Sufyian Barhoumi, the Peaceful Algerian Cleared for Release But Still Trapped in Guantánamo


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In the long and sordid history of Guantánamo — open for 15 years and seven months, and still holding men indefinitely without charge or trial, in defiance of domestic and international norms regarding imprisonment — it’s sometimes easy for people to forget the role played by lawyers in resisting the injustice of the prison, and in publicizing the men’s stories.

For over 12 years now, lawyers have generally been the only people outside of the various branches of the US government — and foreign intelligence services — who have had contact with the prisoners. Lest we forget, the men held at Guantánamo have never been allowed to have family visits, unlike prisoners held on the US mainland — even those convicted of horrendous crimes — and so often the lawyers have been the only people capable of filling the gap left by relatives, and, of course, bringing messages from the men’s families, which has happened time and again as lawyers have visited their clients’ families, and have subsequently been the bearers of their relatives’ communications.

Recently, a new lawyer brought some fresh insight and indignation to a role that many of those involved in must be struggling to keep fresh, after so many years, after the exhaustion of eight years of Obama that, in the end, left the prison open, and with Trump so uninterested in doing anything to bring justice to the remaining 41 prisoners, either by releasing them or putting them on trial in a valid, internationally recognized system, or working towards shutting the prison once and for all.

Noor Zafar is a Bertha Justice Institute Fellow at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, working on litigation challenging government abuses in national security. She recently wrote an article for Mother Jones about visiting one of the remaining prisoners, Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian whose case I have followed since I began researching and writing about Guantánamo over eleven years ago.

I discussed him in my book The Guantánamo Files, published in 2007, I followed his brief time as a candidate for a trial by military commission in Bush’s last year in office, I wrote about him having his habeas corpus petition turned down (in 2009 and 2010), I wrote about him in 2013 when he asked to be charged with something — anything — so he might get out of Guantánamo, and I also wrote about him last year, when his case was considered by the second review process set up by President Obama, the Periodic Review Boards, leading to a recommendation for his release.

As a result of my coverage of Barhoumi’s case, I knew he was an extremely well-behaved prisoner, an avid footballer, and “a natural diplomat,” as another of his lawyers, Shayana Kadidal, put it, who was well-liked by the guards at Guantánamo. What I didn’t know, which Noor Zafar reveals, is that, after his PRB result, he “was so sure of his impending departure that he distributed his possessions, including his prized wristwatch, as farewell gifts to his fellow detainees.”

The disappointment must have been immense when he wasn’t actually released, and has now found himself once more entombed as Donald Trump has shut the door on Guantánamo, but as Zafar explains, despite this, “[h]is tranquility and sense of perspective are remarkable. When he talks about his future, it is evident that he is drawing upon a reservoir of strength and optimism he has cultivated during his years in detention.”

I hope you have time to read Zafar’s article, which I’m cross-posting below. One passage which leapt out at me was a painful lesson learned about the limits of justice in America today. As Zafar puts it, “Guantánamo is a testament to what three years of legal education did not teach me: the powerful can twist the law beyond recognition to validate unjust outcomes.”

My Visit With One of the Forgotten Prisoners of Guantánamo
By Noor Zafar, Mother Jones, July 14, 2017

15 years later, the detention camp has become a place where time has no meaning.

Last month, I took my first trip to the US military detention camp at Guantánamo Bay to visit Sufyian Barhoumi. As a military handler drove me and my colleagues from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) down the winding road from the ferry landing to the camp, I marveled at the lush green hills and sparkling blue water around us. The serenely beautiful setting stands in stark contrast to the detention camp, which is jarringly ugly: Endless rolls of rusty barbed wire, layers of fencing enmeshed with opaque green cloth, cages with peeling paint, gravel pits where grass should be. A warehouse to store men we don’t know what to do with.

Guantánamo is a sprawling network of several smaller detention camps. Many of the camps, such as Camp Iguana, where children were held, are no longer in use. Currently, detainees are housed in two different camps. Fourteen “high value detainees,” who were interrogated at the CIA’s notorious “black sites” prior to being shipped to Guantánamo, are held in Camp 7. The rest, like Sufyian, are held in Camp 6. At Camp Echo, the site designated for client meetings, my colleagues and I are ushered into a tiny office. We submit our papers to a member of the Privilege Review Team (PRT), who must approve and stamp them before we can bring them into our meeting. The detainees and anyone who interacts with them are subject to a gag order. Very little information is allowed in, and very little is allowed out.

Attorneys must obtain security clearances to meet with their clients because everything the detainees say is presumptively classified, even now, a decade and a half after they were brought here. The PRT must ensure that their utterances don’t pose a threat to national security before they can be declassified and shared with the public. I applied for my clearance to see Sufyian a few months before I graduated from law school; it took nearly 10 months to process.

When we are led in to the meeting area, Sufyian stands to greet us. We quickly ease into conversation. When he smiles, he wrinkles his nose and reveals a wide grin through his salt-and-pepper beard. Sufyian is an avid soccer player, and when I ask about his reputation as the best striker in Guantánamo, he smiles sheepishly and looks at the floor. He explains that now, at 43, he is getting too old to play. With fewer men left in Sufyian’s camp, they can no longer field a full team for a match.

Sufyian, who is originally from Algeria, has been detained without trial at Guantánamo for 15 years. As a young man, he lived in Spain, France, and England, working as a farm worker and a street merchant. Sufyian was captured in March 2002 in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Military prosecutors charged him three times with allegedly training would-be insurgents on how to make improvised explosive devices , but each time those charges were dropped for lack of evidence. In 2012, tired of waiting for the government to decide what offense he had committed, Sufyian offered to plead guilty to anything in order to get a release date.

Finally, in August 2016, Sufyian was cleared for transfer by the Periodic Review Board, an administrative body comprised of officials from six national security agencies who review detainees’ eligibility for release. It was expected that he would soon be sent back to Algeria to be reunited with his mother and siblings. Sufyian was so sure of his impending departure that he distributed his possessions, including his prized wristwatch, as farewell gifts to his fellow detainees.

But bureaucratic recalcitrance cost Sufyian his freedom. In the final week of Barack Obama’s presidency, CCR filed an emergency motion asking the D.C. district court to waive congressional restrictions on detainee transfers (such as the requirement that the Secretary of Defense certify that no released detainee would commit any harmful acts) and direct the government to release Sufyian. Despite the Obama administration’s authority to bypass the certification requirement and incoming President Donald Trump’s promise to halt all transfers from Guantánamo, the government opposed CCR’s motion. Ultimately, the court sided with the government. Sufyian, along with 40 other men, 4 of whom are cleared for release, are currently stranded in Guantánamo.

The erasure of Guantánamo from our public consciousness, mirrored by the prison’s physical deterioration, is unsettling. During the Bush administration it became synonymous with torture and lawlessness, but the Obama administration whitewashed the brutality of indefinite detention through a steady flow of human rights rhetoric and legalisms. President Obama claimed he wanted to shutter the prison but was unwilling to take the political risk of bypassing an obstructionist Congress in order to do so. Now, President Donald Trump has not only said he will keep Guantánamo open, he has promised to “load it up with some bad dudes.”

Responsibility for the failure to close Guantánamo lies with all three branches of government, but the ultimate enabler has been apathy. Federal courts, in particular, have been complicit in Guantánamo’s continued operation by abdicating their role as a check on executive power. The jurisprudence that has crystallized in the Guantánamo detainees’ cases is so deferential to the government that it ensures no detainee may be set free as the result of a court order. Beyond embodying the failure of the rule of law, Guantánamo is a testament to what three years of legal education did not teach me: the powerful can twist the law beyond recognition to validate unjust outcomes. There is no other way to explain why Sufyian is still detained today.

When we ask Sufyian how he is doing, given the new political reality, he points towards the ceiling and makes a gesture of supplication. “Alhamdulillah,” he repeats several times — praise be to God. His tranquility and sense of perspective are remarkable. When he talks about his future, it is evident that he is drawing upon a reservoir of strength and optimism he has cultivated during his years in detention.

With Ramadan approaching, Sufyian requests various treats to give his fellow detainees as they break their fasts — chocolates, Nutella, strawberry Nesquik. Ultimately, though, the conversation always comes back to a replacement for the watch he gave away.

Legal visits like this one have become a weird formality. Both attorneys and detainees are acutely aware that the law will not lead to freedom. The promise of Boumediene v. Bush, the landmark 2008 Supreme Court ruling that granted Guantánamo detainees the right to challenge the legality of their detention in federal court, has faded. On the rare occasions where detainees’ habeas corpus petitions have been granted, they have been reversed on appeal. When the government has not appealed unfavorable rulings, it has dragged its feet in securing transfers, causing technically free men to languish.

The importance of pursuing legal challenges lies in creating opportunities for detained men to tell their stories. Much of the shift in narrative that occurred in the late Bush and early Obama years was the result of lawyers presenting detainees to the world as human beings deserving of basic dignity. At Guantánamo, the role of the lawyer is as much storyteller as it is litigator.

There is something odd about standing in Guantánamo’s Naval Exchange grocery store deciding whether to buy white or whole wheat pasta, or walking through the gift shop with its displays of shot glasses and stuffed toys, while being so close to men who have had years of their lives stolen from them. As a Muslim woman who grew up in post-9/11 America, Guantánamo will always be a place of orange jumpsuits, black hoods, and dog-kennel cages — a place where Muslim men and boys were sent to be interrogated, tortured, and imprisoned. It is the foundation on which the US government constructed its “Global War on Terror” against mythical superhuman Muslim terrorists. This is the Guantánamo that recklessly expanded presidential power and spurred the blockbuster Supreme Court cases we dissected in my Con Law class. I expected it to be more imposing, the sense of injustice more palpable.

Every aspect of our visit — taking the ferry across the bay to the prison each morning, eating lunch at Subway for four days straight, frantically shopping at the Naval Exchange for items requested by our clients — feels sterile, routine, mechanic. The layers of bureaucracy separating attorney from client, from the security clearance down to the button we must press to summon a guard to let us out of the meeting room, drain any sense of normalcy from what should be a basic human interaction.

The only time I felt fully human while at Guantánamo was when meeting with Sufyian. When Sufyian told us about his friend, an ailing 71-year-old detainee from Pakistan, or when he spoke with sadness and hope about his desire to see his mother again, I felt a jolt of emotion that reassured me that I hadn’t yet succumbed to the hollowness of this place.

When our meeting time ends, Sufyian stands up, as if we are his guests and he is going to escort us to the door. His left leg is chained to the floor, so he shuffles a few inches and we say our goodbyes. “See you — what’s the Urdu word for ‘tomorrow’?” Sufyian asks me, picking up on an earlier part of our conversation in which he showcased his budding knowledge of Urdu after learning that it was my native tongue. “Kal,” I say. “Hum kal milengay.” We will meet again tomorrow.

The windowless armored van that will transport Sufyian back to his cell is waiting outside. When the detainees are brought to and from the meeting area, they are blindfolded, shackled, and escorted by a group of guards in full gear. While the entire spectacle is ridiculous, I don’t understand why the men are deprived of catching even a glimpse of the beautiful island on which they are held captive. But then, the answer behind the many absurdities of Guantánamo is usually “national security.”

On our last day at Guantánamo, as we ride the yellow school bus making endless loops around the base, we see a C-17 taxiing on the runway. My colleague remarks that, prior to Trump’s inauguration, C-17s were a sign of hope. Whenever detainees were about to be transferred, they would be brought to the airport — in the middle of the night, blindfolded and shackled just as when they first arrived — and then put into a plane like this one.

I think of the watch I’ll bring Sufyian on my next visit. A strange request for a man who is being detained indefinitely at a prison where time has been rendered meaningless. Amid this crushing uncertainty, I try to latch on to Sufyian’s insistence that, when it is meant to be, he will be free. As I watch the C-17 take off, I dare myself to imagine the day Sufyian will be flying somewhere far away to resume the rest of his life.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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 six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and 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, the full military commissions 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.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article: a cross-post, with my own commentary, of an article about Guantanamo – and specifically Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian prisoner who is one of five of the remaining 41 prisoners approved for release but still held – and is well-known as a peaceful prisoner, a natural diplomat, and a skilled footballer. The article was written by Noor Zafar, a recent law graduate who works with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, and it’s a good take, from a fresh set of eyes, about the ongoing injustice of Guantanamo. I hope you have time to read it, and to share it if you find it useful.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. Those of us who are still interested in the importance of getting Guantanamo closed really hope Sufyian’s story gets out to as wide an audience as possible, as it really is unforgivable that he’s still held.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    If you missed it, please also read my latest article for Al-Jazeera about Abdul Latif Nasser, another of the men still held despite being approved for release under President Obama:

  4. Anna says...

    Horrendous and if nothing more, attention must be kept alive at all costs, as the world at large is quickly forgetting – especially with the T. taking centre-stage every single day.
    Over here a new generation of otherwise socially interested youngsters does not even know what ‘Stare Kiejkuty’ stands for.
    Maybe we should organise another tour of your film.
    Not long ago I did not manage to find out whether the prosecutor’s investigation is still alive! The HFHR website stopped adding any info since over a year ago and when I called them, no one was able to inform me … The old hands (Bodnar, Pacho) do not work there anymore. Googling yields info from … 2014. Reprieve’s recent publication seems to suggest, however, that the investigation is still ongoing :
    I never go out without my orange World Can’t Wait CLOSE GUANTANAMO NOW button well visible and sometimes passers by watch me with a look like ‘what is an old grey-haired woman doing wearing a big glaring button’, but no one ever asks or comments.
    If even the plight of millions of refugees is expelled from people’s consciousness, what hope is there for “a handful of ‘terrorists'” in some distant place?
    My blood boils when I read that Mitchell & Jessen’s defense in Seattle claims that they merely wrote recommendations which they had been invited to produce and nothing more. They were in Thailand and also here during the CIA prison’s functioning. How can that be explained away? And there’s the suggestion to agree to a settlement “in order to avoid spending taxpayers money from the legal expenses fund promised to them”! That fund itself indirectly suggests guilt.
    Judging from the stamina and courage of (ex) Guantanamo prisoners, I doubt they will accept that. Nor will the ACLU, Reprieve or the individual lawyers. Talk of a Sisyphus task!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your continued interest in the injustices of the “war on terror,” Anna. As you note, we must continue to do what we can to keep people’s attention on Guantanamo and the legacy of the last 16 years, but are in a dangerous and depressing place where young people don’t even know what has been happening, and what they should know about.
    I think we need a new film, providing an overview from 9/11 to Trump, but I don’t know if anyone has the stamina or could find the funding to tackle it. However, I do hope that the forthcoming trial of Mitchell and Jessen might provide us, finally, with some sort of accountability – although I won’t be holding my breath. As you mention, the reference to their legal expenses fund “indirectly suggests guilt”, and I’d also propose another scenario – that the only reason this is going to trial is because the CIA is prepared to throw Mitchell and Jessen under the bus; in other words, that their greed (the $81m they were paid), and, perhaps, the enemies, or lack of friends, they made along the way, has not provided with with the shield they hoped would protect them.

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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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