The Shameful Human Cost of Inertia at Joe Biden’s Guantánamo

13.4.21

Lutfi bin Ali, a Tunisian held at Guantánamo, who recently died in Mauritania, having been unable to secure the medical treatment he needed, which he had also been unable to secure in Kazakhstan, the country to which he was first released in 2014.

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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.

Today, the prison at Guantánamo Bay has been open for 7,033 days — that’s 19 years and three months — and Joe Biden has been president for 84 days, and yet, apart from some hopeful murmurings from a handful of administration officials regarding a “robust” inter-agency review of the prison, and aspirations for its closure, no concrete proposals have been issued to indicate that any movement is imminent that will break the inertia of Donald Trump’s four lamentable years as commander in chief, when just one prisoner was released, leaving 40 men still held when Biden took office, mostly held indefinitely without charge or trial.

It may be that President Biden is unwilling to discuss Guantánamo in any detail until he has firm plans for dealing with all of the men still held, and if this is the case, then it is, sadly, understandable, because the merest mention of Guantánamo tends to provoke cynical and unbridled opposition from Republicans in Congress — although if this is the case then it only shows the extent to which, as under Barack Obama, political pragmatism — and fear of unprincipled opposition from those who cynically use Guantánamo for cheap political advantage — are considered much more important than telling Americans the truth about the prison:, that every day it remains open, holding men indefinitely without charge or trial, ought to be a source of profound national shame.

Beyond political maneuvering, however, Biden’s inertia also prolongs the grinding injustice experienced on a daily basis by the men still held at Guantánamo — as well as having dangerous, and sometimes life-threatening repercussions for some of the men already released.

Of the 40 men still held, six were unanimously approved for release by high-level, interagency government review processes — three in 2009, two in 2016 and one in the dying days of the Trump administration — and every day that their imprisonment continues is an intolerable affront to any notions of justice that the US, under Joe Biden, claims to uphold. 

While two of these men have, historically, been unwilling to even meet with officials to discuss their release, arrangements for the release of the others ought to be a relatively uncomplicated matter if President Biden were to appoint an official to deal with their release; most obviously, by reviving the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, created by President Obama but shut down under Donald Trump

One of the men, Abdul Latif Nasser, a Moroccan approved for release in 2016, missed being released under Obama by just eight days, and was extensively profiled in a US radio series last year. His release ought to be straightforward. as should be the release of an Algerian, Sufyian Barhoumi, who was also approved for release in 2016, and Tawfiq al-Bihani, born in Saudi Arabia, who was approved for release in 2009, and once came frustratingly close to being put on a plane and sent home, until his release was inexplicably cancelled. The man approved for release in 2020, a Yemeni, Hani Saleh Rashid Abdullah (aka Said Salih Said Nashir), should also be released, although in his case a third country would need to be found that would be prepared to accept him, as the entire US establishment refuses to allow any Yemenis to be repatriated, given the security situation in their home country.

Under Obama, the three men who held the role of Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure in the State Department — Daniel Fried, Cliff Sloan and Lee Wolosky — negotiated transfers out of Guantánamo for the majority of the nearly 200 men who were released from the prison during Obama’s presidency. The largest group of men by nationality were Yemenis, but Congress also prevented repatriations to other countries, including Afghanistan, and the transfers negotiated involved Gulf countries, parts of the former Soviet Union, countries in Europe, and even a few locations further afield, in Central and South America, for example.

Sadly, while some of these resettlements have been successful, with those transferred integrating successfully and establishing new lives, many others have not. With a Congressional ban in place preventing the release of any prisoners to the US mainland, the US government was more concerned with resettling men than it was with establishing how well those men would be treated. 

Men released have, sadly, faced persecution, isolation and neglect. A particularly horrible example involves 23 men who were sent to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) between November 2015 and January 2017, who have found themselves detained in abusive conditions ever since their resettlement, despite being promised their freedom. Under Trump, there was no one in his administration with responsibility for Guantánamo, and therefore no one to communicate with the UAE regarding these men and their shameful treatment, and this is a position that won’t be remedied until there is, once more, a functioning Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure.

Former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Khalifa, photographed in Libya. Forcibly repatriated in 2018 from Senegal, where he was resettled in 2016, he was imprisoned for two years by a militia before being released, but has recently been seized and imprisoned again.

The abandonment of Omar Khalifa

Another case in which the absence of an envoy has played a significant role involves two Libyans who were resettled in Senegal in April 2016, on the understanding that they would be able to stay there, but who were repatriated two years later, even though one of the two men would not have accepted the resettlement offer in Senegal if he had known that he would end up being sent back to Libya. Both men subsequently disappeared into militia-run secret prisons for several years, and, again, there was no one to even speak to within the Trump administration because of the closure of the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure.

One of the men was recently released, and is now back with his family, but the other, Omar Khalifa (aka Omar Mohamed Khalifh), who was also recently freed, has now been arrested again. As former prisoner Moazzam Begg wrote last month, “I spent several months imprisoned with him in Bagram. Omar is an amputee and has a prosthetic leg. But, that didn’t stop US soldiers from taking it away as a ‘security risk’ which forced him to crawl just to be able to go to the bathroom or to get some water.”

Moazzam added, “He was eventually freed and allowed to resettle in Senegal — a place he loved and hoped to start a new life. I used to speak to him often about that. His hopes — and stay — were short lived. Two years later, Omar was forcibly detained in Senegal and sent on a flight to Libya where he was imprisoned and abused by a local militia in Tripoli until his release a few months ago. He’s spent two more years in prison — for nothing.”

As Moazzam also explained, “Once again, after his release, Omar attempted to restart his life and had planned on getting married but he was imprisoned once more a couple of weeks ago and remains in custody.”

He added, “The USA, Senegal and Libyan militias all colluded in the unrelenting abuse of this disabled torture survivor who’d been held in prison without charge for 16 years. No shame, no remorse, no compassion, no justice. I pray he’s freed soon and able to pick up his life despite the evil he’s been subjected to. I hope his remarkable lack of bitterness burns his captors, exposes them and causes them to reform.” 

The death of Lutfi bin Ali

In another case, that of Lutfi bin Ali, a Tunisian, who was resettled in Kazakhstan in December 2014, US neglect contributed to his recent death. Bin Ali had been recognized as having major health problems while at Guantánamo, where it was noted that he “had a mechanical heart valve placed in 1999,” and that he had “chronic problems with his heart (atrial fibrillation),” as well as “a history of kidney stones, latent tuberculosis, depression and high blood pressure.” It was also noted that he had  “chronic anti-coagulation” issues, for which he was on blood thinners.

Despite this, when sent to Kazakhstan, with four other men (one of whom, who also had severe medical issues, died soon after), bin Ali faced suspicion and intrusion in his life from the Kazakh authorities, who also demonstrated an inability and unwillingness to deal adequately with his health issues. With the support of his lawyers, he managed to relocate to Mauritania, but as Maha Hilal explained in an article last week for Business Insider, “Mauritania proved inadequate to the task of dealing with his heart disease — never mind the fact that there was no one who could pay for the care he needed.”

Lutfi bin Ali died on March 7, and as former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi explained, “For the last few months he was begging the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] and Tunisian government to provide him with a travel document so he could go back to his home country to treat his heart condition but his request was denied. They knew through his medical reports that he needed emergency surgery, but they turned a blind eye knowing that he didn’t have much time. 14 years at Guantánamo, 2 years in Kazakhstan where he was mistreated and was denied proper medical treatment … He was denied a travel document which could have saved his life, ended up dying leaving a griefed wife, and without seeing his family. This is our life after Guantánamo.”

Shamefully, it is too late for the US to remedy its disgraceful abandonment of Lutfi bin Ali, but his death really ought to be a reminder that President Biden needs to appoint someone to deal with Guantánamo issues, and he needs to do it sooner rather than later.

* * * * *

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

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    84 days into Joe Biden’s presidency, I look at how his lack of prompt action regarding Guantanamo — in the first instance, by not reviving the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure in the State Department — has left six men approved for release between 2009 and 2020 still languishing at the prison, including Abdul Latif Nasser, a Moroccan approved for release in 2016, who was extensively profiled in a US radio series last year.

    Biden’s inaction is also impacting on the lives of men already released, who, as under Donald Trump, have no one within the administration to communicate with when they face life-threatening problems, which, in the case of Lutfi bin Ali, a Tunisian, recently led to his death.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    David Barrows wrote:

    The outrage at Guantanamo has to end with the planned release of all victims of U.S. torture.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, David. Good to hear from you.

  4. Anna says...

    It is so much easier to condemn human rights abuses from a distant past, as Biden has just done for the massacre of Armenians, than to address present ones some of whose victims could still be saved. Particularly when you’re responsible for them yourself.
    These cases remind me once more of the need for a second book, Andy, this time about the post-Guantanamo fate of released prisoners. The few successful resettlements would lift our spirits.
    Today the news that the US supreme court will hear the government’s objection to Jessen & Mitchell having to testify about their involvement in the torture of Abu Zubaydah in Poland. Small mercy in that at least it shows that my government has asked for such an interrogation …

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your comments, Anna. I share your indignation that condemnation of historic abuses – or even apologies for them, in some cases – are all we can expect from our leaders, who remain silent on current abuses for which they bear responsibility, like the continued imprisonment without charge or trial at Guantanamo of men against whom the US government doesn’t even intend to ever make a proper, transparent, public case for their imprisonment.

    I like your notion of a second book, but sadly it’s a project that I think would be fraught with difficulties, as so many resettled men can’t make public their complaints for fear of retribution. I do, however, think that at some point I should cover the story of Guantanamo form 2007 until now, as a follow-up to “The Guantanamo Files”!

    The news about Abu Zubaydah follows the historic ruling, in September 2019, by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, regarding Abu Zubaydah’s efforts to interrogate James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the architects of the post-9/11 torture program, about his torture in Poland, a ruling that included the court’s recognition that he was tortured, and that he wasn’t a senior member of al-Qaeda, as the government alleged. I wrote about it here: https://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2019/10/03/in-abu-zubaydah-court-case-us-judges-admit-that-he-was-tortured/

    As Al-Jazeera describe it, the court also ruled that Mitchell and Jessen “could face limited questioning”, but it is the government’s appeal against that ruling that the Supreme Court has agreed to examine, and unfortunately, given the current make-up of the court, as a result of Trump’s nominations and the shameful refusal of Republicans to accept Merrick Garland’s nomination towards the end of Obama’s presidency, it seems likely that the appeal will be successful.

    Al-Jazeera article here: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/26/us-supreme-court-to-hear-palestinian-guantanamo-prisoner-case

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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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