Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave


Prisoners at Guantanamo (photo by Brennan Linsley/AP)Imagine if you were imprisoned for seven years without charge or trial, and then a judge ruled that the government’s case against you consisted solely of unreliable allegations made by other prisoners who were tortured, coerced, bribed or suffering from mental health issues, and a “mosaic” of intelligence, purporting to rise to the level of evidence, which actually relied, to an intolerable degree, on second- or third-hand hearsay, guilt by association and unsupportable suppositions, and stated that the government “should take all necessary diplomatic steps to facilitate“ your release.

Now imagine that, instead of being freed, you continued to be held because the government refused to send you home, stating that it would not release you unless you first passed through a rehabilitation center in your home country, or, preferably, in a third country.

You would, I think, be pretty depressed about your situation, and would conclude that the United States’ much-vaunted justice system was a farce. And yet, this is exactly the problem that currently faces Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, a Yemeni prisoner in Guantánamo, whose habeas corpus petition was granted in May by Judge Gladys Kessler.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that, although “The government’s deadline for appealing Ahmed’s release has run out,” he continues to be held because the of the government’s refusal to send him home without first putting him through a rehabilitation center, preferably in Saudi Arabia, which, unlike its impoverished neighbor, has established rehabilitation centers that have processed thousands of former and would-be jihadists in the last few years, including dozens of Saudi prisoners repatriated from Guantánamo (some of whom, it should be noted, were not in Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban, but had visited as missionaries or charity workers).

In the AP’s report, the US government’s refusal to free Ali Ahmed outright was dressed up as part of a wider policy on the government’s part to put an unspecified number of the remaining 100 or so Yemeni prisoners, “who officials say probably will be freed,” through a rehabilitation center “before they are released to make sure they pose no threat to Americans.”

However, in the case of Ali Ahmed, and two other Yemeni prisoners — Yasim Basardah, whose habeas petition was granted in March, and Ayman Batarfi, a doctor whose release was approved by the government’s own Detention Policy Task Force at the same time — this makes no sense, as either the courts or the government itself have already concluded that they “pose no threat to Americans.”

These cases are not the only examples of inexplicable obstruction on 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 they will face torture — or worse — if returned to their homelands, the government has also approved “more than 50” other prisoners for release, after their cases were reviewed by the inter-departmental Detention Policy Task Force (established by Executive Order on Obama’s second day in office), which, as ABC News explained, has, for the last six months, involved 65 representatives “from agencies like the FBI, Pentagon, the CIA, and attorneys from the Justice Department” meeting up once a week “on a secure floor within a secure facility to discuss the review.”

Sadly, in a demonstration of the executive secrecy that was such a hallmark of the Bush administration, officials in the Obama administration have not revealed the identities of any of these men (other than Ayman Batarfi, Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who was hastily released in February to avoid a Transatlantic torture scandal, and Umar Abdulayev, a Tajik, cleared in June, who was seized by opportunistic Pakistani intelligence agents from a refugee camp), but it seems, from the limited information made available — rumors that three Tunisians will be transferred to Italy and that some Tunisians and Algerians will be rehoused in Spain, and the recent news that Belgium will take some prisoners and Ireland will accept two Uzbeks — that the decisions on who to release correspond broadly with those made by military review boards at Guantánamo under the Bush administration.

Although hundreds of the 544 prisoners freed from Guantánamo were released after military review boards concluded that they no longer posed a threat to the United States and/or no longer had ongoing intelligence value, 58 of these prisoners were still held when George W. Bush left office, even though some had been approved for release in 2006. Excluding the Uighurs (four of whom 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 approved by the Bush administration.

20 of these men — five Algerians, an Egyptian, a Libyan, eight Tunisians, four Uzbeks and Umar Abdulayev, who was cleared for release under George W. Bush before this decision was repeated by Obama’s Task Force — could not be repatriated by the Bush administration because of fears that they would be tortured on their return, and three are Palestinians, and are therefore effectively stateless, as the Israeli government has no desire to facilitate their return.

However, there appears to be no good reason why the remaining 15 men could not be repatriated tomorrow. Three are Saudis, and the other 12 are Yemenis, and, just to reiterate, in case anyone missed it the first time round, some of these men were approved for transfer from Guantánamo over three years ago.

I don’t mean to complain unnecessarily, but when the government has a genuine problem finding homes for at least 35 prisoners cleared for release by the Bush administration, by the US courts, or by its own Detention Policy Task Force, it seems inexplicable that 18 others — also cleared for release by either the Bush administration, the courts or Obama’s Task Force — cannot simply be flown home tomorrow, bringing to an end this farcical situation in which, as my Hotel California analogy was meant to signify, prisoners who do not face ill-treatment on their return to their homelands are still held no matter how many times their release is approved by various representatives of the US government.

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 on the Huffington Post,, CounterPunch and AlterNet. Cross-posted on Common Dreams and uruknet.

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), Judge Condemns “Mosaic” Of Guantánamo Intelligence, And Unreliable Witnesses (May 2009), Pain At Guantánamo And Paralysis In Government (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), 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).

15 Responses

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

    […] by Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad 3 Aug. 2009 […]

  2. » Blog Archive » Guantánamo As Hotel California: You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave says...

    […] Obama’s Detention Policy Task Force are still held, and why 18 men could be freed tomorrow. Full article.     Read More    Post a […]

  3. the talking dog says...

    This is a propaganda problem largely of the Obama Administration’s own making, which would not have happened had it abandoned the appeal of the Uighurs’ case and followed Judge Urbina’s order and released the then subject Uighurs into carefully monitored freedom in the United States proper, rather than rubber-stamping Bush Administration policies (that included calling these men “terrorists” in court papers long after it was established that the Government itself was not asserting they had any connection with terrorism whatsoever).

    Yes, there would have been short-term outcry met with ” we are either a free country governed by our laws, or we are not”… and then, weeks or months later, as the Uighurs proceeded not to hijack airplanes, shoot up shopping malls, set off roadside bombs and chew through hydraulic lines and whatever other fantasies we have of them, there would be momentum set off by something called “reality” and many people would calm the *&^% down.

    And so, we refuse to realize that we have egregiously abused around 85% completely innocent men for no good reason. What’s amazing is that this 85% or so figure persists and is right around the habeas success rate, and I predict, that rate of 6 out of 7 habeas wins will also persist. The U.S. Gov’t’s own records showed that 86% of the men captured were handed over for bounties by Northern Alliance or Pakistan forces, rather than captured either on the battlefield or any other “military context” by regular American or allied forces… as noted in my interview over 3 1/2 years ago with Josh Denbeaux:

    But despite the ever more deafening roar of reality, all we still hear is that we are holding “the worst of the worst TERRRRRRRRORISTS” long after the Bush Admin. has sent home the vast majority, long after the commissions have gone nowhere, long after even the most conservative courts in the U.S. are concluding there is no basis to hold these detainees any longer.

    Kind of disheartening.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi TD,
    Thanks for the sustained barrage of indignation. Completely appropriate, of course. What saddened me the most was that, when the four Uighurs were released in Bermuda in June, and we got to see them eating ice cream, fishing, swimming, hanging out, I couldn’t help thinking how much more impact these everyday activities would have had if they’d taken place in Washington D.C., so that everyone could have found out very quickly that they weren’t terrorists at all.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    A few interesting comments from Common Dreams:

    abuelo wrote:

    Thanks Andy. Keep up your great work. Some stories here on commondreams get 60, 70 comments. I wonder why more people aren’t reading this. And also, what does this mean?

    I read lots of your stories on your website, and talk to people about them, or try to.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    vdb wrote:

    “I wonder why more people aren’t reading this.”

    me too, friend.

    could it be that most believes 0 has shut this limbo down?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Obedient Servant wrote:

    To once again pronounce these acts and policies of the past AND PRESENT maladministrations appalling, reprehensible, and unconscionable seems far too feeble, and worn out to boot.

    It’s punishment that is beyond “cruel”, and it OUGHT to be “unusual”– but our barbaric federal government’s custom has eliminated the latter possibility.

    No Pharoah of old could be more righteously entreated to “let my people go!” than the charlatan occupying the Oval Office. Apparently inviting affected parties over to hoist a brewski and sort things out is not a universal resolution for an awkward moment.

    We are governed by sociopaths and narcissists.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Over on the Huffington Post, jacw20 wrote:

    The problem is you can’t repatriate a person to another country without that country’s consent. Goes back to the original Vienna Conventions and the Laws of Nations that essentially make each State sovereign and equal.

    To force a country to take a former detainee back would infringe on that state’s sovereignty. Also, it is a violation of human rights law if we suspected that a detainee would be tortured or killed upon release in another country and released them anyway.

    It is not a human rights violation to hold combatants until the end of a conflict. That is a basic tenet of the Law of War. (Prior to that rule it was common to either execute POWs or make them slaves). e.g. Rome.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    And arcticredriver stepped in to prevent me from having to reply:

    No offense, but I think your post contains a couple of misconceptions. The first three captives Andy wrote about, Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, Yasim Basardah, and Ayman Batarfi are all Yemenis. Yemen says they want all the Yemenis returned. The USA won’t return them because American counter-terrorism analysts aren’t satisfied that Yemen will impose draconian enough security measures on the returned Yemenis. Some Yemenis convicted of a role in USS Cole bombing escaped from Yemeni custody.

    On the other hand, there were three Yemenis who were in CIA custody. I read about them about a year after they had been repatriated to Yemen, where they were sent directly to prison. The article quoted a Yemeni official who said the three would be tried — just as soon as the USA supplied the evidence.

    Well, I think we know now that the USA had no evidence against most of the captives it held in extrajudicial detention. I don’t think anyone can blame Yemen for declining to agree to the security measures the USA is trying to insist on — when the USA can’t supply any evidence.

    The non-Yemenis Andy mentioned can’t be repatriated to their country of citizenship without breaking international provisions the USA is a signatory to. Those international agreement proscribe repatriation when doing so puts the individual at risk.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    arcticredriver also wrote:

    Your final comment: “It is not a human rights violation to hold combatants until the end of a conflict,” shows your most serious misconception.

    Yes, the USA would have been entitled to hold actual combatants, until the end of the conflict. But, if the Bush administration had not chosen to violate its obligations under the Geneva Convention, it would have used the Geneva Conventions’ definition of “combatant”. That definition is very different from the definition the Bush administration made up from whole cloth.

    Here is one important difference. Using the Geneva Conventions’ definition former soldiers, demobilized before the conflict began, are civilians. Using the Bush administration definition individuals some Afghan captives were classified as “enemy combatants” solely because they fought against Afghanistan’s Soviet invaders during the 1980s. Some of the non-Afghan captives were classified as “enemy combatants” not because they engaged in hostilities in Afghanistan, but because they had once been drafted back home. Several captives were classified as “enemy combatants” because they served during the 1991 Gulf War, even though they served on our side.

    Over 500 captives have been repatriated. Nevertheless Guantanamo continues to contain individuals who would have been classified as civilians if the USA had complied with the Geneva Conventions.

    Of the remainder, only a couple of dozen were bona fide terrorists.

  11. the talking dog says...

    According to the Government’s own publicly released records of 517 detainees in custody in 2006, as culled by the ever-vigilant Denbeaux-led team at Seton Hall Law School the number of “combatants” actually captured by American forces during the Afghanistan war that ended up at Guantanamo Bay is… wait for it… one.

    Enough of the “captured on the battlefield” or “prisoner of war” canard: these men at GTMO are and were by and large wrong-place-wrong-time men handed over for bounties; once in a while, perhaps someone so handed over might have been Taliban, or might have had some tenuous ties to al Qaeda, but by and large, even this isn’t true. There may well be terrorists at GTMO, but it seems this was as much a function of random luck as by any design.

    The facts of this travesty are such that even in courts with a record of absolute deference to the government are holding in favor of detainees at a rate of over 85%… there is simply no there there, and by the time President Obama (habby birthday, Barack,btw) breaks his promise to close GTMO by next January 20th, these 85% innocent men will have been wrongfully and pointlessly held for over eight years.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi TD,
    Well, you get today’s award for stopping me in my tracks:

    “The number of ‘combatants’ actually captured by American forces during the Afghanistan war that ended up at Guantanamo Bay is… wait for it… one.”

    I need to go and look at the report again. I take it that doesn’t include Afghans, as, time and again, they were woken up in the middle of the night because some helpful snitch or petty warlord or other chancer had explained to Special Forces or the CIA that the man down the road who appeared to be a deaf and penniless farmer was, in fact, a senior official in the Taliban government — or variations thereof, over and over and over again.

  13. Guantánamo And The Courts (Part Three): Obama’s Continuing Shame by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Of the 28 men cleared by the courts, 19 are still at Guantánamo, and although, as I pointed out in an article two weeks ago, 15 of these men cannot be repatriated safely, and the process for repatriating Mohamed Jawad seems […]

  14. “Model Prisoner” at Guantánamo, Tortured in the “Dark Prison,” Loses Habeas Corpus Petition « says...

    […] 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), […]

  15. Guantanamo and Habeas Corpus : STATESMAN SENTINEL says...

    […] 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), […]

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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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