The Coronavirus and Guantánamo’s Extraordinarily Vulnerable Prison Population


A collage of Guantánamo and the coronavirus.

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Ever since the coronavirus began its alarming global spread, those who work with, and on behalf of prisoners have been aware of the threat that it poses to those who are incarcerated. This applies, as commentators have noted, whilst urging urgent action, to the many million of prisoners worldwide who are imprisoned after being tried and convicted of crimes, as well as, in some countries, political prisoners.

In the UK, lawyers urged the government, to no avail, to release Julian Assange, who is held in Belmarsh maximum security prison in London, fighting efforts by the British government to extradite him to the US to face entirely inappropriate espionage charges relating to his work with WikiLeaks, and in the US, as well as highlighting the dangers faced by the country’s 2.2 million domestic prisoners — the largest prison population per capita in the world — some activists have also been highlighting the dangers the virus poses to the 40 men still held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, all held for between 12 and 18 years, and almost all held indefinitely without charge or trial.

The plight of the Guantánamo prisoners was particularly highlighted eight days ago, on March 24, when the US Navy announced in a press release that a sailor stationed at the base had “tested positive for COVID-19” and was “currently undergoing evaluation and treatment.” The Navy’s press release added that the Department of Defense had “notified public health authorities of the positive test” and had “taken prudent precautions” to ensure that the service member was “receiving the appropriate care.” It was also noted that the sailor was “currently isolated at their home and restricted in movement in accordance with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Guidelines,” and that efforts were underway to trace recent contacts made by the sailor.

The press release also noted that “Naval Station Guantánamo Bay has developed an aggressive mitigation strategy to minimize spread of COVID-19 and protect the health of our force,” but, as I explained in a Facebook post following the news, “No mention was made about protecting the health of the 40 prisoners in their care, which is unsurprising, but callous.”

I added, “What should happen right now is that prisoners who are not facing trials, and are unlikely ever to face trials should be released, but unfortunately that’s unlikely to appeal to a government headed by Donald Trump, who doesn’t care, and cannot be made to care.”

Unfortunately, I think it remains true that Trump will have no interest whatsoever in releasing any of the men still held, but I’m glad to note that, yesterday, Scott Roehm, the Washington Director of the Center for Victims of Torture, wrote an article for Just Security calling for some other practical responses that should be undertaken by the government; namely, disclosing to all prisoners and their lawyers “any protocols, plans, or guidance” for “preventing COVID-19 from reaching the detention facility,” and for dealing with it if it does, providing lawyers with medical records (subject to the prisoners’ consent), urging Congress to allow prisoners to be transferred to the US mainland |for emergency medical care,” avoiding isolation for prisoners where possible, and appointing a a Chief Medical Officer as required in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.”

It is very much to be hoped that the government pays attention, and that the media pick up on the importance of attempting to guarantee the safety of the Guantánamo prisoners during the coronavirus crisis, especially because, as Scott Roehm also explains, a number of prisoners have serious underlying health issues, making them particularly vulnerable to the virus — Saifullah Paracha, the prison’s oldest prisoner, whose case I have looked at closely in the 14 years since I dedicated my life to covering Guantánamo and getting the prison closed down, and who I wrote about most recently in my article last week, entitled, Uzair Paracha, Victim of Tortured Terrorism Lies, is Freed from US Jail; Why Is His Father Still at Guantánamo?; Nashwan al-Tamir (aka Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi), a “high-value detainee,” put forward for a trial, who has severe spinal problems that have not been adequately addressed by four operations at Guantánamo in the last six months, and Sharqawi Al-Hajj, who I have also written about extensively, a long-term hunger striker who made a suicide attempt last year, and whose health is still very much at risk.

Just yesterday, in fact, as Scott Roehm’s article was published, a letter from him and other experts was sent to defense secretary Mark Esper, noting that “Mr. Al Hajj’s health has again significantly deteriorated,” and urging Esper “to take appropriate steps to mitigate the situation before it becomes catastrophic.”

As Scott Roehm also explained in his article, another unfortunate effect of the coronavirus has been that “access to counsel” has been “severely restricted due to the virus,” with personal visits from lawyers “essentially impossible,” cutting off the only independent lifeline for the prisoners, and also cutting off the few visits allowed by independent medical experts. In addition, “the legal mail courier service to and from Guantánamo was recently suspended,” but as Roehm explains, the answer to all these problems, at this difficult time, is for the authorities to open up the use of video-conferencing.

I was shocked to realize that the men still held are currently completely cut off from the outside world because of the virus, which, to my mind, makes it absolutely essential that pressure is exerted on the Trump administration to respond to Scott Roehm’s demands. I’ve cross-posted his article below, and if you agree that urgent action is required, please feel free to contact your Senators and Representatives, if you live in the US, and to write to the mainstream media to urge them to cover this story.

Guantánamo’s COVID-19 Precautions Must Safeguard Detainees’ Rights
By Scott Roehm, Just Security, March 31, 2020

My colleague Daphne Eviatar wrote an excellent piece last week about the human rights implications of a “war” against COVID-19, in which she rightly observed that “[t]he half a billion dollars spent per year to run an offshore prison for 40 men denied fair charges or trials would surely be better put to use providing truly ‘essential services’ in a time of national crisis.” Of course, Daphne was referring to the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.

But what happens when COVID-19 arrives at Guantánamo? Sadly, that’s already happened: The first case of COVID-19 was reported on March 24. A member of the U.S. Navy stationed at the base tested positive. And while the sailor is apparently not involved in detention operations, the virus’ local presence, coupled with certain measures that the Defense Department is undertaking to prevent a larger outbreak, endanger both the detainees and the already limited rights they have been afforded.

The 40 prisoners who remain at Guantánamo are aging and their health is increasingly deteriorating, making them particularly vulnerable to the virus. 

For example, Saifullah Paracha is 72 years old, has had two heart attacks, and currently suffers from “diabetes, coronary artery disease, diverticulosis, gout, psoriasis and arthritis.” 

Nashwan al-Tamir has had four spinal surgeries in the last 18 months, has still not fully recovered, and continues to suffer. 

Sharqawi Al Hajj — whom independent medical experts have previously described as at risk of “total bodily collapse” due to a combination of the effects of his hunger strikes and CIA torture — attempted suicide late last year and his health has again significantly deteriorated (to the point that my organization and Physicians for Human Rights wrote today to Defense Secretary Esper seeking emergency intervention). The list goes on.

There is also the physical and psychological debilitation associated with nearly two decades of indefinite detention that cuts across the detainee population, as well as the reality that many of the remaining detainees are torture survivors suffering resulting physical and/or psychological damage.

Were COVID-19 to strike this population the consequences could be catastrophic, especially given Guantánamo’s well documented lack of medical capabilities — including insufficient equipment and expertise — to address atypical health needs.

But even if the virus does not reach the detainees, some of the precautions that Guantánamo is taking — absent efforts to mitigate aspects of their impact — could at once undermine detainees’ rights and jeopardize their health.

A prime example is access to counsel, which is now severely restricted due to the virus. In-person visits are essentially impossible; even if counsel were able to find a way to fly to Guantánamo, they would be required to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, then for another two weeks upon return to the mainland. Attorneys cannot represent their clients if the effective price of a single client visit is four weeks of lost or reduced ability to provide them with legal services, not to mention the risks to their own health. 

Moreover, the legal mail courier service to and from Guantánamo was recently suspended, and while temporary measures have been put in place, there will be an impact on both the privilege and frequency of legal mail to detainees. Finally, remote access is extremely limited (especially for the “high value” detainees) — not because it’s technically infeasible, but because the Defense Department has prohibited more widespread use.

Counsel access restrictions can also have negative consequences for detainees’ health, exacerbating pre-existing conditions that Guantánamo has proven over time either unable or unwilling to adequately address, and all but eliminating access to independent medical experts.

Mr. Al Haj, mentioned above, is a case in point. In August of last year, he cut his wrists with a piece of broken glass during a telephone call with counsel. He threatened additional self-harm shortly thereafter. At the time, two independent psychologists with whom Mr. Al Hajj’s counsel consulted characterized him as “actively” suicidal. 

According to Mr. Al Hajj and his counsel, while his care would eventually improve, Guantánamo staff’s initial response was dangerously inadequate; Mr. Al Hajj alleges that he was moved to “isolating conditions” in a “freezing cold” cell, and refused a warm blanket and warm clothes, both against the recommendations of his doctors at Guantánamo.

Mr. Al Hajj is apparently again in crisis now, but this time with minimal ability to communicate with the outside world. As a torture survivor, and especially given his mental health history, Mr. Al Hajj needs trusted human connections. He cannot form those connections with Guantánamo staff — a phenomenon that is common among detainees — both because the United States is responsible for his torture, and because U.S. medical personnel were complicit in torture, including at Guantánamo. This increased level of isolation may well accelerate his decline.

Current restrictions will also put an end to periodic visits by independent medical experts, for the minority of detainees who continue to be seen periodically. As I explained here previously, detainees have not been able to retain independent medical experts except through litigation, and so those experts’ access is dependent upon counsel’s access.

None of this is to say that the Defense Department shouldn’t take reasonable and appropriate steps, consistent with public health experts’ recommendations, to protect everyone at Guantánamo from exposure to COVID-19. But they don’t need to further infringe upon detainees’ rights in the name of health and safety. For starters, the Defense Department should, immediately:

  • Disclose to all detainees and their counsel (both habeas counsel and military commissions defense counsel) any protocols, plans, or guidance — including timely updates if/when those evolve — for preventing COVID-19 from reaching the detention facility, for identifying and testing potentially infected detainees, and for providing the range of care that could be necessary for any detainee who tests positive;
  • Dramatically expand remote access to counsel and to independent medical experts — via videoconference in particular — for all detainees;
  • Subject to detainees’ consent, immediately provide their counsel and any other appropriate party they authorize (especially independent medical experts) with full, unredacted and unprotected copies of their medical records, including as near to real-time updates as is practicable;
  • Seek authority from Congress to transfer detainees to the United States for emergency medical care;
  • Avoid the use of isolation to the maximum extent possible consistent with the standard of medical care that President Donald Trump signed into law as part of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (FY2020 NDAA),* and with public health experts’ recommendations for addressing COVID-19; and
  • Appoint a Chief Medical Officer as required by section 1046 of the FY2020 NDAA.

Some of these may seem like drastic measures to those who are well-versed in Guantánamo’s history, but they aren’t. They’re reasonable and sensible steps toward safeguarding detainees’ rights, their health, and the health of everyone at Guantánamo in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

*Per section 1046 of the FY2020 NDAA, all detainees must receive “evaluation and treatment that is accepted by medical experts and reflected in peer-reviewed medical literature as the appropriate medical approach for a condition, symptoms, illness, or disease and that is widely used by healthcare professionals.”

* * * * *

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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), 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 the 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.

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, in which I address how, as the coronavirus spreads around the globe with alarming speed, there are fears for the prisoners held at Guantanamo, especially after a US sailor tested positive for the virus last week.

    Along with my own thoughts, I cross-post an article published on Just Security by Scott Roehm, the Washington Director of the Center for Victims of Torture, pointing out that a number of the prisoners have serious underlying health problems, and calling for a number of appropriate responses from the Trump administration, beginning with letting the prisoners and their lawyers know what policies are in place to deal with the virus, and also including a call for Congress to allow prisoners to be transferred to the US mainland if they need urgent medical care.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    If all the guards get sick maybe they’ll forget to lock up and we can all get on with something else. I’m sure Cuba would be happy to take them all.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Wouldn’t that be something, David? I just hope they’re looking after their personnel so well that the prisoners will be safe. I can’t think of much worse than a virus advancing on you when you’re locked up.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Andy, what’s happening here in UK prisons is pretty scandalous too.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Oh, yes, absolutely, David. It’s why I opened my article talking about the concerns about the coronavirus on prisoners that have been expressed by people who work with or on behalf of prisoners around the world.

    With specific reference to UK prisons, I see that Sky News has just reported that the former chief inspector of prisons, David Ramsbotham, “writing in the Daily Telegraph with a cross-party coalition of 50 other members of the House of Lords, police and crime commissioners, academics and charities”, has called for prisoners who can be to be released early to help overcrowded prisons deal with the pandemic, suggesting that “remand prisoners in particular should be let out”, and also that the government “should also examine indeterminate sentence prisoners” – a category I’m sure most of us know little or nothing about, but which doesn’t even fit with established notions of justice.

    Lord Ramsbotham also said that the prison service “has a lack of experienced officers on prison wings in the UK, and had lost the equivalent of 80,000 years of expertise due to staff cuts.”


  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Thank you very much Andy for your comment and post. David Ramsbotham is a very good man and was an excellent Inspector of Prisons. Many of us were fearful that Margaret Thatcher would appoint a right-wing IofPs. He inspected Holloway Prison in the early 1980s and walked out because the conditions were shocking. He said he would come back when the prison was improved. I happened to be in Holloway the week after. Things were pretty grim – rats, cockroches etc and filthy conditions and yes the behaviour of some of the officers. I very much agree with what he and the coalition of members of the House of Lords and many others are asking for. Many especially women should not be there. I temper that by saying … but some should.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your memories of David Ramsbotham, Lindis – and of Holloway Prison in the ’80s. As for now, I imagine the government won’t really want to listen – although it shows how everything is turning upside down to such an extent that it’s even possible to broach the topic of releasing prisoners, and if the death count gets much worse, it may even make a difference.
    I was disappointed to see that a spokesperson for the Department of Justice told Sky News that there were “no plans to end short-term prison sentences”, with the broadcaster adding that “it is thought that alternative measures, such as taking prisoners to army barracks instead, are under consideration” – a shameful and elaborate way of avoiding doing the right thing, which would be to immediately reduce the prison population.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    For a chilling analysis of the problems facing US prisoners, please check out this article for the Guardian, co-written by Jean Casella, the co-director of the excellent Solitary Watch – ‘US jails will become death traps in the coronavirus pandemic’:

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s an article about the alarming spread of the coronavirus at Rikers Island prison in New York, described by Ross MacDonald, the jail’s chief physician, as a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes”, after the number of cases rose from 1 to 200 in just 12 days:

  10. Andy Worthington says...

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s some pretty shocking news from the British “immigration detention” system – about plans to put ‘at-risk’ immigration detainees into solitary confinement to protect them form the virus, instead of – again – doing the right thing, and releasing them:

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Spanish readers can find a Spanish version of this article here, courtesy of the World Can’t Wait:

  13. A Coronavirus Lament by Guantánamo Prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul – Stop the Wars at Home and Abroad! says...

    […] week, on my own website, I published an article looking at the threat posed to the prisoners at Guantánamo by the […]

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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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