Congratulations to John Grisham for Writing about the Injustice of Guantánamo


In the long and horrendous history of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, it has been noticeable that very few celebrities have challenged the myriad injustices of Guantánamo — the torture; the indefinite detention without charge or trial; the decision by the Bush administration to tear up every domestic and international law and treaty regarding the treatment of prisoners; the refusal to make a distinction between soldiers and terrorists; the bounty payments issued to America’s Afghan and Pakistani allies, which led to numerous civilians being rounded up and sent to Guantánamo; the pressure exerted on the prisoners to make them tell lies about themselves and their fellow prisoners, to create the majority of what passes for evidence at Guantánamo; the failure of President Obama to hold any Bush administration officials (up to and including President Bush) responsible for their actions; the failure of President Obama to close the prison as he promised; the failure of President Obama to resume releasing prisoners, as he promised in a major speech in May this year; the opportunistic fearmongering of Congress, which has raised almost insurmountable obstacles to prevent the release of prisoners or the closure of the prison; the decision by judges in the appeals court in Washington D.C. (the D.C. Circuit Court) to gut habeas corpus of all meaning in relation to the Guantánamo prisoners, and to shut the Great Writ down as a route out of the prison; and the decision by the Supreme Court to allow this cynical manipulation of the law to stand, and not to assert its authority over the appeals court.

As a result of the general indifference towards Guantánamo, it came as a great and pleasant surprise when, at the weekend, the author John Grisham, whose books have sold over 250 million copies, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about the indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo, focusing, in particular, on the case of Nabil Hadjarab, an Algerian national, and an orphan, with relatives in France who have been seeking his release for many years. Grisham found out about him because he was alerted to the fact that prisoners were being prevented from reading his books, and that Nabil was one of them — and I imagine he was made aware of this through his support for the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization in the US dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people, which Nabil’s lawyers at Reprieve have also been involved in over many years.

Grisham, I’m glad to say, has understood perfectly the horrors of Guantánamo, as the following passages from his article show:

Nabil has not been the only “mistake” in our war on terror. Hundreds of other Arabs have been sent to Gitmo, chewed up by the system there, never charged and eventually transferred back to their home countries. (These transfers are carried out as secretly and as quietly as possible.) There have been no apologies, no official statements of regret, no compensation, nothing of the sort. The United States was dead wrong, but no one can admit it.

In Nabil’s case, the United States military and intelligence agents relied on corrupt informants who were raking in American cash, or even worse, jailhouse snitches who swapped false stories for candy bars, porn and sometimes just a break from their own beatings.

Nabil is one of 86 prisoners in Guantánamo (out of 166 in total) who are still held despite being cleared for release in January 2010 by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, and is one of the many prisoners who have been engaged in a hunger strike since February.

Moreover, he is one of 46 prisoners who have been force-fed during the hunger strike, although it is currently reported that the number of force-fed prisoners is down to 38. Nabil recently submitted a motion to a US court calling for a judge to issue a ruling compelling the government to “stop force-feeding in the prison and stop force-medicating prisoners,” as I explained in a recent article, “Guantánamo Hunger Strike: Nabil Hadjarab Tells Court, ‘I Will Consider Eating When I See People Leaving This Place.'” The motion was refused, because of a legal precedent forbidding judges to interfere in decisions regarding the treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo, but not before a judge criticized the military and President Obama.

Please see below for John Grisham’s article, which brings Nabil’s story up to date with the rather disturbing announcement that he may be one of two Algerians whose planned release was recently announced by the Obama administration — the only two of the 86 cleared prisoners that Obama has shown any interest in releasing, even though he has no family in Algeria. As John Grisham stated, if he is released to Algeria, “His nightmare will only continue. He will be homeless. He will have no support to reintegrate him into a society where many will be hostile to a former Gitmo detainee.”

After Guantánamo, Another Injustice
By John Grisham, New York Times, August 10, 2013

About two months ago I learned that some of my books had been banned at Guantánamo Bay. Apparently detainees were requesting them, and their lawyers were delivering them to the prison, but they were not being allowed in because of “impermissible content.”

I became curious and tracked down a detainee who enjoys my books. His name is Nabil Hadjarab, and he is a 34-year-old Algerian who grew up in France. He learned to speak French before he learned to speak Arabic. He has close family and friends in France, but not in Algeria. As a kid growing up near Lyon, he was a gifted soccer player and dreamed of playing for Paris St.-Germain, or another top French club.

Tragically for Nabil, he has spent the past 11 years as a prisoner at Guantánamo, much of the time in solitary confinement. Starting in February, he participated in a hunger strike, which led to his being force-fed.

For reasons that had nothing to do with terror, war or criminal behavior, Nabil was living peacefully in an Algerian guesthouse in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 11, 2001. Following the United States invasion, word spread among the Arab communities that the Afghan Northern Alliance was rounding up and killing foreign Arabs. Nabil and many others headed for Pakistan in a desperate effort to escape the danger. En route, he said, he was wounded in a bombing raid and woke up in a hospital in Jalalabad.

At that time, the United States was throwing money at anyone who could deliver an out-of-town Arab found in the region. Nabil was sold to the United States for a bounty of $5,000 and taken to an underground prison in Kabul. There he experienced torture for the first time. To house the prisoners of its war on terror, the United States military put up a makeshift prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Bagram would quickly become notorious, and make Guantánamo look like a church camp. When Nabil arrived there in January 2002, as one of the first prisoners, there were no walls, only razor-wire cages. In the bitter cold, Nabil was forced to sleep on concrete floors without cover. Food and water were scarce. To and from his frequent interrogations, Nabil was beaten by United States soldiers and dragged up and down concrete stairs. Other prisoners died. After a month in Bagram, Nabil was transferred to a prison at Kandahar, where the abuse continued.

Throughout his incarceration in Afghanistan, Nabil strenuously denied any connection to Al Qaeda, the Taliban or anyone or any organization remotely linked to the 9/11 attacks. And the Americans had no proof of his involvement, save for bogus claims implicating him from other prisoners extracted in a Kabul torture chamber. Several United States interrogators told him his was a case of mistaken identity. Nonetheless, the United States had adopted strict rules for Arabs in custody — all were to be sent to Guantánamo. On Feb. 15, 2002, Nabil was flown to Cuba; shackled, bound and hooded.

Since then, Nabil has been subjected to all the horrors of the Gitmo handbook: sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, temperature extremes, prolonged isolation, lack of access to sunlight, almost no recreation and limited medical care. In 11 years, he has never been permitted a visit from a family member. For reasons known only to the men who run the prison, Nabil has never been waterboarded. His lawyer believes this is because he knows nothing and has nothing to give.

The United States government says otherwise. In documents, military prosecutors say that Nabil was staying at a guesthouse run by people with ties to Al Qaeda and that he was named by others as someone affiliated with terrorists. But Nabil has never been charged with a crime. Indeed, on two occasions he has been cleared for a “transfer,” or release. In 2007, a review board established by President George W. Bush recommended his release. Nothing happened. In 2009, another review board established by President Obama recommended his transfer. Nothing happened.

According to his guards, Nabil is a model prisoner. He keeps his head down and avoids trouble. He has perfected his English and insists on speaking the language with his British lawyers. He writes in flawless English. As much as possible, under rather dire circumstances, he has fought to preserve his physical health and mental stability.

In the past seven years, I have met a number of innocent men who were sent to death row, as part of my work with the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongly convicted people. Without exception they have told me that the harshness of isolated confinement is brutal for a coldblooded murderer who freely admits to his crimes. For an innocent man, though, death row will shove him dangerously close to insanity. You reach a point where it feels impossible to survive another day.

Depressed and driven to the point of desperation, Nabil joined a hunger strike in February. This was not Gitmo’s first hunger strike, but it has attracted the most attention. As it gained momentum, and as Nabil and his fellow prisoners got sicker, the Obama administration was backed into a corner. The president has taken justified heat as his bold and eloquent campaign promises to close Gitmo have been forgotten. Suddenly, he was faced with the gruesome prospect of prisoners dropping like flies as they starved themselves to death while the world watched. Instead of releasing Nabil and the other prisoners who have been classified as no threat to the United States, the administration decided to prevent suicides by force-feeding the strikers.

Nabil has not been the only “mistake” in our war on terror. Hundreds of other Arabs have been sent to Gitmo, chewed up by the system there, never charged and eventually transferred back to their home countries. (These transfers are carried out as secretly and as quietly as possible.) There have been no apologies, no official statements of regret, no compensation, nothing of the sort. The United States was dead wrong, but no one can admit it.

In Nabil’s case, the United States military and intelligence agents relied on corrupt informants who were raking in American cash, or even worse, jailhouse snitches who swapped false stories for candy bars, porn and sometimes just a break from their own beatings.

Last week, the Obama administration announced that it was transferring some more Arab prisoners back to Algeria. It is likely that Nabil will be one of them, and if that happens another tragic mistake will be made. His nightmare will only continue. He will be homeless. He will have no support to reintegrate him into a society where many will be hostile to a former Gitmo detainee, either on the assumption that he is an extremist or because he refuses to join the extremist opposition to the Algerian government. Instead of showing some guts and admitting they were wrong, the American authorities will whisk him away, dump him on the streets of Algiers and wash their hands.

What should they do? Or what should we do?

First, admit the mistake and make the apology. Second, provide compensation. United States taxpayers have spent $2 million a year for 11 years to keep Nabil at Gitmo; give the guy a few thousand bucks to get on his feet. Third, pressure the French to allow his re-entry.

This sounds simple, but it will never happen.

Note: To add your voice to others calling for the French government to demand his return to France, please sign the petition here (in English), and please also watch the recently released short animated video below, in which Nabil’s words are spoken by the British actor David Morrissey. In the video, Nabil talks about the hunger strike and the force-feeding:

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Palina Prasasouk wrote:

    Wow, John Grisham.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I hope all of the people who have bought 250 million copies of his books read his op-ed, Palina. I thank the New York Times for publishing it, but it remains apparent that the majority of the chronic injustices that plague us aren’t sufficiently challenged by the mainstream media, whose vaunted “objectivity” consistently allows governments, politicians, banks and corporations to continue their malignant work largely unchallenged.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Palina Prasasouk wrote:

    Kudos to Grisham’s curiosity.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner wrote:

    Yes, thank you, thank you and thank you Mr. Grisham!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Laura Geraghty wrote:

    So glad to see this

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Sandrine and Laura. it takes the story of Guantanamo’s injustice to a whole new audience, that’s for sure.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner wrote:

    It would be dramatic if Nabil was deported to Algeria instead of France…

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    It would be horrible, Sandrine, as he has no one there to support him. I hope that isn’t the plan, but I fear it may be.

  9. Thomas says...

    At least he will be free from Gitmo-until he gets jailed for stealing to eat, or killed by the genuine terrorists for not supporting them.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    I expect, Thomas, that Reprieve will be doing all they can to help him get support in Algeria, and to keep pushing for him to be allowed to move to France.

  11. Singer Esperanza Spalding against Guantánamo torture prison | Dear Kitty. Some blog says...

    […] novelist John Grisham to write an op-ed about Guantánamo for the New York Times on August (which I wrote about here), focusing on the case of Nabil Hadjarab, an Algerian national, who, Grisham discovered, had been […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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