Video: Guantánamo at 22 – Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin and Andy Worthington at New America

25.1.24

A screenshot of “Guantánamo at Twenty-Two: What is the Future of the Prison Camp?”, hosted by New America on January 11, 2024.

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On January 11, the 22nd anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, I was delighted to take part in an online panel discussion, “Guantánamo at Twenty-Two: What is the Future of the Prison Camp?”, hosted by New America, the US think-tank located close to the White House in Washington, D.C.

I’ve been taking part in annual panel discussions about Guantánamo at New America since 2011, normally with Tom Wilner, the US attorney with whom I co-founded the Close Guantánamo campaign in 2012, but this year Tom wasn’t available, and I was pleased that my suggestions for two compelling replacements — former prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of the best-selling Guantánamo Diary, and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism — were met with enthusiasm.

The moderator was Peter Bergen, New America’s Vice President, and the video, via YouTube, is posted below. It was a powerful event, and I hope that you have time to watch it, and that you’ll share it if you find it useful.

After covering Mohamedou’s story for many years, I finally got to meet him in March 2022, when he visited the UK for a speaking tour, and when I also took part in two events with him, at the University of Brighton and in Tunbridge Wells, where we spoke after a screening of ‘The Mauritanian’, the feature film of his story, directed by Keven Macdonald, who was also part of the post-screening Q&A. Getting to meet him, and to spend time with him, was an absolute joy, and it is always fascinating to take part in public events with him, where his charm and his sharp wit are always on display, but where also, of course, the ghosts of his torture and long isolation at Guantánamo are never quite banished.

I got to spend even more time with Mohamedou last year, when he visited the UK on two further occasions. In April, he visited for three further screenings of ‘The Mauritanian’, in Bedfordshire, and at the University of Brighton, and attended the inaugural meeting of the brand-new All-Party Parliamentary Group for Closing the Guantánamo Detention Facility, which took place in the Houses of Parliament. I was thrilled to get to spend time with him in Bedfordshire, where we were being hosted, in the most welcoming manner possible, by the Lolaki-Noble family, who organized his trip, along with Steve Wood, Mohamedou’s former guard, who they had brought over from the US.

In June, Mohamedou visited again, for the second meeting of the APPG for Guantánamo’s closure, and for a panel discussion at Amnesty International’s headquarters in Shoreditch, when I again got to spend time with him, and I’m looking forward to seeing him again for further events this year.

As for Fionnuala, in June she became a hugely significant commentator on Guantánamo when, after visiting in February (as the first UN Rapporteur to visit the prison), she produced what I described at the time as “a devastatingly critical report about systemic, historic and ongoing human rights abuses at the prison”, in which she concluded that, despite some improvements to the regime under Presidents Obama and Biden, the totality of ongoing conditions at the prison amounts to “ongoing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment”, which, in certain cases, “may also meet the legal threshold for torture.”

I was pleased to finally get to meet Fionnuala at a wonderful event in the European Parliament at the end of September, where she powerfully summarized the main findings of her report, and I knew that, for New America, it was a perfect opportunity to her to reach an audience composed, at least in part, of people involved with the Washington, D.C. establishment.

Similarly, while I have been fortunate to get to spend time with Mohamedou in person over the last two years, and also with other former prisoners, almost the entire population of the US has never heard directly from a former prisoner, because anyone held at Guantánamo is forbidden from ever setting foot on US soil. Ironically, the Covid pandemic finally provided opportunities for US audiences to engage with former prisoners via Zoom, and it seemed appropriate for Mohamedou to bring his wisdom to a think-tank in the US capital.

The panel discussion

The outcome, I hope you agree, was worthwhile. Fionnuala not only reiterated the conclusion of her findings regarding the totality of ongoing conditions at the prison amounting to “ongoing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment”, which, in certain cases, “may also meet the legal threshold for torture”; she also pointed out how the Biden administration can immediately remedy some of her findings by introducing torture rehabilitation for the men held, and providing independent medical and psychiatric care for the complex medical needs of the prison’s remaining population, by making public the ’Standard Operating Procedures’ for the prison, which are shockingly arbitrary, and by ensuring that every prisoner should get, at a minimum, one family call a month. She also stressed the need for a standardized right to counsel for all prisoners, and for the prohibition on the use of torture-derived evidence to be upheld.

Fionnuala also discussed the urgent need for the 16 men unanimously approved for release by high-level US government review processes to be freed, and also spoke about the failures of the US government to guarantee that men released from Guantánamo are allowed to live their lives with “dignity”, citing a handful of examples of released prisoners who have, instead, found that the secret “diplomatic assurances” that accompanied their release have turned out to be entirely worthless.

Following Fionnuala, I spoke about the plight of the 30 men still held, noting how the 16 men approved for release are as fundamentally without rights as they were when Guantánamo opened, because the processes used to approve them for release were purely administrative, and have no legal weight, meaning that they cannot appeal to a judge if the US government fails to release them. I also mentioned the three “forever prisoners”, still officially held indefinitely without charge or trial (including Abu Zubaydah, for whom the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was first implemented), and the eleven men who are caught up in, or have gone though the broken military commission trial system, which is incapable of delivering justice because of the torture to which these men were subjected in the CIA “black sites”, and the unerring truth that the use of torture is incompatible with the pursuit of justice.

Mohamedou then delivered a moving account of his capture and torture in Jordan, at Bagram in Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo, confirming, via personal experience, Fionnuala’s point about the need for independent medical treatment by pointing out that he had essential medication withheld, because, no matter how well-meaning some medical staff were, they were all ultimately part of the chain of command. He also eloquently explained how the US’s post-9/11 flight from the law has empowered brutal regimes around the world, because they all point to Guantánamo as evidence that the US has endorsed imprisonment without charge or trial and torture.

Mohamedou also spoke about resettlements after Guantánamo, again noting, from personal experience, that a hugely important aspect of US policy is to send prisoners to a country where, as he described it, “they can be controlled.” In his case, this involved sending him back to Mauritania, and trying to make sure that he didn’t get a passport, a policy that was only finally overturned because of Mohamedou’s status as a best-selling author, and the huge amount of support he received, enabling him not only to be granted a passport, but also to take up a position as a writer-in-residence in the Netherlands.

Our presentations were followed by a lively half-hour Q&A session, which I won’t discuss here, because I want you to watch the video. I hope you enjoy it — if ‘enjoy’ is the right word — and that you’ll join me and other campaigners this year in trying to exert pressure of President Biden to make significant progress towards the closure of Guantánamo before his presidential term comes to an end.

* * * * *

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 (see the ongoing 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, in 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to try to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody.

Since 2019, Andy has become increasingly involved in environmental activism, recognizing that climate change poses an unprecedented threat to life on earth, and that the window for change — requiring a severe reduction in the emission of all greenhouse gases, and the dismantling of our suicidal global capitalist system — is rapidly shrinking, as tipping points are reached that are occurring much quicker than even pessimistic climate scientists expected. You can read his articles about the climate crisis here.

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.

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

3 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, featuring the video of, and my report about the powerful online panel discussion, hosted by the New America think-tank, marking the 22nd anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantanamo Bay on January 11.

    The discussion featured the always eloquent former prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi, UN Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (who wrote a devastating report about the prison after visiting last year), and myself, moderated by New America’s Vice President, Peter Bergen.

    I hope you have time to watch the video, and that you’ll share it if you find it useful.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    I enjoyed the event very much. I always enjoy to see Mohamedou and you. Fionnula was great too.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    So glad you were there, Natalia. Zoom is great – especially for allowing former prisoners unable to set foot in the US to talk to actual Americans! – but it doesn’t have the buzz of a live audience.

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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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