Held for 600 Days Since Being Approved for Release from Guantánamo: Khaled Qassim, a Talented Artist


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Sunday (March 10) marked 600 days since Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), a 47-year old Yemeni, was unanimously approved for release from Guantánamo by a Periodic Review Board, a high-level US government review process.

That decision took place on July 19, 2022, but nearly 20 months later Khaled is still awaiting his freedom, a victim, like the 15 other men unanimously approved for release by high-level US government review processes, of an inertia at the very top of the US government — in the White House, and in the offices of Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State.

For the last year and a half, an official in the State Department — former ambassador Tina Kaidanow — has been working on resettling the men approved for release, most of whom, like Khaled, are Yemenis, and cannot be sent home because of a ban on their repatriation, inserted by Republicans into the annual National Defense Authorization Act in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency, and renewed every year since.

As the Special Representative for Guantánamo Affairs, who is “[r]esponsible for all matters pertaining to the transfer of detainees from the Guantánamo Bay facility to third countries,” Ms. Kaidanow has been noted for her tenacity, and her enthusiasm for getting the job done, and, even in a world that is increasingly hostile towards resettling former prisoners (unlike in the early days of the Obama administration, when many dozens of prisoners were resettled in third countries), it is, frankly, inconceivable that, by now, she would not have located at least one country prepared to offer new homes to some of these men.

The problem, therefore, is best grasped as one that involves political maneuvering, whereby these men’s futures are being sacrificed by President Biden and Secretary Blinken to avoid ruffling Republican feathers, as the administration courts the GOP to support its eye-watering funding of weapons to Ukraine and Israel.

The story of Khaled Qassim

Khaled Qassim arrived at Guantánamo on May 1, 2002, having been seized in Afghanistan some time after the US-led invasion in October 2001, and held in the US prisons at Kandahar airport and Bagram airbase, where, as a profile of his case, put together last year by the Center for Constitutional Rights explained, he “was kept in a fenced area with his hands and feet shackled,” and “was unable to walk for two months as a result.” As the profile added, “The conditions at the prison were freezing cold, and people were given only one light blanket and forced to sleep standing up. Khalid endured extreme sleep deprivation throughout this period.”

I first came across his story in 2006, when I was researching and writing my book The Guantánamo Files, and when he appeared to be nothing more than a foot soldier for the Taliban, like several hundred other men — mostly from Gulf countries — who had gone to Afghanistan, usually at the urging of religious leaders, to support the Taliban in their long-running civil war with the Northern Alliance, and who, after 9/11 and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, suddenly morphed into enemies of the US, and were subsequently rounded up and taken to Guantánamo.

At the time, the only information about the Guantánamo prisoners that came from the US government (after a long struggle to secure any information whatsoever about the prisoners via Freedom of Information legislation) were long-awaited lists of who was actually held, unclassified summaries of evidence against them, and transcripts of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), and their successors, the Administrative Review Boards (ARBs), which had been convened primarily to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ designation, on capture, as “enemy combatants” who could be imprisoned indefinitely.

Shamefully, it took another nine years for anything more substantial to emerge about Khaled. When President Obama took office, he appointed another review process, the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, to review the cases of the 240 men he had inherited from George W. Bush. The Task Force issued its final report in January 2010, recommending that 156 of the men should be freed, 36 should be prosecuted, and the 48 others should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial, on the basis that they were “too dangerous to release,” but insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

It wasn’t until June 2013 that a breakdown of these figures was provided (again, through Freedom of Information legislation), when it emerged that Qassim was one of the 48 men recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial. To fend off criticism that he had personally endorsed a system of endless imprisonment without charge or trial for these 48 men, Obama promised that their cases would be regularly reviewed by yet another review process, the Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process that finally began in November 2013.

Khaled’s case was finally reviewed in January 2015, when, as I explained at the time, the government alleged that he had traveled to Afghanistan in 1999 for military training and “may have fought for the Taliban in or near Kabul and Bagram,” as well as suggesting that he had been present in the Tora Bora mountains, when Al-Qaeda staged its last stand against Afghan soldiers supported by US firepower, before Osam bin laden and other senior Al-Qaeda leaders fled — or were spirited away — to Pakistan. It was also noted that, at Guantánamo, he had “committed hundreds of infractions” against the guard force, who he had, apparently, regularly “threatened” and “harassed,” and that he was also a long-term hunger striker.

At his hearing — the first opportunity that he was given to challenge, in any way, the basis of his imprisonment without charge or trial for over 13 years since his capture in Afghanistan — his Personal Representatives (military personnel assigned to represent him) noted that he had compared the long years of his imprisonment to being “lost within a deep dark hole,” and noted that, despite his “infractions,” he was, at heart, “a peaceful man who wants nothing more than the most basic of human needs — his freedom.” They also noted that he had “broadened his cultural sensibilities by sketching, singing and writing poetry.”

His attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, the Anglo-American founder of Reprieve, also acknowledged his “infractions,” stating, as the Guardian reported, “Let’s face it, his disciplinary record is not good,” but insisting that “other Guantánamo Bay prisoners with disciplinary problems had been resettled without becoming security threats to the United States.”

Smith, who had begun representing Khaled in 2014, also told the board members that it was his assessment that he “is not, and never was, interested in any form of extremism,” and also that he was, very evidently, “an intelligent young man,” who “has taught himself English while in US custody,” and who, in a letter to a US court seeking counsel for his habeas corpus case, “wrote in Arabic and then in near-perfect English, in copperplate script that is far better than my English handwriting will ever be.”

Khaled’s own submission, and the details of his exchanges with the board members, were not made publicly available, but sadly, in March 2015, the board members approved his ongoing imprisonment, expressing fears about his past activity (all unproven), his alleged susceptibility to terrorist recruitment (also unproven) and his “high level of significant noncompliance while in detention.”

Khaled’s art

In October 2017, the “sketching” mentioned by his Personal Representatives in January 2015 emerged as something much more fully formed, when paintings and a sculpture by Khaled — produced after a loosening of the rules regarding creative expression, which had led to Camp Six, where most of the prisoners were held, becoming, albeit briefly, a kind of living art gallery — were featured in “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo,” a groundbreaking exhibition of current and former Guantánamo prisoners’ art, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which ran until January 2018, and which I visited and wrote about here.

The curators of the exhibition noted that he “frequently experiments with the limited range of artistic materials Guantánamo affords; he has painted in coffee and on sand and gravel gathered from the prisoners’ exercise yard, and has created sculpture from various discarded materials, including MRE boxes.”

One of Khaled Qassim’s sculptural paintings using gravel, glue and MRE boxes — of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

At the very same time that the exhibition opened, Khaled was — again — on a hunger strike, amidst disturbing suggestions that Donald Trump was happy to allow hunger strikers to starve to death. He wrote about this latest troubling development for the Guardian, and, although none of the hunger striking prisoners died, there was further bad news in November, when the Pentagon, spitefully responding to the humanization of the prisoners through the art exhibition, banned prisoners from leaving Guantánamo with their artwork, and even threatened to destroy it (a ban that was not lifted until February 2023).

Ironically, Khaled’s next PRB hearing took place as this scandal reverberated through the world’s media, with his Personal Representative noting, at his hearing on January 30, 2018, that, although he would “be the first to admit that … he is not always the most compliant detainee,” because “[h]is behavior is that of a young man frustrated and unsure if he will ever be free of the confines of GTMO,” he has “matured and grown while in detainment.”

As the Personal Representative proceeded to explain, “I’ve seen a significant change in the way he communicates and tries to handle injustices”, adding that he has “found a renewed interest in the arts and spends most of his days drawing, painting, and sculpting,” and also stating, “Some of his artwork was recently showcased at an art show in New York City, and the reviews were positive. Khalid’s artwork was not for sale, but experts agree that Khalid could make a living using his talent. Art has offered Khalid a creative and peaceful way to express himself.”

Yet again, however, the board members refused to recommend him for release, and nothing further was heard about him until January 2020, when, at CUNY School of Law in New York, prior to the launch of “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison” in February, a pre-exhibition show focused solely on Khaled’s work, which I was guided through by another of his attorneys, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis.

One of Khaled Qassim’s allegorical paintings, which I photographed at CUNY Law School in New York in January 2020.

I wrote about this inspiring exhibition in an article entitled, Humanizing the Silenced and Maligned: Guantánamo Prisoner Art at CUNY Law School in New York, when, with Shelby’s help, I got to fully appreciate Khaled’s talents — his symbolic or allegorical paintings, heavily covered with primer so that they look like Renaissance paintings, and others, literally made of Guantánamo, in which he glued gravel, collected during brief recreation breaks, to boards and then painted over it, and in which he made sly observations about conditions at Guantánamo, and about the nine prisoners who died there between 2006 and 2012.

As he has explained, “Each of my paintings was executed in a crucial time of tense conditions. They each carry several meanings … The more one reflects, the more meaning one finds.” He has also said that his work is “powered by optimism rather than despair.”

A rare but accomplished watercolor by Khaled Qassim.

After the CUNY exhibition, I was delighted when the former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi wrote an article about Khaled for Close Guantánamo, “My Best Friend and Brother,” in which he explained how Mansoor was a natural leader, frequently liaising between the prisoners and the guard staff, and extolling his creative qualities as a singer, a poet, a writer, a footballer and an artist.

When Mansoor’s riveting memoir, “Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantánamo,” was published in 2021, I learned much more about Khaled, and about how he — with Mansoor and around ten other prisoners, mostly Yemenis, and mostly in their late teens or early 20s when they arrived at Guantánamo — had engaged in persistent resistance and disruption, including hunger strikes, and had been repeatedly punished.

The “red-eyes,” as Mansoor described them, also included, as I was disturbed to learn, five of the prisoners who died at Guantánamo, all, allegedly, by committing suicide, although those claims by the prison authorities have been repeatedly and robustly challenged over the years.

It is only now, having got to know Mansoor well, that I can’t help but assess that the reason he and Khaled got into so much trouble — which continued to dog Khaled in his PRBs — was because they are both extremely bright, which must make it especially difficult to maintain any kind of equilibrium in a place of constant injustice and brutality.

I was so impressed by Mansoor’s story that, after the CUNY exhibition, I found myself writing a song about him, “Forever Prisoner,” which I eventually recorded with my band The Four Fathers, and released in July 2022, at the same time that Khaled, having had his ongoing imprisonment approved yet again in December 2021, was finally approved for release.

Sadly, although Khaled is no longer officially a “forever prisoner” — those who have never been approved for release by their PRBs (currently, three of the remaining prisoners) — he and the 15 other men approved for release remain “forever prisoners” in a disgracefully real sense, because there is still no sign of when, if ever they will be freed.

600 days since Khaled was recognized as “a good man with a lot to offer this world,” as another of his attorneys, Mark Maher, explained at his hearing in May 2021, finally overcoming the US government’s obsession with his “bad behavior” at Guantánamo (far more than anything he was alleged to have done prior to his capture), it is time for him to finally be set free, and to be allowed to share his talents openly with the world.

* * * * *

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.

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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.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, the seventh in my ongoing series of ten articles about the 16 men approved for release from Guantanamo, noting how long they have been held since those decisions were taken, telling their stories, and tying publication of these articles into significant dates in their long ordeal.

    The articles are published alternately on my website and on the Close Guantanamo website, and this particular article highlights the case of Khaled Qassim, a Yemeni, and a talented artist, who was approved for release 600 days ago, in July 2022. The other 15 men have, as of today, been waiting for between 537 and 1,231 days to be freed, and in three outlying cases for 5,164 days.

    Khaled’s ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial was upheld for many years because of his “non-compliance” — his resistance to the injustice and brutality of Guantanamo, including through persistent hunger strikes — far more than anything he was alleged to have done before he was seized and taken to Guantanamo in the first place.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish translation, on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Retenido 600 días desde que se aprobó su excarcelación de Guantánamo: Khaled Qassim, un artista de talento’: http://www.worldcantwait-la.com/worthington-retenido-600-dias-desde-aprobo-su-excarcelacion-de-gtmo-khaled-qassim-un-artista-de-talento.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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