“I Can’t Breathe”: Afghan Prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul on Black Lives Matter and Violent Oppression in Guantánamo


Asadullah Haroon Gul, as featured in a photo taken in Guantánamo by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and made available to his family.

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Over the last few months I’ve cross-posted, on two occasions, articles by Asadullah Haroon Gul, an Afghan prisoner in Guantánamo who is seeking the support of his government in securing his release — A Coronavirus Lament by Guantánamo Prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul and Asadullah Haroon Gul, a “No-Value Detainee,” and One of the Last Two Afghans in Guantánamo, Asks to Be Freed — and below I’m cross-posting a third, written in response to the reawakening of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and originally published in Newsweek. In it, Gul takes George Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” and draws parallels with the brutal treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo, himself included, expressing support for Black Lives Matter and hoping that, like the civil rights movement, it will bring significant change.

As he states, “America’s business is not my business but if human beings anywhere are struggling for justice, I must support them even from my cell in Guantánamo Bay. Perhaps my brothers and sisters marching in the streets will turn their eyes on this island prison, and witness our common cause.”

One of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo, in June 2007, Gul was apparently seized because of his alleged involvement with Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), led by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had supported Al-Qaeda at the time of the US-led invasion. Gul very clearly had no meaningful connection with HIG, his involvement extending only to having lived, with his wife and family, in a refugee camp that HIG ran, but, as in so many cases of mistaken identity at Guantánamo, the US authorities didn’t care.

It took nine years for Gul to get a lawyer — Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, then working for the legal charity Reprieve — and in the meantime Gul had been designated by a review process set up under President Obama in 2009 as someone too dangerous to release, but with insufficient evidence against them for them to be charged. In 2016, just after Sullivan Bennis met him, he had another review — a parole-type process called a Periodic Review Board — but the board members failed to recommend his release, and within months he was left in the hands of Donald Trump, who made it clear that he had no interest in releasing any Guantánamo prisoners under any circumstances.

Gul’s only hope now lies wth the Afghan government. As I explained in April, “recently, the continued absurdity of holding Gul was made clear when a former Guantánamo prisoner with HIG associations, Hamidullah, was repatriated from the United Arab Emirates, where he had been sent with other Afghans in 2016, because Hekmatyar had reached a peace agreement with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani. Two other men sent to the UAE, but not aligned with HIG, were also repatriated, and it seems obvious that Gul should also have been freed.”

The article is below, and I hope you have time to read it, and will share it if you find it useful, and I also hope you have time to watch this short video, featuring Gul’s daughter and father, which was posted on Facebook yesterday.

Asadullah Haroon Gul’s daughter Maryam, as featured in a short video released on Facebook yesterday.

After 13 Years in Guantánamo, the Black Lives Matter Protests Give Me Hope
By Asadullah Haroon Gul, Newsweek, June 18, 2020

The killing of George Floyd has reverberated around the world. Sitting in my cell at Guantánamo, I was watching Afghan News and even there, so far from America, they showed a picture saying “I can’t breathe.” When people struggle peacefully for justice, that can only be good.

“I can’t breathe” resonates here, as on countless occasions half a dozen soldiers have pinned me down, grinding my face into the concrete, and it was all I could say. What the officers did to George Floyd has shocked the conscience of America, but it is painfully familiar to me.

The U.S. has become desensitized to state violence, provided it happens out of sight and is done to brown-skinned people. Guantánamo — a GULAG for Muslims, run by America on foreign soil — is the ultimate expression of this.

I have been subjected to what they call an FCE — a “Forcible Cell Extraction” — many times. In 2010 I began protesting peacefully because they started searching my private parts. The soldiers did not want to put their hands inside my pants — it was a rule from on high, collective punishment for one person doing something stupid. For a Muslim like me, it was a cultural anathema.

I went on hunger strike, and told them: “you can only do it to me by force.” So at any time of the day or night, even in the middle of morning prayers, the ERF team would burst into the cell. I don’t know what ERF really stands for but I call them the “Extreme Repression Force.” Five or six soldiers would kneel on me. Another person held a camera, and the leader of the ERF team would be screaming, “Don’t resist! Don’t resist.” I was not resisting. How could I? But they filmed so that if something went wrong, they would have a defence such as the Minneapolis police officers are certainly preparing.

I could not do anything. Sometimes they would use pepper spray and I would weep for 24 hours. Another time, they beat me. Two officers did come along later to apologize for that. But this is a jail. This is what happens. The violent cell extractions became a daily routine for four months until they went back to the normal search process — and I stopped protesting.

I have been FCE’d for refusing to eat when I was on a religious fast. I have been FCE’d for declining a pointless chest x-ray to avoid being exposed to radiation. I have been FCE’d over a bottle of water. Each time, I was doing nothing wrong, but sometimes you just have to assert your human dignity. What they were doing to poor George Floyd is SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) here.

I have had plenty of bruises and scars from the FCE process but perhaps I am lucky. In the early days of Guantánamo they were practicing, using a soldier as their guinea pig, and they did not listen when he cried out in fear and pain. The unfortunate man ended up with brain damage.

That there are now images of cops beating and choking protesters on the nightly news does not solely reflect the militarization of law enforcement — but rather the existence of the smartphone camera. The violent abuse of power these videos show comes as no surprise to those of us who have been on the wrong end of it for many years. This is a country that maintains a prison out of the law’s reach, to detain people indefinitely without charge. It is interested in control, not justice.

This Black Lives Matter protest gives me hope. It will be like the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and I believe it will have positive results. America’s business is not my business but if human beings anywhere are struggling for justice, I must support them even from my cell in Guantánamo Bay. Perhaps my brothers and sisters marching in the streets will turn their eyes on this island prison, and witness our common cause.

* * * * *

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 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 eight 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.

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8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a cross-post, with my own introduction, of an article about Black Lives Matter and Guantanamo that was published recently in Newsweek, written by the Afghan prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul.

    Asadullah was one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantanamo, in 2007, and has never been charged with a crime. He seems to be a case of mistaken identity, but the US still insists that he is “too dangerous to release.”

    Also included: a link to a video of his daughter, Maryam, who was just a baby when he was seized, and his father talking about him, and hoping to be reunited with him soon. There is some hope that the Afghan government might seek his release, but otherwise there can be no hope for Asadullah or for any of the other men still held in Guantanamo until Donald Trump is removed from office.

  2. Anna says...

    How beautiful and once more a glimpse of the nature of the prisoners, a peace loving and rational nature that many of us outside should try to emulate instead of mindlessly dismissing them as some dangerous criminals. And the lovely daughter who never has met her father, the dignified parents.
    No raving hyperboles, no accusations, just a civilised plea for their son to finally be reunited with them. So little to ask – and yet refused.

  3. James Hinde says...

    Bless you who fight for the release the prisoners at Gauntanamo. That piece of Cuba is illegally occupied by the USA. It’s past time it is dis-occupied and remuneration given to Cuba.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna – and thanks for appreciating the calls for justice from Asadullah, his father and – especially, for me – his daughter. Sadly, those in charge simply don’t care, it seems. How many hundreds of thousands of lives have been taken by the US or ruined by the US since 9/11?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks you, James. Very good to hear from you.

  6. Thomas Cox says...

    Thank you Andy. Can you tell me how to send a letter of support to Asadullah Haroon?
    My apologies if you have published it and I have overlooked.
    Thomas Cox

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Thomas.
    The details of how to write to prisoners are here: https://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2020/05/26/forgotten-and-isolated-please-write-to-the-guantanamo-prisoners/

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    For any Spanish readers out there, a Spanish translation is here – ‘“No puedo respirar”: Asadullah Haroon Gul, prisionero afgano, sobre La Vida de los Negros Importa y la opresión violenta en Guantánamo’: http://worldcantwait-la.com/worthington-no-tengo-ni-siquiera-permitido-escuchar-mi-propia-historia.htm

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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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