18 Years After 9/11, the Endless Injustice of Guantánamo is Driving Prisoners to Suicidal Despair


The terrorist attacks on New York on September 11, 2001, and the prison at Guantánamo Bay on the day it opened, January 11, 2002.

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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.

18 years ago, on September 11, 2001, the world changed irrevocably, when terrorists, using hijacked passenger planes, attacked the US mainland, killing nearly 3,000 people. In response, the administration of George W. Bush launched a brutal, global “war on terror,” invading Afghanistan to destroy Al-Qaeda and to topple the Taliban government, and embarking on a program of kidnapping (“extraordinary rendition”), torture and the indefinite detention without charge or trial of alleged “terror suspects.”

18 years later, the war in AfghanIstan drags on, the battle for “hearts and minds” having long been lost, a second occupied country — Iraq — illegally invaded on the basis of lies, and of false evidence obtained through torture, remains broken, having subsequently served as an incubator for Al-Qaeda’s savage offshoot, Daesh (or Islamic State), and the program of indefinite detention without charge or trial continues in the prison established four months after the 9/11 attacks, at Guantánamo Bay on the US naval base in Cuba.

Torture, we are told, is no longer US policy and the CIA no longer runs “black sites” — although torture remains permissible in Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, and no one can quite be sure what the US gets up to in its many covert actions around the world.

What is clear, however, is that torture continues to permeate Guantánamo, corroding efforts to bring the alleged 9/11 perpetrators to justice, because the government is still trying not to publicly admit to what it did to the men in their long years in the “black sites” — despite it being exposed so thoroughly in the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s torture program, which was released in December 2014 — while the men’s defense teams, of course, point out that there can be no justice unless the truth is exposed.

For those not facing trials — 31 of the 40 men still held — there no longer appears to be any attempt by the authorities to even pretend that they should receive any form of justice. Under George W. Bush, most of the men released were freed because of political pressure from their home countries. From 2008 to 2010, there was a brief period when, following a momentous Supreme Court ruling, the law penetrated Guantánamo, and 38 men had their habeas corpus petitions granted by US judges, until appeals court judges cynically rewrote the rules, gutting habeas corpus of all meaning — and vacating or reversing five of those decisions.

To his credit, Barack Obama initiated two review processes to deal with the prisoners he inherited from George W. Bush. The first, 2009’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, approved 156 prisoners for release (roughly two-thirds of those held when he took office), and all but three of those men were eventually released. And from 2013-16, the Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), a parole-type process, partly designed to sidestep Republican efforts to prevent any releases from the prison, led to another 38 men being approved for release, with all but two of them released before Obama left office.

However, 26 men had their ongoing imprisonment approved by the PRBs, and, with the five men approved for release but still held, these 31 men are locked in Guantánamo, apparently forever, by Donald Trump, who, even before he took office, announced that there should be no further releases from Guantánamo.

The PRBs continue, but have not delivered a single recommendation for release since Trump took office, and the prisoners, as a result, are sinking into a grave sense of despair. Human Rights First, the only organization to consistently keep an eye on the PRBs, has regularly been reporting that prisoners are no longer attending their hearings, having concluded that, under Trump, they have become a sham.

For a roll-call of prisoners refusing to engage with the PRBs, see their articles, Alleged Bin Laden Bodyguard Boycotts Periodic Review Board Process (in December 2018), No End in Sight for GTMO Detainee and Another GTMO Detainee Refuses to Participate in PRBs (in February this year), Another GTMO Detainee Opts Out of the Review Process (in April), Two PRB Reviews and Two No-Shows as Detainees Continue to Opt Out (in May), Another Detainee No-Show Demonstrates a Defunct PRB Process (in June) and PRB Hearings Continue While Guantanamo Detainees Sit on the Sidelines (in August).

A suicide attempt by Sharqawi Al Hajj

Last week in a shocking demonstration of how deep the despair at Guantánamo runs, the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) issued a press release in which they revealed that their client Sharqawi Al Hajj recently attempted suicide.

In an emergency motion submitted to the District Court in Washington, D.C., CCR revealed that Al Hajj had “cut his wrists with a piece of glass while on a recent call with his lawyer [on August 19], after making specific statements in prior weeks about wanting to ‘try to kill himself,’” which I reported in an article last week.

In the motion, CCR’s attorneys state that there “appeared to be utter confusion for several minutes about what was going on,” with Al Hajj stating that he was “sorry for doing this but they treat us like animals,” and adding, “I am not human in their eyes.”

Al Hajj also told his attorneys that he “had been moved to a Behavioral Health Unit in Guantánamo after his [previous] suicidal statements, where he was held in harsh, isolating conditions, despite being told by his doctor that the doctor had recommended against the move. In the unit, [he] began protesting by refusing to drink water for two days. By the third day he was urinating blood and was in the hospital. After his discharge, [he] was placed in a cell that felt freezing cold to [him] because of his frail condition, and was denied doctors’ recommendations for a warm blanket and warm clothes. In protest, he stopped drinking water again.”

On Friday Al Hajj’s attorneys urged the court to order “an immediate independent psychiatric assessment of Mr. Al Hajj to prevent further harm or death.”

CCR Senior Staff Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei said, “Any notion that Mr. Al Hajj is not actively suicidal is deliberately blind or indifferent. For months he has made increasingly hopeless and suicidal statements of intent and planning, culminating in an actual premeditated attempt, in a context where the outlook couldn’t be bleaker – no prospect of release after more than 17 years of captivity.”

She added, “When similar behavior by Guantánamo detainees in the past has not been taken seriously, detainees have died. Mr. Al Hajj’s actions must be treated with the utmost gravity and care by everyone with responsibility over him.”

As CCR also explained, “Attorneys began raising alarms about Mr. Al Hajj two years ago, after he fell unconscious following a hunger strike during which he stopped drinking water. At the time, medical experts warned the court that Mr. Al Hajj was in danger of ‘imminent irreparable harm’ and ‘on the precipice of total bodily collapse.’ They cited both pre-existing health conditions as well as the effects of Mr. Al Hajj’s indefinite detention — now at over 17 years — including over two years of torture in secret CIA custody.”

In response to his deteriorating condition, CCR filed an emergency motion two years ago, in September 2017, calling for the release of his medical records and an evaluation by an independent doctor, which I wrote about at the time. Astonishingly, however, the court has not yet ruled on that motion.

Since then, as CCR proceeded to explain, “Mr. Al Hajj’s mental and physical health have been in steady decline.” Last October, his attorneys filed an urgent request to appear before the court, because of concerns about his mental health, but the courts have, fundamentally, let him down.

It remains to be seen if the courts will finally address the contempt for any notion of justice that emanates from the White House and from Congress when it comes to Guantánamo, although, to date, the wheels of justice appear to be moving at a glacial pace.

Sharqawi Al Hajj is one of 11 prisoners who submitted a habeas corpus petition to the District Court in Washington, D.C. in January 2018, when their lawyers declared 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.”

In this case, however, as with Sharqawi Al Hajj’s emergency motion of September 2017, no ruling has yet been delivered, and while the delays continue, it seems, from Al-Hajj’s despair, that the prisoners’ very lives are at stake.

POSTSCRIPT: The judge has “refused to order an independent medical evaluation of Sharqawi Al Hajj,” as CCR explained in a press release. Pardiss Kebriaei. said, “In the face of Guantánamo’s inability to change the course of Mr. Al Hajj’s mental health trajectory from suicidal statements to actual attempt, and independent medical opinion that Mr. Al Hajj is ‘actively suicidal,’ the court’s denial of an outside medical evaluation takes a chance with Mr. Al Hajj’s life. Mr. Al Hajj’s attempt was not taken seriously, and it was seen as volitional – harm of his own making, as if he weren’t a prisoner we had tortured and imprisoned without charge for 17 years, with still no prospect of release, and as if willfulness matters in the assessment of real risk.”

* * * * *

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.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, 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.

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Today is the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and one of the bitterest legacies of the “war on terror” that the Bush administration declared in response is the prison at Guantanamo Bay, where the men held are sinking into despair under Donald Trump, who fails to recognize how disgraceful indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial is, and who doesn’t want to release any prisoners under any circumstances.

    The despair prompted by this ongoing injustice is such that, just last month, one prisoner, Sharqawi Al Hajj – held for 17 years without charge or trial – attempted suicide, cutting his wrists with a piece of glass while on a phone call with his lawyer. He said that he was “sorry for doing this but they treat us like animals,” and added, “I am not human in their eyes.” And yet, just yesterday, a federal court judge turned down an emergency request for “an immediate independent psychiatric assessment of Mr. Al Hajj to prevent further harm or death.”

    How long can this monstrous injustice continue?

  2. Tom says...

    Keep in mind there’s no standard approach or profile that fits all torture victims. But one thing in common? Everyone has their limits. Also, here many cable TV presenters are told to say sick and twisted things by their billionaire bosses. People protest us being in Afghanistan for over 18 years now and with no end in sight? They’re a bunch of goddamn hypocrites. Nobody cares about what happens WAY OVER THERE.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    There’s a big part of the problem, Tom – alleged journalists reading out scripts prepared in accordance with the wishes of their billionaire owners. It explains a lot of the problems we’re having in both the UK and the US.

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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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