The Political Prisoners of Guantánamo


Political prisoners? Surely that can’t be right, can it? Surely it’s only dictatorships in far-flung corners of the world who hold political prisoners, and not the United States of America?

Sadly, no. As the “War on Terror” prison established by President Bush begins its tenth year of operations, and as it begins to be forgotten that President Obama swept into office issuing an executive order promising to close the prison within a year, but failed spectacularly to do so, the bleak truth is that, for a majority of the 173 men held at Guantánamo, their chances of being released, or of receiving anything resembling justice, have receded to such an extent in the last two years that most face indefinite detention without charge or trial, and may still be in Guantánamo a year from now, two years from now, or even five, ten or twenty years from now.

The key to understanding how we reached this grim impasse two years into Barack Obama’s presidency is the review of all the prisoners’ cases that was conducted by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, a sober and careful collection of 60 career officials and lawyers from various government departments and the intelligence agencies, who reviewed all the cases throughout 2009, and issued recommendations a year ago regarding the “disposition” of the remaining prisoners.

Although the Task Force’s appraisal was infected with credulity regarding the quality of the Bush administration’s supposed evidence against the men (which is largely unreliable, as it was extracted under duress and torture), and the members were desperate not to make any mistakes by releasing men who might then prove to be dangerous, the Task Force nevertheless cleared 89 of the remaining 173 prisoners for release.

That’s an impressive figure, considering that it is rarely mentioned in the mainstream media that the government itself has conceded that it no longer wishes to hold over half of the remaining prisoners, but, a year after the Task Force issued its report, these men are still held, and it is this failure — and the explanations provided for it — that lead me to conclude that it is appropriate to describe them as political prisoners.

Of the 89 men, 58 are Yemenis, part of the largest national group at Guantánamo, consisting of 89 men in total. Just 23 Yemenis have been freed throughout Guantánamo’s long history, for a variety of reasons, but primarily because the Saudis, held in similar numbers but largely released in 2006 and 2007, had a government which is a closer ally of the US than Yemen, was prepared to argue more aggressively on their behalf, and was also able to create a state-of-the-art rehabilitation center to re-educate the men on their return, and to provide them with support and financial assistance to reintegrate into Saudi society.

Nevertheless, the Task Force approved 58 of the Yemenis for release (or, to use the careful language of lawyers, approved them for transfer). There was, however, a caveat. 28 were approved for immediate release, but 30 others were designated in a special category of their own, who “should not be transferred to Yemen in the near future,” and should be held in “conditional” detention — a novel category of detention — until “the security situation improves.”

While it could be argued that the “conditional” detention of these 30 men made them political prisoners a year ago, developments on Christmas Day 2009 ensured that the other 28 cleared Yemenis would also be held as political prisoners as well. The trigger for the administration’s refusal to honor the Task Force’s findings regarding these 28 men was the failed plane bomb plot of a young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. When it was discovered that he had been recruited in Yemen, President Obama capitulated to a wave of unprincipled hysteria by announcing a moratorium on the release of any more Yemenis from Guantánamo, a moratorium which still stands a year later, which shows no sign of being abandoned, and which, by subjecting the men in question to collective punishment, or guilt by nationality, ensures that all 58 of the cleared Yemenis can legitimately be regarded as political prisoners.

The other 31 men cleared for release by the Task Force are still held because, for the most part, they cannot be repatriated as they would face torture or other ill-treatment in their home countries, which include China, Libya, Syria and Tunisia. To its credit, the Obama administration has found new homes in 15 countries for 36 prisoners in a similar situation, but as the pool of willing countries dwindles, it will become harder for the US government to refute allegations that they too are political prisoners, held only because the country responsible for unjustly detaining them in the first place — the United States — has refused to accept its own responsibility to offer them new homes, resisting calls to do so — by a District Court judge, and by White House Counsel Greg Craig — in the Justice Department, in the D.C. Circuit Court, in Congress, and in the Oval Office.

Of the other men, 33 were recommended for trials by the Task Force, but the administration has backed away from proposals to try them in federal court, because of opposition by Congress, or in the Military Commission trial system at Guantánamo, because of opposition from liberals and progressives.

I have no sympathy for the administration’s problems with the discredited Commissions, which should never have been revived after Bush left office, especially because the lowest point in their tawdry history was reached in October last year, when the former child soldier Omar Khadr accepted a plea deal in which he confessed to “war crimes” invented by Congress. These purported to criminalize his participation in a firefight with US soldiers in Afghanistan that led to his capture in July 2002, but the plea deal was met with such disdain around the world that the Obama administration is apparently unwilling to proceed with any further trials at Guantánamo.

Compounding this problem is the administration’s refusal to press ahead with the federal court trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, which was announced by Attorney General Eric Holder in November 2009. By failing to proceed with this plan, the administration allowed critics in Congress the opportunity to include a provision banning the transfer of any Guantánamo prisoner to the US mainland to face a trial in a military spending bill passed before Christmas, and when, this week, the President refused to veto the bill, or to issue a signing statement disagreeing with it, the 33 men proposed for trials have been consigned instead to indefinite detention without charge or trial, meaning that they too can realistically be regarded as political prisoners.

The last group of prisoners (leaving aside the three who are held because they lost their trial by Military Commission, or accepted a plea deal) are 48 men explicitly recommended for indefinite detention without charge or trial by the Task Force, on the basis that they are too dangerous to release, but that the information used to justify their detention would not stand up to scrutiny in a court of law.

I should hardly need to explain that this recommendation by the Task Force is fundamentally unacceptable, not only because it perpetuates the very system of arbitrary detention initiated by the Bush administration, which was deliberately designed to subvert domestic and international laws and treaties, but also because, if the government’s supposed evidence would not stand up in a court of law, then it is not evidence at all, but rather hearsay and unverifiable information contained in intelligence reports, which is fundamentally tainted by the torture and abuse to which prisoners were subjected.

The proposal also sidelines the District Court in Washington D.C., where the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions are ongoing, and where 57 cases have been decided to date, with 38 won by the prisoners. In many of these 38 cases, the judges have exposed exactly these kinds of problems with the government’s supposed evidence. In addition, in the majority of the 19 cases won by the government, the men who have lost their petitions, and who, in all probability, are amongst the 48 men designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial, are nothing more than foot soldiers for the Taliban in the military conflict with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which morphed into a “War on Terror” after the US-led invasion in October 2001.

If anything, these men should be held as prisoners of war, not held up as some sort of terrorists, but on this problem, the executive, Congress and the judiciary are all silent, even though it reveals a fundamental problem with the entire detention system invented under George W. Bush and maintained under Obama.

The legislation that supposedly justifies the prisoners’ detention is the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed by Congress the week after the 9/11 attacks, which authorized the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

President Obama continues to rely on the AUMF, even though it fails to distinguish between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and even though it perpetuates the Bush administration’s ruinous notion that, instead of criminal suspects and prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions, there is a third category of prisoner — what Bush called “enemy combatants,” and what Obama calls “alien unprivileged enemy belligerents,” as in the case of Omar Khadr — when this, clearly, should not be accepted at all. In Obama’s determination to continue with this dark folly, administration officials recently announced that the President is close to signing an executive order formalizing the indefinite detention of these 48 men, but providing them with some sort of regular review process to ascertain whether they can be released.

This sounds better than no review process at all, but the truth is that these 48 men are also political prisoners, held as a result of the administration’s refusal to accept that, if soldiers are to be detained, it should be as prisoners of war, and that, if men are suspected of terrorist activities, they should be tried rather than arbitrarily detained forever.

Until these problems are solved, and the Guantánamo prisoners are either tried or released, President Obama’s contribution to this bitter legacy of the Bush administration is to be presiding over the unthinkable: a prison where, however the prisoners have been designated, they are almost all held in indefinite detention, and are, indeed, political prisoners.

It is time for those who believe in justice to call for this miserable situation to be brought to an end.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on Truthout.

36 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention The Political Prisoners of Guantánamo | Andy Worthington -- says...

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington and tosexyformy, Susan Hall. Susan Hall said: The Political Prisoners of Guantánamo | Andy Worthington […]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Sally O’Boyle wrote:

    You mean… it’s still open? But, I thought… but, he promised…

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph wrote:

    I prefer the term hostages, but political prisoners will have to do.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Hall wrote:

    I think the term hostage is a good description too. I will digg tomorrow Andy. Thank you.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    I refer to the inhabitants of the experimental/routine torture facility at Guantanamo Bay by the way they were taken captive. They are abductees. Those holding them do so on no legal basis whatsoever.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph wrote:

    Abductees = hostages. Potatoes, potahtoes. But I agree.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph also wrote:

    I hate to say it, but I’d almost have more respect for the kidnappers (our gov.) if they were like regular criminals and asked for money. But they don’t. They want assurance that they 1) won’t pay for their crimes, and 2) that their careers will remain untarnished. In other words, they want the impossible.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Hall wrote:

    Thank you for caring. Tweeted, Digged, & Faced.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Rab saw you on RT (Russian TV) last night Andy but no show on the Beeb.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Chip Pitts wrote:

    Nice job, Andy — nice to have you arm in arm as partner against these outrages. Keep up the good work! FYI, here’s my brief comment on the protests and the situation:

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Thanks for your comments on Press Tv, Chip. It is always good to hear a supportive voice from across the Pond.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, all, for the supportive words and for the considered analysis of what to call the men so routinely and distressingly referred to as “detainees.”

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Here are some comments from Truthout:

    Fred Jakobcic wrote:

    Insanity rules, reigns, triumphs over morality, right and wrong matter not to these insane people and, be it they know they truth, do they care…they should be horrified, disgusted, uprise against it, but complacency dominates and any excuse is used to justify it all.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Jamie Clemons wrote:

    By our own reasoning Saddam was evil because he tortured people and he had to be removed from power. How can we turn around and say its ok for us to torture people and hold them with no evidence and no justice. The pot has called the kettle black. If we do not stick to the moral high ground then we sink to their level.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Dawn Wisteria Bates wrote:

    …and Obama said he would do what? And when?

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert Peer wrote:

    All those cold war era stories of Siberian prisons…same sh(* different empire.
    Most of those guys were no more terrorists than my aunt minnnie. No proof against most of them whatever, only the word of a neighbor who wanted their property or just off the street to collect the 2500$ bounty, which in most places is at least several years income.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Mike Burns wrote:

    Our actions at Guantanamo pull down further the little that civilization has gained upon barbarism

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Jon Carver wrote:

    Yes we can’t.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Max Obuszewski wrote:

    Let’s not talk about justice. It is the Department of Injustice. Eric Holder knows that the treament of the prisoners at Camp Gitmo is inhumane and a violation of all legal standards. Yet he refuses to take action. And why were we not arrested today at the DOJ, as we forcefully demanded a meeting? I would argue the reason is the fear we would have put the DOJ on trial in Washington, D.C. for its dereliction of duty.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Michael Thelen wrote:

    Should Americans show more national pride than choosing to side with a handful of miscreants over their own leaders, defenders, and patriots?

    No. Americans should abide by their principles. Presumed innocent until proven guilty. The right of the accused to face their accusers. The right to a speedy and public trial. The right to counsel. A total ban on torture or coerced testimony. The absolute right to refuse to testify against themselves.

    Those are bedrock principles of our society and our law.

    We have abandoned our principles out of fear.

    What do you call those who abandon their principles out of fear?

    They are called cowards.

    We: America, Americans; we are unprincipled cowards.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Joe Keoughan wrote:

    Are there times when the ends justifies the means? To paraphrase Gandhi (and many others) No.

    No rational justfication exists to continue this illegal detention without trial, justice – some kind of fair hearing for these political prisoners. And their torture has shamed all Americans.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Joseph A. Clore wrote:

    This is change we’re supposed to believe in?

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Hugh Fontaine wrote:

    Quagmire #256 created by Bush.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner wrote:


  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Marina Gonzalez Pacciotti wrote:

    ‘Until these problems are solved and the Guantanamo prisoners are either tried or released, President Obama’s contribution to this bitter legacy of the Bush administration is to be presiding over the unthinkable: a prison where, however the prisoners have been designated, they are almost all held in indefinite detention and are, indeed, political prisoners.
    It is time for those who believe in justice to call for this miserable situation to be brought to an end.’

    agree, there is not much more to add.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Eileen Fleming wrote:

    On January 5, 2006, this activist reporter traveled to Ramallah to the Headquarters of ADAMEER [Arabic for CONSCIENCE] and met with spokesmen, Ala Jaradat who said:

    “The methods and photos from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were no shock to any Palestinian who had been in prison between 1967 and the ‘80’s. All the methods used in Abu Ghraib were normal procedures against Palestinians…”

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Eileen Brophy wrote:

    How terribly disappointing Obama as US President has been for me (not a US citizen but someone who really hoped for a change from Bush policies). I often ask who is pulling his strings because I cannot believe he made such promises only to get into office to continue with Guantanamo, Afghanistan, etc and this “Friendly Fascism” in the US these days.

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Henry Cross wrote:

    These men must be charged or freed without delay. Capitulation to “hysteria”from the right or the left is unacceptable.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you to all the readers at Truthout who recommended this article and posted comments. I’m just back in the UK from a week-long visit to New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C. to raise awareness of the plight of the remaining 173 prisoners, and am sorry that I was simply too busy to respond before.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    In response to the discussion at 3-12 above, Ann Alexander wrote:

    The men held in England without charge or trial refer to themselves as hostages.

  31. Guantánamo Prisoner Dies After Being Held for Nine Years Without Charge or Trial « Eurasia Review says...

    […] were released to resume their lives. At Guantánamo, on the other hand, the prison has just marked the ninth anniversary of its opening, and on Thursday the Pentagon announced that Awal Gul, a 48-year old Afghan prisoner, who had been […]

  32. Guantánamo Prisoner Dies After Being Held for Nine Years Without Charge or Trial | The Muslim Justice Initiative says...

    […] were released to resume their lives. At Guantánamo, on the other hand, the prison has just marked the ninth anniversary of its opening, and on Thursday the Pentagon announced that Awal Gul, a 48-year old Afghan prisoner, who had been […]

  33. Deployments, demonstrations, disabilities, V-Day | thecommonillsbackup says...

    […] were released to resume their lives. At Guantánamo, on the other hand, the prison has just marked the ninth anniversary of its opening, and on Thursday the Pentagon announced that Awal Gul, a 48-year old Afghan prisoner, who had been […]

  34. Guantánamo: Obama Turns Clock Back To Days Of Bush’s Kangaroo Courts « Eurasia Review says...

    […] To understand why this is the case, it is necessary to reflect on the fact that 89 of the remaining 172 prisoners were cleared for release by the Task Force, but are going nowhere either because they are Yemenis, and Obama issued a moratorium on the release of any of the 58 cleared Yemenis last January, after it was discovered that the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen, or because they cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture of other ill-treatment in their home countries. These 31 men cannot be resettled in the US, because of opposition by the President, by the D.C. Circuit Court, and by Congress, and it is uncertain if third countries will be prepared to offer them new homes. As a result, all 89 prisoners appear to have less chance of leaving Guantánamo than their fellow prisoners who reach plea deals in their trials by Military Commission, and can, as I have been explaining all year, legitimately be described as political prisoners. […]

  35. Intimations Of Mortality: And Why This Is The View From My Bedroom – OpEd « Eurasia Review says...

    […] foot first started playing up in the New Year, when I visited New York and Washington D.C. for the ninth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo. At the time I thought I’d hit it on something and bruised it, but this obviously wasn’t the […]

  36. about our brother adnan , read this article where he is asking us ““Who Is Going to Rescue Me From the Injustice and the Torture I Am Enduring?” says...

    […] I explained in an article last month marking the 9th anniversary of the opening of the prison, to consider them as political prisoners, as abandoned by the law as they were in the darkest days of the Bush […]

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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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