Lawyers’ Fears for Guantánamo “Forever Prisoner” Sharqawi Al-Hajj “After Rapidly Declining Health and Suicidal Statements”


Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), representing her client Sharqawi al-Hajj outside the White House on January 11, 2018, the 16th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay (Photo: Shelby Sullivan-Bennis).

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Disturbing news from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), who report that one of their Guantánamo clients, Sharqawi al-Hajj, “stated on a recent call with his attorney that he wanted to take his own life.” CCR described this, in a press release, as “a first” in CCR’s long representation of al-Hajj, adding that their attorneys have responded to it “with the utmost seriousness.”

As they further explain, “His suicidal statements follow a steady and observable deterioration of his physical and mental health that his legal team has been raising the alarm about for two years. They are monitoring his condition as best they can, and will provide any further information as soon as they are able.”

In an eloquent statement, CCR’s lawyers said, “When things are in a state of perpetual crisis, as they seem all around today, it is easy to lose sight of just how extreme a situation is, and grow numb to it. We have lost sight of just how extreme the situation in the Guantánamo prison is. We have grown numb to it.”

They added, “The prisoners there have all been in some form of captivity for nearing two decades, since the start of a war in Afghanistan that was so long ago that it counts as history for people now in college. When they first arrived at Guantánamo, the prisoners were shoved off planes, picked up by their necks, thrown in literal cages. Others landed later, after years in underground CIA sites where they were brutalized in the ways that have been documented in scores of reports and testimonials. On top of that treatment, most who remain have been held without charge and will remain in that limbo for as far as they can see. That quality of detention – indefiniteness – has its own cruel effects, physically and psychologically.”

Sharqawi al-Hajj, a 45-year old Yemeni citizen, has been held without charge or trial by the US since he was seized in a house raid in Karachi, in Pakistan, over 17 years ago, on February 7, 2002. Shortly after his capture, he was flown to Jordan, where he was tortured on behalf of the US, along with a still-undetermined number of other prisoners of the “war on terror.” He has said of his time in Jordan that he was subjected to “continuous torture and interrogation for the whole of two years,” and was “shown thousands of photos” of people the US wanted him to identify.

He was held in Jordan for nearly two years, until, in January 2004, he was flown to Afghanistan, where he was held for four months in the CIA’s brutal “Dark Prison,” which he described as “a pitch dark place, with extremely loud scary sounds.” In May 2004, he was moved to the US prison at Bagram airbase, where he remained until he was flown to Guantánamo with a number of other CIA prisoners on September 19, 2004.

Al-Hajj is also known as Riyadh the Facilitator, and is alleged to have been a senior Al-Qaeda facilitator, and yet, since his arrival at Guantánamo 15 years ago, he has never been put forward for a trial by military commission, even though he was recommended for prosecution by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, a high-level, inter-agency government review process that was established by President Obama shortly after he took office in 2009. Instead, in 2013, he and 17 other prisoners originally recommended for prosecution — as well as 46 other men who the task force recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial — were made eligible for Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process that ended up approving 38 men for release before Obama left office.

Al-Hajj, however, was one of 26 men recommended for ongoing imprisonment by the PRBs rather than release — leading to their description by the mainstream US media, in a rare moment of illumination, as “forever prisoners.” Under Donald Trump, the PRBs have continue to review the prisoners’ cases, but since Trump took office not a single prisoner has been approved for release. Prisoners — al-Hajj included — have responded by refusing to take part in the PRBs, correctly concluding that they are a waste of time under a president who declared, even before he took office, that there “should be no further releases from Gitmo.”   

In January 2018, lawyers for eleven prisoners — including al-Hajj — submitted a habeas corpus petition to the District Court in Washington, D.C., in which they stated that, “Given President Donald Trump’s proclamation against releasing any petitioners – driven by executive hubris and raw animus rather than by reason or deliberative national security concerns – these petitioners may never leave Guantánamo alive, absent judicial intervention.” 

A ruling has not yet been delivered in that case, but last summer a lawyer for the government claimed that the remaining prisoners at  could be held for a hundred years, if the government considered that the conflict in connection with which they were seized — the allegedly unending global “war on terror” — lasted that long.  

In response to the phone call with al-Hajj, CCR have scheduled a urgent status conference with Judge Royce C. Lamberth, in connection with al-Hajj’s habeas petition, this coming Friday, September 6, 2019. 

The urgency is in no doubt. As CCR explain, al-Hajj’s body “is so depleted by everything – prior torture, chronic pain, repeat hunger strikes as the only autonomous form of protest he has had – that outside medical experts say he is at risk of total collapse.” 

To this can now be added what CCR call “the first time” that “he has spoken with seriousness and specificity about suicide.” As they proceed to explain, ”Detainees have died or been near death in Guantánamo before. When they have, the government’s response has been to clamp down with secrecy, or downplay the gravity of the health of detainees on the brink, or, in the case of apparent suicides, distort those desperate acts as a form of warfare.”

They also state, “Guantánamo was a system designed to break people down. It is working. Mr. Al Hajj’s desperate state should wake us up once and for all to the reality that it is rotten to its core. Some would say, as members of Congress like Tom Cotton have, that detainees should be left to rot in Guantánamo. The rest of us need to ask what we are willing to accept.”

In al-Hajj’s case, CCR point out that he “has never received adequate mental health treatment for the effects of his torture,” and, in addition, “has suffered for years from severe physical symptoms, including acute abdominal and urinary pain, extreme weakness and fatigue, and recurring jaundice, which are exacerbated by his repeated hunger strikes.” 

In 2017, as I reported at the time, medical experts feared that he was in danger of “imminent irreparable harm” and “on the precipice of total body collapse,” after he “fell unconscious after a hunger strike during which he stopped drinking water, and required emergency hospitalization.” On that occasion, CCR submitted an emergency motion to a federal judge requesting an independent medical evaluation and the release of al-Hajj’s medical records,” but that motion disappeared into a legal void — or, as CCR put it, far more charitably, “has yet to be ruled on.”

Treated with complete contempt by the president, abandoned by the government, and neglected by the courts, the Guantánamo prisoners continue to be America’s forgotten shame. Let us hope that, in Sharqawi al-Hajj’s case, the District Court in Washington, D.C. recognizes its responsibility to act.

* * * * *

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 see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, in which I report on disturbing news from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), who explain that one of their Guantanamo clients, Sharqawi al-Hajj, a torture victim, “forever prisoner” and long-term hunger striker, “stated on a recent call with his attorney that he wanted to take his own life.”

    In an eloquent statement, CCR’s lawyers said, “When things are in a state of perpetual crisis, as they seem all around today, it is easy to lose sight of just how extreme a situation is, and grow numb to it. We have lost sight of just how extreme the situation in the Guantanamo prison is. We have grown numb to it.”

    How is it possible that, over 17 years since Guantanamo opened, the world seems to have forgotten the prison and the men held there, as though there is nothing noteworthy about men being held for 17 years without charge or trial – and continuing to be held without charge or trial, possibly for the rest of their lives?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Fauzy-Ackroyd wrote:

    Thank you for posting this. It is horrific for these men to still be there after all these years. And everything is connected. An abuse to one is an abuse to all. A stain on humanity.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for caring, Anna. The horror now is that the last two and a half years under Trump seem only to have demonstrated that, the more he ignores Guantanamo, the more the American people forget about it.

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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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