The Lies Told About The Saudi Hunger Striker Released From Guantánamo


Ahmed Zuhair, in a photo taken before his captureAs part of a series of recent releases from Guantánamo, three Saudi prisoners were repatriated, along with Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, an Iraqi refugee, and four Uighurs who were sent to Bermuda. As I explained in a recent article, “Empty Evidence: The Stories Of The Saudis Released From Guantánamo,” all three men had been cleared for release by military review boards at Guantánamo, and, in an examination of the government’s supposed evidence against two of the men, Kahlid Saad Mohammed and Abdul Aziz al-Noofayee, I was able to demonstrate why they had been approved for release: there was, to put it bluntly, absolutely no evidence to demonstrate that either man had been involved in terrorism or any kind of militancy whatsoever.

The case of the third man, Ahmed Zuhair, is no different, although over the years he has been the victim of lies and distortions that are much more grave than anything the Pentagon was able to muster against either Mohammed or al-Noofayee, and, as I explained in an article three months ago, he was also Guantánamo’s longest-term hunger striker, having been without solid food — and subjected to painful force-feeding twice a day — since June 2005. As news of his release filtered out to the media, credulous right-wing organ the Weekly Standard gleefully pushed what it thought was a pro-Guantánamo, anti-Obama stance by dredging up long-discredited allegations and presenting them as facts, declaring, “Convicted Car Bomber and Likely Murderer Transferred from Gitmo to Saudi Arabia.”

The problem with this bold headline — and the breathless rant that accompanied it — is that it bears no relation to reality. If the Standard’s editors had been able to think rationally, they would have realized that a military review board under the Bush administration had approved Zuhair’s transfer to Saudi Arabia, which ought to have convinced them that something was wrong with their pitch, even if they were not impressed by the fact that he had also been cleared for release by President Obama’s inter-departmental Guantánamo Task Force, which, incidentally, is not known for its hasty decisions, having freed only two men in its first four months in office.

So let’s have a look at these allegations, shall we? As his lawyers, at Yale Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, explained in a submission to the Task Force two months ago, since Zuhair “was abducted while on business in Pakistan” in December 2001, the US government “has failed to provide any legitimate basis for his detention or prosecution, and has premised its allegations on compromised evidence extracted by torture and on unverified raw intelligence.”

Addressing the main allegations against Zuhair — that he was “engaged in criminal activities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, trained and fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was involved in the USS Cole attack in 2000” — his lawyers stated that they were “demonstrably baseless,” and explained that, in the 1990s, Zuhair worked in Zagreb, Croatia, for a small relief organization, the Foundation for the Sponsorship of Orphans, “because he was deeply moved by the atrocities” in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

As for allegations that Zuhair was involved in criminal activity during this time, the US government initially claimed in his tribunal at Guantánamo that he “was responsible for the 1995 death of William Jefferson, an American working for the United Nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” even though neither the Bosnian government nor the UN found any reason to associate Zuhair with the murder. The Bosnian government issued an arrest warrant for a different man, Fa’iz al-Shanbari, and a 200-page UN inquiry into the murder, “which identifies Mr. Shanbari as a prime suspect, does not contain a single mention of Mr. Zuhair.” In addition, on June 17, in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that Zuhair had been cleared for transfer from Guantánamo by both the Bush and Obama administrations because “there was no sufficient proof” linking him to the killing.

Most worryingly, in terms of how erroneous information was used by the authorities in Guantánamo — and was, moreover, not made available to the prisoners’ lawyers — Zuhair’s defense team added that the UN “transmitted the report to the US government pursuant to [a] request in August 2004 and the government was therefore aware of the findings when it composed its Factual Return” (in which its allegations were presented to the court). Despite this, however, the government “never shared the report” with Zuhair’s lawyers, “who obtained it independently through UN channels.”

Moving on to other allegations purportedly pertaining to Zuhair’s time in the former Yugoslavia, his lawyers also refuted claims that he “was responsible for a car bombing in Mostar, Bosnia on September 18, 1997,” and that he “was part of a group of Muslim fighters that received financial support from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.” Noting that the government had relied on media reports for the car bombing claim, the lawyers pointed out that Zuhair’s in absentia conviction for the bombing “was based on a compromised investigation that was denounced by the United Nations and rested essentially on the testimony of a single witness, Ali Ahmed Ali Hamed, a convict serving a twelve-year sentence in Bosnia-Herzegovina who has since recanted his accusations against Mr. Zuhair.”

They also noted that there was no evidence that he had been “part of a group of Muslim fighters” with connections to KSM, and cited testimony from Ajman Awad, a prominent member of the group of Arab volunteers supporting the Bosnian army, who “came to know virtually all members” of the unit of Arab fighters, and who “state[d] categorically that [he] never encountered [Mr. Zuhair] in [the] unit, nor did he ever hear of him serving in the unit.”

For the allegations relating to Zuhair’s supposed military activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the government relied — for its assertions that he “received military training at al-Qaeda camps” in both countries, and that he “fought against the United States” — not on discredited media reports, but “on the uncorroborated statements of discredited sources who were tortured, subjected to other forms of coercion, or are notorious fabricators.”

The details remain classified, but the references to the unreliable sources are remarkably similar to the opinions of Judge Richard Leon and Judge Gladys Kessler in the habeas corpus cases of six Algerians seized in Bosnia, of Mohammed El-Gharani, the former child prisoner returned to Chad last week, and of Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, a Yemeni seized in Pakistan. In these cases, both judges granted the prisoners’ habeas claims (with one exception in the Bosnian review), because the government was relying on witnesses who were simply not credible. What Zuhair’s lawyers called the “notorious fabricators” in Guantánamo also featured in these cases, as they did, most recently, in the story of Jawad al-Sahlani, the last Iraq in Guantánamo, who was released just a few days before Ahmed Zuhair.

The last major allegation put forward by the government was that Zuhair was involved in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. This allegation was presented in the Factual Return, but was subsequently dropped in the allegations against Zuhair in his administrative review board at Guantánamo, although it was not dropped in his habeas proceedings. The fact that it was included at all is deeply shocking, however, as Zuhair said that he was told by interrogators that statements about him, presumably relating to the USS Cole, had been made by Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, whose story I reported at length in a recent article, “Revealed: Identity Of Guantánamo Torture Victim Rendered Through Diego Garcia.” Seized in Indonesia in January 2002, even though he had no connection to terrorism, Madni (who was finally released in August 2008) was rendered to Egypt for torture, and explained after his release that he was subjected to six months of sleep deprivation in Bagram.

It was, presumably, during his time at Bagram that Madni made statements about Zuhair’s involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole, probably when he was shown a photo of Zuhair. However, as Madni explained after his release, he had no knowledge whatsoever of the attack on the USS Cole, and had no knowledge that Zuhair had been involved in any crimes or terrorist activities.

I hope that these refutations of the allegations against Ahmed Zuhair explain how shoddy intelligence and the use of confessions extracted through torture, coercion or reliance on “notorious fabricators” are at the heart of the regime created by the Bush administration at Guantánamo, and how, in this terrible, lawless world of hyperbole and paranoia, in which few allegations have actually been tested in a court of law, it is all too easy for propagandists like those at the Weekly Standard to run scare stories based not on evidence but on the largely worthless material masquerading as evidence that was compiled by the Pentagon.

This obsession with former Vice President Dick Cheney’s long-discredited claim that everyone in Guantánamo is a “terrorist” also ignores the fact that prisoners are only being released because people more qualified than biased pundits have been studying their case files in depth, and, in Zuhair’s case, have almost certainly concluded (in a decision that has more to do with pragmatism than anything else), that if the Justice Department presented Ahmed Zuhair’s case before a habeas corpus judge (which was scheduled to happen in the near future), the government would be humiliated in court, as has happened in 25 of the 29 cases so far decided.

With more habeas cases scheduled, what I find most disturbing about the ongoing story of Guantánamo is not only that it took so long for nine men to be released, but also that the cases against many of the 230 men who remain are just as hollow as the case against Ahmed Zuhair, however significant they may appear when viewed through a distorting prism of paranoia and self-righteousness. In June 2008, when the Supreme Court ruled, in Boumediene v. Bush, that the prisoners at Guantánamo had habeas rights, Justice Kennedy called for cases to be dealt with swiftly, because “The costs of delay can no longer be borne by those who are held in custody.” And yet, one year later, either through Justice Department obstruction, or the slow deliberations of Obama’s Guantánamo Task Force, Justice Kennedy’s words have brought little comfort to the majority of the men still held without charge or trial.

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.

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); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and above).

12 Responses

  1. The Lies Told About The Saudi Hunger Striker Released From Guantánamo by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] by Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad 22 June 2009 […]

  2. the talking dog says...

    Again, every release is a welcome one… but it remains clear that to this day, it’s still either the lucky passport (such as Zuhair’s Saudi nationality) or the specific circumstances of a given case (i.e. embarrassment to the Administration, such as Binyam Mohammad, or Ghailani) that remains the driving factor in getting a prisoner released.

    More troubling even than the obscene injustice to the individuals caught in America’s Kafkaesque trap (with its Orwellian justifications) is the fact that the Obama Administration, while rhetorically pretending to offer us “change,” has actually embraced the mechanics of the Bush national security state, from the secrecy, to the “preventive detentions,” to assertions of a law-free zone (albeit confined to Bagram, and the rest of the “non-homeland” save Guantanamo Bay itself). And this includes continued demonization of the victims, such as Mr. Zuhair. And it seems that, with a number of habeas cases coming up, we may see a quick number of government surrenders and detainee returns… to somewhere, anyway.

    And yes…the demonization machine– which includes elements within the government conveniently leaking propaganda, be it claptrap about the “$200 million bribe to Palau” to admit 17 13 East Turkistan al Qaeda affiliate terrorists completely innocent Uighurs, or the “1 in 7 return to the battlefield” canard.– plus the usual right-wingers… continues unabated.

    All told… we’ve got less than seven months till that “close GTMO within one year” promise is broken… at current release rates, only 14 or so more will be released, with over 200 almost all innocent men remaining languishing at GTMO… for no God damned reason, save the cowardice of our government and citizenry to admit it was wrong… even when the mistakes were made by the prior discredited Administration!

    That “change” thing we were promised hasn’t materialized yet. Maybe it will, and we’ll all be pleasantly surprised in the end… but it’s now becoming clearer and clearer that it will be a surprise.

  3. Investigative journalism on 23 June 09 « The Centre for Investigative Journalism News Blog says...

    […] The Lies Told About The Saudi Hunger Striker Released From Guantánamo | Andy Worthington […]

  4. Will Shirley says...

    Power seized is never voluntarily given back, with the exception of George Washington, who went back to the farm. It should have been clear to any student of history that Obama would certainly embrace absolute, unchecked power. The Republicrats obviously realized this when they selected Obama to run in the phony election.” The peasants will be so thrilled a black man got into the White House they won’t notice the Bill of Rights is still burning.” Progressives need to remember to look at his actions, not to listen to just his words. We still have a suspended Constitution and Bill of Rights, still fighting two illegal wars, still borrowing billions from our “enemies” in Communist China. So we have an articulate spokesman for the wealthy elite who run the country, but we still have no one to represent the People and we still have only those rights the government chooses to grant us at any one given time.

  5. The Boiling Frog says...

    These cases should provide enough fodder for NBC’s “Dateline” that it may be a while before we see another report on a wife who may (or may not!) have murdered her husband (or vice-versa). Maybe they’ll even dedicate a whole week to exposing these travesties.

    It should make for very compelling television…in my dreams.

    (Not sure whether you will appreciate this reference or not, but your North American readers might.)

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi TD,
    Thanks for the comments. I can’t really argue with the dystopian picture of the ongoing national security state, as implemented by Cheney/Bush, but, at least with regard to Guantanamo, am hoping that “with a number of habeas cases coming up, we may see a quick number of government surrenders and detainee returns… to somewhere, anyway” is an accurate forecast. It sure needs to be …

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Will,
    Excellent comments. Particularly impressed with “We still have a suspended Constitution and Bill of Rights, still fighting two illegal wars, still borrowing billions from our ‘enemies’ in Communist China.”

    Nothing for it but to keep chipping away. I’m still hopeful that we can get Guantanamo closed, with trials for a few and repatriation/new countries for most, but am less convinced that there’s actually going to be a thorough de-Rumsfeldization of the US military, even though it’s desperately needed.

    It is sadly, far too easy to see how discarding the Geneva Conventions allows more room for interrogation, and on we go, until hooded prisoners are hanging by their wrists again …

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

    […] were finally released in Bermuda in June) and three Saudis released in the same month (see here and here), this leaves a total of 38 prisoners still at Guantánamo whose transfer from Guantánamo was […]

  9. The Story of Oybek Jabbarov, An Innocent Man Freed From Guantánamo « says...

    […] Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here), August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to […]

  10. 75 Guantánamo Prisoners Cleared For Release; 31 Could Leave Today by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Three others are Saudis, and although their identities have not been revealed, and it is uncertain if they are the three remaining Saudis who were cleared for release during the Bush administration, there appears to be no good reason for their continued detention, as I explained in an article in March, when six cleared Saudis were held, and before three were released (see here and here). […]

  11. Andy Worthington Discusses Guantánamo on Democracy Now! « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] were recently released in Bermuda, about the three Saudis who were also released (and especially Ahmed Zuhair, Guantánamo’s longest-term hunger striker), and about my world exclusive published last week, […]

  12. Who Is the Palestinian Released from Guantánamo in Spain? « says...

    […] June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 […]

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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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