Archive for March, 2011

Mocking the Law, Judges Rule that Evidence Is Not Necessary to Hold Insignificant Guantánamo Prisoners for the Rest of Their Lives

If I was an American lawyer who had fought for many years to secure habeas corpus rights for the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — in other words, the right to ask an impartial judge to rule on my captors’ reasons for slinging me in a legal black hole and leaving me to rot there forever — the latest news from the Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. (also known as the D.C. Circuit Court) would make me sick in a bucket rather than believing any longer that the law — the revered law on which the United States was founded — can bring any meaningful remedy for the prisoners at Guantánamo.

Treated as punchbags without rights when first picked up, mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the 172 men still held at Guantánamo are still treated with scorn by the administration of Barack Obama, the standard bearer of “hope” and “change,” who promised to close Guantánamo and to do away with “the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantánamo, [where] we have compromised our most precious values.” Instead, however, Obama has revealed himself to be nothing more than a hollow man whose ability to read from an autocue made him look caring, clever and capable when that was exactly the antidote we needed to eight years of Bush and Cheney.

Today, the reason for despair is that on Tuesday the D.C. Circuit Court reversed a ruling made last February by Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. of the District Court, in the case of Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, a Yemeni held at Guantánamo without charge or trial since the prison opened in January 2002. Last February, after examining all the government’s supposed evidence against Uthman, Judge Kennedy ruled that, although the government had presented what appeared to be a coherent timeline of events that was typical for young men from the Gulf, recruited to visit a training camp in Afghanistan to learn to fight for the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, none of the government’s supposed evidence proving Uthman’s presence in guest houses, at a training camp, and in the Tora Bora mountains (where a showdown took place in December 2001 between remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and Afghan forces recruited to fight for the Americans) was reliable.

The reason for this, Judge Kennedy concluded, was because the government’s supposed evidence consisted of statements produced by other prisoners who had been tortured, and whose testimony was therefore unreliable, as well as other witnesses whose statements were also considered to be untrustworthy.

This could have been the end of the story, and Uthman could have been released, were it not for the fact that he is a Yemeni, and the month before he won his petition, President Obama bowed to hysteria following the announcement that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, had been recruited in Yemen by announcing an immediate, open-ended moratorium on releasing any Yemenis from Guantánamo.

The fact that this moratorium was unjustifiable, consigning prisoners cleared for release by a US court, or by Obama’s own interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, to indefinite detention on the basis of “guilt by nationality,” appeared to trouble no one, and, similarly, no one blinked when every Yemeni who won his habeas corpus petition — with one heroic exception — subsequently had his successful petition appealed.

This was in spite of the fact that it was obvious to anyone who was reasonably sentient that the main reason for doing so was to avoid having to try to persuade Congress that an exception should be made to the moratorium, which, very clearly, was actually intended to function as a permanent obstacle to the release of any Yemeni, the kind of legally and morally dubious device that President Bush also favored, although his chosen vehicle was the executive order.

The noble exception, by the way, was Mohammed Hassan Odaini, a student who had been seized while staying the night wth other students at their universtiy dorm in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March 2002. Many of the other students staying in the dorm are still held, but Odaini was lucky because a judge reached the point where he was satisfied that he could make a ruling on his habeas petition, and forcefully explained that the US government had no reason for having deprived Odaini of eight years of his life, when intelligence officials knew, almost from the moment of his capture, that he was an innocent man.

It also helped that his case was picked up by the Washington Post, which ran an editorial entitled, Meet one Gitmo inmate who can’t be described as ‘the worst of the worst.’ At this point, he became a kind of minor celebrity victim, and the administration conceded that it wouldn’t dare appeal, although officials still made a concession to outrageousness by explaining, straight-faced, that they still would have challenged his release if they hadn’t discovered that he was from a good family. “People [in the administration] were comfortable with this,” an anonymous official told the Washington Post, “because of the guy’s background, his family and where he comes from in Yemen.”

For Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman — not as well-connected as Mohammed Hassan Odaini — all that awaited him was a date with the D.C. Circuit Court that was bound to result in Judge Kennedy’s ruling being reversed, and Uthman himself being consigned to indefinite detention at Guantánamo for the rest of his life.

The reason I state this with such confidence is that, since they first began considering Guantánamo habeas appeals last January, the judges of the D.C. Circuit Court — and, in particular, Judges A. Raymond Randolph, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Janice Rogers Brown — have generally functioned as though possessed by the spirit of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, sedating the spirit of justice and taking revenge on the Supreme Court, which granted constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights to the Guantánamo prisoners in June 2008.

Of these, Judge Randolph is the most notorious, having endorsed every piece of Guantánamo legislation that came his way under the Bush administration, even though all his rulings were subsequently reveresed by the Supreme Court, but all of them (plus others, in various combinations) have almost entirely guaranteed success for the government’s appeals in the habeas legislation, as I explained in my articles, Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: Prisoners Win 3 out of 4 Cases, But Lose 5 out of 6 in Court of Appeals (Part One), Guantánamo and Habeas Corpus: Prisoners Win 3 out of 4 Cases, But Lose 5 out of 6 in Court of Appeals (Part Two) and Habeas Hell: How the Great Writ Was Gutted at Guantánamo.

In challenging, reversing and vacating the District Court opinions, the D.C.Circuit Court has issued a contentious opinion about unfettered executive power, which claimed greater wartime powers for the government than senior officials wanted, wondered — in an opinion by Judge Randolph — why any kind of test was required for the quality of the government’s evidence in cases related to terrorism, and, most damagingly for the prisoners, decided that the involvement with al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban that is required to justify detention is not, as the District Court judges decided, limited to some sort of involvement in the command structure of the organizations (intended to demonstrate important indicators like the requirement to take orders), but is, instead, the much more open-ended requirement that those under consideration are “part of” al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban.

On Tuesday, demonstrating quite how open-ended this description is, Judge Kavanaugh, who wrote the judges’ opinion, declared, as ProPublica stated, “that the government doesn’t need direct evidence that a detainee fought for or was a member of al-Qaeda in order to justify a detention.” ProPublica added that the court “determined that circumstantial evidence, such as a detainee being in the same location as other al-Qaeda members, is enough to meet the standard to hold a prisoner without charge.”

In the ruling (PDF), the judges wrote, “Uthman’s account piles coincidence upon coincidence upon coincidence … it remains possible that Uthman was innocently going about his business and just happened to show up in a variety of extraordinary places — a kind of Forrest Gump in the war against al-Qaeda. But Uthman’s account at best strains credulity, and the far more likely explanation for the plethora of damning circumstantial evidence is that he was part of al-Qaeda.”

Jonathan Hafetz, a professor at Seton Hall Law School, who has represented several Guantánamo prisoners including Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who, last November, had his successful petition vacated and sent back to the District Court to reconsider, complained that the Circuit Court’s ruling “significantly favors the government in ways the Supreme Court did not intend when it granted detainees the right to challenge detentions.”

“The Uthman case cements the trend in the D.C. Circuit’s decisions toward a broad and malleable definition of who can be considered ‘part of’ al-Qaeda, combined with a highly deferential view of the government’s interpretation of the facts,” Hafetz said. “In many cases, the result is indefinite detention based on suspicion or assumptions about a detainee’s behavior.”

He added that the ruling is not only dismissive of the considered approach taken by the District Court, but is also dismissive of the intent of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, he said, “mandated a meaningful judicial process in which the government would be called to account; Uthman says judges should not require much in the way of an answer.”

The other problem for Uthman, and for the majoriity of the other prisoners who have lost their habeas petitions (22 out of 59 cases in total), is that all this legal maneuvering fails to address a fundamental problem with the habeas petitions that no one has ever wanted to deal with — the fact that the habeas petitions are specifically to decide whether the government is able to demonstrate, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the prisoners in question were involved with al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban, without making any distinction between them, even though one is a terrorist group, and the other was the government of Afghanistan at the time of the 9/11 attacks.

This refusal to distinguish between two decidedly different groups — despite the limited crossover between them, which also extended to a failure to realize that those who trained in camps associated wth al-Qaeda were generally only involved in what might be called al-Qaeda’s military wing, rather than its involvement with international terrorism — is enshrined in the founding document of the “War on Terror,” the Authorization for Use of Military Force. Passed by Congress the week after the 9/11 attacks, the AUMF authorizes 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 those who harbored them.

Interpreted by the Supreme Court, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, in June 2004, as “clearly and unmistakably” authorizing the detention of individuals, the AUMF therefore provides the rationale for holding prisoners neither as criminal suspects, to be put forward for trials, nor as prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions, but as what Bush called “illegal enemy combatants,” and it crafts the fiction, maintained ever since, that terrorists and soldiers are somehow one and the same, when, if those involved in the habeas legislation were allowed to express an honest and  unguarded opinion about many of the cases, I’m sure that many of them would concede that terrorists are criminals, whereas those involved in the Taliban’s military conflict with the Northern Alliance, which morphed, after 9/11, into a global war against the US, were nothing more than soldiers, and should have been held as such according to the Geneva Conventions.

Time and again, however — and Uthman is just the latest example — these foot soldiers have been losing petitions and being slung back into Guantánamo as though they were convicted terrorists, even when they are no such thing, and, in two cases, were not even foot soldiers but a cook and a medic. Sadly, few people realize that this is what has been happening, as the mainstream media in the US has done little to interest the American public in the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions.

However, as with my imaginary scenario with the judges, if it were possible to make a cross-section of the American public sit down for a few hours and have spelled out to them the stories of those who have been losing their habeas petitions and who may now spend the rest of their lives in Guantánamo, I’m sure that they too would realize that there’s an enormous difference between someone involved in a plot to kill hundreds or thousands of civilians on the US mainland or anywhere else in the world, and someone who attended a training camp, and may, in some way or another, have engaged in military conflict with the Northern Alliance and/or the US military in Afghanistan.

Nearly ten years after the 9/11 attacks, the time to sort out the difference between terrorists and soldiers is surely long overdue, so that people like Uthman are treated with justice, rather than the lingering effects of the hyperbole that typefied the Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” Moroever, it is also important for America itself to stop pretending that there is a magical third category of prisoner on whose heads can be poured all the pain and loss of 9/11. Prisoners are either criminal suspects, to be put on trial, or soldiers, seized in wartime, to be held as prisoners of war and protected by the Geneva Conventions.

Note: For details of all the habeas cases ruled on in the US courts, see the dedicated page, Guantánamo Habeas Results: The Definitive List, which is regularly updated when new developments are announced.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), 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 Cageprisoners.

Amina Masood Janjua, Champion of Pakistan’s Disappeared, Tells Her Story to Cageprisoners

Yesterday, while cross-posting a perceptive and shocking Guardian article by Declan Walsh about the state-sanctioned disappearances and murders of would-be separatists and critics of Pakistani policy in the vast tribal area of Balochistan, bordering Afghanistan and Iran, it occurred to me that, several months ago, when former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg (who is now the director of Cageprisoners) had visited Pakistan and had met up with Amina Masood Janjua, an extraordinarily brave and dedicated human rights  campaigner, I had intended to cross-post an article written for Cageprisoners by Amina herself.

Published last October, Amina’s article, whch I’m finally cross-posting below, explains her struggle — and that of her family — to find the inner strength and the financial support to continue campaigning to discover not only what happened to her husband, the businessman Masood Janjua, who disappeared in 2005 while on a bus with his friend Faisal Faraz, a 25-year-old engineer from Lahore, but also to hundreds more of Pakistan’s Disappeared, who she ended up representing through her organization, Defence of Human Rights Pakistan, which has registered the cases of over 900 missing people in Pakistan.

All of these people — and as many as ten times more, whose cases have not been registered — are presumed to have been “disappeared” by the Pakistani government, which, under Pervez Musharraf, was content to use its close relationship with America as a frontline partner in the “War on Terror” as a cover for a separate campaign to “disappear” Pakistanis as well — throughout the country, as with Masood Janjua, and specifically in Balochistan, where the number of disappeared dwarfs those elsewhere.

Describing his meeting with Amina prior to the publication of her article last October, Moazzam Begg wrote:

There are also hundreds of people “disappeared” and still unaccounted for in Pakistan. Their case is fought by an incredible woman, Amina Masood Janjua, who, with her Defence of Human Rights Campaign, has fought for the last five years to trace her own husband, Masood Janjua, and hundreds of others in the process. It was an honour to meet this woman who fights day and night, sometimes alone, to seek justice for the hundreds of disappeared and detained without trial around the country. I tried to give her some consolation during my meeting with her, that like me, her husband will surely be home soon. She’s appreciative of the sentiments but then tells me about the corrosive effects all this has had on her daughter, who accompanies her often.

They have registered over 900 cases of missing persons and believe that is only the tip of the iceberg. Estimates suggest the figures are ten times that number.

Amina has just been demonstrating outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad, carrying mock coffins as a symbol of the living-dead lives they are leading, with their loved ones still unaccounted for and with men dressed in Guantánamo signature orange suits wearing shackles. Her struggle is an uphill one, requiring full-time commitment with insufficient support or funds.

I hope you’re moved, as I was, by Amina’s story when I first heard it several years ago. I’ve made minor edits to Amina’s own account, published below, and if you’d like to find out more, please read this Cageprisoners interview from 2007, “The Conviction of Love,” an Amnesty International article from 2008, and this article by Robert Fisk in March last year. Also see this PBS Frontline video from 2009, and for an early report on the disappeared, see this article by Declan Walsh (published in the Guardian in 2007). Also see here for a more recent article by Canada’s CBC News, and for a more comprehensive overview, see the Amnesty International report, “Denying the Undeniable: Enforced Disappearances in Pakistan,” published in July 2008.

The fight becomes tough for my family
By Amina Masood Janjua, Cageprisoners, October 8, 2010

As the fight for the release of my illegally detained husband grew tougher and tougher, so was my pocket becoming emptier and emptier. Maybe it was created deliberately by the government to squeeze me financially. Because the last five years, two months and eight days to be exact, since when my life took a 180 degree turn on 30th July 2005, has been based on tireless struggles, non-stop running from pillar to post, sleepless nights and heart-piercing grief.

Masood, my loving husband, is a famous educator and businessman of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. He was honest, hardworking, enthusiastic, charismatic, competent and extremely loving and caring. We got married in 1989 and life was heavenly happy for us. We were blessed with two boys and an adorable daughter. For his children, Masood was extraordinary friendly, loving and caring. He would play wrestling with boys, and dolls with the little doll of ours. Life unfolded beautifully before us and we realized that we were more and more in love with each other.

There was hardly any spare time with Masood, as he was running three institutions and a social welfare hospital for the poor. The rest of the time was dedicated to his aging parents and the family he loved dearly. Masood made it a point to spend some time every now and then, relaxing in hilly scenic areas where we enjoyed barbeques, fishing and camping at our leisure.

I remember the time of Masood’s disappearance with a shudder, recalling how I was helplessly lying in bed for three months crying in a deep shock and depression. All the while my innocent children Muhammad (14), Ali (12) and Aishah (8) were sunk in a sea of shock, lost in a world of their own, their eyes desperately searching for Abbu (father) and Ammi (mother) both.

I pulled myself together with a determination never to give up and to bring my loved one home — to bring back the same old golden days of our union, when life was joy and fun and nothing else mattered. For the comfort of my children, I stretched over myself a confident smile. “I will bring your Abbu to you,” I promised to them.

After that, how could I rest or slow down? I only knew one thing and that is the “struggle to find Masood,” as our most vital head of the family and our most precious loved one was brutally snatched away from me and my children. It was confirmed that the intelligence agencies had taken him, when Dr. Imran Muneer, a key witness of seeing my husband in illegal detention, gave his statement in 2007.

By the end of 2007, there were a hundred families of “Missing Persons,” which I registered. I had to raise a voice for their grievance, protest for them, file their cases in the Supreme Court, and, most importantly, be like a mentor to them, guiding, counseling and motivating them never to lose heart or give up hope.

Protests, seminars, walks and rallies bombarded the newspapers and electronic media and our movement was making the headlines. Even during the judicial crises we were part and parcel of the lawyers’ long march, joining their struggle shoulder to shoulder. Just to get the rule of law and justice back on its heels, we gave every sacrifice.

The judicial crises

Facing a wall, frantically I started protesting in front of the Parliament House in September 2006. At first there was only the family of Masood Janjua, but within a short time we were joined by other families whose loved ones had also disappeared, and they were also equally aggrieved and denied of justice. We started calling this network of victim families, “Defence of Human Rights.”

We were lucky enough that Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry had already taken notice of Masood’s abduction. The case was at its peak and about to be resolved with the appearance of Dr. Imran but unfortunately judicial crises engulfed the country after the unconstitutional Emergency of 3rd November 2007. My network of aggrieved and helpless victim families were the worst sufferers of this emergency-cum-martial law. High hopes were dashed away and so were the means of living, most of us having severe financial problems, so much so that even the basic necessities of life were hard to meet.

The 16th of March 2009 dawned with the renewal of  hopes for all the victim families of the enforced disappearances, as the pre-November 3rd judiciary was restored by the executive order of the Prime Minister, but unfortunately the joy was short-lived. I was confident that the issue of “Missing Persons” would be the first one picked up by the Chief Justice and the restored judiciary, but every attempt at persuasion, talks and efforts failed in getting the cases of the disappeared fixed in the Supreme Court. Finally the families of the disappeared had to camp 12 days and nights outside the Supreme Court in protest. The cases were finally fixed on 23rd November 2009. At last our sacrifices and steadfastness bore fruit.

I only call it Allah’s will that our trial was not yet over. The cases of the disappeared were disappeared from the Supreme Court without achieving any breakthrough, in May 2010, to sideline the issue.

A Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances was formed by the government to take away the focus of the media and the judiciary from this extremely sensitive issue and the worst violation of basic fundamental human rights. We came to know only after four months that it could not issue orders to produce the abductees nor to order any compensation to address the financial agonies of the families. It was criminal negligence and impunity exercised in its worst form on the part of the government.

There is yet hope and faith to rely on. Maybe some day the state’s lost conscience will be shaken and speedy justice will be delivered to the poor, forsaken and aggrieved of this nation. Whatever happened up till now may be an honest effort, but what’s the point when the government’s agencies themselves are into picking up honorable citizens from their homes and they themselves are searching for those abducted, instead of putting an end to this practice once and for all. It all seems like a cruel joke to befool the aggrieved, alas!

Rollercoaster of emotions

Throughout this rollercoaster of emotions and events, hopes high and hopes dashed, there was one element of solace and contentment: those getting released due to our hue and cry, protest and legal pressure. Mashallah, 332 detainees were traced and released during the last five years of our struggle [emphasis added]. The wife of one of the ex-detainees brought salaams and prayers from her husband. She was full of praise for our movement and told us that Aslam, her husband, narrated the following:

We were in dungeons being tortured day and night, till we lost our senses and  forgot our identity. As as a result of the public demonstrations, our cases opened and we were taken to jail; after three and a half years we saw sun light and breathed fresh air.

It was made possible only because of the pressure built by the tireless protest demonstration, sit-ins and rallies. Aslam also said that he was delighted to know, after being shifted in jail, that women, children, the old and the young are raising their voices for their release. It is amazing how Allah is making the weak and oppressed powerful and the voiceless heard. Allah (swt) has his own ways of making things work out for his dear ones.

Many detainees were also reported as saying that if the movement of Missing Persons is going on then we will also see the sun some day. If Allah (swt) has made us a ray of hope for those dumped in dark underground torture cells, what else can be a bigger honour than this?

My family’s ordeal

Out of all the three kids, Aishah was Masood’s favourite, being the youngest dolly we had. For months and years after Masood’s disappearance, I found her weeping behind a door or on the bed or even at times lying on the floor. There was always Masood’s picture under her pillow and her bedroom door was full of pictures of children with Masood. I did everything I could for her solace, peace and comfort but I know the void of a loving father’s absence. A very strong sense of deprivation, the longing for his pampering care and love was always hurting Aishah. Her frustration and anger at my struggle bearing no result as far as her Abbu was concerned — the unparalleled grief and pain of all that — I could not take away from her.

Especially this Ramadan all of us were extremely melancholic, each one of us desperately missed Masood and remembered his jolly and gleaming nature, his jokes, his enthusiasm, his extraordinary love and care. His loud vibrant voice was a louder noise in our home than any of the naughty kids. My boys would escape from going to masjid but now they miss those days when their Abbu would take them for prayers in Ramadan. No matter how well I looked after my kids, I knew in my heart that I can never be like Masood who was an “Ideal hero,” who played football, took them for adventures, wrestled, played dolls and would be a closest best friend and father at the same time.

Masood loved the environment in Ramadan, his favorite things were jalebee and fruit-chat at Iftar and meat or rice at dinner. I made sure that everything he wished for was piled up on the table. Eid was special fun too. Secretly we would buy presents, toys and gifts for all the children and family, and pack it and hide it in the cupboard on the Eid eve. The next morning would come with joyous screams of our kids excited to get the gifts. Something happened on Eid day, thank God not to any of my kids, it happened to me. I locked myself in the wash room to avoid my kids and wept and wept — shouting and yelling in my heart, “O.Allah, when will you return me my love? My Masood! When, O Allah, when??? I can’t take it any more — Oh please my Lord, have mercy. I am weak … I can’t stand up to your trial … my kids are also weak! “

The fight and financial crises getting tough

The scenario for Masood’s case became grim and the fight tough as the Joint Investigation team deputized for him gave its final report on 2nd October 2010, saying, “Masood is not with any of the agencies.” There is categorical denial, brutal lies in the face of too much evidence, injustice and torture to the whole family. Furthermore to make the going too tough for me there were financial crises hovering over the last many years. I had already trained myself to save every penny in order to run the course, no matter what. I helped the poor deserving families whose bread-winners were picked up and they were left devastated without any means of living at all. I knew their pain and suffering too well and that is why, out of my extreme passion, I would do anything for them.

I literally drained all my resources and the bank balance Masood had left, for the sake of this cause and to help those in need. That is also one of the reasons why the college [Masood’s computer college] suffered heavy losses and I am almost penniless today. But there are no regrets for those whose most precious loved ones are taken away. Money and all the precious belongings of this world are nothing for them. As far as my family’s survival is concerned, we depended on this computer college of Masood. It suffered over the years of turmoil, struggle and hardships and was under debt due to mounting losses until finally it was locked on 29th September on account of one year’s rent not being paid. On 4th October after taking the stay order from the court, we opened the college and I was pondering over all the grim situation, sinking in my office chair. Fighting becoming tough. Pressure becoming more than I can stand. Three children in their teens to be educated, groomed and properly fed and clothed; old and aging parents-in-law to be taken care of; home, kitchen, bills, car, fuel, maintenance, college bills, salaries and rent!

Every thought kept hammering on my head … And the foremost, of course: the “Missing Persons” cause. It has to continue even if I have nothing left and I am sitting on the road with my kids. Thoughts, thoughts and thoughts kept  emerging from all directions. It was the third day of my migraine becoming severe, with my blood pressure rising alarmingly, and now it was impossible to breathe. As tension mounts, asthma in my chest and ulcers in my stomach always escalate. For months I haven’t seen a doctor.

A voice from inside said I was sinking … time and again I was fighting back tears which overbrimmed my eyes. I was hiding my tears and paranoia from the college staff. I can’t show them that the “Leader of the Aggrieved” is weak. A peon took a cheque for a salary, it was bounced. “There are no 5000 Rs. in your account, madam!” OK, I wrote another one for Rs 3000/-. To my amazement it bounced too. I didn’t dare to write a third one. Hiding my embarrassment I told him, smiling, “I’ll take it out from the other bank tomorrow.” By 3pm I was emotionally drained and starving. To restore my energies I wanted to give the peon 24 Rs for tea and biscuits. I kept digging in my bag for almost half an hour and was delighted to hand him over all the coins I found.

Please don’t feel any pity, as I am truly and rightly proud of whatever I did, in spite of whatever happened to me and my kids. How courageously we fought the battle for the release of Masood and all the missing loved ones without any resources was amazing and a legendary achievement!

And the answer to my acute distress, I found the same day in the evening. After Maghreb prayer I prayed to my Creator earnestly, I asked my Lord for Mercy, Forgiveness, Guidance and Help. I asked for unmatched courage and determination to go on fighting and never to give up. I thanked Him for the love and respect He had given me, for the honor of taking the impossible tasks from me. All of a sudden my heart was full of peace, contentment, gratitude and thanksgiving in the same way as my eyes were full of tears in the morning.

So there is the answer to the biggest problems and difficulties, grief and sufferings of life … Bow down before the Lord and ask Him! He will answer and never let us fall astray inshallah, He will never waste our struggles.

We are not yet united with Masood but we are determined  to continue the struggle, to work even harder, not to give up on any front. We are confident having a firm belief that the blissful day of our Reunion is not far.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), 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.

Torture and Murder in Balochistan: Declan Walsh on Pakistan’s Secret Dirty War

Coming up tomorrow are new articles about Guantánamo and habeas corpus, and US intelligence and the Middle East, but to fill the vacuum today, here at Andy Worthington, I’m straying into the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands and cross-posting a distressing but extremely informative article from the Guardian by Declan Walsh, who has been investigating the little-reported disaster area that is Balochistan, where, as he puts it, “On one side is a scrappy coalition of guerrillas fighting for independence from Pakistan; on the other is a powerful army that seeks to quash their insurgency with maximum prejudice. The revolt, which has been rumbling for more than six years, is spiced by foreign interests and intrigues — US spy bases, Chinese business, vast underground reserves of copper, oil and gold.”

Insightful and tragic, this is fine investigative journalism, and I hope you enjoy it if you missed it in the pages of the Guardian.

Pakistan’s secret dirty war
By Declan Walsh, The Guardian, March 29, 2011

In Balochistan, mutilated corpses bearing the signs of torture keep turning up, among them lawyers, students and farm workers. Why is no one investigating and what have they got to do with the bloody battle for Pakistan’s largest province?

The bodies surface quietly, like corks bobbing up in the dark. They come in twos and threes, a few times a week, dumped on desolate mountains or empty city roads, bearing the scars of great cruelty. Arms and legs are snapped; faces are bruised and swollen. Flesh is sliced with knives or punctured with drills; genitals are singed with electric prods. In some cases the bodies are unrecognisable, sprinkled with lime or chewed by wild animals. All have a gunshot wound in the head.

This gruesome parade of corpses has been surfacing in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, since last July. Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have accounted for more than 100 bodies — lawyers, students, taxi drivers, farm workers. Most have been tortured. The last three were discovered on Sunday.

If you have not heard of this epic killing spree, though, don’t worry: neither have most Pakistanis. Newspaper reports from Balochistan are buried quietly on the inside pages, cloaked in euphemisms or, quite often, not published at all.

The forces of law and order also seem to be curiously indifferent to the plight of the dead men. Not a single person has been arrested or prosecuted; in fact, police investigators openly admit they are not even looking for anyone. The stunning lack of interest in Pakistan’s greatest murder mystery in decades becomes more understandable, however, when it emerges that the prime suspect is not some shady gang of sadistic serial killers, but the country’s powerful military and its unaccountable intelligence men.

This is Pakistan’s dirty little war. While foreign attention is focused on the Taliban, a deadly secondary conflict is bubbling in Balochistan, a sprawling, mineral-rich province along the western borders with Afghanistan and Iran. On one side is a scrappy coalition of guerrillas fighting for independence from Pakistan; on the other is a powerful army that seeks to quash their insurgency with maximum prejudice. The revolt, which has been rumbling for more than six years, is spiced by foreign interests and intrigues — US spy bases, Chinese business, vast underground reserves of copper, oil and gold.

And in recent months it has grown dramatically worse. At the airport in Quetta, the provincial capital, a brusque man in a cheap suit marches up to my taxi with a rattle of questions. “Who is this? What’s he doing here? Where is he staying?” he asks the driver, jerking a thumb towards me. Scribbling the answers, he waves us on. “Intelligence,” says the driver.

The city itself is tense, ringed by jagged, snow-dusted hills and crowded with military checkposts manned by the Frontier Corps (FC), a paramilitary force in charge of security. Schools have recently raised their walls; sand-filled Hesco barricades, like the ones used in Kabul and Baghdad, surround the FC headquarters. In a restaurant the waiter apologises: tandoori meat is off the menu because the nationalists blew up the city’s gas pipeline a day earlier. The gas company had plugged the hole that morning, he explains, but then the rebels blew it up again.

The home secretary, Akbar Hussain Durrani, a neatly suited, well-spoken man, sits in a dark and chilly office. Pens, staplers and telephones are neatly laid on the wide desk before him, but his computer is blank. The rebels have blown up a main pylon, he explains, so the power is off. Still, he insists, things are fine. “The government agencies are operating in concert, everyone is acting in the best public interest,” he says. “This is just a … political problem.” As we speak, a smiling young man walks in and starts to take my photo; I later learn he works for the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.

We cut across the city, twisting through the backstreets, my guide glancing nervously out the rear window. The car halts before a tall gate that snaps shut behind us. Inside, a 55-year-old woman named Lal Bibi is waiting, wrapped in a shawl that betrays only her eyes, trembling as she holds forth a picture of her dead son Najibullah. The 20-year-old, who ran a shop selling motorbike parts, went missing last April after being arrested at an FC checkpost, she says. His body turned up three months later, dumped in a public park on the edge of Quetta, badly tortured. “He had just two teeth in his mouth,” she says in a voice crackling with pain. She turns to her father, a turbaned old man sitting beside her, and leans into his shoulder. He grimaces.

Bibi says her family was probably targeted for its nationalist ties — Najibullah’s older brother, now dead, had joined the “men in the mountains” years earlier, she says. Now a nephew, 28-year-old Maqbool, is missing. She prays for him, regularly calling the hospitals for any sign of him and, occasionally, the city morgues.

Over a week of interviews in Karachi and Quetta, I meet the relatives of seven dead men and nine “disappeared” — men presumed to have been abducted by the security forces. One man produces a mobile phone picture of the body of his 22-year-old cousin, Mumtaz Ali Kurd, his eyes black with swelling and his shirt drenched in blood. A relative of Zaman Khan, one of three lawyers killed in the past nine months, produces court papers. A third trembles as he describes finding his brother’s body in an orchard near Quetta.

Patterns emerge. The victims were generally men between 20 and 40 years old — nationalist politicians, students, shopkeepers, labourers. In many cases they were abducted in broad daylight — dragged off buses, marched out of shops, detained at FC checkposts — by a combination of uniformed soldiers and plain-clothes intelligence men. Others just vanished. They re-emerge, dead, with an eerie tempo — approximately 15 bodies every month, although the average was disturbed last Saturday when eight bodies were found in three locations across Balochistan.

Activists have little doubt who is behind the atrocities. Human Rights Watch says “indisputable” evidence points to the hand of the FC, the ISI and its sister agency, Military Intelligence. A local group, Voice for Missing Persons, says the body count has surpassed 110. “This is becoming a state of terror,” says its chairman, Naseerullah Baloch.

The army denies the charges, saying its good name is being blemished by impersonators. “Militants are using FC uniforms to kidnap people and malign our good name,” says Major General Obaid Ullah Khan Niazi, commander of the 46,000 FC troops stationed in Balochistan. “Our job is to enforce the law, not to break it.”

Despairing relatives feel cornered. Abdul Rahim, a farmer wearing a jewelled skullcap, is from Khuzdar, a hotbed of insurgent violence. He produces court papers detailing the abduction of his son Saadullah in 2009. First he went to the courts but then his lawyer was shot dead. Then he went to the media but the local press club president was killed. Now, Rahim says, “nobody will help in case they are targeted too. We are hopeless.”

Balochistan has long been an edgy place. Its vast, empty deserts and long borders are a magnet for provocateurs of every stripe. Taliban fighters slip back and forth along the 800-mile Afghan border; Iranian dissidents hide inside the 570-mile frontier with Iran. Drug criminals cross the border from Helmand, the world’s largest source of heroin, on their way to Iran or lonely beaches on the Arabian Sea. Wealthy Arab sheikhs fly into remote airstrips on hunting expeditions for the houbara bustard, a bird they believe improves their lovemaking. At Shamsi, a secretive airbase in a remote valley in the centre of the province, CIA operatives launch drones that attack Islamists in the tribal belt.

The US spies appreciate the lack of neighbours – Balochistan covers 44% of Pakistan yet has half the population of Karachi. The province’s other big draw is its natural wealth. At Reko Diq, 70 miles from the Afghan border, a Canadian-Chilean mining consortium has struck gold, big-time. The Tethyan company has discovered 4bn tonnes of mineable ore that will produce an estimated 200,000 tonnes of copper and 250,000 ounces of gold per year, making it one of the largest such mines in the world. The project is currently stalled by a tangled legal dispute, but offers a tantalising taste of Balochistan’s vast mineral riches, which also includes oil, gas, platinum and coal. So far it is largely untapped, though, and what mining exists is scrappy and dangerous. On 21 March, 50 coal workers perished in horrific circumstances when methane gas flooded their mine near Quetta, then catastrophically exploded.

Two conflicts are rocking the province. North of Quetta, in a belt of land adjoining the Afghan border, is the ethnic Pashtun belt. Here, Afghan Taliban insurgents shelter in hardline madrasas and lawless refugee camps, taking rest in between bouts of battle with western soldiers in Afghanistan. It is home to the infamous “Quetta shura”, the Taliban war council, and western officials say the ISI is assisting them. Some locals agree. “It’s an open secret,” an elder from Kuchlak tells me. “The ISI gave a fleet of motorbikes to local elders, who distributed them to the fighters crossing the border. Nobody can stop them.”

The other conflict is unfolding south of Quetta, in a vast sweep that stretches from the Quetta suburbs to the Arabian Sea, in the ethnic Baloch and Brahui area, whose people have always been reluctant Pakistanis. The first Baloch revolt erupted in 1948, barely six months after Pakistan was born; this is the fifth. The rebels are splintered into several factions, the largest of which is the Balochistan Liberation Army. They use classic guerrilla tactics — ambushing military convoys, bombing gas pipelines, occasionally lobbing rockets into Quetta city. Casualties are relatively low: 152 FC soldiers died between 2007 and 2010, according to official figures, compared with more than 8,000 soldiers and rebels in the 1970s conflagration.

But this insurgency seems to have spread deeper into Baloch society than ever before. Anti-Pakistani fervour has gripped the province. Baloch schoolchildren refuse to sing the national anthem or fly its flag; women, traditionally secluded, have joined the struggle. Universities have become hotbeds of nationalist sentiment. “This is not just the usual suspects,” says Rashed Rahman, editor of the Daily Times, one of few papers that regularly covers the conflict.

At a Quetta safehouse I meet Asad Baloch, a wiry, talkative 22-year-old activist with the Baloch Students’ Organisation (Azad). “We provide moral and political support to the fighters,” he says. “We are making people aware. When they are aware, they act.” It is a risky business: about one-third of all “kill and dump” victims were members of the BSO.

Baloch anger is rooted in poverty. Despite its vast natural wealth, Balochistan is desperately poor — barely 25% of the population is literate (the national average is 47%), around 30% are unemployed and just 7% have access to tap water. And while Balochistan provides one-third of Pakistan’s natural gas, only a handful of towns are hooked up to the supply grid.

The insurgents are demanding immediate control of the natural resources and, ultimately, independence. “We are not part of Pakistan,” says Baloch.

His phone rings. News comes through that another two bodies have been discovered near the coast. One, Abdul Qayuum, was a BSO activist. Days later, videos posted on YouTube show an angry crowd carrying his bloodied corpse into a mortuary. He had been shot in the head.

The FC commander, Maj Gen Niazi, wearing a sharp, dark suit and with neatly combed hair (he has just come from a conference) says he has little time for the rebel demand. “The Baloch are being manipulated by their leaders,” he says, noting that the scions of the main nationalist groups live in exile abroad — Hyrbyair Marri in London; Brahamdagh Bugti in Geneva. “They are enjoying the life in Europe while their people suffer in the mountains,” he says with a sigh.

Worse again, he adds, they were supported by India. The Punjabi general offers no proof for his claim, but US and British intelligence broadly agree, according to the recent WikiLeaks cables. India sees Balochistan as payback for Pakistani meddling in Kashmir — which explains why Pakistani generals despise the nationalists so much. “Paid killers,” says Niazi. He vehemently denies involvement in human rights violations. “To us, each and every citizen of Balochistan is equally dear,” he says.

Civilian officials in the province, however, have another story. Last November, the provincial chief minister, Aslam Raisani, told the BBC that the security forces were “definitely” guilty of some killings; earlier this month, the province’s top lawyer, Salahuddin Mengal, told the supreme court the FC was “lifting people at will.” He resigned a week later.

However, gross human rights abuses are not limited to the army. As the conflict drags on, the insurgents have become increasingly brutal and ruthless. In the past two years, militants have kidnapped aid workers, killed at least four journalists and, most disturbingly, started to target “settlers” — unarmed civilians, mostly from neighbouring Punjab, many of whom have lived in Balochistan for decades. Some 113 settlers were killed in cold blood last year, according to government figures — civil servants, shopkeepers, miners. On 21 March, militants riding motorbikes sprayed gunfire into a camp of construction workers near Gwadar, killing 11; the Baloch Liberation Front claimed responsibility. Most grotesque, perhaps, are the attacks on education: 22 school teachers, university lecturers and education officials have been assassinated since January 2008, causing another 200 to flee their jobs.

As attitudes harden, the middle ground is being swept away in a tide of bloodshed. “Our politicians have been silenced,” says Habib Tahir, a human rights lawyer in Quetta. “They are afraid of the young.” I ask a student in Quetta to defend the killing of teachers. “They are not teachers, they work for the intelligence agencies,” one student tells me. “They are like thieves coming into our homes. They must go.”

The Islamabad government seems helpless to halt Balochistan’s slide into chaos. Two years ago, President Asif Ali Zardari announced a sweeping package of measures intended to assuage Baloch grievances, including thousands of jobs, a ban on new military garrisons and payment of $1.4bn (£800m) in overdue natural gas royalties. But violence has hijacked politics, the plan is largely untouched, and anaemic press coverage means there is little outside pressure for action.

Pakistan’s foreign allies, obsessed with hunting Islamists, have ignored the problem. “We are the most secular people in the region, and still we are being ignored,” says Noordin Mengal, who represents Balochistan on the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In this information vacuum, the powerful do as they please. Lawyer Kachkol Ali witnessed security forces drag three men from his office in April 2009. Their bodies turned up five days later, dead and decomposed. After telling his story to the press, Ali was harassed by military intelligence, who warned him his life was in danger. He fled the country. “In Pakistan, there is only rule of the jungle,” he says by phone from Lørenskog, a small Norwegian town where he won asylum last summer. “Our security agencies pick people up and treat them like war criminals,” he says. “They don’t even respect the dead.”

Balochistan’s dirty little war pales beside Pakistan’s larger problems — the Taliban, al-Qaida, political upheaval. But it highlights a very fundamental danger — the ability of Pakistanis to live together in a country that, under its Islamic cloak, is a patchwork of ethnicities and cultures. “Balochistan is a warning of the real battle for Pakistan, which is about power and resources,” says Haris Gazdar, a Karachi-based researcher. “And if we don’t get it right, we’re headed for a major conflict.”

Before leaving Quetta I meet Faiza Mir, a 36-year-old lecturer in international relations at Quetta’s Balochistan University. Militants have murdered four of her colleagues in the past three years, all because they were “Punjabi.” Driving on to the campus, she points out the spots where they were killed, knowing she could be next.

“I can’t leave,” says Mir, a sparky woman with an irrepressible smile. “This is my home too.” And so she engages in debate with students, sympathising with their concerns. “I try to make them understand that talk is better than war,” she says.

But some compromises are impossible. Earlier on, students had asked Mir to remove a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, from her office wall. Mir politely refused, and Jinnah — an austere lawyer in a Savile Row suit — still stares down from her wall.

But how long will he stay there? “That’s difficult to say,” she answers.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), 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.

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”: Acclaimed Documentary Now Available in the US from The World Can’t Wait, Just $10 Post Free

“‘Outside the Law’ is a powerful film that has helped ensure that Guantánamo and the men unlawfully held there have not been forgotten.”
Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK

“[T]his is a strong movie examining the imprisonment and subsequent torture of those falsely accused of anti-American conspiracy.”
Joe Burnham, Time Out

As featured on Democracy Now!, ABC News and Truthout.

Readers in the US who want to see the documentary fim, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” which I co-directed with my filmmaker friend Polly Nash, can now bypass the previous route to buying a DVD in the States — via the production company here in the UK — and buy it direct from The World Can’t Wait in New York, for just $10 post free.

With Guantánamo not closing anytime soon — if ever — through the cowardice of President Obama and the relentless negative campaigning of Republicans, it is more important than ever that US citizens who care about the crimes and injustices committed in their names have the opportunity to discover the truth, and “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” provides the perfect opportunity to discover the truth about Guantánamo, telling the story of the prison, and of the prisoners Shaker Aamer (still held), and Binyam Mohamed and Omar Deghayes (both released), through the testimony of former prisoners, lawyers Tom Wilner and Clive Stafford Smith, and Guantánamo expert Andy Worthington.

As the publicity for the film states:

“Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” tells the story of Guantánamo (and includes sections on extraordinary rendition and secret prisons) with a particular focus on how the Bush administration turned its back on domestic and international laws, how prisoners were rounded up in Afghanistan and Pakistan without adequate screening (and often for bounty payments), and why some of these men may have been in Afghanistan or Pakistan for reasons unconnected with militancy or terrorism (as missionaries or humanitarian aid workers, for example).

The film provides a powerful rebuke to those who believe that Guantánamo holds “the worst of the worst” and that the Bush administration was justified in responding to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by holding men neither as prisoners of war, protected by the Geneva Conventions, nor as criminal suspects with habeas corpus rights, but as “illegal enemy combatants” with no rights whatsoever.

At the heart of the film are the prisoners themselves — Moazzam Begg and, in particular, Omar Deghayes, who brings a real vulnerability to his recollections of the torture he endured, emphasizing, as if any emphasis should be required, that in its desire to paint the prisoners as the “worst of the worst,” the Bush administration successfully dehumanized the men, making it easy to forget that, behind the rhetoric of the “War onTerror” were real human beings, with families, and with their own hopes and fears.

Often these men were innocent of any involvement in militancy, let alone terrorism, but whether “guilty” or not, none of them deserved to be subjected to torture, abuse and arbitrary and indefinite detention by a US administration that forgot the difference between right and wrong, and left a legacy of indefinite detention without charge or trial at Guantánamo that ought to shame America to this day.

The continued existence of Guantánamo suggests, incorrectly, that, beyond holding prisoners as criminal suspects to be put forward for trials, or as prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions, there remains a third category of prisoner — what Bush called “enemy combatants” — who have no rights whatsoever, whereas this is not a position that can or should be tolerated in any society that regards itself as civilized.

By showing the human face of Guantánamo, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” provides a powerful explanation of why pressure must be maintained to secure the closure of Guantanamo, now in its tenth year of operations, and the filmmakers are delighted to be working with The World Can’t Wait to make DVDs of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” available to US audiences.

Andy has been a guest of The World Can’t Wait in the US on three occasions — in November 2009, October 2010 and January this year — and thoroughtly supports the organization’s campaigning work to bring to an end “the murderous, unjust and illegitimate occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; the global ‘war of terror’ of torture, rendition and spying; and the culture of bigotry, intolerance and greed” in the US, which were initiated by the Bush administration, but have largely continued under President Obama.

For further information, interviews, or to inquire about broadcasting, distributing or showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” please contact Polly Nash or Andy Worthington. Below, on YouTube, you can watch the first five minutes of the film via Orchard Pictures, from whom you can also pay to watch the whole film online. You can also pay to watch it online, for just £1, via Journeyman Pictures.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), 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.

The Dark Desires of Bruce Jessen, the Architect of Bush’s Torture Program, As Revealed by His Former Friend and Colleague

In another exclusive report for Truthout, my friends and colleagues Jason Leopold and Jeff Kaye continue to shine an unerring light on the Bush administration’s torture program (see previous examples here and here), this time focusing on the role played by Bruce Jessen, the Air Force psychologist, who, with his colleague James Mitchell, established the torture program used in the “War on Terror.”

Jessen and Mitchell did this by taking torture techniques taught in US military schools to train US military personnel to resist torture if captured (the program known as SERE — Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), and reverse engineering them for use in the real-life interrogations of alleged terror suspects. And as the article lays out in clear detail for the first time, the purpose was not just to obtain intelligence, as was always asserted in public by senior officials: “Rather, as Jessen’s notes explain, torture was used to ‘exploit’ detainees, that is, to break them down physically and mentally, in order to get them to ‘collaborate’ with government authorities.”

Jessen’s role in the torture program — and the disgraceful way in which his and Mitchell’s actions went against the advice of most of their colleagues, and were viewed by many as a fundamental betrayal of their professional responsibilities — have been previously established over several years, and are spelled out most clearly in a detailed report on detainee treatment that was issued by the Senate Armed Services Committee in December 2008 (PDF). This devastating document, which lays out a clear chronology explaining how the torture prgram was introduced, and how all dissenting voices were sidelined or silenced or ignored, ought to have provided much of the evidence for the prosecution of George W. Bush and other senior officials in his administration for authorizing the use of torture, had there been the will to do so.

However, as we now know to our disappointment — and to America’s undying shame — there was no political will to pursue those in the Bush adminstration who did all they could to drag America down to the level of the most vilified human rights abusers on earth, and there is still no political will today, with the result that, in those parts of the country and of the American psyche that have been infected by the unchallenged sins of the torturers, the prevailing view of America and its role in the world is now even more feral and cruel than it was under George W. Bush.

Although much of Jessen’s story has been exposed before, Leopold and Kaye shine new light on it through the central involvement in their exposé of retired Air Force Capt. Michael Kearns, a former friend and colleague of Jessen’s who “said he decided to come forward” because he was “outraged that Jessen used their work to help design the Bush administration’s torture program.” In September 2009, Capt. Kearns stumbled upon documents prepared by Jessen 20 years ago, and, as a result, was physically sick when he realized how his former colleague had paved the way for the torture program that, after 9/11, he implemented with James Mitchell, infecting the whole of the United States’ detention policies, from Afghanistan to Iraq, and from Guantánamo to the CIA’s secret prisons, with the “dark side” of the SERE program, reverse engineered and brought to inappropriate life in real-life situations.

I had the pleasure to meet Capt. Kearns and to get to know him over several days last October in Berkeley, where I was a special guest of the organizers of “Berkeley Says No to Torture” Week, and, as well as finding him to be a very sympathetic character, it was also impossible not to be struck by the intensity with which he regarded Jessen’s betrayal of the SERE program, turning something that was designed to prevent harm to US soldiers in the field into something completely different — a template for the torture of foreign prisoners seized in the “War on Terror.”

As he explained to Leopold and Kaye, Jessen’s template for the “full exploitation” of prisoners, rather than just their interrogation, was designed to be used for propaganda purposes, “or other needs [of] the detaining power, such as the recruitment of informers and double agents.” As he added, “Those aspects of the US detainee program have not generally been discussed as part of the torture story in the American press.”

After talking to Capt. Kearns in October, it became apparent — as is also emphasized in Leopold and Kaye’s article — that what Jessen (and Mitchell) did was not only to reverse engineer the techniques for use in the real world, but also to reverse engineer the program’s intent, turning its practioners from careful advisors, trying to mitigate the effects of torture on US personnel, into actual torturers, indistinguishable from the foreign torturers aganst whom the SERE program was designed as a protection. As Capt. Kearns says at the end of Leopold and Kaye’s excellent article, cross-posted below, “Bruce Jessen knew better. His duplicitous act is appalling to me and shall haunt me for the rest of my life.”

EXCLUSIVE: CIA Psychologist’s Notes Reveal True Purpose Behind Bush’s Torture Program
By Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye, Truthout, March 22, 2011

Dr. Bruce Jessen’s handwritten notes describe some of the torture techniques that were used to “exploit” “war on terror” detainees in custody of the CIA and Department of Defense.

Bush administration officials have long asserted that the torture techniques used on “war on terror” detainees were utilized as a last resort in an effort to gain actionable intelligence to thwart pending terrorist attacks against the United States and its interests abroad.

But the handwritten notes obtained exclusively by Truthout drafted two decades ago by Dr. John “Bruce” Jessen, the psychologist who was under contract to the CIA and credited as being one of the architects of the government’s top-secret torture program, tell a dramatically different story about the reasons detainees were brutalized and it was not just about obtaining intelligence. Rather, as Jessen’s notes explain, torture was used to “exploit” detainees, that is, to break them down physically and mentally, in order to get them to “collaborate” with government authorities. Jessen’s notes emphasize how a “detainer” uses the stresses of detention to produce the appearance of compliance in a prisoner.

Indeed, a report released in 2009 by the Senate Armed Services Committee about the treatment of detainees in US custody said Jessen was the author of a “Draft Exploitation Plan” presented to the Pentagon in April 2002 that was implemented  at Guantánamo and at prison facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. But to what degree is unknown because the document remains classified. Jessen also co-authored a memo in February 2002 on “Prisoner Handling Recommendations” at Guantánamo, which is also classified.

Moreover, the Armed Services Committee’s report noted that torture techniques approved by the Bush administration were based on survival training exercises US military personnel were taught by individuals like Jessen if they were captured by an enemy regime and subjected to “illegal exploitation” in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Jessen’s notes, prepared for an Air Force survival training course that he later “reverse engineered” when he helped design the Bush administration’s torture program, however, go into far greater detail than the Armed Services Committee’s report in explaining how prisoners would be broken down physically and psychologically by their captors. The notes say survival training students could “combat interrogation and torture” if they are captured by an enemy regime by undergoing intense training exercises, using “cognitive” and “exposure techniques” to develop “stress inoculation.” [Click here to download a PDF file of Jessen’s handwritten notes. Click here to download a zip file of Jessen’s notes in typewritten form.]

The documents stand as the first piece of hard evidence to surface in nine years that further explains the psychological aspects of the Bush administration’s torture program and the rationale for subjecting detainees to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Jessen’s notes were provided to Truthout by retired Air Force Capt. Michael Kearns, a “master” SERE instructor and decorated veteran who has previously held high-ranking positions within the Air Force Headquarters Staff and Department of Defense (DoD).

Kearns and his boss, Roger Aldrich, the head of the Air Force Intelligence’s Special Survial Training Program (SSTP), based out of Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, hired Jessen in May 1989. Kearns, who was head of operations at SSTP and trained thousands of service members, said Jessen was brought into the program due to an increase in the number of new survival training courses being taught and “the fact that it required psychological expertise on hand in a full-time basis.”

“Special Mission Units”

Jessen, then the chief of Psychology Service at the US Air Force Survival School, immediately started to work directly with Kearns on “a new course for special mission units (SMUs), which had as its goal individual resistance to terrorist exploitation.”

The course, known as SV-91, was developed for the Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) branch of the US Air Force Intelligence Agency, which acted as the Executive Agent Action Office for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Jessen’s notes formed the basis for one part of SV-91, “Psychological Aspects of Detention.”

Special mission units fall under the guise of the DoD’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and engage in a wide-range of highly classified counterterrorist and covert operations, or “special missions,” around the world, hundreds of whom were personally trained by Kearns. The SV-91 course Jessen and Kearns were developing back in 1989 would later become known as “Special Survival for Special Mission Units.”

Before the inception of SV-91, the primary SERE course was SV-80, or Basic Combat Survival School for Resistance to Interrogation, which is where Jessen formerly worked. When Jessen was hired to work on SV-91, the vacancy at SV-80 was filled by psychologist Dr. James Mitchell, who was also contracted by the CIA to work at the agency’s top-secret black site prisons in Europe employing SERE torture techniques, such as the controlled drowning technique know as waterboarding, against detainees.

While they were still under contract to the CIA, the two men formed the “consulting” firm Mitchell, Jessen & Associates in March 2005. The “governing persons” of the company included Kearns’ former boss, Aldrich, SERE contractor David Tate, Joseph Matarazzo, a former president of the American Psychological Association and Randall Spivey, the ex-chief of Operations, Policy and Oversight Division of JPRA.

Mitchell, Jessen & Associates’ articles of incorporation have been “inactive” since October 22, 2009 and the business is now listed as “dissolved,” according to Washington state’s Secretary of State website.

Lifting the “Veil of Secrecy”

Kearns was one of only two officers within DoD qualified to teach all three SERE-related courses within SSTP on a worldwide basis, according to a copy of a 1989 letter written by Aldrich, who nominated Kearns officer of the year.

He said he decided to come forward because he is outraged that Jessen used their work to help design the Bush administration’s torture program.

“I think it’s about time for SERE to come out from behind the veil of secrecy if we are to progress as a moral nation of laws,” Kearns said during a wide-ranging interview with Truthout. “To take this survival training program and turn it into some form of nationally sanctioned, purposeful program for the extraction of information, or to apply exploitation, is in total contradiction to human morality, and defies basic logic. When I first learned about interrogation, at basic intelligence training school, I read about Hans Scharff, a Nazi interrogator who later wrote an article for Argosy Magazine titled ‘Without Torture.’ That’s what I was taught — torture doesn’t work.”

What stands out in Jessen’s notes is that he believed torture was often used to produce false confessions. That was the end result after one high-value detainee who was tortured in early 2002 confessed to having information proving a link between the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, according to one former Bush administration official.

It was later revealed, however, that the prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, had simply provided his captors a false confession so they would stop torturing him. Jessen appeared to be concerned with protecting the US military against falling victim to this exact kind of physical and psychological pressure in a hostile detention environment, recognizing that it would lead to, among other things, false confessions.

In a paper Jessen wrote accompanying his notes, “Psychological Advances in Training to Survive Captivity, Interrogation and Torture,” which was prepared for the symposium: “Advances in Clinical Psychological Support of National Security Affairs, Operational Problems in the Behavioral Sciences Course,” he suggested that additional “research” should be undertaken to determine “the measurability of optimum stress levels in training students to resist captivity.”

“The avenues appear inexhaustible” for further research in human exploitation, Jessen wrote.

Such “research” appears to have been the main underpinning of the Bush administration’s torture program. The experimental nature of these interrogation methods used on detainees held at Guantánamo and at CIA black site prisons have been noted by military and intelligence officials. The Armed Services Committee report cited a statement from Col. Britt Mallow, the commander of the Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF), who noted that Guantánamo officials Maj. Gen. Mike Dunleavy and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller used the term “battle lab” to describe the facility, meaning “that interrogations and other procedures there were to some degree experimental, and their lessons would benefit [the Department of Defense] in other places.”

What remains a mystery is why Jessen took a defensive survival training course and helped turn it into an offensive torture program.

Truthout attempted to reach Jessen over the past two months for comment, but we were unable to track him down. Messages left for him at a security firm in Alexandria, Virginia he has been affiliated with were not returned and phone numbers listed for him in Spokane were disconnected.

A New Emphasis on Terrorism

SV-91 was developed to place a new emphasis on terrorism as SERE-related courses pertaining to the cold war, such as SV-83, Special Survival for Sensitive Reconnaissance Operations (SRO), whose students flew secret missions over the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc, and other communist countries, were being scaled back.

SSTP evolved into the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), the DoD’s executive agency for SERE training, and was tapped by DoD General Counsel William “Jim” Haynes in 2002 to provide the agency with a list of interrogation techniques and the psychological impact those methods had on SERE trainees, with the aim of utilizing the same methods for use on detainees. Aldrich was working in a senior capacity at JPRA when Haynes contacted the agency to inquire about SERE.

The Army also runs a SERE school as does the Navy, which had utilized waterboarding as a training exercise on Navy SERE students that JPRA recommended to DoD as one of the torture techniques to use on high-value detainees.

Kearns said the value of Jessen’s notes, particularly as they relate to the psychological aspects of the Bush administration’s torture program, cannot be overstated.

“The Jessen notes clearly state the totality of what was being reverse-engineered — not just ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ but an entire program of exploitation of prisoners using torture as a central pillar,” he said. “What I think is important to note, as an ex-SERE Resistance to Interrogation instructor, is the focus of Jessen’s instruction. It is exploitation, not specifically interrogation.

“And this is not a picayune issue, because if one were to ‘reverse-engineer’ a course on resistance to exploitation then what one would get is a plan to exploit prisoners, not interrogate them. The CIA/DoD torture program appears to have the same goals as the terrorist organizations or enemy governments for which SV-91 and other SERE courses were created to defend against: the full exploitation of the prisoner in his intelligence, propaganda, or other needs held by the detaining power, such as the recruitment of informers and double agents. Those aspects of the US detainee program have not generally been discussed as part of the torture story in the American press.”

Ironically, in late 2001, while the DoD started to make inquiries about adapting SERE methods for the government’s interrogation program, Kearns received special permission from the US government to work as an intelligence officer for the Australian Department of Defence to teach the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) how to use SERE techniques to resist interrogation and torture if they were captured by terrorists. Australia had been a staunch supporter of the invasion of Afghanistan and sent troops there in late 2001.

Kearns, who recently waged an unsuccessful Congressional campaign in Colorado, was working on a spy novel two years ago and dug through boxes of “unclassified historical materials on intelligence” as part of his research when he happened to stumble upon Jessen’s notes for SV-91. He said he was “deeply shocked and surprised to see I’d kept a copy of these handwritten notes as certainly the originals would have been destroyed (shredded)” once they were typed up and made into proper course materials.

“I hadn’t seen these notes for over twenty years,” he said. “However, I’ll never forget that day in September 2009 when I discovered them. I instantly felt sick, and eventually vomited because I felt so badly physically and emotionally that day knowing that I worked with this person and this was the material that I believe was ‘reverse-engineered’ and used in part to design the torture program. When I found the Jessen papers, I made several copies and sent them to my friends as I thought this could be the smoking gun, which proves who knew what and when and possibly who sold a bag of rotten apples to the Bush administration.”

Kearns was, however, aware of the role SERE played in the torture program before he found Jessen’s notes, and in July 2008, he sent an email to the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, who was investigating the issue and offered to share information with Levin about Jessen and the SERE program in general. The Michigan Democrat responded to Kearns saying he was “concerned about this issue” and that he “needed more information on the subject,” but Levin never followed up when Kearns offered to help.

“I don’t know how it went off the tracks, but the names of the people who testified at the Senate Armed Services, Senate Judiciary, and Select Intelligence committees were people I worked with, and several I supervised,” Kearns said. “It makes me sick to know people who knew better allowed this to happen.”

Levin’s office did not return phone calls or emails for comment. However, the report he released in April 2009, “Inquiry Into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody,” refers to SV-91. The report includes a list of acronyms used throughout the report, one of which is “S-V91,” identified as “the Department of Defense High Risk Survival Training” course. But there is no other mention throughout the report of SV-91 or the term “High Risk Survival Training,” possibly due to the fact that sections of the report where it is discussed remain classified. Still, the failure by Levin and his staff to follow up with Kearns — the key military official who had retained Jessen’s notes and helped develop the very course those notes were based upon that was cited in the report — suggests Levin’s investigation is somewhat incomplete.

Control and Dependence

A copy of the syllabus for SV-91, obtained by Truthout from another source who requested anonymity, states that the class was created “to provide special training for selected individuals that will enable them to withstand exploitation methods in the event of capture during peacetime operations … to cope with such exploitation and deny their detainers useable information or propaganda.”

Although the syllabus focuses on propaganda and interrogation for information as the primary means of exploiting prisoners, Jessen’s notes amplify what was taught to SERE students and later used against detainees captured after 9/11 . He wrote that a prisoner’s captors seek to “exploit” the prisoner through control and dependence.

“From the moment you are detained (if some kind of exploitation is your Detainer’s goal) everything your Detainer does will be contrived to bring about these factors: CONTROL, DEPENDENCY, COMPLIANCE AND COOPERATION,” Jessen wrote. “Your detainer will work to take away your sense of control. This will be done mostly by removing external control (i.e., sleep, food, communication, personal routines etc.) … Your detainer wants you to feel ‘EVERYTHING’ is dependent on him, from the smallest detail, (food, sleep, human interaction), to your release or your very life … Your detainer wants you to comply with everything he wishes. He will attempt to make everything from personal comfort to your release unavoidably connected to compliance in your mind.”

Jessen wrote that cooperation is the “end goal” of the detainer, who wants the detainee “to see that [the detainer] has ‘total’ control of you because you are completely dependent on him, and thus you must comply with his wishes. Therefore, it is absolutely inevitable that you must cooperate with him in some way (propaganda, special favors, confession, etc.).”

Jessen described the kinds of pressures that would be exerted on the prisoner to achieve this goal, including “fear of the unknown, loss of control, dehumanization, isolation,” and use of sensory deprivation and sensory “flooding.” He also included “physical” deprivations in his list of detainer “pressures.”

“Unlike everyday experiences, however, as a detainee we could be subjected to stressors/coercive pressures which we cannot completely control,” he wrote. “If these stressors are manipulated and increased against us, the cumulative effect can push us out of the optimum range of functioning. This is what the detainer wants, to get us ‘off balance.'”

“The Detainer wants us to experience a loss of composure in hopes we can be manipulated into some kind of collaboration …” Jessen wrote. “This is where you are most vulnerable to exploitation. This is where you are most likely to make mistakes, show emotions, act impulsively, become discouraged, etc. You are still close enough to being intact that you would appear convincing and your behavior would appear ‘uncoerced.'”

Kearns said, based on what he has read in declassified government documents and news reports about the role SERE played in the  Bush administration’s torture program, Jessen clearly “reverse-engieered” his lesson plan and used resistance methods to abuse “war on terror” detainees.

The SSTP course was “specifically and intentionally designed to assist American personnel held in hostile detention,” Kearns said. It was “not designed for interrogation, and certainly not torture. We were not interrogators; we were ‘role-players’ who introduced enemy exploitation techniques into survival scenarios as student learning objectives in what could be called Socratic-style dilemma settings. More specifically, resistance techniques were learned via significant emotional experiences, which were intended to inculcate long-term valid and reliable survival routines in the student’s memory. The one rule we had was ‘hands off.’ No (human intelligence) operator could lay hands on a student in a ‘role play scenario’ because we knew they could never ‘go there’ in the real world.”

But after Jessen was hired, Kearns contends, Aldrich immediately trained him to become a mock interrogator using “SERE harsh resistance to interrogation methods even though medical services officers were explicitly excluded from the ‘laying on’ of hands in [resistance] ‘role-play’ scenarios.”

Aldrich, who now works with the Center for Personal Protection & Safety in Spokane, did not return calls for comment.

“Torture Paper”

The companion paper Jessen included with his notes, which was also provided to Truthout by Kearns, eerily describes the same torturous interrogation methods US military personnel would face during detention that Jessen and Mitchell “reverse engineered” a little more than a decade later and that the CIA and DoD used against detainees.

Indeed, in a subsection of the paper, “Understanding the Prisoner of War Environment,” Jessen notes how a prisoner will be broken down in an attempt to get him to “collaborate” with his “detainer.”

“This issue of collaboration is ‘the most prominent deliberately controlled force against the (prisoner of war),” Jessen wrote. “The ability of the (prisoner of war) to successfully resist collaboration and cope with the obviously severe approach-avoidance conflict is complicated in a systematic and calculated way by his captors.

“These complications include: Threats of death, physical pressures including torture which result in psychological disturbances or deterioration, inadequate diet and sanitary facilities with constant debilitation and illness, attacks on the mental health via isolation, reinforcement of anxieties, sleeplessness, stimulus deprivation or flooding, disorientation, loss of control both internal and external locus, direct and indirect attack on the (prisoner of war’s) standards of honor, faith in himself, his organization, family, country, religion, or political beliefs … Few seem to be able to hold themselves completely immune to such rigorous behavior throughout all the vicissitudes of long captivity. Confronted with these conditions, the unprepared prisoner of war experiences unmanageable levels of fear and despair.”

“Specific (torture resistance) techniques,” Jessen wrote, “taught to and implemented by the military member in the prisoner of war setting are classified” and were not discussed in the paper he wrote. He added, “Resistance Training students must leave training with useful resistance skills and a clear understanding that they can successfully resist captivity, interrogation or torture.”

Kearns also declined to cite the specific interrogation techniques used during SERE training exercises because that information is still classified. Nor would he comment as to whether the interrogations used methods that matched or were similar to those identified in the August 2002 torture memo prepared by former Justice Department attorneys John Yoo and Jay Bybee.

However, according to the Senate Armed Services Committee report, “SERE resistance training … was used to inform” Yoo and Bybee’s torture memo, specifically, nearly a dozen of the brutal techniques detainees were subjected to, which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, painful stress positions, wall slamming and placing detainees in a confined space, such as a container, where his movement is restricted. The CIA’s Office of Technical Services told Yoo and Bybee the SERE techniques used to inform the torture memo were not harmful, according to declassified government documents.

Many of the “complications,” or torture techniques Jessen wrote about, declassified government documents show, became a standard method of interrogation and torture used against all of the high-value detainees in custody of the CIA in early 2002, including Abu Zubaydah and self-professed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, as well as detainees held at Guantánamo and prison facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The issue of “collaborating” with one’s detainer, which Jessen noted was the most important in terms of controlling a prisoner, is a common theme among the stories of detainees who were tortured and later released from Guantánamo.

For example, Mamdouh Habib, an Australian citizen who was rendered to Egypt and other countries where he was tortured before being sent to Guantánamo, wrote in his memoir, My Story: the Tale of a Terrorist Who Wasn’t, after he was released without charge, that interrogators at Guantánamo “tried to make detainees mistrust one another so that they would inform on each other during interrogation.”

Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian-born British citizen, who the US rendered to a black site prison in Morocco, said that a British intelligence informant, a person he knew and who was recurited, came to him in his Moroccan cell and told him that if he became an intelligence asset for the British, his torture, which included scalpel cuts to his penis, would end. In [February 2010], British government officials released documents that show Mohamed was subjected to SERE torture techniques during his captivity in the spring of 2002.

Abdul Aziz Naji, an Algerian prisoner at Guantánamo until he was forcibly repatriated against his wishes to Algeria in July 2010, told an Algerian newspaper that “some detainees had been promised to be granted political asylum opportunity in exchange of [sic] a spying role within the detention camp.”

Mohamedou Ould Salahi, whose surname is sometimes spelled “Slahi,” is a Mauritanian who was tortured in Jordan and Guantánamo. Investigative journalist Andy Worthington reported that Salahi was subjected to “prolonged isolation, prolonged sleep deprivation, beatings, death threats, and threats that his mother would be brought to Guantánamo and gang-raped” unless he collaborated with his interrogators. Salahi finally decided to become an informant for the US in 2003. As a result, Salahi was allowed to live in a special fenced-in compound, with television and refrigerator, allowed to garden, write and paint, “separated from other detainees in a cocoon designed to reward and protect.”

Still, despite collaborating with his detainers, the US government mounted a vigorous defense against Salahi’s petition for habeas corpus. His case continues to hang in legal limbo. Salahi’s fate speaks to the lesson Habib said he learned at Guantánamo: “you could never satisfy your interrogator.” Habib felt informants were never released “because the Americans used them against the other detainees.”

Jessen’s and Mitchell’s mutimillion dollar government contract was terminated by CIA Director Leon Panetta in 2009. According to an Associated Press report, the CIA agreed to pay — to the tune of $5 million — the legal bills incurred by their consulting firm.

Recently a complaint filed against Mitchell with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists by a San Antonio-based psychologist, an attorney who defended three suspected terrorists imprisoned at Guantánamo and by Zubaydah’s attorney Joseph Margulies. Their complaint sought to strip Mitchell of his license to practice psychology for violating the board’s rules as a result of the hands-on role he played in torturing detainees, was dismissed due to what the board said was a lack of evidence. Mitchell, who lives in Florida, is licensed in Texas. A similar complaint against Jessen may soon be filed in Idaho, where he is licensed to practice psychology.

Kearns, who took a graduate course in cognitive psychotherapy in 1988 taught by Jessen, still can’t comprehend what motivated his former colleague to turn to the “dark side.”

“Bruce Jessen knew better,” Kearns said, who retired in 1991 and is now working on his Ph.D in educational psychology. “His duplicitous act is appalling to me and shall haunt me for the rest of my life.”

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), 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.

“A Story About Lost and Broken Things”: Mohammed Jawad, A Child in Guantánamo, and the Lawyer Who Fought for Him

Every now and then, someone in the mainstream media cuts through the general — and shameful — indifference about Guantánamo, publishing a powerful story that should change hearts and minds. This is the case with a feature in the latest issue of GQ by Michael Paterniti about one of the more notorious cases of cruelty at Guantánamo — that of the teenage prisoner Mohammed Jawad, released in August 2009 — although it will probably do no more than awaken a few more people to the gross injustices perpetrated at Guantánamo, and elsewhere in the “War on Terror,” by the Bush administration.

Sadly, it will probably do little to help those still held, abandoned by President Obama and unfairly vilified by opportunistic Republicans, whose continued presence in an experimental prison devoted to holding people neither as criminal suspects not as prisoners of war ought to be an unconscionable act for Americans to be engaging in, over two years after Bush left office, even though it has become, instead, a cause for amnesia, indifference or “patriotic” support that is deeply troubling for the health of the United States as a country that any longer has any comprehension of the difference between right and wrong.

Jawad’s story didn’t feature in my book The Guantánamo Files, as it was one that I felt I could skip when my publishers obliged me to trim 10,000 words from my manuscript, but the story of the boy seized in a marketplace in Kabul in December 2002 after a grenade attack on two US soldiers and an Afghan translator soon caught my attention when Jawad was put forward for a trial by Military Commission in October 2007, and it really took off in 2008, as his lawyers began to fight tenaciously for him, and his prosecutor resigned, complaining that the entire trial system was so disorganized — whether by accident or design — that it was impossible to guarantee that anyone would receive a fair trial.

The lawyers in question — Maj. David Frakt for the defense, and Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, the prosecutor who resigned — became friends of mine during this period, in part because I admired them so much, but also because they both appreciated my dedication to pursuing the Guantánamo story, when so few journalists seemed to care, and I was delighted to follow the story to its just conclusion in August 2009, when Jawad finally won his habeas corpus petition and returned home to Afghanistan.

I had not, at the time, appreciated the role played, largely behind the scenes, by another of Jawad’s lawyers, Marine Maj. Eric Montalvo, who features prominently in Paterniti’s account of Jawad’s story — which, in fact, centers on the relationship between Jawad and Montalvo — although Maj. Frakt made up for this by providing me with a detailed explanation of Montalvo’s role, and that of the rest of the defense team, after Jawad’s release, which I published in an article entitled, The Unsung Heroes Who Helped Secure Mohammed Jawad’s Release From Guantánamo.

I wholeheartedly recommend Paterniti’s article, especially for the way he illustrates the relationship between Jawad and Montalvo, and captures so perfectly how both were so fundamentally betrayed by the US government — Jawad as a deliberately tortured and manipulated prisoner who was supposed to confess to whatever crimes his captors accused him of, and Montalvo as the principled patriotic American who came to see how his country had indeed crossed over to the “dark side” under Bush and Cheney, and was not only prepared to do that to prisoners in the “War on Terror,” but was also prepared to do it even when, as in Jawad’s case, the prisoner in question was clearly a child.

The Boy from Gitmo
By Michael Paterniti, GQ, February 2011

This is a story about lost and broken things, the rubble from which the phoenix — in this case a C-130 military transport — rises over the Caribbean Sea on a spotless day in September 2008. From 30,000 feet, the surface of the water glitters below like jagged glass, shooting spears of light. The plane stalks east, running parallel to the northern coast of Cuba twenty miles off. On board, Major Eric Montalvo is wedged in a seat, thinking, What the fuck have I gotten myself into now?

A month ago, he’d been working at Parris Island, South Carolina, capping a distinguished career during which he’d won more than 95 percent of his cases. He’d recently bought a big house with a huge kitchen and a fountain out back for his wife and two boys — and had begun to turn his attention to finding a civilian job. And then an e-mail pinged his in-box. Copied to a couple of hundred Marine lawyers, it called for applications to help with the military commissions trials at Guantánamo. Montalvo responded impulsively, stirred by the call to duty. Within a couple of hours, he received word. His retirement had been pulled: He was going to Washington, D.C.

The timing was terrible. The real estate market was imploding, the house couldn’t be sold, and Montalvo was forced to leave his family for an indeterminate amount of time. Still, there was worse to come. When he found out he’d been placed on the defense side — when he realized that he’d actually be defending the terrorists — he was stricken. The phone started ringing, colonels he knew on the line repeating the same mantra: “This isn’t going to be good for your career, Major.” Then the call with his parents. On September 11, Montalvo’s uncle Tony had responded with his Harlem fire company to Ground Zero, and Montalvo’s parents believed it was black lung that killed him not long after.

Please don’t do this, Montalvo’s mother told him.

Now the transport sweeps wide around Cuba’s eastern tip, an arid land of organ-pipe cacti and big loping rodents called banana rats. Below is Guantánamo Bay itself (a flume of blue water mushrooming inland, teeming with turtles and parrot fish) and then the naval base, a scattering of roads, buildings, and low-slung homes that accommodate the 6,000 troops here. Montalvo’s first impression is how foreboding the rocky shoreline seems, how moonlike the landscape. A Caribbean Alcatraz. Somewhere down there, too, are the cages that contain “the worst of the worst” — as Donald Rumsfeld labeled them — alleged Al Qaeda terrorists. Montalvo’s stomach burns a little with the thought that he might have to collude with any of them, in any manner. A self-described superpatriot and son of blue-collar parents (mother a hairdresser, father a cargo man for AeroMexico), he grew up in Queens, a skinny Puerto Rican scrapper, then joined the Marines at 18 and morphed into “Mad Dog,” his gonzo jarhead persona. Soon he was touted for Officer Candidates School and afterward went on to law school at Temple, emerging with gravitas as this slightly fattened-up (five feet nine, 220 pounds) lawyer of laser logic and indignant rage, trimmed beard flecked gray, and bad attorney’s back.

When he first found out he’d been assigned to the defense side, he went and spoke to Colonel Morris Davis, the chief prosecutor for the commissions at the time, and the colonel asked Montalvo if he thought he could handle it. The job would get very personal, he said, but it was also the most meaningful kind of work because it was all about the Constitution. And this is how Montalvo buttressed himself in the face of so many doubters, repeating it back to them. “If I’m going to fight the fight for America,” he’d say, “dead center on the Constitution is where I want to be.”

He soon finds himself on the top step of the military commissions building, gazing down on a makeshift tent city and sweating through his cammies in the heat. He’s been assigned the separate cases of two detainees, and enters a small interrogation room where the first, a Yemeni named Ali al-Bahlul, is chained and shackled to the floor. The detainee is surprisingly lithe, a handsome man with close-cropped hair who speaks impeccable English. He’s one of Osama bin Laden’s former media operatives, most famous for having made a two-hour video celebrating Al Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole. It’s one of the jihad movement’s all-time greatest hits, and al-Bahlul is also among the most doctrinaire, having been locked away in solitary for years. As they sit face-to-face, al-Bahlul asks why the Marine is trying to be so accommodating. “Don’t you know I’m your enemy?” he says. Montalvo responds that, legally speaking, he feels that a First Amendment argument can be made on his behalf, but al-Bahlul interrupts, jangling his chains. “Don’t you know that if that door were opened and we both were out there free, I’d kill you?” Nothing has prepared Montalvo for this kind of venom, but his reaction is visceral. He leans forward and says, “Don’t you know that if that door were open and we both were free, I’d kill you first?” When it’s over, Montalvo leaves the room shell-shocked, thinking, Jesus, how can I defend that?

It’s not just al-Bahlul. He feels it all around: that what’s really being played out here is a clash of civilizations. Even the setting, the harsh sun and roiling ocean, evokes a desolation, the sense that in this otherworld there’s been an allowance made for some unsayable human brutality. Eye for an eye. Montalvo goes back to his tent, gets some grub, sleeps in double sleeping bags because the air-conditioning blows an arctic frost all night. The next day he’s introduced to his second client, Internal Security Number 900. The detainee is said to have committed an attack against two Special Forces soldiers in a marketplace in downtown Kabul, a brazen assault with a grenade that left the soldiers badly maimed but alive.

Before entering the room, Montalvo girds himself, does some deep breathing, pushes through the door in full professional command, and comes face-to-face with … a boy. The kid looks almost goofy, shackled there. He seems shy but unstintingly polite, asking after Montalvo, greeting him with a direct, interested gaze. The room is claustrophobic, the eye of a surveillance camera boring down on them. Where Montalvo felt a hardened knot of despair with al-Bahlul, he can’t quite square the soft-spoken boy who sits before him. Is this the little shit who left two soldiers to die in the middle of a bazaar thousands of miles from home?

“They keep accusing me of something I didn’t do,” the boy says. “I just want to get home to my mother.”


He doesn’t know if he believes the kid at first, his utterances of his innocence. But he’s a kid — and because of that Montalvo feels something shift, a nagging doubt not about the boy but the strange American juggernaut running him down. He leaves and boards the transport plane home, and back in his shade-drawn office in D.C., Montalvo keeps returning to that first meeting. Despite everything, the alleged enemy seemed, well, hopeful. As if a clerical error had been made. Like the boy believes he should be going home soon, once he’s been heard by the president or judge or wizard, whoever’s in charge. It’s that conviction that brings Montalvo to a standstill and makes him feel some odd, sudden weight of responsibility.

He spends hundreds of hours reading the official military reports, and the evidence seems damning. On December 17, 2002, two American Special Forces soldiers, Michael Lyons and Christopher Martin, along with their Afghan interpreter, drive an unmarked, soft-top jeep into a Kabul bazaar. They visit with a couple of vendors whom the team is cultivating as informants. They make a final stop, at a shop selling clocks. Lyons enters, asks the owner, “How is everything?” The shopkeeper responds in broken English, “Everything’s fine. How are you?”

“No,” says Lyons, “how’s everything … for me?”

The shopkeeper goes to the front of the store, scans the street, returns.

“Everything’s fine,” he says. “For you.”

Lyons wants twenty-five wall clocks. A long conversation ensues, less haggling than an exercise in trust-building, and then he “tips out,” overpaying an encouraging amount of money. Meanwhile, standing guard on the street, Martin has had a chilling premonition, a feeling that he’s being watched through the scope of a rifle. When Lyons exits the shop with the interpreter, they quickly load the clocks, and all three hop in the jeep. The marketplace swarms with hundreds, thousands, of people just released from afternoon prayer at the mosque; traffic is bumper-to-bumper. Smoke from the outdoor barbecues wafts thickly with the scent of kebab meat. The jeep nudges forward, unable to merge into the swirl around a traffic circle.

And then a sickening thing occurs: The windshield suddenly shatters, leaving a spiderweb of cracked glass. “What the hell was that?” blurts Lyons in the driver’s seat. They’ve been shot at from the front, he thinks, but there’s no sign of attack on the street. Then there’s a hollow thud, like an empty bottle rolling on the floor. Martin, riding shotgun, glances over his shoulder at the interpreter, who’s scanning the floor of the jeep. Martin looks down, frantically searching back to front, and as he lifts his eyes, a blinding flash of orange engulfs everything.

And then a deafening explosion.

In the next instant, Lyons lies slumped over the wheel, unresponsive, blood gushing from a tear in his femoral artery. His legs are mangled; his left foot is missing a toe. Meanwhile, Martin, who’s still in the passenger seat, looks down at his hands to find them covered in blood. But whose? The interpreter, badly wounded himself, flags a nearby taxi, piles the two U.S. soldiers in the back with their feet hanging out the open door, and sends the driver off with directions to get to a German field hospital. The taxi wedges through the crowd, hitting people with the open door as it goes, the bloody legs dangling.

Back at the bazaar, various men are apprehended, but soon the only one left is the main suspect, who is described as “very young and clever” and who was allegedly caught in the act, arm cocked with a second grenade near the smoldering jeep. Unlike a suicide bomber or martyr, the subject is alive, talking, a tangible terrorist potentially packing vital information. Within hours, he supplies a written confession that reads:

I came to Kabul alone from the province of Khost … No one had assigned me this task. I did this myself … I have a grudge against the Brits and the foreigners. They should not be in our country … I executed this operation in Pul-e Khishti while they were riding in their Jeep. When they were on the street, I didn’t attack them because innocent people were going to be killed. Once they climbed into their vehicle, I threw the hand grenade at them. I am sorry that some Afghans got wounded. I am happy that the foreigners got killed.



From the beginning, the boy is considered the highest security threat, a person whom the U.S. military is eager to add to its growing roundup of Al Qaeda detainees. But the Afghan authorities regard him as valuable quarry, too, refusing to relinquish him. Are they playing for a bribe? If so, they’ve misread the situation. With American blood still on the market cobbles, heavily armed U.S. Special Forces storm the Ministry of Interior, where the boy is being interrogated. The Americans seize him by one arm as Afghan officials pull back on the other, a literal tug-of-war, but then, there’s no contest.

Under U.S. custody, the boy is transferred to a forward operating base in the city, where he is subjected to “a harsh-up,” hooded and placed in a prone position for ten minutes, then helped to a chair and exposed to bright lights. The procedure is repeated whenever discrepancies arise in his account. He complains of being thirsty. He slouches and fidgets. The Americans suspect he might be in drug withdrawal.

“Is this what your God wants you to do?” they yell at the boy.

“Did you know that the victims have family and children?”

During those first five hours, he tells a more elaborate story than the one in his thumbprinted confession. Now there are others who are in charge — men he knows only as “39” and “42” — and he claims that he never threw the grenade at all; rather, he thinks a man by the name of Nadir did. He claims to have met these men at a mosque in Pakistan, where they recruited him and took him to a nearby training camp. He stayed there for about two weeks with about a dozen others. He spent a lot of time sleeping there, he says. He would eat, the older men would give him white pills that made him dizzy and made people look small; sometimes the men gave him injections in the leg, and he would wake up hours later with his pants undone and everyone laughing at him. Is it all made-up? He’s frightened, perhaps trying to tell them what they want to hear so he can go home. The hood goes on, comes off. The only unchanging fact seems to be that the boy was subdued that December afternoon, not far from two bloodied and maimed American soldiers. And now he feels as if he’s suffocating. They keep asking questions, blasting him with words until he loses his grip on them, until an opaque glow comes down between him and them, and he slips into sleep while sitting straight up in the chair.


Sitting in his own chair in his office before the little shrine he’s built with the flag and mementos from his military career, Montalvo wades through boxes and folders and computerized case files, tracking the ghost of the boy back in time. It’s odd, what’s there and what isn’t, what gets emphasized and what doesn’t. Initial military reports on the night of the boy’s arrest identify him as not being “any more clean or dirty than the typical Afghan,” or appearing “much like every other Afghan; not covered in mud, however not freshly showered.” But a military videotape of the U.S. interrogators doing their work that first night suddenly can’t be found. Then there are the nearly two months the boy spends in the prison at Bagram Air Base, days full of forced standing and stress positions, hoodings and physical assaults, at a time that coincides with an array of heightened abuses, including threats of rape and the two beating deaths of other prisoners. (One, a taxi driver, is left hanging in his cell for four days while guards pummel his legs to uselessness.) So what more might have happened to him there?

After the boy has been shackled, hooded, and put on a plane for Guantánamo, after he finds himself whisked from the broken bone of war-torn winter to the humid Tropics — and put in a “cage,” or “punishment place”(as the boy later calls it), for thirty days in isolation — after his life zeros to a captivity where, feet from an ocean, he can see only small patches of parched earth and cacti, the record becomes partially more clear. There are logs in which the guards employ a coded language to detail events of each day. “Alfred Hitchcock on the block” alludes to a visit from a psychologist to a detainee; a “three-piece suit” refers to the shackle system used to move prisoners. A “reservation” means an interrogation (those sometimes with torture), while “Flyer” or “FF” refers to the Gitmo-styled “Frequent Flyer Program,” a sleep-deprivation tactic during which the boy is moved approximately every two hours and fifty-five minutes, from cell to cell, 112 times total, for roughly two straight weeks in May 2004. Even his weight tells a story: 130 pounds …160 …151 …142 …119 … What does a forty-pound dip in a growing male indicate?

The boy appears again and again, in Gitmo’s strange pointillism, hungry, lonely, trading for what little he can, his every transgression etched in the permanent record by an ever changing rotation of guards:

“…came to Kilo block to take [detainee] to Reservation … placed …i n 3 piece suit … found a breakfast roll in [detainee’s] orange shorts; 3 salt packets; extra styrofoam cup; empty packets of tea, peaches, salted nuts, and lemon poppy seed pound cake were found in cell … Punishment: Loss of rec x 3 periods; Remove all comfort items x 3 days; loss of hot rations for breakfast and dinner.”

“… did destroy his cup and demand a new one. Loss of CI x 4 days.”

“… refused to give meal up unless he got soap. When he got soap he still refused to give up meal. Detainee later gave his meal to guard #2.”

It goes on and on, the petty rebellions, the hoarding of salt packets, the cross-block talking, the covering himself with a blanket when forced to defecate under the eye of the guard, etc. When the punishments add up, he finds himself in isolation, and the guards mark his hourly activity on charts with single words: sleeping, sitting, praying, reading, reservation … It goes on like this for weeks: pacing, sitting, sleeping, reservation

Montalvo learns of the boy’s 2003 Christmas Day suicide attempt, the boy bashing his head repeatedly against the wall until he’s bloodied and hauled to the hospital. He reads the psychologist’s evaluation in which the boy’s homesickness and depression are seen as a feint, or fabrication, but also a sign of his vulnerability, and so it is recommended that he be isolated for another thirty days in order to break him. And finally he comes to the photographs.

The photographs arrive on a disk from the prosecution, jammed with files and miscellany, as part of the discovery process. It takes another defense lawyer on the team weeks to realize they’re even there, a small cache from the boy’s initial strip search the night of his arrest. He stands in a room, under pale light, naked before the men of Lyons and Martin’s unit. His face is photographed, revealing a nasty gash across the bridge of his nose (apparently at the hands of the Afghan police). And then the camera lens examines the rest of him: his arms and legs, his torso and butt. Montalvo can’t shake one photograph, taken from low and behind, the boy standing with his arms outstretched while a U.S. soldier stands before him, face-to-face, an American flag draped on the wall behind the boy’s right shoulder. Another soldier sits with legs crossed in the corner, talking with others just out of the frame. It seems so composed.

There are more, including pictures of the boy’s penis. According to a statement by Major Kenneth Chavez, the operations officer in charge of the detainee, he’s examined with “all of his clothes off; with only men present.” Claiming to have seen photographs of the exam, another soldier, Warrant Officer David Alan Rolbiecki, says that he remembers that Jawad’s “genital area, as well as his chest and armpits, had been shaved, which is consistent with a martyr.”

It’s plain to Montalvo that anyone would look at those same pictures and see a boy too young to have reached puberty, that the pictures are more about humiliation than anything. No — this certainly doesn’t feel like justice anymore, he thinks, but some strange violation of it.


Over the seven years of the boy’s incarceration, the government puts forth many versions of the detainee: They allege that he claimed to have foreknowledge of 9/11, owned a shop in Khost, and was a member of a group with close ties to bin Laden. The claims seem preposterous for a boy at best 15 or 16 when arrested, but moving toward trial, the defense requests funding to send a private investigator to Afghanistan. When the request is denied, Montalvo volunteers for the trip, nominating fellow defense attorney Christopher Kannady to ride shotgun. They travel without backup, one carrying a nine-millimeter, the other a knife. On the day they plan to go to the marketplace in the shadow of the blue-domed mosque called Pul-e Khishti, Montalvo procures a convoy from the nearby U.S. base. But at the bazaar, the U.S. soldiers start shouting, threatening, and the crowd begins to threaten back. Montalvo and Kannady scramble to document the crime scene, where the incident took place, where the boy allegedly was subdued, where the eyewitnesses were. They work as quickly as possible, filming, photographing, interviewing. They push into a nearby restaurant, one with a blue awning, where the hostility seems so thick Montalvo has a flash of how easily he could become Lyons or Martin. And where would that leave his kids? Which raises another question: What the hell is he doing here?

Montalvo and Kannady track down some of the prosecution’s main witnesses: The Afghan police officer whose testimony is central to the government’s case claims he subdued the boy that December day with his judo, but he also claims that he pointed a gun at the boy’s head when he went to throw a second grenade and muttered, Dirty Harry-style, “I wouldn’t do it.” Other witnesses admit to having been bribed for their testimony, and yet another confesses to have been sitting far across the river. Then there are the Kuchis, a nomadic tribe to which the boy belongs. Montalvo thinks it important to reach out to one of the chieftains, an intimidatingly large mujahideen hero named Shirhan, in order to try to ascertain background on the boy. But in that first meeting, the translator has a hard time deciphering Shirhan’s accent as he grows more and more agitated. “He’s a boy,” Shirhan bellows. “He must be brought back.” Montalvo, fearing that the tribal chief might settle things by violence, plays for a quick wrap-up and a contact number. Suddenly three of Shirhan’s men reach into their robes. Montalvo catches Kannady’s eye, fearing a drawdown, flickering a message — you go left, I’ll go right-and then the Kuchi tribesmen, all at once, pull out their … cell phones.

The boy’s father was also a mujahideen fighter, killed in the first year of the boy’s life in a battle with the Soviets. Which left his mother to raise him. When they meet her, she sits invisibly inside her light blue burka, and though Montalvo isn’t allowed to address her directly, the keening notes of her sobs are unmistakable. She claims her son was 12 when he was arrested, and to Montalvo’s mind the fact jibes with what he knows. Unlike the al-Bahluls of the world, who face their incarceration with defiance — spitting and throwing feces at the guards — the boy is known to call out his mother’s name in the moments of his deepest despair.

The world sees a flicker of that despair during a 2008 hearing at Guantánamo. In a reporter-filled courtroom, with the defense by his side, the boy demands to be heard by the judge, speaking out in Pashto. “I want to express that I have been punished a lot,” he says, and launches into a disjointed ramble, referencing, among others, a “big commander,” “the red prison person,” and “some tape kind of cell or cage.” He touches on his constant blindfolding and then the sleepless rooms in which he’s exposed to twenty-four-hour cycles of bright light. “Why am I sitting here, why am I in the prison?” he pleads. “I am asking you this question.”

And yet the case against him has already begun to unravel. David Frakt, who leads the defense, hammers at the foundation of the charges — three counts of attempted murder and three of serious bodily injury — while the lead military prosecutor, Darrel Vandeveld, abruptly quits, claiming the prosecution is “a charade.” In a burst of conscience, Vandeveld will later write a letter that rails against his side’s cavalier conduct, referencing an inherited trial notebook that represents five years of government effort, calling it “a first-year law student’s untutored attempt to evaluate the case.” To Vandeveld’s mind, the boy holds no intelligence value (“[His] youth, his lack of any but the most rudimentary education, and his manifest gullibility marked him, at best, as a low level foot soldier”) and, worse, has been abused by both Afghans and Americans, while a military behavioral specialist at Guantánamo has recommended more abuse for the detainee in an effort to extract information from him. (“I lack the words to express the heartsickness I experienced when I came to understand the pointless, purely gratuitous mistreatment of [the detainee] by my fellow soldiers.”)

In closing, Vandeveld writes, “[H]ad I been returned to Afghanistan or Iraq, and had I encountered [the detainee] in either of those hostile lands, where two of my friends have been killed in action…I have no doubt at all — none — that [the detainee] would pose no threat whatsoever to me …. I respectfully ask this Court to find that [his] continued detention is unsupported by any credible evidence.”

Not long after Vandeveld’s resignation, the judge rules that all of the boy’s statements, having come as a product of torture, will be inadmissible. On July 30, 2009, the court grants the defense a petition of habeas corpus. The Department of Justice concedes that this boy, Mohammed Jawad, is no longer detainable, and he is ordered released.

Montalvo delivers the news himself at the gate to Camp Iguana. When Jawad approaches that day, he’s already telling Montalvo about another detainee, a Uighur in the camp who needs representation. Montalvo interrupts him. “Your case is over,” he says. “You’re going home.” There, on the spot, the boy falls to his knees and begins praying. After several minutes, he rises with tears in his eyes and hugs Montalvo through the gate.

A month later, Montalvo flies back to Afghanistan to help return the boy. Jawad is taken back separately, just as he came, hooded and cuffed on a transport, but forever marked now. When he touches down in Kabul, more confusion ensues. The Americans encourage the Afghan authorities to detain him. But then Montalvo intervenes again, commandeering Jawad at the office of the Afghan attorney general, taking him home to his mother at last.

In a room, she waits for her son. And then comes a young man with an impressive beard and blemished skin, a heavy brow, and dark, penetrating eyes. Her first reaction is, no, there must be some mistake here. But the man insists he belongs to her. She reaches out, to touch his head, her hand to the spot where her son had always had a knob, and then she knows and can’t speak anymore, holding him close.


So this is the happily ever after, the mother-and-child reunion, the tribe killing the fatted lamb to celebrate the answer to their prayers. And this is Montalvo, the gung-ho superpatriot born on Flag Day, the man with a Marine shrine in his office, who’s never voted for a Democrat in his life, having executed his military duties with thoroughness — some might dare say “honor.” But he’s now forever the guy who defended a terrorist. People lambast him on the Internet. He’s lost two years from his wife and kids. The military — his beloved military — has threatened him with the removal of his security clearance and a court martial, though it never acts on those threats. Even after he’s left the military, after he’s finally retired and gone to work for a private firm, he’s marked. He leaves after six months, when the firm begins to lose business based on his “past affiliations.” And the grief he’s caused his own parents: How can he not question the cost? “This has been a monster,” he acknowledges. “I wish I weren’t at the head of the spear.”

Why, though, does he say it in the present tense rather than the past? The rest of the defense team has moved on: Several attorneys pick up other Gitmo cases; Frakt turns back to teaching law school and the occasional public-speaking gig on the Mohammed Jawad case, sometimes with Vandeveld, the old prosecutor, by his side. And yet Montalvo can’t seem to let go of the case itself, the minutiae of it. He is 41 years old, and when he thinks about the boy it all feels terribly personal, triggering some bristling righteousness that he can’t contain. “Look, we took a boy, and we put him in a cage for seven years and tortured him,” he repeats over and over again. “We broke him to the point where he trusts no one, and then we threw him back among potentially shady operators, with no support whatsoever. God forbid he pulls a trigger or causes the death of someone. It’d be on my hands now.”

It sounds selfless and perhaps a little grandiose, principled and perhaps seeded with something else — disillusionment, hope, guilt, an unsettling anger? After all, just how much does one newly retired Marine really owe the supposed enemy? Isn’t it time to go home to his family now?

But he’s not just chasing the ghost of the boy anymore. What moves him, what constitutes an inner cosmology, is a mystery even to him, one that occasionally surfaces in fragments. It’s funny how memory floods the present, how everything organizes itself around lodestars: the boy in the casket, the lost father. He remembers the day he came home from school at age 12 and his mom told him one of his best friends had been sodomized and stabbed to death. He remembers the wake, the open coffin, his buddy there, unsavable. And then there’s the secret of his father, one kept for the first thirty-eight years of Montalvo’s life because his mother always thought him “too tenderhearted” to handle it. That is, his father is not his father, that he’s not Puerto Rican but Italian, the son of a man named Sal Armenia, who’s dead now. He pores over an old file that he obtains, full of legal documents that attach him to his real biological father. There’s a coldness to the law, a crystalline logic. But it helps him understand that he’s no longer the person he thought he was, that nothing can be trusted. It makes him feel at times like there’s some cable or track connecting him to another world that might explain this one.

Now Montalvo speaks to Jawad once a week by phone — and finds himself increasingly troubled by the tone of the calls. The transition has been hard, leaving him sluggish and isolated. And then there are the necessities: food, shelter, work. Upon his immediate return, Jawad meets with President Hamid Karzai, who pledges to help him find a suitable house and to provide financial assistance. But like so many promises in the swirl of the new Afghanistan, this one doesn’t take hold, and as the weeks pass, Montalvo can hear Jawad’s hurt and anger and, worse, his detachment. The kid is floating away. After time has played the slow, cruel trick of robbing him of his most important developmental years, the clock has started again, seemingly at breakneck speed, as if it means to devour him now.

Montalvo senses this, the shell Jawad has become, his defenselessness, from 7,000 miles away. “Take a victim, revictimize him, and dump him on a street corner, and you have a guppy trying to breathe,” he says.

The only way to solve it is to go back to Afghanistan. So that’s what he plans to do, invade this time to save the fatherless boy.


Kabul in the morning is cold, unsplintered sunlight and the ash taste of burning refuse blooming from somewhere beyond the walls of the guesthouse compound. It’s December, almost seven years to the day of Jawad’s arrest, and Montalvo emerges from his lair to the courtyard bulked in a gray hoodie, jeans, and a blue watch cap. He knows the risks of being here, outside the wire, heading into the slums south of the city. With each passing week, kidnappings and suicide bombings have been on the rise in the capital. Five U.N. employees have just been gunned down in a guesthouse attack.

Out on the street, the morning hustle is on, and there waiting by the curb is a pickup truck with shot suspension, an Afghan man at the wheel. Today, Montalvo hopes to do some recon — suss out Jawad’s living situation, observe the elements surrounding him, assess the risks. He’s come to reestablish a plan with Jawad, one that might include doctor visits, school, a job. A low cloud of dust sparkles over the boulevard. “Might as well draw a bull’s-eye on yourself in that thing,” says Montalvo, gesturing when a white Land Rover lumbers by, marked in black letters: U.N. On the sidewalks, the women cocooned in blue burkas seem to float with their heads tilted down against the backdrop of bullet-pocked walls.

Eventually the traffic thins; the city falls away. The land opens in rolling scree-covered hillocks of a gray-orange glow. Kabul occupies a narrow slot in a valley surrounded by the towering Hindu Kush mountains. Ten miles from the center of the city looms the old Darul-Aman Palace (translated as “abode of peace”). Having caught fire in the ’60s and then blown to smithereens by the warlords Hekmatyar and Dostum, who spent much of the ’90s destroying the city, the structure stands as its own misshapen symbol. Now, among its hollowed towers and crumbling walls, schizophrenics and heroin junkies skitter in the rubble. Even in broad daylight you can hear them howl.

The pocked dirt road leading into the slum of Chilsutoon runs along the Kabul River, which trickles in a logy flow in winter. A quarter mile along, a dimly etched figure in the dust appears, resolving into a young man, oddly fresh among the squalor. He wears a burgundy Kandahari hat with mirrored decorations, a brown sweater, black sandals, and a camel-colored blanket wrapped over his upper body for warmth. This is Mohammed Jawad. Since returning, he’s become something of a celebrity, recognized on the street by little kids and old people alike. On his wrist he wears an oversize black watch, an accoutrement of the moneyed, though he doesn’t seem to have any. He has thick black hair, close-set eyes, small ears, a wide face with handsome angles that breaks into a smile when he sees Montalvo. They embrace in the street warmly; then Jawad quickly leads him down an alley of caked mud, hemmed by rough earthen walls, running with open sewage, and littered with empty cigarette packs. He comes to a wooden door, pushes into the courtyard of the place he calls home — a concrete structure — then leads Montalvo up a set of stairs to a common room with red cushions and pillows on the floor.

Montalvo has taken pains to keep the time and day of his visit vague, just in case. Yet within ten minutes of arrival, a formal parade of men starts filing into the room. They wear turbans and Kandahari hats, too, beards, cloaks, scarves, and wool blankets draped over their shoulders. From earlier visits, Montalvo already knows Jawad’s uncles — whose names translate as Uncle Good Flower and Uncle Avenger (Jawad, as it turns out, translates as “generous person”) — and his maternal grandfather, an exquisite-looking old man with a wisp of gray beard and ghostly, cataracted eyes. And now comes Shirhan, the tribal leader, the prototype of nomad-warrior-mujahideen, accompanied by three or four boys who throw white candied almonds, a special greeting that causes Montalvo to flinch. (“Oh-okaaay,” he exclaims as one bounces off his biceps, then giggles.) Out comes a cloth that gets laid on the floor, and then a tray with plates and bowls. Green tea, crunchy corn. And the smells of the delicious Kabuli pilau with rice, carrots, and raisins, and hidden chunks of meat, tender and cinnamon-flavored. It’s all a gift from Jawad’s mother, unseen somewhere in the house.

As much as everyone in the room defers to Shirhan, and as much as the crowd huddles close around Jawad, their long-lost son, Montalvo the Marine is the honored guest, which brings another sort of pressure. In the past, Shirhan has asked him for little favors, to check up on a person or two, say, to see if they’ve ended up in Bagram, or in some prison beyond, something Montalvo’s not at all inclined to do. “Important not to get into horse-trading here,” he says. “In the end, we don’t know who any of these guys are.”

Montalvo and Jawad seem at ease with each other, and Montalvo is quick to joke with him. “You looking for a girl?” he says. “We need to find you a girl.” Is this even appropriate conversation for a devout Muslim? Jawad smiles at him — which absolves Montalvo of all the things he may represent for this crowd: like, first and foremost, America. Uncles Good Flower and Avenger sit on either side of their nephew, with contented expressions. In the melee of laughter and competing voices, in the full flush of goodwill, Shirhan leans over and whispers something to the translator, who repeats it to Montalvo. It sounds like: I can no longer guarantee your safety here. The translator repeats it in a low voice.

“Jesus,” mutters Montalvo. “Is this a kidnapping now?” Then, to Shirhan and his men: “Well, that’s our cue, sirs. It’s been nice.” He stands and authoritatively shakes all the hands, and tries to navigate the crowd out the door, down the narrow stairs, out into the alley with its open sewer, everything heightened by that little drip of fear, back out to the dirt road where the cars are supposedly waiting. But when he gets there — out in the sun — the cars are gone.

Montalvo fidgets at the idea of becoming the exact target he’d hoped to avoid being. The group stands like a herd of horses, Shirhan tapping out numbers on his cell phone with his thick fingers (which one of his murky contacts might he be calling?), Jawad sinking back into the protection of the alley (he seems ethereal, half gone, floating away), Montalvo scanning the road.

Finally, vehicles appear. Montalvo heaves a sigh of relief. “What a clusterfuck,” he says.


In the middle of Kabul, in a concrete villa behind high walls that houses the offices for an NGO called Children in Crisis, an Afghan therapist talks about Jawad’s fear. He was so full of fright when he first came home that they kept him on tranquilizers and sedatives. The therapist talks about his depression and his trouble concentrating and his mistrust of authority figures. Jawad regularly dodges his weekly appointments, he says, to the point where he no longer bothers to schedule them. When Montalvo hears this, he can barely suppress his concern, and a little fury, too, directed at the therapist. “He’s very fragile. He needs to be talking all the time about what happened,” he says, “sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.”

There’s also an Afghan doctor here and two caseworkers, all members of the team Montalvo has assembled to save the boy, who sits among them in the circle, following the conversation as if it’s all about someone who’s not there. Then suddenly his fingers flutter up to his temples, and his head drops. Montalvo addresses him in a big-brotherly tone, one kindly though gently admonishing. “They can’t help you if you don’t show up for your appointments, Jawad. So — why aren’t you showing up?”

Jawad understands — and can speak — more English than he allows after his time at Gitmo, but whenever asked a question, he leans forward, fingers steepled before his mouth, waiting for the translation, considering for a moment, quickly scanning the room (making flitting, almost nervous eye contact), and then speaking in Pashto, a pause belonging to someone who has learned to weigh his words, been scrubbed of anything impulsive or rambunctious or irrepressible.

“Because of the house problem,” Jawad says finally. (Jawad has made it clear in earlier phone calls to Montalvo that he fears the neighborhood in which he lives, wants a cot after seven years on one at Guantánamo, and dreams of a computer, a refrigerator, or taxi, but would first take a good stove that doesn’t leak smoke everywhere.)

Montalvo pushes again. “We’re gonna deal with the house,” he says. “But why aren’t you showing up for these appointments?”

Jawad steeples his fingers again, exhales. “Listen,” he says, gazing intently at Montalvo, “when I was in Guantánamo, the psychologists asked questions. ‘Do you like Arabs?’ ” — as it turns out, a common saying directed at disobedient children in Afghanistan invokes an Arab as the bogeyman — “And when I said, ‘No, they frighten me,’ then they moved me into the camp with Arabs. Everything I told them, they used against me.”

The other reason for skipping appointments, says Jawad, is that he doesn’t want to remember all that has happened to him. When he thinks about it — the memories of his incarceration — his head hurts so badly he sometimes has to lie down. Which is partly why he never seems to leave the house, has given up on a job or taking classes in hopes of becoming the doctor he dreams to be. “He does nothing right now,” declares Montalvo, turning back to the doctors. “This nothing is also a disease for him.”

And so the question of the moment becomes how to reanimate Jawad — until Jawad himself interrupts. “I have something to say,” he says, and the room stills. He then describes a recent evening when he woke to a knock at the door. His aunt had answered. From upstairs, Jawad heard murmuring. Two men, their faces covered, had demanded to see him. His aunt told them to leave at once. They left — but then returned on another night soon after, late, only to be turned away again. Clearly they were intent on making their shadowy presence known, but who were they? What did they want? And how long before they merely take what they want?

Jawad has no answers to these questions, only fear, a spindled pain in his head. “I just want to live in peace,” he says. He seems suddenly cranky. Clearly he’s been at it for too many hours. The perceived threat — the dark riders from some myth looking to devour him — discomposes him so much that he abruptly rises to leave the room. “When I’m scared, I read the Koran,” Jawad says. In his absence, the team members let their conjecture fly, presuming the men at the door that night to have been Taliban, or worse.

Montalvo wearily runs a hand over his face. He looks pale, a little sick, as if he’s just been punched in the gut. “Do you see what we’re up against here?” he says in disgust. “We think it’s over, but it’s just beginning.”


After the meeting, Montalvo tries to arrange the next day’s rendezvous. “I’m sorry to say this,” announces Jawad, “but I can’t be seen with you. There are people who think I’m a spy for the Americans.” Montalvo belies no anxiety, responds simply: “Okay, Jawad, but I’d like to see you a little while I’m here.” Then, when Jawad leaves with his uncles, Montalvo says, “I can’t tell what kind of shit he’s pulling now.”

For the next few days, Montalvo careens across the city from meeting to meeting, trying to rouse support, funds, a flicker of interest for Jawad. He meets with Afghanistan’s leading human-rights lawyer to solicit help. Then he powwows with a representative from UNICEF, a French woman named Christine, with whom he contemplates the idea, proposed by Afghan officials, of moving Jawad to England. When Karzai’s schedule proves impenetrable — Montalvo hopes to press him to make good on his initial promise of support — he solicits Sayed Hamed Gailani, the 79-year-old head of one of the country’s most influential families, a fabled mujahideen leader and now deputy speaker of the senate, who warmly receives the American. Over pomegranate juice and pastries, Montalvo states that his great fear is that now Jawad has become “distracted.”

“We are tremendously carried away by your human sentiments toward Jawad,” responds the old man. “You know, Jawad is an exceptional case for us. He is one of us, the best of us. When we were under Soviet occupation, his father gave his life for Afghanistan as a freedom fighter, leaving a widow and an orphan, so we feel a deep obligation. And yet his tribe, the Kuchis, have fought with the militants against the government. Those militants have made handsome offers to use him, and those who offer are not doing it for God but to expand their own ranks. So we must try to educate him and help as best we can.”

There’s a swirl of futility to these conversations, as if everyone is biding their time until Montalvo leaves. “I couldn’t agree more, Your Excellency,” he says, unwavering. “Someone has to take responsibility for him. But in the end, who will that be?”


Somewhere in the slums south of the city, Jawad is in his cell, sleeping, pacing, praying … Then, on the fourth day, in the week just before Christmas, he finally rings Montalvo’s phone. He thinks it best to meet at Montalvo’s guesthouse — the one across from the Iranian embassy, with its black-masked guards — far from the prying eyes of his Chilsutoon neighbors. He arrives with Uncle Good Flower and Uncle Avenger. They park in the street, then come through two checkpoints, past the guards armed with Uzis, who vaguely pat the three men down, after which they enter the inner sanctum. Before the war, before the little compound had been bought by a BBC cameraman and decorated with old Winchesters and vintage movie posters, Osama bin Laden had installed his fourth wife, his alleged favorite, here. Now it has a lively bar and good pizza, packed with the odd lot of Western security people and aid workers, journalists, and contractors.

Thus, Jawad’s entrance is met by some uneasy stares. He seems relieved to retreat to Montalvo’s room. “I’ve been missing you, Jawad,” booms Montalvo, walking across the courtyard with an arm slung over his shoulders. “Why you been hiding out on me?”

In the room, Montalvo provides bullet-pointed updates of his conversations and negotiations of the past few days. Jawad sits and listens, but it’s clear he’s losing patience. His leg bounces up and down; his fingers butterfly up to his temples and down again. He tells Montalvo that he’d like all the case files so that he can review them, to remember all those things that happened to him back there, in that humid cage. And although he can’t really read English, he keeps asking for them, over and over. “Do you remember the cameras they had at Guantánamo, the ones in the corners of the room every time we met?” he says. “I want all that film, too.” As Montalvo tries to explain how security cameras work — that it’s doubtful that any of the video at Guantánamo still exists — there sits Jawad, the shattered mirror, grasping to put the pieces back in order to catch sight of himself.

“I didn’t want to ask you this when you were at the house,” he says now to Montalvo, “but why are you here?”

Montalvo absorbs the translation, blinks, and — rather than replay the twenty hours in coach it has taken to get “here,” or his separation again from his family during Christmas; instead of relating the conversation he had with his eldest son (“This isn’t fair,” he’d said. “Why do you keep leaving us to go see that boy?”), not to mention the danger involved every time he sticks his bristly head outside the gate –he resettles his big frame on the seat. He betrays no emotion, replying calmly, “Look, Jawad, I came to see you because I’m worried about you —  and I’m here to get you squared away.”

“What about the case?” shoots Jawad.

There’s been some preliminary talk about filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government — something Jawad is very keen to do with Montalvo’s support, though Montalvo knows “the shitstorm” a case like this will cause back home and the daunting odds of it going forward in the first place.

“If this is something you really want,” says Montalvo, “then we’re going to have to go through everything that happened to you again. Is that something you think you can do?”

“I want to know when somebody’s going to apologize to me for what they did,” Jawad says. “I’ve already told you all about what happened. Over and over.” He’s touching different parts of his body — his shoulder, his stomach, as if remembering. “Why do I have to go through all of that again?”


In a brief moment of downtime, Montalvo has done a little Christmas shopping, buying a rug for his wife and some slingshots for the boys. He returns to the marketplace near the blue-domed mosque, Pul-e Khishti, walking in Jawad’s footsteps yet again, to eat lunch in the restaurant with the blue awning where all the stares from blanket-wrapped men make him skittish again. Is there a boy out there waiting to lob a grenade through the door? Why does he tempt fate like this?

Perhaps it’s something unconscious, a felt affinity, the proximity to one’s possible annihilation, that renews one’s commitment to his ideals. Being here this time, too, has triggered that unconscious need to do something for those who can’t do for themselves. He’s made a series of calls to embassies and orphanages to try to adopt an Afghan girl — a plan he hasn’t even cleared with his wife — only to find that being American means he can’t. He registers his disappointment (“Now what will her life be like?”), then carries on.

At the guesthouse, Montalvo and Jawad meet one last time, ensconced in Montalvo’s room, with time almost run out. It has dawned on Montalvo that, in the glacial, corrupt flow of Afghanistan, he isn’t going to fix Jawad with one, or two, or maybe even three visits. This is going to be a life project, an exorcism of anger. One thing Jawad has taken from Guantánamo is a willingness to speak his mind. On the day of his return to Afghanistan, just after being freed, he was filmed by Reuters forcefully excoriating the U.S. military for the way it was treating Gitmo detainees, in particular the way it had disrespected Islam. Montalvo had stood off to the side listening to him like that, on the verge of proselytizing. Afterward, he cautioned Jawad to stop “talking smack.” What he didn’t tell him then was that when the devout young man spoke with that underlit fury, he seemed to all the world like the very zealot the Americans said he was.

What flickers on their faces now, however, as they lean over the table, is a gauzy weariness. They both need each other, that much seems true, but why? As proof that it’s not been a dream? Unlikely as this fragile coexistence remains, they affirm for each other all that is absurd and perverse about what has indeed actually transpired — from September 11 to Gitmo to the war on terror to all those mistakenly tortured to this journey back to find some unfindable reconciliation — that it’s all real. Somewhere inside, Jawad knows that he can’t put himself back together — or won’t  — just as Montalvo understands he can never put back together his own shattered sense of American promise and justice. How do you mend a net infinitely rent?

Montalvo asks Jawad to stay and eat lunch with him, but Jawad insists that he has to be at the mosque for prayer, and keeps glancing at his oversize watch. Home and mosque, those are the only two places he feels comfortable. He fiddles with his water glass, smooths his vest, and stands to leave, when a huge blast sounds somewhere nearby, shaking the room, rattling the lights, trembling the water in the glass.

“Damn — that didn’t sound good,” says Montalvo.

From the courtyard a huge bloom of smoke can be seen, rising up through the air roughly a quarter mile away. A suicide bombing, in front of another guesthouse. Just like that, eight are dead, forty wounded. Several buildings have been crushed. Sirens fill the city, which comes to a standstill. Montalvo watches the smoke rise higher in the sky. “Looks like you’re having lunch with us, Jawad,” he says.

In the guesthouse restaurant they sit at a long table, suffering the stares of the Western clientele. Jawad eats French fries, smiles at Montalvo, and is the perfect polite guest, but his eyes keep skittering around the room, then down to his watch. Finally he sits with his hands folded in his lap. Soon he will exit through the barriers and checkpoints and disappear into the smoky void of Kabul — the city acting again as if nothing has happened, the sparkled dust clouds over the boulevards, the menace in every slow-moving vehicle, the cleanup operation of body parts and bone bits, viscera and glass fragments, nearing completion for the day.

Mohammed Jawad will soon go back to his mother, who’ll be waiting, preparing dinner — but also back to his own fate again, to some deeper nothingness. He’ll walk out under that plume of acrid smoke, where anything, any act of violence or kidnap, is possible. In the months to come, he’ll be briefly rearrested by the Afghan police, held passingly by the U.S. military, and finally flee to Pakistan, in order to “live in peace,” as he’ll tell Montalvo on the phone, in tribal lands where he hopes no one can reach him, not even his uncles — who, it turns out, are not who he first thought they were.

But now he steals a glance at Montalvo, who’s laughing at a joke. Others in the restaurant — the contractors and war profiteers and hangers-on — look up again from their meals, register the noise, the image of a burly American consorting with what appears to be the enemy, and then go back to stabbing their food, heads down, in low whispers. Montalvo will never be able to explain it to them, or anyone. Not even his kids. This boy needs him. It’s that simple. If Jawad is unhappy to be missing prayer, he doesn’t show it. If Montalvo harbors his own discontent, he doesn’t show it, either. They’re together, having both waited much longer than this to be free.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), 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.

On the Anti-Cuts Protest in London, 500,000 Say No to the Coalition Government’s Arrogant, Ideological Butchery of the British State

Today was the long awaited TUC-led “March for the Alternative” in London, calling for jobs, growth and justice, in the face of the savage programme of public sector cuts imposed by the Tory-led coalition government, which I have been covering since October in a series of hard-hitting articles under the heading, Battle for Britain: Fighting the Coalition Government’s Vile Ideology.

Those of you who have been following my work closely will understand that I was not able to be on the march today, as I’m in St. Thomas’ Hospital, where I’m undergoing treatment for a serious and painful blocking of the blood supply to the toes of my right foot, caused by arterial damage. However, with my magnificent overview of the march from the 11th floor window of my hospital room, overlooking the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge and today — crucially — the Embankment, where the march began at 12 noon, I’m able to confirm that this was undoubtedly the biggest protest I’ve ever seen, with the noble but ultimately doomed exception of the February 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War, which, with an estimated two million attendees, was by far the largest protest in British history.

For four hours today, however, the crowd of protestors surging purposefully along the Embankment, waving banners, bringing rainbow colour to the West End and making a lot of noise before heading west for a rally in Hyde Park, more than adequately fulfilled hopes that hundreds of thousands of protestors would turn up, and as I was writing this, mid-afternoon, the Embankment was still awash with protestors, all the way down to Hungerford Bridge and Charing Cross station. As a result, I’m very much hoping that the ideological butchers of the Tory government (plus their Lib Dem hangers-on) got the message that the British people are not happy with the cuts, and are not happy with the smug arrogance of David Cameron and George Osborne, who have no political experience and no mandate from the voting public for their savage cuts, whose targets include:

From the turnout at today’s protest — and the wonderful atmosphere that I heard about from friends on Twitter, and from guests dropping by in person — it’s clear that hopes that it would become an influential event have come true. As a result, we have had — as I and others always hoped — a protest much larger than its trade union origins, providing an opportunity for groups, organizations and individuals from all over the country to come together, to network, and, above all, to send a united message to the government not only that its policies are being introduced too fast, are too indiscriminate and too savage, and will cause widespread misery and suffering that is not necessary, but also that a significant proportion of the British people have seen through all the talk about “necessity” and “fairness” and “all being in it together,” and want to see a revised economic basis for society.

This has not yet been adequately addressed by the mainstream political parties — and is only part of Labour’s message, however much Ed Miliband tried to pretend it wasn’t, by turning up at the rally in Hyde Park to deliver a speech in which he stated:

Our struggle is to fight to preserve, protect and defend the best of the services we cherish because they represent the best of the country we love. We know what the government will say: that this is a march of the minority. They are so wrong. David Cameron, you wanted to create the big society — this is the big society. The big society united against what your government is doing to our country. We stand today not as the minority, but as the voice of the mainstream majority in this country.

These were good points, and well expressed, although Ed Miliband’s problem, of course, is that he was limited in how much he could praise Labour for “defend[ing] the best of the services we cherish” when — although Labour had indeed expanded the public sector, to great effect — the party had also done all it could to encourage and facilitate the robber barons responsible for the financial crisis of 2008 that created the excuse for austerity and cuts in the first place.

A harsher critic, speaking a more direct oppositional language, was Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, Britain’s biggest union, who told the crowd, “You represent a spirit of resistance in every workplace and community that says we are not going to have our way of life killed so that the rich and greedy can live as they please.”

Again, great words, but had I been able to take part in the protest today, I know I would have been on the lookout for opportunities for new coalitions of resistance to be created, not just including the trade unions and the best of the Labour Party. but also involving others, outside of or alienated by the mainstream, and/or unrepresented by unions, who need a more visionary project — a new politics, and a new political movement drawing on the lessons of the past but dealing with the present and the future, in which ordinary people’s jobs are valued, in which working people are not scapegoated for the crimes of the financial elites and the tax evasion of the corporate giants, and in which those responsible for the financial crisis and for systematic corporate tax evasion and tax avoidance are made to pay up instead.

As is noted in the manifesto of UK Uncut, the biggest campaigning organization to have grown out of the cuts programme, which was involved in a number of occupations in central London today, including Fortnum & Mason’s, and which essentially functions as a galvanizer and franchise for direct action against the banks and the corporations:

We are told that the only way to reduce the deficit is to cut to public services. This is certainly not the case. There are alternatives, but the government chooses to ignore them, highlighting the fact that the cuts are based on ideology, not necessity.

The tax avoided and evaded in a single year could pay for the £81bn, four-year cuts programme.

To provide a little more information about today’s protest, here’s an explanation from the TUC’s website:

Why We’re Marching

Government spending cuts will damage public services and put more than a million out of work. They will hit the vulnerable, damage communities and undermine much of what holds us together as a society.

Ministers say there is no alternative.

But both of the government’s two key decisions are political choices, not economic necessity.

Eliminating the deficit in just four years is a savage timetable that does not give economic growth the opportunity to raise the nation’s tax take. Indeed the deep cuts promised will depress the economy making deeper cuts necessary to meet this timetable.

Raising four pounds through cuts for every pound raised through tax — and doing most of this through a rise in VAT that hits the poor and those on middle income the most — is deeply unfair. The recession was made in the finance sector, yet banks and those now enjoying gigantic bonuses once again, are not being asked to make a fair contribution.

Yet none of these policies were put to the British people at the election, indeed we were told that there was no need for cuts in front-line services.

People round the country are already campaigning against these deep, rapid cuts. Students have shown their opposition to cuts, the end of EMAs and increases in fees. Parents and teachers have opposed cuts in school building. School sport, libraries and public woodlands all now have strong defenders. Few towns now don’t have their own campaign group.

The TUC’s March for the Alternative has two key aims.

First we want to give a national voice to all those affected by the cuts. This will be a huge event that in its breadth and support shows just how much opposition there is to the government’s programme. It will bring together public service workers and those who depend on good public services. Those involved in national campaigns, and those defending what is special in their own community.

Second we want to show that people reject the argument that there is no alternative.

Of course the recession did damage to our economy. But these deep rapid cuts are not the best way to solve our problems, and may well make them worse.

That is why it is the March for the Alternative — an alternative in which rich individuals and big companies have to pay all their tax, that the banks pay a Robin Hood tax and one in which we strain every sinew to create jobs and boost the sustainable economic growth that will generate the prosperity which is the only long term way to close the deficit and reduce the nation’s debt.

And finally, to follow up on that, here are some messages of support, also from the TUC’s website:

Messages of support

On housing benefit cuts and homelessness:

“The Government is creating a perfect storm for poor, vulnerable and homeless people who had no hand in creating this financial crisis and recession. Housing benefit cuts that could leave a million households struggling to pay the rent kick in next month. Local councils are already decimating hostel funding, day centres and other vital homelessness projects. Budgets for new social housing have been halved and rents for new tenants are set to rise with tenancies less secure. David Cameron must rethink his plans, otherwise Crisis fears homelessness will surge across the country.”
Leslie Morphy, Chief Executive, Crisis

On the disabled:

“Disability Alliance will be marching on 26 March as disabled people require additional support from public services and will be disproportionately affected by almost all Government cuts. Disabled people will lose £4.1 billion in essential welfare support alone, despite the banking levy contributing £2.5 billion to tackling the national deficit. This cannot be fair when disabled people are already twice as likely to live in poverty as other citizens.”
Neil Coyle, Disability Alliance

On childcare:

“Daycare Trust, the national childcare campaign is proud to lend our support to the march. We believe it is imperative that children are protected from the spending cuts. All children deserve the best start in life, and cuts to childcare provision mean that this is under threat. Our recent research with 4Children found 250 Sure Start Children’s Centres face closure over the next year. These hugely valued centres provide a lifeline to so many parents and we know that they have a positive impact on children’s development, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Families across the country are devastated at the prospect of losing one of their most important local services. We reaffirm our call for Sure Start Children’s Centres to be protected as we join others to March for the Alternative.”
Anand Shukla, Acting Chief Executive, Daycare Trust

On the arts and arts funding at universitites:

Many of us in the arts deplore the Tory obsession with cuts. The effect of this short sighted and doctrinaire policy is devastating on culture and creativity in this country. The very small amounts of money involved make it especially ridiculous given that the arts in the UK are so successful and bring in such huge rewards. Visitors from abroad come here for our museums — amazingly 8 out of our top ten tourist attraction are museums. Our theatre is acknowledged to be the best in the world. The arts give Britain an international edge as an exciting and creative place to live, work and do business. Let us not forget that the arts give us all a sense of belonging and citizenship. They generate jobs and are one of the fastest growing parts of the economy with a commendable track record of regenerating cities and contributing to communities. But all this is in jeopardy if the Tories are allowed to do what they plan. Art schools and the arts and humanities departments of our universities will be set back at least 50 years. I condemn this short sighted policy which will take us backwards as a nation.
Anish Kapoor, Artist

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), 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.

Political Prisoners in Syria: An Urgent Crisis Now!

On March 16, around 50 demonstrators — including human rights activists, former political prisoners and the families of curent political prisoners — were arrested in Damascus after a non-violent demonstration in which, as part of a group of about 150 protestors in total (a significant gathering in Syria, where all political dissent is illegal), they called for the release of 21 political prisoners.

Eight of these demonstrators were freed, but 32 were subsequently charged with “attacking the reputation of the state, provoking racism and sectarianism and damaging relations between Syrians,” and the whereabouts of ten others have not been accounted for.

As a result, I thought it might be useful to make available some information about these 71 men and women, many of whom are well-known human rights activists in Syria, to raise awarness not only of their plight, but also that of the estimated 4,500 political prisoners, or “prisoners of conscience” in Syria.

These prisoners include Kurds, religious leaders, trade unionists and students, and their detention, in such large numbers, reveals how, for nearly 50 years, the Ba’athist regime in Syria has suppressed all dissent through emergency laws passed in 1963, which essentially created a vast police state, in which an unaccountable security court hands down punitive sentences on charges that seem to have been taken from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984, and frequently condemns critics of the regime to torture and abuse in Syria’s many notorious torture prisons.

My findings are published below, although I freely admit that, despite my best attempts at research, there are gaps in my knowledge, and I invite anyone with more detailed information to contact me so I can make it more comprehensive.

The list of those detained on March 16 came from three sources — a Facebook page and the website of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), published immediately after the arrests, and the website of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), after the 32 protestors were charged. Also useful was the blogger Zeinobia, who is well worth following. For the 21 political prisoners on whose behalf the protest on March 16 was called, the only useful list I found was here (and I could only confirm 20 names, rather than 21).

At the end of this article, I also provide some names and stories from another report, by Amnesty International, relating to dozens more prisoners seized by the Syrian security services between March 8 and 23, in various towns ands cties throughout Syria.

The 20 political prisoners whose release was called for on March 16, 2011

1. Kamal al-Labwani
A Kurdish doctor and artist, and the founder of the Democratic Liberal Gathering, Kamal al-Labwani is considered one of the most prominent members of the Syrian opposition movement, but is imprisoned in Adra prison, near Damascus, serving a 15-year prison sentence. On May 10, 2007, he was given a 12-year sentence for “scheming with a foreign country, or communicating with one with the aim of causing it to attack Syria,” following visits to Europe and the USA in 2005 “where he met human rights organisations and government officials and called for peaceful democratic reform in Syria,” and on April 23, 2008, as Amnesty International explained, the First Military Court in Damascus found him guilty of “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country,” and added another three years’ imprisonment to the 12-year term he was already serving. Alarmingly, the new charge “was based on the testimony of prisoners in the same cell, who claimed he had criticised the authorities when he returned to his cell from a trial hearing in May 2007.” In March 2009, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention deemed al-Labwani’s imprisonment to be arbitrary, and he is currently on a hunger strike.

2. Ali al-Abdallah
On March 13, 2011, a military court sentenced al-Abdallah, a human rights activist,  to 18 months in prison, based on allegations that he made critical comments against Iran, thereby “harming Syria’s relations with a foreign country.” An outspoken member of the “Damascus Declaration” group, al-Abdallah is no stranger to prison, having previously served a 30-month sentence for his criticisms of the Syrian government in the group’s 2005 declaration, signed by around 300 Syrian and Lebanese activists, which called for Syria’s transition to a democratic nation and improved relations with Lebanon, including complying with UN resolutions by demarcating the border, setting up an embassy in Beirut and recognizing Lebanon’s sovereignty and independence. Other members of the group to be imprisoned include former parliamentarian Riyad Sayf, arrested in January 2008, and writer and activist Michel Kilo, who was arrested after signing the group’s “Damascus Declaration,” and sentenced to a prison term of three years for “speaking false news, weakening national feeling and inciting sectarian sentiments.”

3. Mahmoud Barish
A Kurd, he faces a trial for criticizing government corruption, and is currently on a hunger strike in Adra prison.

4. Muhannad al-Hassani
On July 28, 2009, State Security detained Muhannad al-Hassani (aka al-Hasani), the Kurdish president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization (Swasiah), and two days later an investigating judge charged him with “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated information” in connection with his monitoring of the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), the exceptional court, with almost no procedural guarantees, that is responsible for trying and sentencing political prisoners. On November 10, 2009, the Syrian Bar Association issued a decision to permanently disbar him, and on June 23 2010, the SSSC gave him a three-year sentence. He is currently on a hunger strike in Adra prison.

5. Hassan Saleh
A senior member of the Kurdish Yekiti Party in Syria, Saleh was arrested on December 26, 2009 with two other senior party members, Ma’rouf Mulla Ahmed and Muhammad Ahmed Mustafa, and all three were charged with “aiming at separating part of the Syrian lands” and “joining an international political or social organization,” apparently after calling for the Kurdish areas of Syria to be granted autonomy during their party’s conference on December 3, 2009. They were held incommunicado for 14 months until February 2011, when they received their first and only family visit, and they are curently boycotting their ongoing trials, in part because they are not allowed access to their legal counsel.

6. Nizar Ristnawi
A member of the Committee to Defend Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights in Syria and a founding member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria, Nizar Ristnawi was arrested in Hamah city on April 18, 2005, and held in incommunicado detention, without contact with the outside world including his family and lawyers, for four months. He was allegedly ill-treated during this period. In November 2005 he was officially charged and brought to trial before the Supreme State Security Court, and on November 18, 2006, was sentenced to four years in prison for “spreading false news that could weaken the spirit of the nation” and “insulting the President of the Republic.” In March 2009, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared his detention to be arbitrary.

7. Tohama Maarouf
An artist, cyberactivist and mother of two children, she is currently on a hunger strike in Adra prison, where she is serving a one-year sentence, in protest at the “inhuman conditions” in which she is held.

8. Anwar Bunni
A human rights lawyer and activist, Bunni was arrested in May 2006 along with ten others, including Michel Kilo, after signing the “Damascus Declaration.” In April 2007, he was sentenced to five years in jail and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine for “weakening the morale of the nation.”

9. Maher Asper
One of seven young men (between 25 and 34 years of age), who were detained between January and March 2006 after developing a youth discussion group and publishing certain articles online that were critical of the Syrian authorities, Asper (also identified as Maher Ibrahim) and Tarek Ghorani (see below) were given seven-year sentences for “taking action or making a written statement that could endanger the State or harm its relationship with a foreign country” after what Amnesty International described as “an unfair trial.” The other five men — Husam Ali Mulhim, Ayham Saqr, Alam Fakhour, Omar Ali al-Abdullah and Diab Sirieyeh –received five years each, even though all seven defendants denied the charges and stated that the “confessions” used in the trial had been extracted under torture. They are held in Saydnaya Military Prison, near Damascus, where conditions are harsh.

10. Raghda Hassan
On February 10, 2010, Syrian activist and former political prisoner Raghda Hassan (aka al-Hassan) was arrested as she was heading to Lebanon. The Syrian security services later raided her house in the city of Tartous, and confiscated her laptop and the draft  of an unpublished novel that she wrote about her life in Syrian prisons. Hassan is married to a Palestinian and has two children. She was in prison from 1993 to 1995 on charges of belonging to the Communist Party in Syria.

11. Mesh’al al-Tammo
A spokesperson for the Kurdish Future Movement in Syria, he was given a three-and-a-half year sentence on May 11, 2009 for “weakening national sentiments” and “broadcasting false information.” He is currently on a hunger strike in Adra prison.

12. Habib al-Saleh
A Kurd, he is currently on a hunger strike in Adra prison.

13. Asaad Hilal
A 61-year-old bookshop owner from Saraqeb in the northwestern Syrian province of Idleb, Hilal was imprisoned in 1980 because he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. On January 2 this year, he was taken into custody in Idleb after repeated requests by military intelligence, which had apparently been investigating his fundraising activities, although his supporters stated that he had been “raising money for distribution to the needy.”

14. Tarek Ghorani
Like Maher Asper above, Ghorani is one of seven young men (between 25 and 34 years of age), who were detained between January and March 2006 after developing a youth discussion group and publishing certain articles online that were critical of the Syrian authorities, Asper (also identified as Maher Ibrahim) and Tarek Ghorani were given seven year sentences for “taking action or making a written statement that could endanger the State or harm its relationship with a foreign country” after what Amnesty International described as “an unfair trial.”

15. Khaled Massry

16. Osama Haj Sleiman

17. Adan Zeitoun

18. Khalaf Mohamad Hussein

19. Ahmad Mohamed Bakir

20. Ammar Talawi

The 50 political prisoners held as a result of the protest on March 16

The first eight were released on the actual day of the protest, and 32 of the remaining 42 were charged the day after. There has, as yet, been no mention whatsoever about the whereabouts of the other ten — including a 10-year old boy — whose arrests or abductions were also noted on the day of the protest.

(i) The eight prisoners released

1. Mazen Darwish
Human rights activist, and Director of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)

2. Tayeb Tizini
69 years old, Tizini is a celebrated author and Professor of Politics at Damascus University

3. Hassiba Abdel-Rahman
Former prisoner of conscience, jailed in 1979, 1986 and 1992 for having belonged to the “Labor Party of Syria” and for meeting members of Amnesty International

4. Yassin al-Labwani
A relative of Kamal al-Labwani (also see below)

5. Maimouna Alammar

6. Amer Daoud (aka Ammar Dawood)
The husband of Raghda Hassan (see 10, above)

7. Kaka Daoud (aka Ricardo Dawood)
The 13-year old son of Amer Daoud/Ammar Dawood and Raghda Hassan

8. Esmail al-Khateb (aka Ismail Khatib)

(ii) The 32 prisoners charged

1. ‎Omar al-Labwani
Son of prisoner of conscience Kamal al-Labwani (see 1, above)
UPDATE March 27: Human rights activist Wissam Tarif (see 10, below) has stated that all 32 are relatives of existing prisoners, and that they all embarked on a hunger strike in solidarity with their relatives on March 18. On March 27, he stated that a judge had granted him bail and he would be released.

2. Riba al-Labwani
Also a relative of Kamal al-Labwani
UPDATE March 27: Wissam Tarif reported that a judge ordered her release on bail, and that of Laila al-Labwani and her daughter Siba Hassan, plus Sereen Khouri, Wafa al-Lahham and Nesrin/Nasreen al-Housien on March 23 (see 3, 5, 6, 21 and 30, below)

3. Laila al-Labwani
Also a relative of Kamal al-Labwani
UPDATE March 27: See 2, above

4. Ammar al-Labwani
Also a relative of Kamal al-Labwani

5. Siba Hafiz Hassan
Daughter of Laila al-Labwani
UPDATE March 27: See 2, above

6. Sereen Khouri
Human rights activist
UPDATE March 27: See 2, above

7. Nahed Badawiya
Badawiya, a former prisoner of conscience, was detained by the Syrian authorities in May 2005 as a member of the Jamal al-Atassi Forum, a political discussion group, after one of the Forum members, Ali al-Abdallah (see above), read a statement by the exiled leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Syria, which called for political reform. She was also threatened with the expulsion of her husband, Salama Kayla, a Palestinian journalist, and a prisoner of conscience from 1992 to 2000, imprisoned on charges of “opposing the objectives of the revolution,” who has lived in Syria for 25 years. In June 2005, the Political Security department reportedly gave instructions at all Syrian border points to deny Kayla re-entry to the country so that he was unable to travel to France for a yearly check-up for leukaemia at a Paris hospital.

8. Kamal Cheikho (aka Sheikho)
A Kurdish literature student, blogger and human rights defender who formerly worked with the Committee for the Defence of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights in Syria, and subsequently became active in defending human rights independently, Cheikho is also a former prisoner of conscience. Imprisoned last summer on charges of “spreading false information that could debilitate the morale of the nation,” he was released on bail of 500 Syrian pounds (around $10) on March 3. He vehemently denies the charges against him and had begun a hunger strike on February 16 in protest against his detention. His next hearing is scheduled for March 28.

9. Suhair Atassi
A human rights activist, living in Damascus, she runs the Jamal Atassi Forum group on Facebook, an extension of the banned Jamal Atassi Forum. The forum calls for political reforms in Syria and the reinstatement of civil rights and the cancellation of the emergency law that has suspended constitutional rights since 1963. See here for an excellent interview Al-Jazeera conducted with Atassi last month.

10. Abd Al-Hamid al-Tammo (aka Abdul al-Razzaq al-Temmo)
Brother of prisoner of conscience Mesh’al al-Tammo (see 11, above)

11. Adel Al-Bunni
A son of prisoner of conscience Anwar Bunni (see 8, above)

12. Fahima Herveen Saleh Awsi
A member of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights (acting as a monitor)

13. Naret Ibrahim Abdul Karim

14. Badr Eddin al-Shallash

15. Mohamed Osama Nassar

16. Zokan Naoufal (aka Nofal)

17. Bisher Jawdat Saeed

18. Saad Jawdat Saeed

19. Ghaffar Hikmat Muhammad

20. Dana Ibrahim al-Jawabra

21. Wafa Mohamed al-Lahham
UPDATE March 27: See 2, above

22. Nabil Walij Shurbaji

23. Rayan Kamal Suleyman

24. Daya al-Din Daghmoush (aka Dia Eldin Doghmosh)

25. Nasredin Ahmou (aka Nasr Eddin Fakhr Eddin Ahmi)

26. Ali Abdul Rahman al-Muqdad

27. Shaher al-Warea

28. Hisham Khalid al-Droubi

29. Mohammad Hassan al-Khalil

30. Nisreen Khalid Hasan
UPDATE March 27: Probably Nasreen al-Housien, a fifth-year student at Damascus University Faculty of Medicine, mentioned as detained by Wissam Tarif, and as being released on bail on March 23

31. Fahed al-Bassam al-Yimani

32. Mudar al-Asimi

(iii) The 10 prisoners whose whereabouts are unknown

1. Hussein al-Labwani
Another relative of prisoner of conscience Kamal al-Labwani (see 1, above)
UPDATE Mar 27: As Wissam Tarif reported on Twitter on March 17, he was “not sent with the detainees to the court today. Risk of torture in arbitrary detention.” On March 24, he added, “Hussein al-Labwani is in serious risk of torture in Al-Mazi political security branch.”

2. Hannibal al-Hassan (aka Hanibal Awad)
The 10-year old son of Raghda Hassan (see 10, above)

3. Mahmoud Ghorani
A relative of prisoner of conscience Tarek Ghorani (see 14, above)
UPDATE March 27: On March 24, Wissam Tarif reported that he was “detained in Mazi Political Security Branch. Serious risk of torture.”

4. Bara Kellizy (aka Bara’ah Kalziyeh, Bara Kellizin)
UPDATE March 27: On March 24, Wissam Tarif reported that he was “detained in the Mazi Political Security Branch. Serious risk of torture.”

5. Mohammad Adib Matar

6. Mohammad Darwish

7. Mohamad Mounir Alfakeer (aka Mohammad Munir al-Fakir)

8. Mohamad al-Khateb (aka al-Katib)

9. Abdul Rahman Khitou (aka Kheto)

10. Wissam Tarif
Born in Lebanon, Tarif has played a major role in advocating for democracy and human rights in Syria and Lebanon, as an intellectual and an activist, and primarily as the director of the Foundation for the Defense of Prisoners of Conscience (FDPOC) — now superseded by the European-based INSAN (whose name is based on the Arabic for “human”). Tarif continues to works on a regional and international level, focusing on the situation in Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular.
UPDATE March 27: Despite being interrogated 17 times by the Syrian security police during his time in Syria, and surviving several attempts on his life, there is no evidence that Tarif was detained after the March 16 protest, as he has been a source of important information on Twitter throughout this whole period.

Other prisoners included in an urgent action issued by Amnesty International

On March 23, Amnesty International released an urgent action, regarding at least 93 people — including five women and at least 12 children under the age of 18, and consisting of school and university students, journalists, intellectuals and political activists — who were arrested by the Syrian security forces between March 8 and 23 in Aleppo, Banias, Damascus, Dera’a, Douma, Hama, Homs, Latakia, Ma’aratan Nu’man and al-Malkiyah, and whose places of detention are unknown, raising fears that they, like many of those listed above, are at risk of torture. This is in spite of the fact that many of those held “are likely to be prisoners of conscience, held merely for exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression and association by peacefully supporting or taking part in protests.” Amnesty also noted, “The real number of those arrested is likely to be considerably higher. According to one Syrian human rights organization, around 300 people had been arrested in Dera’a [alone] in the five days up to and including 22 March.”

Prisoners listed by Amnesty, excluding those arrested in Damascus on March 16, are as follows:

University students Abdullah Mas’oud, Adham Bittar, Wissam Bdiwi, Hassan al-Homsi, Shahem al-Yousefi and Manhal Shahni. They were all arrested on 8 March from their homes in the town of Ma’aratan Nu’man, apparently for calling for anti- government protests on Facebook.

Seventeen-year-old high school students Azo Sriyoul, Yasser Ibrahim, Amjad al-Samadi and Ahmed Majed al-Saydawi were all arrested on 11 March from their high school in Douma, near Damascus, for writing anti-government slogans on the wall.

Marwa al-Ghemyan, a 17-year-old female student, was one of a group of at least 11 people who were arrested on 15 March for taking part in a small peaceful demonstration that was held in Damascus.

Nasr Sa’id was arrested on 16 March when he responded to a summons from the State Security branch in the coastal city of Latakia, apparently for distributing brochures calling for democratic change.

Hussein Mustafa Ali, aged 25, is suspected to have been arrested on 18 March possibly for taking part in a protest that was held in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus that day. According to his family, they have not heard from him since that day and his mobile is turned off. They did, however, see a glimpse of him on one of the protest videos posted on YouTube. As far as Amnesty International is aware at least 10 other men were also arrested that day from the Umayyad Mosque.

Issa Masalmeh was arrested from his home in Dera’a on 21 March. He is a leading member of an unauthorized opposition party, the Arab Socialist Union.

Mus’ab Sheikh Amin, aged 14, Rafe’ Abu Ghaloun, aged 16, ‘Abdullah Amin, aged 17, and Saleh Abu Ghaloun, aged 18, were all arrested on 22 March by Military Security in the northern city of Aleppo apparently for attempting to demonstrate in support of the protests in Dera’a. According to Mus’ab Sheikh Amin’s family, when they saw him with Military Security officers who brought him to his home to search it, his hands and legs were badly injured and his clothes were bloodied. Reportedly, the families of the four were thrown out of the Military Security branch in Aleppo when they attempted to ask for the whereabouts of their sons.

Lo’ay Hussein, a writer and journalist, was arrested from his home near Damascus on 22 March apparently for publishing on the internet a petition in solidarity with protestors in Dera’a and calling for the Syrian people’s right to peacefully expressing their opinions.

To write to the Syrian government demanding the release of all political prisoners, including all those named in this article, please use the addresses and contact details below:

Bashar al-Assad
Presidential Palace
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 332 3410

Minister of Interior
Major Sa’id Mohamed Samour
Ministry of Interior
Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 222 3428

And copies to:
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Walid al-Mu’allim
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 214 6251

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), 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 Cageprisoners.

Syria: Amazingly, The Next Crucible of Revolution in the Middle East?

Last week I wrote an article about the unexpected awakening of popular unrest in Syria, when an unprecedented “Day of Rage” against the Ba’athist dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad was called by protestors in Damascus, and was followed the day after by another protest in which respected opposition figures — both Arabs and Kurds — called for the release of 21 political prisoners out of the many thousands of “prisoners of conscience” held in Syria’s notorious prisons. These include Far Falestin in Damascus, whose reputation for torture was such that, when George W. Bush and his close advisors were looking for countries where men and boys seized in the “War on Terror” could be tortured, Syria was chosen, along with Egypt, Jordan and Morocco.

Since last Wednesday, the ripples of dissent in Syria have spread, leading to major unrest in the southern city of Dara’a, where, last Friday, protests about the arrest of a group of 15 schoolchildren who had dared to scrawl graffiti on a wall explaining that “the people want the overthrow of the regime” escalated into something far more grave, when the security services opened fire, killing three protestors in cold blood. Dubbed “Dignity Friday” by protestors, who had been using social networking sites to coordinate their activities, the clampdown in Dara’a immediately echoed throughout the region, where other protests had been taking place, and the next day, as the Guardian explained, “a much larger, angrier crowd — estimated to number as many as 20,000 — turned out for the burial of the previous days’ victims.”

For a country generally stunned into public silence since 1963 by emergency laws that prohibit any demonstrations against the regime — and by vicious reprisals on the rare occasions that dissent has previously threatened the regime — two protests in the capital in a week (even before the bloodshed in Dara’a just days later) was extraordinary, and the government’s response indicated how — despite the small number of people involved — senior officials were clearly rattled. A small clip of the “Day of Rage” was made available on YouTube, where it has, to date, been seen by over 125,000 people, but the response to the call for the release of the 21 political prisoners was even more significant, because of the government’s overreaction.

Of the 150 protestors last Wednesday, the majority were themselves human rights activists — or relatives of the 21 political prisoners whose release the protest was designed to secure. The 21 include Kamal al-Labwani, a Kurdish doctor and artist, and one of the most prominent members of the Syrian opposition movement, who was imprisoned in 2007; Muhannad al-Hassani, the Kurdish president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization, who was imprisoned in June 2010; Ali al-Abdallah, imprisoned two weeks ago — not for the first time — for criticizing Syria’s close relations with Iran, as a member of the “Damascus Declaration” group, which has long called for Syria’s transition to a democratic nation; and Anwar Bunni, a human rights lawyer and activist, and another member of the “Damascus Declaration” group, who was imprisoned in April 2007.

At noon last Wednesday, as announced in advance, the group of protestors –including Kamal al-Labwani’s son and six other relatives, human rights activists Mazen Darwish, Suhair Atassi and Sereen Khouri, and former prisoners of conscience Nahed Badawiya and Kamal Cheikho — gathered outside the Interior Ministry in Damascus to present a petition calling for the prisoners’ release. However, as a human rights activist who was at the demonstration explained:

When we got to the ministry, we could see that there were a lot of security services around. I saw five buses full of security members parked 300 meters from us. At first, an employee from the Ministry of Interior came out and told us that the families of the detainees would be allowed to present the petition to the minister. We asked for five minutes, as some families were still arriving. When a few families raised photos of detained relatives, the security services suddenly attacked us and beat us with black batons.

Providing corroboration, the daughter of a prominent political prisoner stated:

We had barely taken my father’s picture out when men ran toward us and started beating us. They beat my mother on her head and arm with a baton. They pulled my sister’s hair and beat her as well until my uncle managed to get her away. We started running away, but they followed us.

Afterwards, witnesses stated that 40 of the protestors has been seized by the security services, and only six were known to have been released — including Mazen Darwish, Tayeb Tizini, the celebrated author and professor of philosophy at Damascus University, and Hassiba Abdel-Rahman, a former prisoner of conscience, jailed in 1979, 1986 and 1992 for having belonged to the “Labor Party of Syria” and for meeting members of Amnesty International.

It was reported that violence had been used on some of the protestors, and that “security services interrogated each person separately and asked him for the password to his Facebook account.” One demonstrator told Reuters that the security services “pulled Suhair by her hair and took her away,” and Mazen Darwish explained to the BBC that he was set free “only after being held for five hours in the military security branch’s detention centre alongside 20 others, including women.” He also said, “When I showed them my international press card, they shouted and said, ‘Why were you standing among protesters and not among the journalists?'”

The next day, the Syrian government announced that it was charging 32 of the prisoners, and released a list of 25 names, including rights activist Suhair Atassi and four relatives of Kamal al-Labwani. The prisoners were charged with “attacking the reputation of the state, provoking racism and sectarianism and damaging relations between Syrians” — the type of Orwellian “crimes” that plague the charge sheets of anyone who publicly dares to criticize the Libyan state. (Note: For further information about these political prisoners, and the 21 already held, please see Political Prisoners in Syria: An Urgent Crisis Now!)

Expressing dismay at the charges, Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a news release, “Like many of the political prisoners whose release they were calling for, protestors appear to have been arrested simply for the peaceful expression of their views. The Syrian authorities must immediately release all those arrested in the last two days for merely attending peaceful protests, and stop these attacks on freedom of expression and assembly.”

The events of March 16 — and the resonant history of those held in Damascus, with their long and determined commitment to democracy and human rights — provided an important historical weight to the infectious eruption of violence in the south, although clearly, if a tipping point is to be reached, many different elements of dissatisfaction, bubbling under the surface for decades, will have to prove impossible for the President al-Assad’s regime to suppress, as Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Candian citizen rendered by the US for torture in Syria during the “War on Terror,” explained in an article for the Guardian on Wednesday. After explaining that he knew, from personal experience, how Syria’s human rights situation had degenerated under Bashar al-Assad, Arar proceeded to analyze the Syrian people’s reluctance to embrace revolution, noting, for one thing, their “ethnic divisions”:

The ruling Alawite minority, to whom Assad belongs and whose members have full control over sensitive military and intelligence posts, is only one of many. There is also the powerless Sunni majority, Christians, Kurds, Ismailis and Duruz. There are also over 1 million old Palestinian immigrants and, more recently, more than 1 million Iraqi refugees have decided to make Syria their home. All these groups have competing and conflicting interests. These ethnic divisions make it extremely challenging to have a unified popular voice, but what is encouraging is the fact that the Syrian youth who are leading this non-violent reform movement have made it clear that it is purely secular in nature and they will not allow it to be hijacked by any opportunist ethnic group or opposition party.

At present, it is unclear whether the necessary tipping point for revolution has been reached, although it is starting to look like it has, for two reasons. The first is the anger that was expressed even before the clampdown, when, as Rania Abouzeid explained in a perceptive article for Time:

[D]escriptions of the uprising in Dara’a were dramatic. The alleged details included dozens of young men pelting a poster — in broad daylight — of a smiling President Bashar al-Assad; a statue of his late father and predecessor Hafiz al-Assad, demolished; official buildings including the ruling Ba’ath Party’s headquarters and the governor’s office burned down. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chant, captured in shaky mobile phone footage allegedly taken on Monday.

The second reason is the entrenchment and escalation of those sentiments, as the state’s violence has continued to escalate over the last few days. After the shooting in Dara’a last Friday, the security forces have been on the offensive, as the Guardian reported, noting that they have responded to protests “with water cannon, teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition,” and that “The total death toll now stands at 16,” after the authorities “launched an assault on a neighbourhood sheltering anti-government protesters, fatally shooting at least nine in an operation that lasted nearly 24 hours,” according to witnesses. As the Guardian explained, “At least six were said to have been killed in an early morning attack on the al-Omari mosque” in Dera’a, and police “shot three other protesters in the city centre after dusk,” according to a local activist.

To his credit, the President responded swiftly to the deaths, “sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead,” as Time reported, and also sacking the governor and releasing the schoolchildren whose graffiti set the chaos in motion, although reports of the scale of the assault on the people of Dera’a have continued to grow alarmingly over the last 24 hours, which can only devalue the President’s efforts.

As Channel 4 News reported, claims of fatalities have been revised steeply upwards, and now range “from 32 to more than 100,” with Amnesty International also reporting that the number of human rights activists who have “disappeared” has also increased sharply from the 32 charged in Damascus last week to a total of 93. As Channel 4 News also noted, chillingly, “Here in the newsroom, we have watched amateur footage on ‘YouTube’ which suggests that armed troops did open fire protestors in Dera’a. In scenes too shocking to broadcast, demonstrators lie motionless, some in pools of blood.”

Moreover, as Arabic language websites have been reporting, the protesters have not given up, and have, instead, given the government “until Friday morning to meet a list of demands relayed back to the President by his delegation,” as Time explained, which include the lifting of the emergency law and the release of all political prisoners. If their demands are not met, they have promised that this Friday will be the “Friday of the Martyrs,” not just in Dara’a but throughout the country.

That sounds ambitious, but on the other hand, one thing we should all have learned from events in the Middle East this year is that movements can grow so swiftly that the unthinkable can become possible, and those of us in the West can only watch in wonder.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), 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 Cageprisoners.

Intimations of Mortality — And Why This Is the View From My Bedroom

Recently, as I began my 49th year on this earth, I was ambushed by questions of mortality that had not troubled me for nearly 20 years, when both my grandmothers died in swift succession, and I, as a generally chaotic twenty-something, had to grapple with loss, and with questions of old age and memories of childhood that I was not necessarily equipped to deal with.

I realize that it’s arguable that all my work for the last five years, chronicling the lives — and sometimes the deaths — of those subjected to torture and abuse at Guantánamo and elsewhere in America’s “War on Terror” has dealt explicitly with questions of mortality that are far beyond what most people deal with in their daily lives, and that this may well have had an impact on me that I have not been able to gauge myself.

However, in terms of my personal encounters with mortality, the greatest tests since those encounters with the deaths of my grandmothers have come this year, with the death of my father, and with my own intimations of mortality, prompted by my father’s death, the illness of my mother, and by my own unexpected encounters with the fragility of my own life.

I don’t imagine that losing a father can ever be easy. Death can be sudden, as it was in my father’s case, or slow and painful, and I imagine the former is always preferable, unless there are outstanding issues that a sudden death would prevent from being raised, discussed and — hopefully — dealt with, but this was not the case with my father. Although we were not exceptionally close, as he had remarried after the failure of his first marriage to my mother, and this second family had been the focus of his life for 35 years, we had, over time, developed a great liking and respect for one another, as our lives and circumstances changed, that involved some deep and unspoken affection and mutual understanding.

At my father’s funeral, just outside Skipton, North Yorkshire, where he had moved just one day before a heart attack took him away in his sleep, there were numerous condolences cards from the various phases of his life, but most of all, it seemed, from the Norfolk Broads, where he and his second wife Barbara had lived for the previous 12 years, deeply involved in the local church community, where he was widely admired for his kindness and for being “a gentleman,” and thoroughly enjoying what he described as his and Barbara’s “12-year holiday.” Retirement clearly suited him more than work ever had, and he also delighted in becoming a grandparent — first when my son was born, and then when his step-daughter (to whom he had been a father almost all her life) had two boys.

Under these circumstances, it was difficult to see my father’s death as something sad in and of itself, and much easier to note that a sudden death leaves everyone a little confused, and especially leaves a hole in the lives of those closest to the departed — in my father’s case, Barbara, who, half-laughing, half-crying, complained that my father had wanted to be back in the Yorkshire Dales, where he had enjoyed walking as a young man, but that, as soon as they had returned, he had abandoned her.

My father’s death coincided, alarmingly, with serious illness on my mother’s part. Diagnosed and dealt with, this is a panic that has passed, but at its height my mother spoke to me on the phone and then promptly forgot who I was, which was as shocking a conversation as I have ever had in my entire life, as nothing had previously encouraged me to think that, one day, my mother would no longer know who I am.

In the end, these events — my father’s death, and my mother’s temporary amnesia, brought on by an untreated infection — took place in the same week, the first week of February, when I was in Poland, touring a sub-titled version of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” which I co-directed with filmmaker Polly Nash, and wondering why I was suffering from deep and disabling pain in my right foot, when there was no discernible reason for it.

The problem with my foot — which, in connection with my father’s death and my mother’s illness, prompted some serious intimations of mortality on my own part  — has been a long and slowly unfolding nightmare. The big toe of my right 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 case when it didn’t get any better.

At the end of January, I finally sought advice from one of the doctors in the group surgery nearest to my home in London. Thinking it was some sort of infection, he put me on a week-long course of antibiotics, which didn’t work, but this wasn’t decisively confirmed until I was in Poland, where I put up with the pain until I returned to the UK. Even then, the doctors continued to be confused, and the hope appeared to be that whatever it was might pass of its own accord.

It wasn’t until a second toe — the middle toe on my right foot — swelled up at the start of March that this approach to the problem was finally ditched, and I was referred to the Accident & Emergency Department at Lewisham Hospital, with instructions to insist on seeing the vascular team, who deal with problems relating to blood flow.

The vascular team reassured me that the problem posed by my increasingly painful and now blackening toes was not fatal, and would not, in all likelihood, lead to amputation — both of which were a relief, given how severe the problem now appeared to be, with my middle toe acutely sensitive to the slightest touch — but the doctors then proceeded to give me an appointment for an arterial scan 13 days later. With hindsight, I realize that I should have complained that 13 days was far too long to wait when I was already in great pain, but for some reason this didn’t occur to me, and I spent the next two weeks never getting more than ten minutes sleep at a time, which I don’t recommend to anyone who wishes to preserve their sanity.

Although I had been prescribed codeine, it wasn’t enough to block the pain and every time I laid down to try to sleep, pain would shoot through my foot as soon as it had been lying motionless for a few minutes. This went on and on, over and over every night, from before midnight to long after dawn, with sleep almost entirely unattainable — as much of a mirage as it was for the poor prisoners in Guantánamo who were subjected to what was described, euphemistically, as the “frequent flier program,” in which, every two hours, over the course of days, weeks or even months, prisoners were moved from cell to cell so that they were deprived of meaningful sleep for signficiant periods of time, and gradually — or, in some cases. precipitously — suffered severe mental disintegration.

Under these circumstances, my ability to think clearly and to write — the incessant driver of my life for the last five years — finally started to desert me, and on Friday last week (the day after I finally received an arterial scan), the consultant at Lewisham found me a bed on a ward with a great view over Ladywell Fields, the landscaped park that flanks the Ravensbourne river as it makes it way down to Deptford to meet the great body of the Thames.

Away from my computer, I had the opportunity to reflect on how well the NHS is operating, as the axe wielded by the coalition government hangs over it, and how the last thing it needs is the kind of unprecedented top-down reorganization proposed by health minister Andrew Lansley, whereby consortia of GPs — assisted by the Tories’ private sector chums, of courtse — will be responsible for managing the hospitals’ £80 bn budget, distributing contracts on a competitive basis that is intended to break up and effectively privatize the NHS.

After two days, I was referrred on to St. Thomas’s Hospital on the Thames, directly opposite the Houses of Parliament, where, after an ambulance journey with two dedicated public servants, who were proud of their jobs and fearful of the government’s intentions, I was greeted warmly and processed efficiently in a buzzing A&E department, and then taken up to a room in a ward on the 10th floor with the most amazing view of the Houses of Parliament — hence the photos, and my mention of the view from my bedroom in the title of this article — while doctors and consultants began working out how to redirect the flow of blood to my starved and damaged toes, which, it has become apparent, was blocked because of minor arterial damage elsewhere in my body.

However, although I’m now being thoroughly monitored by professionals — and being given painkillers by professionals — the pain has still not gone away, an unbroken night’s sleep is still an inaccessible memory, and I’m waiting to see if body scans, a course of blood-thinning drugs and another course of artery-expanding infusions will actually bring life back to my toes and sleep back to my life.

With a new-found respect for life — through the sudden loss of my father, the temporary amnesia of my mother and my own intimations of mortality — I have finally put aside the last vestige of my self image as some sort of youthful revolutionary, a mirage which many people my age will recognize, but which in my case proved surprisingly resistant to common sense — at least as far as smoking was concerned, which I continued to enjoy and to endorse enthusiastically up until last Friday, even though it undoubtedly contributed to my current problems. I gave up drinking alcohol three years ago, which was easy, but continues to impress many people I meet, who struggle with their own intake, but on smoking I was way behind the pack, often the only addict sneaking out the back to sustain a habit that was increasingly shorn of all its false glamour.

The most demonstrable example of my belated maturity took place at noon on Friday March 18, when, after 29 years of life as an enthusiastic chain smoker, I smoked my last ever cigarette outside Lewisham Hospital.

Having seen the future, and recognized my own death, I’d now like to get on with my life again. Please bear with me as I recover from my current suffering, and get back to work. I can’t promise that I’ll be writing at quite the same hectic pace I’ve maintained for the last four years as a nicotine- and caffeine-fuelled freelance journalist, but I haven’t yet abandoned my beloved coffee, and, given that my indignation at the world’s many injustices is undiminished, I expect that I’ll be as opinionated as ever, if not quite as relentlessly workaholic.

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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), 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.

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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, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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CD: Love and War

Love and War by The Four Fathers

The Guantánamo Files book cover

The Guantánamo Files

The Battle of the Beanfield book cover

The Battle of the Beanfield

Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion book cover

Stonehenge: Celebration & Subversion

Outside The Law DVD cover

Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo


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