Archive for December, 2017

Guantánamo Lawyer: It is “Entirely Unprecedented” for Trump to “Take the Position That There Will Be No Transfers out of Guantánamo Without Regard to the Facts”

Abdul Latif Nasser and Sufyian Barhoumi, two of the five prisoners still held at Guantanamo who were approved for release by high-level government review processes under President Obama.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

Just before Christmas, in an article entitled, “Men due to leave Gitmo under Obama seem stuck under Trump,” the Associated Press shone a light on the plight of five men approved for release from Guantánamo by high-level US government review processes under President Obama, but who were not released before Donald Trump took office. I wrote about these men for Al-Jazeera in June, in an article entitled, “Abdul Latif Nasser: Facing life in Guantánamo,” but it was excellent to see an update from the AP, because there has been no progress from Trump, who, while not following up on his ill-considered urges to expand the use of the prison, has effectively sealed it shut, showing no sign that he has any desire to follow up on the decisions to release these five men by freeing them.

In my article in June, I focused in particular on the case of Abdul Latif Nasser, a Moroccan prisoner who was approved for release in July 2016 by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process set up in 2013 by President Obama to assess the cases of men previously regarded as legitimate candidates for indefinite detention without charge or trial. They had been regarded as “too dangerous to release” by a previous review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, which met once a week throughout 2009, although the officials responsible for the PRBs also conceded that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, a tacit admission that the evidence itself was profoundly untrustworthy. This was definitively established by the PRB process between 2013 and 2016, when 64 men had their cases reviewed, 38 were approved for release, and all but Nasser, and an Algerian, Sufyian Barhoumi, were freed.

As I explained in my article in June, Nasser missed being released by just eight days, because the Moroccan government only notified the US that it would accept his repatriation on December 28, 2006, 22 days before Obama left office, but 30 days’ notification is required by Congress before any prisoner can be freed. Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo Writer Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Devastating Criticism of US Claims That It Owns and Can Destroy Prisoners’ Art

Mohamedou Ould Slahi in a photo that accompanied an interview with him on the Warscapes website in December 2016.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

A month ago, following a report in the Miami Herald about the US authorities at Guantánamo claiming that they own prisoners’ art and can destroy it — a position apparently taken in response to an art exhibition that had rattled the Pentagon — I wrote an article explaining why this was both disgraceful and also typical of the US authorities, who have always behaved at Guantánamo as though every aspect of the prisoners’ lives — even their memories — are owned by them.

That article was entitled, Persistent Dehumanization at Guantánamo: US Claims It Owns Prisoners’ Art, Just As It Claims to Own Their Memories of Torture, and I followed it with two cross-posts of powerful and eloquent articles written by Erin Thompson, one of the curators of the exhibition, at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York — here and here.

Last week, in the Washington Post, another witness to the power of creativity and the distressing censorship and control exercised by the US authorities stepped forward with another powerful and eloquent analysis — Mohamedou Ould Slahi, from Mauritania, who was tortured in Jordan, Afghanistan and Guantánamo on the mistaken basis that he was a member of Al-Qaeda, and who, after the torture at Guantánamo “broke” him, was regarded, again mistakenly, as such a useful informant that he was moved from out of the general population of the prison, and allowed to write a memoir, “Guantánamo Diary,” that, ironically, eventually ended up being published and becoming a best-seller.

“Guantánamo Diary” revealed Slahi, who was eventually released in October 2016, to be a formidable writer, possessed of humour, eloquence and insight, and unwilling to bear a grudge against his former captors, qualities evident in his op-ed for the Post, in which he explained that, although he was “heartened by the individuals and organizations that have protested” the “cruel policy” of claiming to own and be able to destroy prisoners’ art, “as well as by the critical coverage in the U.S. and international press,” he was not surprised by the news.

He proceeded to explain that, in October 2014, the authorities at Guantánamo confiscated everything he had written since completing “Guantánamo Diary” nine years before. As he put it, “stories I had written about my childhood, fictional stories and even a manuscript for a book I was working on called ‘Portable Happiness,’ about how to stay positive in the most hopeless situations.”

Slahi proceeds to explain, “I never saw these things again.” His writing was stolen from him, as were gifts from his lawyer or family members — what the authorities, disgracefully, called “comfort items.” As he describes it, “The comfort of these things, for me, was that they really were mine: They were things I had created and things that my lawyers, family and even interrogators and guards had given to me personally. They were expressions of myself and expressions of what others saw in me. They were proof that I existed.”

Without them, the authorities had “another kind of leverage over us: to build a cloud of anxiety that anything we created or were given could at any time be taken away. They said, essentially, that today you may have something, but tomorrow you will again have nothing, because you are nothing.”

Towards the end of his op-ed, Slahi powerfully explains how those from repressive regimes know how “freedom of speech and expression are a rare commodity,” and adds that he left Mauritania for Germany in search of them. He ends by urging the US to abandon its absorption of methods used by dictatorships. As he states, “The censorship and human rights violations that are taking place in Guantánamo Bay have long been practiced in my part of the world. They do not work. They do nothing but demean us — all of us.”

I do hope you have time to read Mohamedou’s powerful op-ed, cross-posted below, and that you will share it if you find it as powerful as I do.

Why does the U.S. government have to confiscate prisoner artwork from Guantánamo Bay?
By Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the Washington Post, December 13, 2017

During the 14 years I spent cut off from the world in the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay, I often found myself wondering whether people cared about the conditions under which I was being held. Since my release a little more than one year ago, I’ve been impressed by how many people do care — something that has been driven home to me again by the public reaction to reports of a change in policy toward artwork created by inmates in the prison.

For several years, the U.S. government had a screening process that permitted artwork created by prisoners to be shared with family members and others outside the prison, but in November it announced it is no longer allowing prisoner art to be publicly released. As a result, these works can no longer be seen by anyone outside of Guantánamo. What’s more, the government has been saying that it owns the works of art and can destroy them if it wishes. I have been heartened by the individuals and organizations that have protested this cruel policy, as well as by the critical coverage in the U.S. and international press.

But I can’t say that I was surprised by the news itself.

In October 2014, one of my guards came to my cell to warn me that I would soon be moved to another block. I asked what I could take with me to the new cell. He said I could take only my copy of the holy Koran, nothing else.

And so, in the blink of an eye, I was separated from the life that I had built around me in that cell over the previous 10 years. That life, for me, included writing. It included a journal in which I recorded my life and thoughts in the years since I completed the manuscript for my “Guantánamo Diary,” which I wrote and delivered in a series of letters to my attorney in 2005. It also included stories I had written about my childhood, fictional stories and even a manuscript for a book I was working on called “Portable Happiness,” about how to stay positive in the most hopeless situations.

I never saw these things again. They disappeared, along with movies, books and other items that were given to me as gifts, sent to me by my family members or brought to me by my lawyers to provide me comfort. That is what they call these things in Guantánamo: “comfort items.” The comfort of these things, for me, was that they really were mine: They were things I had created and things that my lawyers, family and even interrogators and guards had given to me personally. They were expressions of myself and expressions of what others saw in me. They were proof that I existed.

What I learned that day was that those “comfort items” were given to me and to other detainees only so that our jailers could have another kind of leverage over us: to build a cloud of anxiety that anything we created or were given could at any time be taken away. They said, essentially, that today you may have something, but tomorrow you will again have nothing, because you are nothing.

Today, the U.S. government is still holding these parts of me. It did not return my manuscripts and scribblings after my shackles were finally removed when the military plane landed in my home city of Nouakchott, Mauritania, and it has not returned them to this day. It can do this, it claims, because these things I wrote are “classified.” It can do this because — in the words of a Pentagon spokesman who was interviewed about the new policy preventing the paintings and sculptures of Guantánamo prisoners from ever being seen outside the prison — detainee art is the “property of the U.S. government.”

I was born in a part of the world where freedom of speech and expression are a rare commodity, and I know dictatorial methods when I see them. I left my home country in North Africa just after high school to move to Germany so that I could live a life where I could say what was on my mind without being afraid that I would be kidnapped, killed or put in prison. I am not alone in this. Ask any person who emigrated from the Middle East to Europe or the United States to escape suppression of freedom of speech and expression, and they will tell you: I am what I believe, and if I cannot express it clearly and unequivocally, I am no one.

The censorship and human rights violations that are taking place in Guantánamo Bay have long been practiced in my part of the world. They do not work. They do nothing but demean us — all of us. As a positive person, I have to hope that the current policy of confiscating and permanently suppressing the artistic creations of Guantánamo detainees will be reversed. I hope this for the 41 prisoners who are still in Guantánamo, many of them unjustly. But not just for them. The United States deserves better than this, too.

Note: See here for the Restored Edition of “Guantánamo Diary,” with the redacted passages restored by Mohamedou and his editor Larry Siems.

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 Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), 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.

Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Accuses US of Still Using Torture at Guantánamo, Asks to Visit and Meet Prisoners Unsupervised

An undated photo of anti-torture (and anti-Guantanamo) protestors in New York City.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Last week, following Human Rights Day (on December 10), and the third anniversary of the publication of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program (on December 9), the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, “appealed to the United States to end a pervasive policy of impunity for crimes of torture committed by US officials,” as a UN press release, issued on December 13, stated.

In a statement, Mr. Melzer, who was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in November 2016, after previously working for the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, made reference to the Senate torture report, noting how it “publicly acknowledged the systematic use of torture in US custody,” and stating, “To this day, however, the perpetrators and policymakers responsible for years of gruesome abuse have not been brought to justice, and the victims have received no compensation or rehabilitation.”

He added, “By failing to prosecute the crime of torture in CIA custody, the US is in clear violation of the Convention against Torture and is sending a dangerous message of complacency and impunity to officials in the US and around the world.” Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo Hunger Striker Khalid Qassim Says, “We Are Like Lab Rats,” Says Doctor Told Him, “If You Lose Organs, It Is Your Choice”

Guantanamo prisoner Khalid Qassim, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

Last Thursday, as I travelled across London to show solidarity with the victims of a recent injustice in the UK — the Grenfell Tower fire in June, in which 71 people died needlessly because safety standards had been so gravely eroded by those responsible for residents’ safety — the victim of another injustice, not adequately dealt with for 16 years, had an article published in the Guardian.

That victim of injustice is Khalid Qassim (aka Qasim), a Yemeni prisoner at Guantánamo, held for almost 16 years without charge or trial. That would be unacceptable if he were a prisoner of war, as it is longer than the absurdly long Vietnam War, and it is insulting to claim that any war can last forever. However, Qassim and all the men held at Guantánamo since January 2002 have never been held as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, who can be held unmolested until the end of hostilities.

Instead, they are, essentially, the same prisoners without any rights whatsoever that the Bush administration first defined them as back in January 2002. Just ten of the 41 men still held are facing or have faced trials (in the military commission trial system that, in any case, is not fit for purpose), while the rest are still largely invisible, never tried, never charged, and unable to be freed except at the whim of the president. Read the rest of this entry »

Grenfell, Six Months On: The Four Fathers’ New Song Remembering Those Who Lost Their Lives and Calling for Those Responsible to be Held Accountable

A screenshot from the video of The Four Fathers performing 'Grenfell' - with added titles.Before June 14 this year, anyone reflecting on the skyline of London would think about the Shard, the Gherkin, One Canada Square, the ostentatious towers of the face of modern capitalism; on the morning of June 14, however, a new vision of a tower was seared into the nation’s memory — the charred, still-smoking remains of Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey residential tower block in North Kensington, in west London, consumed in an overnight inferno with the loss of 71 lives.

The Grenfell Tower fire was entirely preventable. Designed so that each flat would be able to withstand fire until the emergency services arrived, the tower’s structural integrity was destroyed when it was given new cladding — through holes made in the body of the tower, through the use of flammable cladding to save money, and through the gaps behind the cladding that facilitated the extraordinarily swift spread of the fire. At every level, it seems clear — central government, local government, the devolved management responsible for Kensington & Chelsea’s social housing, and the various contractors involved in maintenance and refurbishment — safety standards were eroded or done away with completely,

When I wrote about the fire just two days later, I was deeply shocked to discover that the disaster had been foretold by residents in the Grenfell Action Group, who had stated in a post in November 2016, “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the  KCTMO [Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation], and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders. We believe that the KCTMO are an evil, unprincipled, mini-mafia who have no business to be charged with the responsibility of  looking after the every day management of large scale social housing estates and that their sordid collusion with the RBKC Council is a recipe for a future major disaster.” Read the rest of this entry »

Finally! Theresa May and the Tories Suffer a Major Defeat on Brexit as MPs Secure a Meaningful Vote on the Final Deal

The Theresa May Brexit float, set up by campaigners for the UK to remain in the EU.

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Congratulations to MPs, who, yesterday evening (December 13), voted by 309 votes to 305 to give themselves a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal that Theresa May and her small clique of dangerous and deluded Brexit fantasists were planning to pass without including MPs at all.

In the end, the Labour leadership persuaded all but two of its MPs (Frank Field and Kate Hoey) to vote for the amendment, in a move that was obviously difficult for those from constituencies that voted Leave. The amendment was tabled by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, and its supporters in the Labour Party, and all the smaller parties except the DUP, were joined by eleven Tory rebels — as well as Dominic Grieve, Heidi Allen, Ken Clarke, Jonathan Djanogly, Stephen Hammond, Sir Oliver Heald, Nicky Morgan, Robert Neill, Antointette Sandbach, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. Hammond, a vice chairman of the party, was almost immediately sacked, and the Daily Mail proceeded to damn the rebels on its front page, causing Keir Starmer to comment, in a tweet, “When judges uphold the law, they are branded enemies of the people. When MPs uphold democracy, they are branded traitors. Never has it been more important to reassert our values.”

In a day of passionate debating in Parliament, which often saw the Tory right attacking their colleagues, as tends to be the way with Brexiteers, who are prone to threats and hysteria, Dominic Grieve gave a passionate half-hour speech regarding his amendment. He “warned that the bill as it stood would unleash ‘a form of constitutional chaos’”, as the Guardian described it. He “said he had sought to engage with ministers to find a compromise, but without success: ‘The blunt reality is, and I’m sorry to have to say this to the house, I’ve been left in the lurch, as a backbench member trying to improve this legislation.'” Labour’s Yvette Cooper said, “This is an important moment. The House of Commons has tonight voted against the government’s attempt to concentrate power and against letting a small group of ministers take crucial decisions on the details of Brexit without Parliament having a meaningful vote.” Read the rest of this entry »

Following the Successful World Premiere of ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’ at the Cinema Museum, the Next Screening is at Deptford Cinema on Dec. 18

A poster for the launch of 'Concrete Soldiers UK', at the Cinema Museum in Kennington on December 8, 2017.Last Friday a new and timely documentary film that I narrated, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, had its world premiere at the Cinema Museum in Kennington, London SE11, showing to a full house of over 150 people, with pre-screening performances from beatboxer Bellatrix and spoke word artist Potent Whisper. The film was directed by Nikita Woolfe, and is the result of three years’ work. As she says, “Three years ago I was looking at all the new developments in London and was surprised to see how much of the construction happened on old council estate land. I started wondering why the councils wanted to sell off their valuable assets and whether there were alternatives. That’s how ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’ began. Three years later and ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’ is not only answering my questions but it has also become a film about the fighting spirit that I encountered on the way.”

The next screening is at Deptford Cinema on Monday December 18, at 7.30pm, followed by a Q&A with me and with representatives of estates and community spaces threatened with destruction in the borough of Lewisham — Old Tidemill Garden and Reginald Road in Deptford, and Achilles Street in New Cross — under the ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ umbrella term that I came up with in October, and which has so far spawned a benefit gig and a Facebook page.

Niki and I are planning to take the film on the road next year — primarily around estates threatened with destruction in London, but also beyond, if we can secure funding for our time and our travel. We also hope it will be shown in cinemas, and if you can help at all with any of these proposals, do get in touch. You can email me here, or you can email Niki here or call her on 07413 138909. We’re currently setting up a fundraising page, so if you want to help with that, do let Niki know. Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo, The Torture Report and Human Rights Day: America’s Unaddressed Legacy of Torture and Arbitrary Detention

A graphic dealing with CIA torture report, whose executive summary was released in December 2014.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

This time of year has always been a significant time for anyone concerned with human rights to reflect on what has or hasn’t been achieved in the last twelve months, and to make plans for the new year.

A crucial, and long established date is December 10, which the United Nations designated as Human Rights Day in 1950, on the second anniversary of the ratification by the UN of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which, in a Facebook post on Human Rights Day, I described as “probably the most wonderful aspirational document in human history, born out of the soul-churning horrors of the Second World War.”

The UN, on its Human Rights Day page, says of the UDHR that it “sets out universal values and a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations. It establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person. Thanks to the Declaration, and States’ commitments to its principles, the dignity of millions has been uplifted and the foundation for a more just world has been laid. While its promise is yet to be fully realized, the very fact that it has stood the test of time is testament to the enduring universality of its perennial values of equality, justice and human dignity.”

Amongst the UDHR’s 30 articles are prohibitions on the use of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and arbitrary arrest, as well as the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial, all of which have long been of great significance to those like myself who have been writing about Guantánamo and working to get the prison closed. Read the rest of this entry »

The Guantánamo Art Scandal That Refuses to Go Away

'The Statue of Liberty' (2016) by Muhammad Ansi (aka Mohammed al-Ansi), who was released from Guantanamo in January 2017.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Two weeks ago, in my most recent article, for Close Guantánamo, I covered the latest scandal to involve the prison — the US military’s decision, prompted by an art exhibition of prisoners’ work being shown in New York, to threaten to destroy their art, and to insist that it does not belong to the men who made it, but, instead, belongs permanently to the US military.

As I mentioned in the article, the most troubling aspect of the authorities’ position was articulated by Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch, who stated in a powerful tweet that the development was “no surprise” because the “Pentagon has long claimed it owns detainees’ own memories of torture.” When prisoners are not even allowed to own their own thoughts by the US government, it is no surprise that the government also claims that it also owns their artwork.

Nevertheless, since the article was published, criticism of the US authorities’ position has not diminished. At the weekend, the New York Times published an editorial, “Art, Freed From Guantánamo,” which began by stating, powerfully, “The American prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — where men suspected of terrorism are for the most part being held indefinitely without trial — has long been a stain on this country’s human rights record. Now the military has stumbled needlessly into a controversy over, of all things, art.”

As the editors proceeded to note, “There has been no claim of a security breach or risk to Americans. The military, it would seem, is simply unsettled by the attention that the John Jay exhibition has drawn from news organizations.”

In a letter to the Times, Mickey Davis, a professor of intellectual property law at Cleveland State University, put the government in its place, stating:

The United States military intends to burn and destroy all the art created by Guantánamo prisoners, claiming that the government owns it. The government can certainly destroy it. But it doesn’t own it at all.

The government cannot destroy the copyright that each prisoner owns in his works. Under United States copyright law, that right belongs to each prisoner-artist for the next 70-plus years.

That copyright cannot be divested by military forces. This may amount to nothing, commercially speaking, especially if the prisoners cannot photograph the works to acquire a permanent record.

But it is nice to know that as a moral and a legal matter, not a practical one, the Guantánamo prisoners have a right that their captors cannot touch.

In a further development, Erin Thompson, one of three curators (with Charlie Shields and Paige Laino) of the exhibition, “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo,” at John Jay College, where she is an assistant professor of art crime, wrote a detailed analysis of what the prisoners’ work means, why it is so important, and how she became involved with it, for Tom Dispatch, in an article published on December 3, which we’re cross-posting below, as she is so eloquent on the topic — and the US government, in contrast, is unable to articulate its own position clearly, because it has no excuse for its heavy-handed approach.

Thompson explained her progress in understanding Guantánamo and the prisoners, moving from her initial lack of comprehension that the men “wanted people to see their art,” and “through it know that they are actual human beings,” which, understandably, she thought was rather obvious, to an eventual revelation, through talking to released prisoner Mansoor Adayfi, who wrote an extraordinarily powerful piece about the prisoners’ relationship to the sea, which I posted here, that “Guantánamo is a system designed to paint the men it holds as monsters, animals, sub-humans who don’t deserve basic rights like fair trials,” and “[t]hat was the reason those prisoners were speaking, but not speaking, in their art.” As she added, “Why would they say anything that risked a further fall from whatever precarious hold on humanity they still had?”

Thompson has also launched a petition, “Stop the Destruction of Art at Guantánamo,” directed to the US government, and you can also sign this petition by Reprieve, calling for Donald Trump to close Guantánamo, and to allow independent medical experts to visit and assess the health of the current hunger strikers, a story I wrote about here.

The Art of Keeping Guantánamo Open: What the Paintings by Its Prisoners Tell Us About Our Humanity and Theirs
By Erin L. Thompson, Tom Dispatch, December 3, 2017

We spent the day at a beach in Brooklyn. Skyscrapers floated in the distance and my toddler kept handing me cigarette filters she had dug out of the sand. When we got home, I checked my email. I had been sent a picture of a very different beach: deserted, framed by distant headlands with unsullied sands and clear waters. As it happened, I was looking not at a photograph, but at a painting by a man imprisoned at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp.

Of the roughly 780 people once imprisoned there, he is one of 41 prisoners who remain, living yards away from the Caribbean Sea. Captives from the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror began to arrive at that offshore prison in January 2002. Since Guantánamo is located on a military base in Cuba and the detainees were labeled “alien enemy combatants,” they were conveniently to be without rights under either United States or international law and so open to years of whatever their jailers wanted to do to them (including torture). President Barack Obama released 197 of them in his years in office, but was unable to fulfill the promise he made on his first day: to close Guantánamo.

The man whose painting I saw has been held for nearly 15 years without trial, without even having charges filed against him. The email came from his lawyer who had volunteered to defend a number of Guantánamo detainees. Some had been released after she helped them convince a military tribunal that they were no longer “threats” to the United States. The others remain in indefinite detention. Many of her clients pass their time by making art and, of all the unexpected things to come into my life, she was now looking for a curator who wanted to exhibit some of their paintings.

Collecting the Art of Guantánamo

I’m a professor at John Jay College in New York City. It has a small art gallery and so one day in August 2016 I found myself in that lawyer’s midtown Manhattan office preparing, however dubiously, to view the art of her clients. She was pushing aside speakerphones and notepads and laying out the artwork on a long table in a conference room whose windows overlooked the picturesque East River. As I waited, I watched from high up as the water cut a swath of silence through the city. When I finally turned my attention to the art, I was startled to see some eerily similar views. Painting after painting of water. Water trickling through the reeds at the edge of a pond. Water churning into foam as it ran over rocks in rivers. Calmly flowing water that reflected the buildings along a canal.

But above all, there was the sea. Everywhere, the sea. In those paintings in that conference room and in other work sent to me as word spread among detainees and their lawyers that I was willing to plan an exhibit, I found hundreds of depictions of the sea in all its moods. In some paintings, storms thrashed apart the last planks of sinking ships. In others, boats were moored safely at docks or scudded across vast expanses of water without a hint of shore in sight. Clouds bunched in blue midday skies or burned orange in mid-ocean sunsets. One detainee had even made elaborate models of sailing ships out of cardboard, old T-shirts, bottle caps, and other scraps of trash.

Puzzled, I asked the lawyer, “Why all the water?” She shrugged. Maybe the art instructor at the prison, she suggested, was giving the detainees lots of pictures of the sea. The detainees, it turned out, could actually take art classes as long as they remained “compliant.” But when there was a crackdown, as there had, for instance, been during a mass hunger strike in 2013, the guards promptly confiscated their art — and that was the reason the lawyer’s clients had asked her to take it. They wanted to keep their work (and whatever it meant to them) safe from the guards.

As it turned out, the art doesn’t leave Guantánamo that much more easily than the prisoners themselves. Military authorities scrutinized every piece for hidden messages and then stamped the back of each work, “Approved by US Forces.” Those stamps generally bled through, floating up into the surface of the image on the other side. The lawyer had even nicknamed one of the model ships the U.S.S. Approved because the censors had stamped those words across its sails.

So I found myself beginning to plan an exhibition of a sort I had never in my wildest dreams imagined I would curate. And I began to worry. A curator makes so many choices, judgments, interpretations of art. But how could I make them with any kind of accuracy when I was a woman, a non-Muslim, and a citizen of the very nation that had detained these men for so many years without charges or trial? Wasn’t I, in other words, the ultimate Other?

Greek to Me

By training, I’m a classical art historian. I expand fragments. If I show my students a broken ancient Greek vase, I use my words to mend it. I pour in more words to fill it with the memory of the wine it once carried, yet more to conjure up the men who once drank from it, and still more to offer my students our best guesses at what they might have been talking about as they drank.

This mode of dealing with art was known to the ancient Greeks. They called it ekphrasis: the rhetorical exercise of describing a work of art in great detail. For them, ekphrasis was a creative act. The speaker often explained things not shown by the artist, such as what happened just before or just after the illustrated moment. The maiden in this painting is smiling because she has just received a declaration of love, they would say.

But faced with this art from Guantánamo, ekphrasis seemed somehow inappropriate. These artists are still alive, even if entombed. Their artworks are as they intended them, not the fragmentary remains of some past world that needs a framework of interpretation. And whatever interpretation these might need, how in the world was I to provide it? Who was I to pour my words over them?

And yet I knew that they needed help or why would that lawyer have come to me? The detainees certainly couldn’t curate their own exhibit in New York because they would be barred from entering the United States even after being released from Guantánamo. So I told myself that I would have to help them realize their desire for an exhibit without inserting my own judgments. I told myself that I would instead be their amanuensis.

From the Latin: a manu, servant of the hand, the term once referring to someone who aided in an artistic project by taking dictation. Consider, for instance, John Milton’s daughters, Mary and Deborah, who took down his seventeenth century epic poem Paradise Lost after he had gone blind. They were his amanuenses. He composed the verses in his head at night. Then, in the morning, as a contemporary of his wrote, he “sat leaning backward obliquely in an easy chair, with his leg flung over the elbow of it” while they wrote down what he recited. If they dawdled coming to him, he would complain that he needed to be milked.

I would similarly let the artists speak for themselves through me, or so I thought. I wrote out a list of questions for their lawyers to ask them, including “What do you like about making art?” and “What would you like people to think about when they are looking at your art?” Then I waited for those lawyers to pose them during their Guantánamo visits in the midst of conferences about legal matters.

The answers were strikingly uniform and seemingly unrevealing. They wanted people to see their art, they said, and through it know that they are actual human beings. Really? I didn’t get it. Of course, they’re human beings. What else could they be?

At first, I wasn’t too concerned that their answers didn’t really make much sense to me. That’s part of the role of an amanuensis. Milton’s daughters were ten and six when he began Paradise Lost. It would take them all nearly a decade to finish it. In those years, their father also taught them to read books aloud to him in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, of which they couldn’t understand a word.

I was used to being an amanuensis myself. When I was a year and a half old and my mother was still pregnant with my sister, my father had an accident and broke his neck. The fractured edge of a vertebra sliced into his spinal cord, leaving his arms and legs paralyzed. As soon as we were old enough — and I can’t remember a time when we weren’t considered old enough — my sister and I would spend hours a day being his “hands.” We opened mail, paid bills, slid computer disks in and out of the desktop that he operated by stabbing at the keys with a long pointer held in his mouth. Through us, two daydreamy little girls, he did all the work of a stereotypical man of the house — fixing broken appliances, hanging Christmas lights, grilling steak.

To be an amanuensis is, by the way, anything but a passive act. After all, there wouldn’t be enough time in the world if you had to tell your own hands what to do in every situation: reach for the coffee cup, close that finger around its handle, bring it to your mouth. In the same way, an amanuensis must anticipate needs, prepare tools, and know when something’s missing.

And this sense that something was missing — honed from my years with my father — was growing in me as I looked at the artwork and thought about those responses. It was the midsummer of 2017 and the exhibit was set to open in the fall. The file cabinets in my office were filled with paintings, overflowing into piles on the floor that came up to my shins. After the struggle to pry those artworks out of Guantánamo, I didn’t know how to say that one piece should be seen by the world and another should stay a prisoner in some dark drawer.

Freedom of the Seas

So I asked again — this time by emailing Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee working on a memoir about his time at Guantánamo. He explained that the cells of detainees were right by the sea. They could smell and hear the surf, but because tarps blocked their view, they could never see it. Only once, when a hurricane was coming, had the guards removed those tarps from the fences that separated them from the water. A few days later, when they went back up, the artist-inmates began to draw pictures of the sea as a substitute for what they had glimpsed during that brief moment of visual freedom.

Suddenly, those endless visions of water — that is, of freedom — made sense to me. And I understood something else as well. Guantánamo is a system designed to paint the men it holds as monsters, animals, sub-humans who don’t deserve basic rights like fair trials. That was the reason those prisoners were speaking, but not speaking, in their art. Why would they say anything that risked a further fall from whatever precarious hold on humanity they still had?

They hoped someday to be released, which was unlikely to happen if the authorities became convinced that they bore any anger towards the United States. And even release would not mean freedom of speech, since they would be sent to countries that had agreed to host them. Dependent on the good graces of these governments, they would continue to live constrained lives in constrained circumstances, needing never to offend these new sets of authorities either.

I was indeed the Other. I might misinterpret and misrepresent, but so undoubtedly would anyone else in our world speaking for those artists. And they were incapable of speaking for themselves.

So I added an essay of my own to the catalog, becoming ekphrastic. I pointed out what was movingly missing in their artwork. It wasn’t that there weren’t people in their paintings. It was that those works had invisible holes where the people should have been. All those unmanned boats, sailing across those open waters, were carrying invisible self-portraits of the artists as they hardly dared to imagine themselves: free. Even when there were no boats, the famously mutable sea served as the perfect disguise. Its winds and waves and rocks represented the all-too-human emotions of the artists without ever making them visible to the censors.

It was, of course, so much less dangerous for me to interpret what they were saying than for them to say it directly. I had held many doors open for my father when I was his amanuensis, running ahead to make sure the path was clear and that there were no surprising flights of stairs. If there were, it was up to me to find a new way.

This is what I wanted to do for the artists. Open doors, scout out paths — but their choice of doors, their choice of paths, not mine. They had told me they wanted people to see them as human beings and that was the case I tried to make for them.

As it turned out, I evidently succeeded a little too well. After the exhibit opened and received a surprising amount of media attention, the artists’ lawyers noticed that the authorities were taking longer and longer to clear artworks to leave Guantánamo. Then, three weeks ago, the Department of Defense declared that all art made at Guantánamo is government property. Detainees reported that their guards then told them any art left behind if they were ever released would be burned and works in their cells deemed “excess” would simply be discarded.

As with so many policy decisions about Guantánamo, the true rationale for this one remains hidden. My guess: the U.S. authorities there were surprised that the artwork they had been scrutinizing so carefully for hidden messages had a unifying one they had missed: that its makers were human beings. Which is precisely the realization the authorities need to stop the rest of us from having if Guantánamo is to remain open.

Erin L. Thompson, co-curator of “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo” with Charlie Shields and Paige Laino, is an assistant professor of art crime at John Jay College. Her book, Possession: The Curious History of Private Collectors from Antiquity to the Present, was an NPR Best Book of 2016. The exhibition “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo” is on display in New York City at the President’s Gallery of John Jay College, 899 10th Avenue (6th Floor) until January 28, 2018.

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 Donald Trump No! Please Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2017), 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.

My Quarterly Fundraiser: Why I’m Asking for $200 (£150) a Week from You to Support My Guantánamo Work (Clue: It Involves Capitalism, and the Internet)

Andy Worthington holding up a poster advertising a fundraising appeal for his independent writing and campaigning on Guantanamo.Please click on the ‘Donate’ button below to make a donation towards the $2500 (£1850) I’m trying to raise to support my work on Guantánamo for the next three months!

 

Dear friends and supporters — and any kindly passing strangers!

Every three months I ask you, if you can, to make a donation to support my writing about Guantánamo, and my campaigning to get the prison closed. I’m not a young man, but I am a modern creation — a reader-funded journalist and activist — and the blunt truth is that, without your support, I can no longer continue doing what I’ve been doing for the last 12 years: making sure that Guantánamo is not forgotten, telling the stories of the men held there, and working to get the prison closed once and for all.

If you can help out at all, please click on the “Donate” button above to make a payment via PayPal. You can also make a recurring payment on a monthly basis by ticking the box marked, “Make this a monthly donation,” and if you are able to do so, it would be very much appreciated. 

I should also note that you don’t have to have a PayPal account to use PayPal, and also that, although the default setting for donations is dollars, as most of the my readers are in the US, PayPal will convert donations from any other currency. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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