The US’s Ongoing “Forever Prisoner” Problem at Guantánamo

The five “forever prisoners” still held at Guantánamo without charge or trial: Muhammad Rahim, Abu Zubaydah, Khaled Qassim, Ismael Bakush and Mustafa al-Usaybi (aka Abu Faraj al-Libi).

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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.

It’s now over 20 years since, in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Bush administration declared that it had the right to hold indefinitely, and without charge or trial, those seized in the “war on terror” that was launched after the attacks.

As a result of the US turning its back on laws and treaties designed to ensure that people can only be imprisoned if they are charged and put on trial, or held until the end of hostilities as prisoners of war, the men held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay have struggled to challenge the basis of their imprisonment.

For a brief period, from 2008 to 2010, the law actually counted at Guantánamo, after the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners had constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights, and 32 men were freed because judges ruled that the government had failed to establish — even with an extremely low evidentiary bar — that they had any meaningful connection to either Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. However, this brief triumph for the law came to an end when politically motivated appeals court judges passed a number of rulings that made successful habeas petitions unattainable.

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Majid Khan’s Sentence Ends, But, Disgracefully, He’s Still Trapped at Guantánamo, Along with 19 Other Men Approved for Release

Majid Khan, photographed as a student in 1999, and in recent years at Guantánamo.

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Over ten years ago, on February 29, 2012, Majid Khan, a Pakistani national held at Guantánamo since September 2006, and previously held and tortured in CIA “black sites” for three and a half years, agreed to a plea deal in his military commission trial at Guantánamo, admitting that, as an Al-Qaeda recruit, he had taken $50,000 from Pakistan to Thailand as funding for the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, whose attack on a hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia in August 2003 killed 12 people.

Khan, who had already been in a CIA “black site” for five months when the attack happened, was thoroughly remorseful about his actions, and agreed to cooperate with the US authorities, providing information that would help in the prosecution of others involved in terrorism, both at Guantánamo and elsewhere. In exchange, it was promised that his sentence would be capped at 19 years from the time of his capture; in other words, that it would be served by March 5, 2022.

At the time, his sentencing was due to take place in four years’ time — in 2016 — but delays in the broken military commission system, which I wrote about here and here, meant that he was not finally sentenced until October last year, when he was finally allowed to describe, in harrowing detail (as I posted here and here), his horrendous treatment at the hands of the CIA, and the authorities in Guantánamo, and also to explain at length how, as a young man distraught at the death of his mother, he was preyed on by Al-Qaeda members, taking advantage of his vulnerability. He also, as has been apparent throughout his imprisonment, once more apologized profusely for his crimes.

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Five More Prisoners Approved for Release from Guantánamo: 18 of the 39 Remaining Men Are Now Waiting to Be Freed

The five “forever prisoners” approved for release from Guantánamo by Periodic Review Boards in November and December 2021. From L to R: Suhayl al-Sharabi, Guled Hassan Duran, Moath al-Alwi, Omar al-Rammah and Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu.

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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.

In the run-up to the shameful 20th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay on January 11, I had the sneaking suspicion that President Biden would seek to divert attention from his general inaction on Guantánamo in his first year in office by announcing that more of the facility’s “forever prisoners” had been approved for release.

In his first year in office, President Biden released just one prisoner, even though he inherited six men approved for release from the previous administrations, but crucially, via the Periodic Review Boards, the review process established by President Obama, he has also now approved an additional 13 men for release — one-third of the remaining 39 prisoners — bringing to 18 the total number of men still held who the US government has conceded that it no longer wants to hold.

This is definitely progress — although it means nothing until the men in question are actually released — but it does show a willingness to move towards the prison’s closure, and also indicates that the administration has taken on board the criticism of numerous former officials, and, in particular, 24 Senators and 75 members of the House of Representatives, who wrote to President Biden last year to point out how unacceptable it is that the government continues to hold men indefinitely without charge or trial.

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Majid Khan Describes Years of Torture and Abuse in CIA “Black Sites” and at Guantánamo in His Sentencing Statement (Part One)

Guantánamo prisoner and former CIA “black site” torture victim Majid Khan, photographed as a student before his capture, and shortly after his arrival at Guantánamo in September 2006, evidently suffering after over three years of torture.

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It’s nearly two weeks since Majid Khan, held and tortured in CIA “black sites” for over three years before his transfer to Guantánamo, where he has been held since September 2006, was allowed to read out a detailed statement at his sentencing hearing, held nearly ten years after he agreed to a plea deal in his military commission, in which, in exchange for assisting in a number of ongoing cases, both at Guantánamo and elsewhere, he was promised his eventual freedom. I wrote about his sentencing and his statement last week, in an article entitled, Is This Justice? After 18 Years of Torture, Isolation and Unprecedented Co-Operation, CIA and Guantánamo Prisoner Majid Khan Should Be Released in Feb. 2022.

Majid’s statement combined an account of his early life, including his life in the U.S. as a teenager and a young man, with a graphic account of his torture and abuse, and with effusive apologies on his part for having been recruited by Al-Qaeda when he was at a particularly low point in his life, distraught at the death of his mother, and it was noticeable that, at his sentencing, seven of the eight military jurors signed a hand-written letter to the commissions’ Convening Authority calling for clemency, decrying the torture to which he was subjected, which they compared to “torture performed by the most abusive regimes in modern history,” and clearly expressing disgust at how he was treated when, throughout his long imprisonment, he has made a point of being as cooperative as possible.

In the interests of keeping Majid’s testimony in the public eye — to expose the depravities of the torture program, and the way so much of its focus seemed to be on torture for its own sake, rather than for any practical outcome, and to contrast this with Majid’s own compliance, for which he doesn’t seem to have been adequately rewarded — I’m posting his entire statement in two articles; this and one to follow.

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Is This Justice? After 18 Years of Torture, Isolation and Unprecedented Co-Operation, CIA and Guantánamo Prisoner Majid Khan Should Be Released in Feb. 2022

Majid Khan, photographed as a student in 1999, and in recent years at Guantánamo.

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On Thursday evening, in a military courtroom at Guantánamo Bay, Majid Khan, a Pakistani national who was held and tortured in CIA “black sites” for three years and four months after his initial capture in Pakistan in March 2003, and has been held at Guantánamo since September 2006, was finally allowed to tell the world the gruesome details about his treatment in the “black site” program, and at Guantánamo, in a statement that he read out at a sentencing hearing.

Some of the details of the torture to which Khan was subjected were made public nearly seven years ago, when the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report about the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was made public — in particular, the shocking revelation that he was one of several prisoners subjected to “rectal feeding,” whereby, as the report described it, his “‘lunch tray,’ consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins was ‘pureed’ and rectally infused.”

In his sentencing statement, however, which, as his lawyers at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights explain, made him “the first so-called ‘high-value detainee’ at Guantánamo who has been able to speak publicly about the CIA torture program,” he revealed much more than was ever previously known publicly. As Vince Warren, CCR’s Executive Director, said, “We knew about some of the horrors he was subjected to, like the so-called ‘rectal feeding,’ from the Senate torture report, but the new details in his own words were chilling. From the ice-bath waterboardings to the ‘Torture Doctor’ who put hot sauce on the tip of his IV, the acts committed by our government shock the conscience — yet no one has ever been held accountable.”

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Yemeni Torture Victim and Insignificant Afghan Approved for Release from Guantánamo by Periodic Review Boards

Guantánamo prisoners Sanad al-Kazimi and Asadullah Haroon Gul, who have been approved for release by Periodic Review Boards.

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Fresh from the news that Pakistani torture victim Ahmed Rabbani has been approved for release from Guantánamo by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established by President Obama, comes the further revelation that two more “forever prisoners” have also been approved for release — Sanad al-Kazimi, a Yemeni, and Asadullah Haroon Gul, one of the last two Afghans in the prison.

The approval for the release of both men is long overdue, but it is reassuring that, after nearly 20 years, it has finally become unfashionable for the US government to suggest that men who have never been charged or tried can be held indefinitely in the notorious offshore prison at the US’s naval base in Cuba. This year, letters to President Biden from 24 Senators and 75 members of the House of Representatives have spelled out, in no uncertain terms, how men who have not been charged with crimes must be released.

In the case of Asadullah Haroon Gul, held at Guantánamo since 2007, the US’s reasons for holding him evaporated many years ago. Despite his youth (he was only around 19 years old when the US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in October 2001), he had allegedly held some kind of leadership position in Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), the militia led by the former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A recipient of significant US funding during the time of the Soviet occupation, Hekmatyar had turned against the US following the invasion in October 2001, but in recent years had joined the Afghan government via a peace deal in 2016 that had led to HIG members being released from prison (and one, sent to the UAE from Guantánamo, being repatriated).

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On the 20th Anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks, the US Needs to Close Guantánamo and Bring to an End the Broken Military Commission Trials

The 9/11 attacks and Camp 6 at Guantánamo, photographed in 2016.

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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.

On the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States’ response to those attacks, both militarily and in terms of the law, couldn’t, in all honesty, have ended up more broken, unjust and embarrassing.

Having invaded Afghanistan a month after the attacks, the last US troops withdrew last month, effectively conceding defeat to the Taliban, whose overthrow had been one of the two justifications for the invasion, the other being the destruction of Al-Qaeda, the organization allegedly responsible for the attacks.

In fact, the Taliban were quite swiftly defeated after the US-led invasion, but, instead of withdrawing, US forces stayed on, blundering around the country, largely unable to identify allies from enemies, and definitively losing “heart and minds” through repeated bombing raids, often based on poor intelligence, that killed an enormous number of Afghan civilians, and through imprisoning many thousands of Afghans in lawless and often brutal conditions at Bagram and Guantánamo.

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The Taliban’s Victory in Afghanistan Mustn’t Prevent the Closure of Guantánamo

Asadullah Haroon Gul and Muhammad Rahim, the last two Afghans in Guantánamo. Following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, in which it has been revealed that two former Guantánamo prisoners hold leadership positions in the Taliban, some right-wing commentators are insinuating that Guantánamo should remain open. However, neither Gul nor Rahim, nor any of the other 37 men still held, were members of the Taliban, and, as “forever prisoners,” held without charge or trial, the two Afghans are amongst 17 of the remaining 39 prisoners who, it is now widely recognized in US circles, must be released if they are not to be charged with crimes.

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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.

As the final US troops left Afghanistan two weeks ago, and the Taliban rolled into Kabul, taking the Presidential Palace on August 15 after President Ashraf Ghani fled, the presence of one particular Taliban member — Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir — caught the attention of the western media, when he declared that he had been held at Guantánamo for eight years.

Guantánamo: the mere mention of the word, from the mouth of a conquering Talib, standing in the very place so recently occupied by the US-backed president, reinvigorated the right-wingers in Congress, and in the US media, who had been worried that President Biden might finally close their beloved gulag once and for all.

Once upon a time, the merest mention of Guantánamo had summoned up images of bloodthirsty Al-Qaeda terrorists, hell-bent on the destruction of America, that had helped to keep ordinary Americans docile, and in a state of fear. However, over the years, as the horrors of Guantánamo leaked out to the world, revealing the use of torture and other forms of abuse on prisoners who, for the most part, were not involved in any kind of terrorism at all, defending its existence became more difficult. By his second term, even George W. Bush was aware that it was an embarrassment, and left office having released 532 of the 779 men he had imprisoned there.

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The Bleak Legacy of Donald Rumsfeld: Guantánamo, Torture and Two Failed and Astonishingly Destructive Wars

Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has died at the age of 88, and a grimly iconic photo of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

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If there was any justice in this world, Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defense secretary from 2001 to 2006 under George W. Bush, who has died at the age of 88, would have been held accountable for his crimes against humanity at Guantánamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq; instead, he apparently passed away peacefully surrounded by his family in Taos, New Mexico.

In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Rumsfeld directed the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, when the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners in wartime were shamefully jettisoned, and he was also responsible for the establishment of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, which opened on January 11, 2002.

At Kandahar and Bagram — and at numerous other prisons across Afghanistan — all those who came into US custody were regarded as “enemy combatants,” who could be held without any rights whatsoever. The torture and abuse of prisoners was widespread, and numerous prisoners were killed in US custody, as I reported in When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan, an article I published 12 years ago today.

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9/11 at 19: Endless Wars, Guantánamo and 37 Million People Displaced

The 9/11 attacks on New York City, and prisoners at Guantánamo on the day that the prison opened, exactly four months later, on January 11, 2002.

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It’s 19 years today since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the US mainland, in New York City and Washington, D.C., and I’m shocked to discover that one-third of my life has elapsed since the attacks took place. I was 38 years old when 9/11 happened, and now I’m 57. Even more shocking is the realization that my son, who is 20 now, was just one year old at the time.

On the morning of 9/11, my partner, Dot, called me to urgently come and watch the TV after the first plane had hit, and together we watched as the second plane hit. I remember thinking that it was blowback for American imperialism, and worrying how George W. Bush and his administration would react, but I had no idea what was to come. Instead, I got on with my life. Our baby son had been very ill, so I proposed marriage to his mother as a positive event to unite us, on Boxing Day 2001, just 16 days before the prison at Guantánamo opened, when the Marines were preparing the cages of Camp X-Ray.

We got married in July 2002, just before the “torture memos” prepared by John Yoo and signed by Jay S. Bybee were issued (in secret, of course), and in September I began work on what would be my first book, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, a counter-cultural history of Stonehenge that was published in June 2004, after the first British prisoners had been released (and whose accounts massively piqued my curiosity about just what was going on at Guantánamo), and just before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rasul v Bush, establishing that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights.

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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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