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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In Abu Zubaydah Case, Justice Gorsuch Lays Bare the US Government’s Shameful and Enduring Torture Problem

An image using a photo of Abu Zubaydah at Guantánamo, created by Brigid Barrett for an article in Wired in July 2013.

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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 we settle into the third decade since the 9/11 attacks, and the US’s brutal and counter-productive response to it — the establishment of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and a global program of kidnapping, rendition and torture in CIA “black sites” — the US government is still furiously engaged in efforts to hide the evidence of what it did to whom, and where, even though much of that information is in the public domain, and has been for many years.

A case in point is a recent Supreme Court ruling in the case of Abu Zubaydah, for whom the post-9/11 torture program was first developed, in the mistaken belief — which the US government has since walked back from — that he was a major player in Al-Qaeda. Zubaydah, a stateless Palestinian, whose real name is Zain al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, was seized in a house raid in Pakistan on March 28, 2002, and was taken to the CIA’s first black site, in Thailand. He was then moved to further “black sites” in Poland, in Guantánamo itself, and in Morocco and Lithuania, before ending up back at Guantánamo in September 2006, with 13 other “high-value detainees,” where he has been held ever since without charge or trial.

The case before the Supreme Court didn’t involve the question of whether, after 20 years, Abu Zubaydah should be released, as one of a number of “forever prisoners” who have never been charged, although that is a perfectly valid question — and one that, in the last year, prompted 99 lawmakers to write to President Biden to urge him to release everyone still held at Guantánamo who hasn’t been charged, a total of 26 of the 38 men still held, including Abu Zubaydah.

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“The Forever Prisoner”: Alex Gibney’s New Documentary About CIA Torture Victim Abu Zubaydah

The poster for Alex Gibney’s new documentary film, “The Forever Prisoner,” released by HBO on December 6, 2021.

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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 long litany of torture and abuse inflicted by the US government on prisoners in the brutal “war on terror” that the Bush administration declared after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, few have suffered as much as Abu Zubaydah (Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn), for whom, mistakenly, the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was invented.

For as long as I have been studying and writing about Guantánamo, it has been apparent that Abu Zubaydah’s story is one of the darkest in the entire sorry saga of how the US lost its moral compass after 9/11.

Seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in March 2002, in which he was shot and badly wounded, he was then flown to the CIA’s first post-9/11 torture prison, in Thailand. This was the start four and a half years in CIA “black sites” — including in Poland, in a “black site” in Guantánamo Bay that existed for six months in 2003-04, in Morocco, in Lithuania and in Afghanistan — before his eventual transfer back to Guantánamo, with 13 other “high-value detainees,” in September 2006.

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Sen. Dick Durbin Files Amendment to National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Calling for the Closure of Guantánamo

Sen. Dick Durbin calling for the closure of Guantánamo in the Senate on Nov. 30, 2021, and campaigners for the closure of Guantánamo outside the Capitol on January 11, 2012, the 10th anniversary of the prison’s opening.

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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 Tuesday (November 30), Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the US Senate Majority Whip, and the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke in the Senate “about the importance of closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility and announced he had filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to close the facility once and for all”, as he explained on his website. Sen. Durbin has a long history of opposing the existence of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and in April was the lead signatory of a letter to President Biden urging him to close the prison, which was also signed by 23 other Democratic Senators (a House version, in August, was signed by 75 Democratic members of the House of Representatives). In addition, in July, Sen. Durbin wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland, urging him to bring to an end the Justice Department’s persistent efforts “to rationalize indefinite detention at Guantánamo.”

The annual NDAA has cynically prevented the use of government funds to close the prison — as well as the transfer of prisoners to the US mainland for any reason — since the Obama presidency, and while the transfer provisions have been dropped in the House’s version of the NDAA this year, they have not been dropped by the Senate. House and Senate representatives are meeting soon to agree a final version of next year’s Act, and you can write to them here to urge them to drop the transfer prohibition, but Sen. Durbin’s amendment obviously goes much further.

Sen. Durbin began his speech by honoring “the life and legacy of US Army Major Ian Fishback, who spoke out against America’s inhumane treatment of detainees after 9/11,” and who, sadly, passed away last month at the age of 42. He was, as Sen. Durbin explained, “integral in rallying support for the torture amendment that Durbin led with the late Senator John McCain” in 2005, “which explicitly banned inhumane treatment of any prisoner being held by the US government — on American soil, or abroad.”

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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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Torture Victim Ahmed Rabbani, A Case of Mistaken Identity, Approved for Release from Guantánamo

Guantánamo prisoner and torture victim Ahmed Rabbani, who has just been approved for release from the prison via a Periodic Review Board.

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Via Middle East Eye, and reporter Peter Oborne (formerly the chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph, until his resignation in 2015), comes the welcome news that Guantánamo prisoner and torture victim Ahmed Rabbani has been approved for release from the prison via a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established in 2013 by President Obama.

Oborne was told about Rabbani’s approval for release by his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve. “Even if it is nearly two decades late, it is fabulous that Ahmed has been cleared for release,” Stafford Smith said.

A Pakistani national of Rohingya origin, Rabbani , who is now 52 years old, was seized with his brother Abdul Rahim in Karachi in September 2002, and, after two months in Pakistani custody, spent 18 months in CIA “black sites” in Afghanistan, including the notorious prison identified by the CIA as ‘COBALT,’ but also known as the Salt Pit, or, as the prisoners described it, “the dark prison.” There he was hung naked from an iron shackle, with his feet barely touching the ground, and, like the other men held there, subjected to loud music designed to prevent them from sleeping.

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Never-Ending Injustice: State Secrets and the Torture of Abu Zubaydah

An illustration featuring Abu Zubaydah by Brigid Barrett from an article in Wired in July 2013. The photo used is from the classified military files from Guantánamo that were released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

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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 Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of the notorious torture victim and Guantánamo prisoner Abu Zubaydah, for whom the US’s post-9/11 torture program was invented. Zubaydah, whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, was held and tortured in CIA “black sites” for four and a half years, after his capture in a house raid in Pakistan in March 2002, until his eventual transfer to Guantánamo with 13 other so-called “high-value detainees” in September 2006, and he has been held there without charge or trial ever since.

Wednesday’s hearing was the result of an appeal by the government against a ground-breaking ruling two years ago, by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in which the judges openly declared that Abu Zubaydah had been tortured. It was, as Abu Zubaydah’s attorney, Cornell University law professor Joseph Margulies, explained, “the first time an appellate court” had “come right out and said that the enhanced interrogation techniques were torture.”

While this was significant, it wasn’t the main topic of the case, which involved the state secrets privilege, whereby government officials can argue that sensitive information whose disclosure, they claim, might endanger national security, must not be disclosed in a court. Abu Zubaydah’s lawyers were — and still are — seeking permission for the architects of the torture program, the contractors James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, to be questioned about the details of his torture while he was held in a “black site” in Poland, in 2002-03, after his initial torture in a “black site” in Thailand in 2002, for use in the Polish government’s ongoing investigation.

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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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How the Law Failed at Guantánamo

The isolated prison cells of Camp 5 at Guantánamo, where the “high value detainees,” brought to the prison from CIA “black sites” in September 2006, were recently transferred, after their previous cell block, Camp 7, was judged to be unfit for purpose.

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Just five days ago, on July 11, the prison at Guantánamo Bay marked another sad and unjustifiable milestone in its long history — nineteen and a half years since it first opened on January 11, 2002.

From the beginning, Guantánamo was a project of executive overreach — of the US government, under George W. Bush, deciding, after the 9/11 attacks, that the normal rules governing the imprisonment of combatants during wartime should be swept aside. The men who arrived at Guantánamo were deprived of the protections of the Geneva Conventions, and were designated as “unlawful enemy combatants,” who, the Bush administration claimed, could be held indefinitely. For those who were to be charged with crimes, the Bush administration revived the military commission trial system, last used for German saboteurs in the Second World War, deciding that acts of terrorism — and even some actions that were a normal part of war, such as engaging in firefights — were war crimes. The result was that soldiers came to be regarded as terrorists, and alleged terrorists came to be regarded as warriors, with the former denied all notions of justice, and the latter provided only with a legal forum that was intended to lead to their execution after cursory trials.

The mess that ensued has still not been adequately addressed. Nearly two and a half years after Guantánamo opened, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of granting habeas corpus rights to wartime prisoners, having recognized that the men held had no way whatsoever to challenge the basis of their imprisonment if, as many of them claimed, they had been seized by mistake. That ruling, Rasul v. Bush, allowed lawyers into the prison, to begin preparing habeas corpus cases, but on the same day, in another ruling, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court essentially approved Guantánamo as the venue for the exercise of a parallel version of the wartime detention policies of the Geneva Conventions, ruling that prisoners could be held until the end of hostilities — an unwise move, given that the Bush administration regarded its “war on terror” as a global war that ignored geographical context, and could last for generations.

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On UN Torture Day, Please Remember the 40 Torture Victims Still Held at Guantánamo

Witness Against Torture campaigners make a stand against torture outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. on January 11, 2017, the 15th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay.

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Today, June 26, is the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, which was first established 23 years ago, on June 26, 1998, to mark the 11th anniversary of the day that, in 1987, the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came into effect.

The long struggle against the use of torture began nearly 40 years before, on December 10, 1948, when, as the UN explains, “the international community condemned torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.”

Created in response to the horrors of the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights represented an aspiration for a better world, which “set out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.” Now translated into over 500 languages, it is “widely recognized”, as the UN also explains, “as having inspired, and paved the way for, the adoption of more than seventy human rights treaties, applied today on a permanent basis at global and regional levels,” including the Convention Against Torture.

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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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