UN Finally Gets to Visit Guantánamo; Also Secures End to Trump-Era Ban on Prisoners Leaving With Their Artwork


One of the ships made at Guantánamo out of recycled materials by Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni prisoner who was approved for release in December 2021, but is still held. A third country must be found that is prepared to offer him a new home, because provisions in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, passed by Republicans under President Obama, and maintained ever year since, prohibit the repatriation of Yemenis from Guantánamo.

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Finally, over 21 years after the prison at Guantánamo Bay opened, a UN Rapporteur has visited the prison, to meet with prisoners as part of what a UN press release described as “a technical visit to the United States” by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

“Between 6 and 14 February,” as the UN explained, Ní Aoláin “will visit Washington D.C. and subsequently the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” and, over the next three months, “will also carry out a series of interviews with individuals in the United States and abroad … including victims and families of victims of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and former detainees in countries of resettlement/repatriation.”

Ever since Guantánamo opened, successive UN Rapporteurs for Torture tried to visit the prison, but were rebuffed, either by the hostility of the US government, or through a failure on the part of officials to guarantee that any meetings that took place with prisoners would not be monitored.

The visit is to be welcomed, because it shows an openness on the part of the Biden administration to the significant external scrutiny of the UN, in a facility where, until this point, the only people from outside the US’s military and intelligence establishment who have ever been allowed to visit prisoners have been representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), attorneys representing the men, the occasional independent psychiatrist or psychologist allowed in to evaluate their mental health, and, more dubiously, foreign intelligence operatives.

Nevertheless, it would still be unreasonable to suppose that the meetings will not have been monitored, especially with the so-called “high-value detainees,” men held and tortured in CIA “black sites,” who have been shrouded in secrecy and repeatedly subjected to unacceptable surveillance since their arrival at the prison in September 2006.

That said, this is significant progress, and it is to be expected that Ní Aoláin’s final report will add to the pressure on President Biden to finally secure Guantánamo’s closure.

UN Rapporteurs call for the Trump-era ban on prisoners leaving Guantánamo with their artwork to be lifted

In other developments involving the UN, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin and Alexandra Xanthaki, the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, can be credited with having helped to lift a ban on Guantánamo prisoners leaving the prison with their artwork, which had been imposed under Donald Trump in November 2017, after the Pentagon took exception to “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo,” an art exhibition at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, “featuring,” as the Rapporteurs explained in a submission to Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, on November 29 last year, “36 original paintings, drawings, and sculptures made by eight men who were or had been held” at Guantánamo.

The Rapporteurs explained how they were contacting the Biden administration because they had “received concerning allegations of undue impediments to accessibility and ownership of artwork produced by current and former detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility that appear to contravene the rights to free artistic expression, to take part in cultural life, and to benefit from the protection of moral and material benefits resulting from artistic production.”

The Rapporteurs cited works by five men currently held (although all have been approved for release) — Moath al-Alwi, Khalid Qassim, Ahmed Rabbani, Omar al-Rammah and Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, who, since the ban, “have been unable to share their artistic creations with the public and may be unable to maintain ownership of their artworks upon their transfer from Guantánamo Bay.”

The Rapporteurs reiterated their “serious concern at the ongoing and indefinite detention of individuals at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, including of the five alleged victims,”adding that, “Despite being cleared for release by the Periodic Review Board and eligible for immediate resettlement or repatriation, these men continue to be held without charge or trial, in contravention of fundamental fair trial guarantees and due process safeguards under international human rights law.”

They also reaffirmed “the finding of the Special Rapporteur on torture that the ongoing conditions at Guantánamo Bay constitute circumstances that meet the threshold of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment under international law.”

With reference to the artwork, the Rapporteurs noted, approvingly, how, from 2009, a “formal arts program was established” at Guantánamo, “with a dedicated teacher, regular classes, and art supplies provided by both the detention facility staff and detainees’ lawyers,” adding, “Detainees were not only permitted but also encouraged to create artworks. Camp commanders and staff noted the benefits of the art program for both detainees and staff, considering that the art program provided intellectual stimulation for the detainees and allowed them to express their creativity.”

The Rapporteurs also noted how attorneys for the prisoners had reported that “participation in the art program” had been “considered favourably in individual detainee reviews by the Periodic Review Board,” the high-level government review process that, since 2014, has been deciding whether or not prisoners should be released.

When the ban was imposed, however, the Pentagon claimed, outrageously, that “items produced by detainees at Guantánamo Bay remain the property of the U.S. government,” and, as the Rapporteurs explained, “Concerned detainees were reportedly told directly that neither their artwork nor copies may be sent or taken out of the prison and that their artwork would not be released with them. It is alleged that no formal policy or information has been made public or communicated to the detainees’ counsel, and that their efforts to transfer their clients’ artwork out of the detention facility since have remained unsuccessful.”

An allegorical painting from 2017 by Yemeni prisoner Khaled Qassim, one of many of his artworks posted on the Facebook page of his friend, the former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi. Qassim was approved for release in July 2022, but is still held. Like Moath al-Alwi, a third country must be found that is prepared to offer him a new home, because provisions in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, passed by Republicans under President Obama, and maintained ever year since, prohibit the repatriation of Yemenis from Guantánamo.

The Pentagon drops the ban

On February 7, just as Fionnuala Ní Aoláin’s US visit began, the Pentagon announced that what the Rapporteurs described as the “undue impediments to accessibility and ownership of artwork” by Guantánamo prisoners had been brought to an end.

Lt. Col. Cesar H. Santiago, a Pentagon spokesman, told the New York Times by email that prisoners would be allowed to take “a practicable quantity of their art” with them when they leave Guantánamo.

Obviously, doubts remain about what “a practicable quantity” means, and Santiago specifically “declined to define” what it meant, but this is another significant step forward by the Biden administration, even though it does no more than recognize the prisoners’ “rights to free artistic expression, to take part in cultural life, and to benefit from the protection of moral and material benefits resulting from artistic production,” as the Rapporteurs described it, and even though, unfortunately, Santiago also added that the Defense Department still considers the artwork to be “the property of the U.S. government.”

As Carol Rosenberg explained for the Times, however, “The Pentagon’s concession comes at an important moment,” because, “[o]f the 34 men who are currently held at Guantánamo, 20 have been cleared for transfer with security arrangements,”and “[a]mong them are many men who spent their later years in custody painting, drawing and creating sculptures, some in art classes with one ankle shackled to the floor,” some of whom “have amassed huge collections of their work.”

As BBC World reporter Joel Gunter explained in a detailed article last August, “The sudden silencing of Guantánamo’s artists,” some of the prisoners had become very attached to their artwork, and couldn’t imagine leaving the prison without it. For Khalid Qassim, for example, the US “[k]eeping his art in Guantánamo would be ‘the same as keeping me here,’” as he described it, adding, “The art I made is me. If they keep my art here, my soul will stay here.”

It is to be hoped that Qassim, Moath al-Alwi and Guantánamo’s other artists will not only be freed swiftly (see here for how long they and others have been held since they were told that the US no longer wanted to hold them), but also that they will be allowed to take all their artwork with them, and not just “a practicable quantity” — including al-Alwi’s extraordinary ships made out of recycled materials, and Qassim’s many paintings.

* * * * *

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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7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, about the significance of the first ever visit to Guantanamo by a UN Rapporteur, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, and the additional news that, after a letter from Fionnuala Ní Aoláin and another Rapporteur, a Trump-era ban on prisoners leaving Guantanamo with their artwork has just been dropped.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Gail Helt wrote:

    Great article, Andy!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Gail!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Hester wrote:

    Let’s hope it’s more than a token gesture from an organisation that has outlived its usefulness!

    I long for the day they mention the people of Yemen, who I think of daily, as the House of Saud carpet bombs their patriots, children, elderly and the ecosystem with US manufactured armaments paid for with planet frying hydrocarbons!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I completely understand your position regarding the UN’s silence on Yemen, Kevin, and I think there’s a fundamental problem with the UN Security Council, and the power it wields. However, I have always found the work of the UN’s human rights rapporteurs to be inspiring, functioning as the world’s global conscience, however powerless they may actually be in practical terms, and on the climate crisis I think Antonio Guterres is performing a similar role.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Pat Sheerin wrote:

    Such talent – and under the most challenging circumstances.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, very much so, Pat, and it’s wonderful that the ban has now been lifted. The Obama-era decision to allow prisoners to express themselves through art remains one of the very few humane gestures extended to prisoners by the military at Guantanamo – and also, crucially, allowed people to see these men as human beings, and not as nameless, faceless terrorists.

    They’re not, of course, and they never were, but it took a long time after the art classes were allowed for the lumbering Guantanamo bureaucracy to finally recognize that these men don’t pose a threat to US security and to approve them for release. Now they have apparently been allowed the privilege of taking their artwork with them when they leave Guantanamo, the authorities need to speed up the process of repatriating them or finding them new homes.


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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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