarkozy offered to take him (and his family, who had returned to […]

  7. Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] the part of the administration. Although 15 other prisoners cleared by the courts — 13 Uighurs, Sabir Lahmar, an Algerian, and Abdul Rahim al-Ginco, a Syrian — are awaiting new homes, because of fears that […]

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  12. Four Men Leave Guantánamo; Two Face Ill-Defined Trials In Italy « says...

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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