Clive Stafford Smith on Guantánamo: “You Are Cleared to Leave, But You Cannot Go”


On Friday, a powerful op-ed appeared on CNN’s website, entitled, “Mr. President, what should I tell cleared prisoners in Guantánamo?” It was written by someone who has been meeting prisoners at Guantánamo, as a civilian lawyer, for nearly ten years, and has been meeting prisoners who have been told that the US no longer wants to hold them — that they have been cleared for release — for up to seven years.

The author of the op-ed is Clive Stafford Smith, the founder and director of Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent 14 of the 155 men still held at Guantánamo, including one man, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who was told in 2007 that the US no longer wanted to hold him. Soon after he was told this, another British resident was freed, with three more following in December 2007. The last to be freed was Binyam Mohamed, in February 2009, but for Shaker his long and pointless imprisonment seems to be unending.

This is in spite of the fact that President Obama established a high-level, inter-agency task force to review the cases of all the men held shortly after he took office in January 2009, and, a year later, the task force issued a report containing their recommendations: who to release, who to prosecute, and — most dubiously — who to continue holding without charge or trial on the basis that they were too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

The task force recommended 156 men (of the 240 held when Obama took office) for release, and 79 have been released, with one other — Adnan Latif — dying in September 2012 without being released, reportedly by committing suicide, at least six and maybe even eight years after he was first told he would be freed.

Of the 155 men still held, 76 were cleared for release in January 2010 by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, although some, like Shaker, were recommended for release years before, by military review boards under President Bush. However, all of them — Shaker, 55 Yemenis and 20 other men — remain held, over four years after they were told that the US no longer wanted to hold them, and that they would be released as soon as the necessary arrangements could be made. A 77th man was recently cleared for release by a Periodic Review Board, a process established, belatedly, to reassess the cases of the men recommended for indefinite detention by President Obama’s task force.

These men are still held because Congress raised obstacles to their release, because President Obama issued a ban on releasing the Yemenis, which he only dropped last year, and because, more generally, President Obama has been unwilling to spend political capital overcoming the obstacles raised by Congress, even though he has the power to do so. Mostly, though, they continue to be held because Guantánamo was conceived as a legal, moral and ethical abomination, and it effectively remains so today.

As Clive notes, “There can be no other prison in the world where 50 percent of the inmates are told: ‘You are cleared to leave, but you cannot go.'” Or as I sometimes describe it, when dictatorships imprison people indefinitely without charge or trial, they don’t establish a review process, tell prisoners they will be going home soon, and then not release them. That is a whole new level of cruelty, and one that, while these men are still held, undermines whatever fine words President Obama tells the world, and whatever standards he, his administration, Congress, the courts, the media and the American people claim to hold.

As Clive also notes, emphasizing the particular horrors of Guantánamo, “Over a 30-year career, I have visited most of the major prisons across the US South, institutions that house death row or a maximum security unit, and none treats the prisoners as badly as Shaker suffers in Guantánamo Bay.”

Clive’s op-ed is cross-posted below:

“Mr. President, what should I tell cleared prisoners in Guantánamo?”
By Clive Stafford Smith, CNN, January 31, 2014

President Obama delivered his State of the Union address and said — again — that this is the year he intends to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. As President, he has promised this before, first in his inaugural address in January 2009 and then periodically reiterated over the years.

As I write this, I am en route to the prison that Amnesty International once dubbed the “Guantánamo Gulag.”

One might quibble over the term, but the profile of the place is extraordinary. When I first went there in 2004, I expected to find “the worst of the worst” terrorists in the world, as then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had promised.

Instead, I was hard-pressed to find people who were America’s enemies. The Pentagon has effectively conceded this — 624 men have long since been set free, and 77 of the remaining 155 men have been cleared for release for at least four years, some for much longer. The majority of my clients have been cleared for release by the Obama administration’s 2009 Task Force, which requires unanimous agreement by no fewer than 6 federal agencies including the FBI, the CIA, and the Departments of Defense and State.

There can be no other prison in the world where 50 percent of the inmates are told: “You are cleared to leave, but you cannot go.”

I hope to visit five of my remaining clients, although some may not come to the meeting. All are depressed and (for the questionable privilege of seeing me) had to endure for a time what the military dubbed a “scrotum search” — an intentionally humiliating exploration of the genital area, which is intended to deter prisoners from coming to a legal visit to complain about the conditions.

One person who will come out is Shaker Aamer, the last British resident there. Shaker does not like what he had to endure, but he told me recently that the procedure was ultimately more humiliating for the soldiers who must carry out such benighted orders. After all, who joined the proud US military in order to become a “Scrotum Searcher, First Class?”

He has been cleared since 2007, and hopes that it will not be too long before he can return to London, finally, to meet his youngest son Faris, who was born on the day Shaker arrived at Guantánamo Bay: Valentine’s Day 2002.

Shaker is depressed. The President’s broken promises have weighed heavily on all the detainees.

As anyone can understand, it is easier to endure the certainty of abuse than to oscillate between hope and despair.

The President is correct when he argues that Guantánamo is a recruiting sergeant for extremism. He is right to say that America loses credibility, and inspires disdain, when we fail to adhere to our principles. The President is also justified when he blames the Republicans for undermining his pledge to erase the blot of Guantánamo from the reputation of this country.

However, President Obama is arguably the most powerful person on the planet and his team should not promote the myth that the cleared prisoners cannot be set free — Shaker could join his wife and four children in London tomorrow; those of us who have worked on the issue for 12 years can help ensure the smooth repatriation of others to their own homes and families.

Equally to the point, the most powerful man on Earth could tell the military to stop humiliating prisoners who want to talk to their lawyers, and to end the violent and torturous practice of force-feeding those who peacefully protest their indefinite detention by hunger-striking.

Over a 30-year career, I have visited most of the major prisons across the US South, institutions that house death row or a maximum security unit, and none treats the prisoners as badly as Shaker suffers in Guantánamo Bay.

The President could also advise me what I am meant to say next week, when my clients inevitably ask me — as they always do — why they are still being held despite the multiple findings that they pose no threat and can be transferred out of the hell they are living daily.

Note: See here for Andy Worthington’s photos of the protests in Washington D.C. on the 12th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo.

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).

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5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. I’m pleased that CNN published it. Hopefully it will be an education to many people who are unaware of what’s happening at Guantanamo, where the force-feeding of hunger strikers and humiliating body searches are still ongoing. I like how Clive doesn’t let President Obama off the hook: “President Obama is arguably the most powerful person on the planet and his team should not promote the myth that the cleared prisoners cannot be set free — Shaker could join his wife and four children in London tomorrow; those of us who have worked on the issue for 12 years can help ensure the smooth repatriation of others to their own homes and families.”

  2. Willy Bach says...

    Dear Andy

    Yes, I’m pleased that CNN published it. That is a great improvement on the US corporate media’s previous record of ignoring this story. It has taken much persistence. Thanks for your efforts.


  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Willy. It’s a sign of how poor the corporate media is in general that a clear voice of understated outrage like Clive’s cuts through it all so powerfully. The mainstream media persistently fails us through its obsession with “objectivity,” which mainly manifests itself not just through establishing a relationship with the authorities that is not “objective” at all — see most Obama press conferences, for example, or look at what obedience is required to be given priority access to information the government wants to be made available through news outlets, or look at Lesley Stahl from CBS falling for a man in uniform (Col. Bogdan) during a visit to Guantanamo last year — or through the careful use of language cravenly designed not to offend those in power: the carefully edited language in almost all mainstream articles or broadcasts dealing with national security — references to “detainees” and Guantanamo as a “detention camp,” to “enteral feeding” for force-feeding and “self-harm attempts” for suicide attempts, “enhanced interrogation” for torture, and waterboarding described normally as something like “an enhanced interrogation technique that some human rights advocates describe as a form of torture.” The refusal to confront the authorities with the correct words to describe what they’re doing is even evident in articles like Adam Goldman’s recent and otherwise revelatory article about Poland’s secret CIA torture prison for the Washington Post (which I wrote about here), so that those who aren’t looking closely may find that the outrage the writer seeks is constantly being watered down by the editorial perspective.
    The mainstream/”liberal” media’s editors should all be ashamed of themselves.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Riaz Azam wrote:

    Reminds me of an indian film called Zinda, where a man is kept in prision against his will for up to 14 years. A secret prison where people pay to keep people in prison and to keep them alive. I just cant believe the Arabs or the pakistanis or any other country leaders havent stood up to this miscarriage of justice. I pray that God gives strength to them and their families.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Riaz. Good to hear from you. I hadn’t heard of that film. It sounds disturbing. It is troubling how some countries seem to have abandoned their citizens, although in some cases they simply don’t have enough leverage on the US, which is not sufficiently ashamed (if at all) of its terrible actions over the last 12 years.

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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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