Remembering Ibrahim Idris, the Only Guantánamo Prisoner Freed Because of Illness, Who Has Died Aged 60


An image about the death of former former Guantánamo prisoner Ibrahim Idris, created by DOAM (Documenting Oppression Against Muslims).

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There was some sad news recently from Sudan, as Carol Rosenberg, for the New York Times, reported the death, at the age of 60, of former Guantánamo prisoner Ibrahim Idris.

Idris was repatriated from Guantánamo in December 2013, almost 12 years after he first arrived at the prison, in the first group of 20 prisoners to arrive by plane from Afghanistan in January 2002. To secure his release, his attorney Jennifer Cowan successfully argued in court that he was so mentally ill and so morbidly obese that he could not be regarded as a threat, and that the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the law justifying imprisonment at Guantánamo, only allowed the government to hold a prisoner “for the purpose of preventing him from returning to the battlefield.”

As Cowan described Idris’s situation in her submission to Chief Judge Royce Lamberth in Washington, D.C., “Petitioner’s long-­term severe mental illness and physical illnesses make it virtually impossible for him to engage in hostilities were he to be released, and both domestic law and international law of war explicitly state that if a detainee is so ill that he cannot return to the battlefield, he should be repatriated. When interpreted in accordance with domestic law and the principles of international law, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (‘AUMF’) does not permit the continued detention of Mr. Idris.”

In response, for the first time in Guantánamo’s legally abusive history, the Justice Department, which normally challenges every effort by prisoners’ attorneys to secure their release, backed down, refusing to contest Idris’s habeas petition, and officially withdrawing their reliance on a factual return that had basically rehashed the implausible fantasies about him that were contained in bis classified military file.

This was good news for Idris, as Judge Lamberth immediately ordered his release, and he was sent home two months later, but he should have been freed almost as soon as he had arrived at Guantánamo, because, in 2009, in an analysis of his case, an Army psychiatrist explained that he “was diagnosed as having a mental illness within weeks of getting to Guantánamo,” and yet no effort was made to address his problems. Instead, as was revealed in a 2008 classified military file released by WikiLeaks, interrogators decided that he had “resisted cooperation with interrogators and remain[ed] largely unexploited,” and had “coached other JTF-GTMO detainees to use resistance techniques while in US custody.”

And yet in July 2013, when Jennifer Cowan was seeking to secure his release via a court order, Carol Rosenberg, then at the Miami Herald, reported that, far from coaching others, “his fellow prisoners don’t want him around,” because “he behaves bizarrely — wears his underwear on his head, whispers to himself, is delusional.”

Although the truth about Idris, as Rosenberg also explained, was that he was “an obese, diabetic, schizophrenic Sudanese man who [had] mostly lived at Guantánamo’s psychiatric ward” since arriving at the prison on January 11, 2002, the prison authorities’ delusional and obsessive efforts to establish the guilt of generally guiltless men meant that some in those involved in interrogations spent years convinced that he had been present at the Battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, the showdown between the US and al-Qaeda and the Taliban in December 2001, that he was a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, and also that, as his classified file explained, he was “a trusted agent of UBL [Osama bin Laden] who employed [him] as an international courier during the mid-1990’s while UBL resided in Sudan,” who also “served as the camp doctor at al-Qaida’s al-Faruq Training Camp and served as both a fighter and doctor as a member of UBL’s 55th Arab Brigade.”

The death of Ibrahim Idris

As Carol Rosenberg explained, the exact cause of Idris’s death was not immediately known, but he “had been a sickly shut-in at his mother’s home in his native country, in Port Sudan,” according to another Sudanese former prisoner, the Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj, who also “asserted that Mr. Idris had been tortured at Guantánamo.” Meanwhile, Christopher Curran, a lawyer who represents Sudanese interests in Washington, D.C., attributed Idris’s death “to medical complications he had from Guantánamo.”

As Rosenberg explained, “Military medical records showed that Mr. Idris spent long stretches in the prison’s behavioral health unit, where an Army psychiatrist concluded that he had schizophrenia,” and he “also developed diabetes and high blood pressure at the prison.” Ian C. Moss, a former State Department diplomat who arranged for Mr. Idris’s transfer, told Rosenberg, “Given how ill he was, it was clear that at home with his family was where he would receive the best care.” As Rosenberg also explained, “At the time, Sudan was still on the State Sponsor of Terrorism list,” which should have prevented his release, because of restrictions imposed by Congress, but “because a federal court ordered his release, he could be returned.”

As Rosenberg also explained, “Earlier this year, Mr. al-Haj, who works for the Al Jazeera Media Network, described Mr. Idris as deteriorating both mentally and physically in his native Port Sudan.” Al-Haj told her that “[h]e never married, never found work and was cared for by his mother until her recent death.”

As he also explained, “Ibrahim lost his mind due to severe torture in Gitmo. American officers, soldiers and guards believed he would give some valuable information under torture. Upon his return, the Sudanese government allocated a nominal pension to him.”

Responding to her client’s death, Jennifer Cowan said Idris “should never have been held at Guantánamo for more than 11 years.” She added, “I’m glad that he spent the last seven years of his life free and with his family. But that doesn’t erase his mistreatment by the United States before that.”

As we reflect on Ibrahim Idris’s death, I hope that people will also think about all the other men held at Guantánamo over the years — including some still held — who had, or have psychological and physical problems that the US authorities have never wanted to acknowledge — men like Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, who had severe mental health problems, and died at the prison, reportedly by taking his own life, in 2012, despite having been repeatedly approved for release, or Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, a hero of the anti-Taliban resistance, imprisoned by mistake (although the US authorities have never acknowledged that), who died of cancer in 2007, or Mohammed al-Qahtani, subjected to a horrific torture program, despite a history of severe mental health problems that was known to the US authorities, or Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner, Saifullah Paracha, against whom the US appears to have no case whatsoever, who is universally admired by prisoners and staff alike, and who has also had three heart attacks.

Of the 40 men still held at Guantánamo, others also have psychological and physical problems, after 15 to 20 years in US custody, sometimes involving torture or other abusive conditions, and it is time for the Biden administration to finally deal with this by either releasing them or charging them and putting them on trial in a functional court system.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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).

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.

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10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following up on a report by Carol Rosenberg in the New York Times about the death, at the age of 60, of former Guantanamo prisoner Ibrahim Idris, who is the only prisoner to have been freed because his attorney managed to persuade the Justice Department that he was so mentally and physically ill that he could not pose a threat to the US.

    As a result, Ibrahim Idris got to spend the last seven years of his life living with his mother, after his ordeal at Guantanamo, but how sad and infuriating it is that no other prisoner has been freed because their psychological and/or physical problems mean that they too cannot possibly pose any kind of credible threat to the US.

    Of the 40 men still held, I’m thinking of Saifullah Paracha, Guantanamo’s oldest prisoner, against whom no credible case exists, and who has had three heart attacks, and Mohammed al-Qahtani, subjected to a vile torture program at Guantanamo in 2002-03, even though the authorities were aware that he had had chronic mental health problems in Saudi Arabia. And there are, of course, other cases, amongst the 40 men still held, of individuals severely damaged after nearly 20 years of lawless imprisonment, torture and abuse.

    It’s time to close Guantanamo.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Hester wrote:

    No one has done more to educate us about the horrors of Guantanamo than Andy, respect.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the supportive words, Kevin. Much appreciated.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Angela Gipple wrote:

    Free the innocent.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Angela. I wonder how many people in the US have ever bothered to think about whether their government told them the truth when they described everyone in Guantanamo as “the worst of the worst”?

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:

    So sad, so wrong. Yes it it past time to close Gitmo. Biden, don’t repeat Obama’s mistake.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly, Rose. Good to hear from you.

  8. Anna says...

    One more sad milestone, at least he had a few years with his mother in his own country, with no doubt his terrible memories and nightmares as companions. Each time I re-read those ludicrous accusations I still cannot believe anyone could seriously have come up with such nonsense. But then of course they knew it was nonsense but could not care less, shielded as they were – and still are – from any accountability.

    Not to mention the callously used dehumanising term ‘exploitation’. As if human beings litterally were lemons to squeeze ‘actionable intelligence’ from.

    This link reminded me of Aafia Siddiqui, who is held in the same Texas prison :

    She also already was a physical & mental victim when she was sentenced. Ten years on I dread to think how she must be now.

    Even if she ever was involved in anything bad, that was never proven and she was convicted on a ridiculous charge of having tried to kill US military – who supposedly left guns lying around unattended within her reach. Did you ever come across a story of any GWOT prisoner in Afghanistan or elsewhere who was held that way ?!

    She got a de facto life sentence for it, while US policemen can lkill at will and walk away free. The older I get, the less I can make sense of any of this – and much more.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna. Thanks for that link to the story of Federal Medical Center Cardwell, and how much the prisoners – including Reality Winner and Aafia Siddiqui – suffered during Texas’s recent power outage.

    Aafia Siddiqui’s case remains one of the most disturbing in the whole of the “war on terror” – the way she appears to have been set up so that they could prosecute her and give her such a hideously long sentence. It’s just occurred to me that perhaps it was because she was a woman that they were determined to convict her, rather than allowing the men to languish in endless pre-trial imprisonment, because the fact that she was a woman was inflaming tensions in the Muslim world in a way that doesn’t happen when men are involved.

    Just a thought.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish version on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Recordando a Ibrahim Idris (edad de 60 años), el único prisionero en Guantánamo en ser liberado debido a una enfermedad’:

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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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