“Forever Prisoner” at Guantánamo: The Shameful Ongoing Imprisonment of Khaled Qassim

25.1.22

Guantánamo prisoner Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), in a photo included in the classified military files released bay WikiLeaks in 2011. Please be aware that this photo doesn’t reflect what Khaled looks like now, as it was taken 14 or 15 years ago, when he was around 30 years old. According to his birthdate in the Pentagon’s records, he has just marked his 45th birthday, and in May will have been held at Guantánamo for 20 years without charge or trial.

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On the 20th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay — a disgraceful anniversary that should never have come to pass — President Biden sought to divert attention from his general inaction on Guantánamo in his first year in office by announcing that five men had been approved for release from the prison by Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process established under President Obama. 

What was less widely reported was that another prisoner, Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), held for nearly 20 years, had his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial approved by a Periodic Review Board, not because of any crime he has committed — the board members recognised his “low level of training and lack of leadership in al Qaida or the Taliban” — but because of his “inability to manage his emotions and actions”, his “high level of significant non-compliance in the last year”, and his “lack of plans for the future if released.”

The decision reveals a fundamental weakness in the PRB system, a purely administrative process, which is not legally binding, and has, essentially, replaced reviews of prisoners’ cases in the courts via habeas corpus petitions — a process that led to dozens of prisoners having their release ordered by the courts between 2008 and 2010, when cynical, politically motivated appeals court judges passed rulings that shut the process down.

Moreover, because they’re a parole-type process (despite the fact that none of the men eligible for them have ever been charged, let alone convicted of a crime), their focus is not primarily on what prisoners are alleged to have done prior to their capture, but on their behavior and attitude in Guantánamo, and their ability to construct a credible case for a peaceful and constructive life if released.

The good news, as we move on from the anniversary and sail into Guantánamo’s 21st year of operations, is that 18 men have now been approved for release (out of the 39 men still held), with 13 of those decisions taken since President Biden took office, but those decisions mean nothing unless they lead to the men in question being released (and President Biden has freed just one man in the last year).

The PRB’s decisions also leave men like Khaled stranded because of a perceived problem with his attitude, and an evident inability on his part to disguise the disappointment he feels about the 20 years of his life that have been stolen from him — however understandable those feelings are to anyone who tries to imagine how they would feel if they were put in his position.

The ongoing justification for Khaled’s ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial is, fundamentally, a failure of justice on the part of the US authorities, who continue to hold him even though the war in Afghanistan is over, and he was never anything more than a low-level foot soldier for the Taliban, in an inter-Muslim civil war that morphed into a war against America after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

I’ve followed Khaled’s story since I first began working on Guantánamo 16 years ago, and over the years I got to know him as a persistent hunger striker, who fought against the brutality and injustice of the prison, and who also developed as a formidable artistic talent during a brief period, under President Obama, when the prisoners were allowed to attend art classes, and, for a while, turned Camp 6 into a living art gallery.

I saw some of Khaled’s paintings at an exhibition of Guantánamo prisoners’ art, “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay,” that took place at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York from October 2017 to January 2018, and I saw more at a follow-up exhibition, “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison,” held at CUNY School of Law’s Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice, in Long Island City in Queens, New York, in January and February 2020.

An allegorical painting from 2017 by Khaled Qassim, one of many of his artworks posted on the Facebook page of his friend, the former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi.

I learned even more about Khaled when former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi wrote an article about him for Close Guantánamo, which I published in March 2020. In that article, “My Best Friend and Brother,” Mansoor explained that, as well as being an artist, Khaled was also a singer, a writer, a teacher, a talented footballer, and a cell block leader, and he quoted a Navy Commander and an officer-in-charge (OIC) in Camp 6 in 2010, who said of him, “We like Khalid to represent all the detainees. He talks like a poet when he speaks on behalf of the detainees, and he’s an easy man to deal with.”

I heard about the PRB’s decision about Khaled on the 20th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, and the pall it cast over the otherwise moderately reassuring news about the men approved for release has hung over me ever since.

Just three days before the anniversary, my band The Four Fathers recorded a video of us playing “Forever Prisoner,” a new song that I wrote about Khaled’s plight, which we released on the anniversary, and which I’m posting below. I hope you like it, and I also hope that you have time to read an article that Khaled dictated to his attorneys, which was published in the Guardian the day before the anniversary, and which I’ve cross-posted below. There is, as I’m sure you realize, something bitterly ironic about a Guantánamo prisoner having a thoughtful and articulate article published in a major newspaper the day before his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial was so pointlessly upheld.

Khaled has another PRB scheduled for May 17. I’ll give the US authorities one more chance to approve him for release, but if he isn’t, then I believe it will be time to mount a vigorous campaign on his part — and in the meantime, of course, President Biden also needs to get to work on setting free the 18 men he is still holding who have already been approved for release.

I’ve been held at Guantánamo for 20 years without trial. Mr Biden, please set me free
By Khalid Qasim, The Guardian, January 10, 2022

Despite how many times, under how many presidential administrations, I have been disappointed, I hold out hope.

Injustice takes many forms. After 20 years in US custody, most of that time spent in Guantánamo, you could say I am an expert.

It may surprise you to know that I think America has a very good justice system. But it is only for Americans. In the cases of those like me, justice is not something that interests the US. I wish that people understood how Guantánamo is distinct.

In Guantánamo, the torture we are exposed to is not isolated to the interrogation rooms; it exists in our daily lives. This intentional psychological torture is what makes Guantánamo different. There is interference in every aspect of my existence – my sleep, my food, my walking.

For the first nine years at Guantánamo, I was held in solitary confinement. It was a harsher, more violent place then. The communal blocks that opened in 2010 made a difference, but the deliberate mental torture remains the same. The rules change constantly and without warning. Some guards and some administrations are more cruel than others.

Imagine you’re watching TV and someone comes up behind you and starts lightly kicking you. If it only happens for a little bit, it won’t be a problem. But say they just keep kicking you, endlessly, no matter how often you tell them to stop, and there is nothing you can do about it. Imagine what kind of torture that would be.

The only freedom I have here is to protest. On aggregate, I have been on hunger strike for seven years. Seven years, feeling that I am not dead but also not alive. I believe in facing my jailer. They control my body, but not my heart. They tried to prevent me from learning, but I have anyway.

Painting has been my relief. I am proud of my art. Perhaps you have seen the few pieces that I have been able to get out of here? When they were exhibited in New York, I thought of the paintings looking out on to the elegant streets and the big buildings, and of the people in their nice city looking in, and how they cannot possibly imagine what our lives are like.

An abstract painting from 2017 by Khaled Qassim, one of many of his artworks posted on the Facebook page of his friend, the former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi. 

But even this relief has been taken from me. My captors refuse to let me send my art out of the prison. They have made it harder to make photocopies of what I paint, so I can’t even show my attorneys. So it becomes a burden. When I paint I feel a pain in my heart, knowing that the work I am doing is never going to be seen by anyone else.

When President Obama said he would close Guantánamo, we were optimistic and believed him. I hope that President Biden will complete that promise. He should do everything he can to shut the prison – not for us, but for the US.

Other countries used to look up to the US for human rights, and they don’t any more – any claim by the US to defend human rights rings hollow. When Biden criticized Russia, Putin responded “What about GTMO?” Closing it will begin to repair the damage to America’s reputation.

The golden years of my life have been wasted in Guantánamo. If what happened to me happened in America, they would give me millions of dollars. Because I’m in Guantánamo, because I’m Arab, because I’m Yemeni, nobody cares.

But I want you to know I am a hopeful person. I don’t know where I will go, or what I will do, but there is another life for me, outside this prison.

Yemeni national Khalid Qasim has been detained without charge or trial at Guantánamo Bay since 2002. His art has been exhibited at John Jay College and CUNY in New York.

* * * * *

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 you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

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 struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

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16 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following up on the good news that five prisoners at Guantanamo were recently approved for release by Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process established by President Obama, and contrasting that story with the monstrous plight of another prisoner, Khaled Qassim.

    A former hunger striker and cell block leader, and a talented artist, singer and footballer, Khaled has been held for nearly 20 years without charge or trial, and recently had his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial approved by a PRB not because of what he is alleged to have done prior to his capture — the board members acknowledged that he had a “low level of training” and a “lack of leadership in al Qaida or the Taliban” — but because he is not regarded as being compliant enough. Approving his ongoing imprisonment without charge ro trial, the board members noted his “inability to manage his emotions and actions”, his “high level of significant non-compliance in the last year”, and his “lack of plans for the future if released.”

    Included are a few examples of Khaled’s artwork, and the video of my band The Four Fathers playing ‘Forever Prisoner’, the song I wrote for Khaled, recorded just days before the 20th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo — and the shameful announcement of his PRB result.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Asif Rana wrote:

    Imagine if everyone was imprisoned for not doing what their kidnappers told them to do! Disgraceful.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, Asif. That’s the predicament that Khaled finds himself in. Good to hear from you.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Asif Rana wrote:

    Thanks, Andy. Been very busy but this is still vitally important.

  5. Anna says...

    Glad that you dedicated a whole text to Khaled Qassim, Andy – you already know my opinion about this disgrace so I won’t repeat it.
    Here’s another piece of disgrace, described by Clive :
    https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/1/21/life-and-death-in-guantanamo

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna. Good to hear from you, and I’m glad you appreciate my particular focus on Khaled’s case. Thanks also for the link to Clive’s article, which very powerfully captures the casual cruelty of approving men for release from Guantanamo, but then not actually setting them free. It is particularly shameful that the Pakistanis approved for release – Ahmed, his brother and Saifullah Paracha, Guantanamo’s oldest prisoner – haven’t been sent home, as there is no obvious obstacle to their release, unlike the Yemenis, for example, for whom new host countries must be found. Shame on Biden!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Meagan Murphy wrote:

    The way they treat him any human would be incredibly sad and unhappy, it would only make sense for him to be unstable because of the torture he has gone through. How can we get him out ASAP??

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    He has another PRB lined up for May, Meagan, which suggests that the authorities are giving him another chance to put on the right performance. His lawyers will also be pleading with him to disguise his anger and frustration, and hopefully that will be enough to get him approved for release. But it’s another problem entirely to actually get out of the prison, as the growing list of prisoners approved for release shows, and there’s no sign of any urgency on this front from the administration.

    I think it’s worth thinking about trying to put pressure on Antony Blinken, to highlight the failure of the Biden administration to appoint anyone to deal specifically with Guantanamo.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Hanann Abu Brase wrote:

    😥💔 Heartbreaking ! Too too sad !!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you for your empathy, Hanann.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Meagan Murphy wrote:

    I see. Perhaps I can write a letter and ask for signatures addressed to Antony Blinken?
    I did read 5 have been approved for release and they need to find a country to sponsor them.
    I can only imagine the large amounts of suffering in that horrific place, it causes so much anger in me it is allowed to even exist at all. I think it needs to be at the top of the list to be closed and all prisoners released to where they feel most comfortable. They’ve gone through enough suffering.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    There are now 18 men – out of the 39 still held – who have been approved for release, Meagan. Six men had been approved for release before Biden took office, and he’s released just one of them, and, in addition, 13 men have now been approved for release since he became president. But there’s no sign of any action to actually set these 18 men free, and that’s the lack of urgency that needs addressing. I think it would certainly make sense to write a letter to Antony Blinken, and to get as many people as possible to sign it, urging him to press the president to appoint someone to specially deal with the transfer of prisoners and the closure of Guantanamo, most obviously by reviving the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, which Obama established, but which Trump shut down, and Biden hasn’t reinstated.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    And while some of those men are Yemenis, Meagan, for whom third countries need to be found that will offer them new homes (because of the perils of returning men to Yemen), others can be repatriated as soon as the political will exists to do so – with the proviso that, if I recall correctly, the defense secretary still needs to give Congress 30 days’ notification before any prisoner is transferred out of the prison. To name just the most obvious examples, there are three Pakistanis, including Saifullah Paracha, Guantanamo’s oldest prisoner, who were all approved for release last year and should be home with their families, and Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian whose family are waiting for him, and who was approved for release in 2016.

  14. Hinweise des Tages II • Cottbuser Freiheit says...

    […] “Forever Prisoner” at Guantánamo: The Shameful Ongoing Imprisonment of Khaled Qassim On the 20th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay — a disgraceful anniversary that should never have come to pass — President Biden sought to divert attention from his general inaction on Guantánamo in his first year in office by announcing that five men had been approved for release from the prison by Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process established under President Obama. What was less widely reported was that another prisoner, Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), held for nearly 20 years, had his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial approved by a Periodic Review Board, not because of any crime he has committed — the board members recognised his “low level of training and lack of leadership in al Qaida or the Taliban” — but because of his “inability to manage his emotions and actions”, his “high level of significant non-compliance in the last year”, and his “lack of plans for the future if released.” […] I learned even more about Khaled when former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi wrote an article about him for Close Guantánamo, which I published in March 2020. In that article, “My Best Friend and Brother,” Mansoor explained that, as well as being an artist, Khaled was also a singer, a writer, a teacher, a talented footballer, and a cell block leader, and he quoted a Navy Commander and an officer-in-charge (OIC) in Camp 6 in 2010, who said of him, “We like Khalid to represent all the detainees. He talks like a poet when he speaks on behalf of the detainees, and he’s an easy man to deal with.” Quelle: Andy Worthington.co.uk […]

  15. Hinweise des Tages II – Welt25 says...

    […] “Forever Prisoner” at Guantánamo: The Shameful Ongoing Imprisonment of Khaled QassimOn the 20th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay — a disgraceful anniversary that should never have come to pass — President Biden sought to divert attention from his general inaction on Guantánamo in his first year in office by announcing that five men had been approved for release from the prison by Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process established under President Obama.What was less widely reported was that another prisoner, Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), held for nearly 20 years, had his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial approved by a Periodic Review Board, not because of any crime he has committed — the board members recognised his “low level of training and lack of leadership in al Qaida or the Taliban” — but because of his “inability to manage his emotions and actions”, his “high level of significant non-compliance in the last year”, and his “lack of plans for the future if released.” […]I learned even more about Khaled when former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi wrote an article about him for Close Guantánamo, which I published in March 2020. In that article, “My Best Friend and Brother,” Mansoor explained that, as well as being an artist, Khaled was also a singer, a writer, a teacher, a talented footballer, and a cell block leader, and he quoted a Navy Commander and an officer-in-charge (OIC) in Camp 6 in 2010, who said of him, “We like Khalid to represent all the detainees. He talks like a poet when he speaks on behalf of the detainees, and he’s an easy man to deal with.”Quelle: Andy Worthington.co.uk […]

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish version, on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘El vergonzoso encarcelamiento continuo del “prisionero siempre” en Guantánamo, Khaled Qassim’: http://www.worldcantwait-la.com/worthington-vergonzoso-encarcelamiento-continuo-prisionero-siempre-khaled-qassim.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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