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

Guantánamo prisoner Majid Khan, photographed at the prison in 2009, after he had finally been allowed to meet with his lawyers, and to start making arrangements for the plea deal that he agreed to in 2012.

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Yesterday, I posted a transcript of the first part of the extraordinary statement that Guantánamo prisoner and CIA “black site” torture victim Majid Khan read out at his sentencing hearing two weeks ago, in which he recounted his early life, how he was preyed on by al-Qaeda supporters following the death of his mother, and the horrendous torture to which he was subjected in the “black sites,” despite having made it clear from the time of his capture that he intended to be as cooperative as possible.

Today, I’m posting the rest of his statement, which covers his time in his final CIA “black site,” another facility in Afghanistan, code-named “Orange,” where, despite having already cooperated with his interrogators, his hunger strikes in protest at his seemingly unending imprisonment without charge or trial, or access to a lawyer, were dealt with by what he describes as being “raped by the CIA medics,” who “inserted tubes or objects into my anus against my will.”

Majid explained how the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report into the CIA torture program, released in December 2014, accurately described what happened to him as follows: “Majid Khan was then subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration, which included two bottles of Ensure. Later that same day, Majid Khan’s ‘lunch tray’, consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts, and raisins, was ‘pureed’ and rectally infused.” When the executive summary  was released, this was one of the new and shocking details that I picked up on in an article for Al-Jazeera. Majid proceeded to explain how this vile abuse led to him still experiencing “extreme discomfort from the hemorrhoids as a result of my treatment.”

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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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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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Video: I Discuss 9/11, Guantánamo and the Significance of the US Defeat in Afghanistan on Salaamedia in South Africa

A screenshot of Andy Worthington on South African broadcaster Salaamedia’s show, “Reflections on 9/11: The Impact on Afghanistan and the Muslim World,” on Sept. 8, 2021.

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On Wednesday, I was pleased to take part in a discussion — “Reflections on 9/11: The Impact on Afghanistan and the Muslim World” — on Salaamedia in South Africa, with whom I have spoken many times, including this time last year, when I took part in a discussion with former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg, about Guantánamo, torture and the US’s endless wars.

This year, with the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan dominating the news, the former involved four commentators responding to questions from the host Inayet Wadee — myself, the political commentator and foreign policy adviser Sami Hamdi, the academic Ibrahim Moiz, and, rather less successfully, Taji Mustafa from the fundamentalist group Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain.

Please feel free to watch it all if it sounds like it will be of interest, but if you’d like to hear me discussing the lawless prison system established by the US after 9/11, at Guantánamo, at Bagram and other locations in Afghanistan, and in the system of “black sites” established as torture prisons around the world by the CIA, who also rendered other prisoners to proxy torture prisons in other rights-abusing countries, that begins around seven minutes in, and lasts for about six and a half minutes.

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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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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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