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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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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Abu Zubaydah Files Complaint About Torture and Ongoing Imprisonment at Guantánamo with UN Arbitrary Detention Experts

Abu Zubaydah: illustration 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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On Friday, Abu Zubaydah (Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn), a notorious victim of torture in the CIA’s “black site” program, who has been held without charge or trial at Guantánamo since September 2006, submitted a complaint to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, regarding the lawless nature of his imprisonment and treatment since he was first seized in a house raid in Pakistan in March 2002.

The case has been submitted by Helen Duffy, Abu Zubaydah’s international legal representative since 2010, who represented him in his successful cases before the European Court of Human Rights regarding his “black site” detention in Poland and Lithuania, and the complaint accuses seven countries of having responsibility for his long imprisonment and mistreatment — not only (and primarily) the US, but also Thailand, Poland, Morocco, Lithuania and Afghanistan, the five countries in which he was held in “black sites” over a period of four and a half years, and the UK, which is accused of having “participated in other ways in the ‘global spider’s web’ of complicity in rendition,” primarily via “estimates that UK personnel were involved in approximately 2,000-3,000 interviews of CIA detainees in the aftermath of 9/11”, as indicated by the findings of the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in 2019.

In a press release, Duffy explains that this is “the first international case brought by Zubaydah against the United States,” and is also “the first time that international legal action is taken against the UK, Afghanistan, Morocco and Thailand for their complicity in the US rendition and secret detention program.” In addition it is “the first time that a case has been brought against all states participating in an individual’s rendition and torture and ongoing unlawful detention at Guantánamo.”

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Torture Victims Lead Call for Torture Apologists Avril Haines and Mike Morell Not to be Confirmed as Director of National Intelligence and CIA Director

Avril Haines and Mike Morell, who both have a troubling history as torture apologists. In an open letter, opponents of torture, myself included, urge President-elect Biden not to nominate Mike Morell as CIA Director, and urge the Senate not to confirm Biden’s appointment of Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence.

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I’m delighted to be a signatory to an open letter, initiated by Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK and Marcy Winograd of Progressive Democrats of America and CODEPINKCONGRESS, urging President-elect Joe Biden not to nominate Mike Morell as CIA Director, and asking the Senate not to approve Biden’s nominee Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence (the head of the 16 branches of the US Intelligence Community) — and I’m particularly gratified that I was able to reach out to a number of former Guantánamo prisoners to encourage them to sign the letter.

Both Morell and Haynes have a troubling history of defending torture. Morell, who was a CIA analyst under George W. Bush, and Deputy and Acting CIA Director under Barack Obama, defended the use of torture when speaking to VICE in 2015. “I don’t like calling it torture for one simple reason: to call it torture says my guys were torturers,” he said, adding, “I’m gonna defend my guys till my last breath.” As Medea Benjamin and Marcy Winograd explained in an article for Common Dreams yesterday, Morell “put his CIA buddies above truth, the law and basic decency.”

Hopefully, as they also noted, “Morell’s traction may be on the wane with the Biden administration … after progressives launched a campaign against [him], and Senator Ron Wyden — a powerful Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee — called him a ‘torture apologist’ and said his appointment to head the CIA was a ‘non starter.’”

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In Historic Ruling, Case of Four Survivors of CIA Rendition and “Black Site” Torture To Be Heard By Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Four of the men subjected to rendition and torture in the “war on terror’ that the United States declared after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. From L to R: British residents Binyam Mohamed and Bisher al-Rawi, Abou Elkassim Britel, an Italian citizen, and Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni.

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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.

When it comes to the crimes committed by the US government in the brutal “war on terror” declared after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the wheels of justice move so slowly that their motion is almost imperceptible.

A case in point involves four survivors of the CIA’s rendition and torture program — British residents Binyam Mohamed and Bisher al-Rawi, Abou Elkassim Britel, an Italian citizen, and Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni. Also see my extensive archive about Binyam Mohamed’s case, which I covered in great detail in 2008 and 2009.

Last month, on July 8, in what the ACLU accurately described as a “historic decision,” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — an international human rights tribunal based in Washington, D.C., which reviews cases throughout the Americas, and whose judgments are meant to be binding on the states involved — determined that the four men, “survivors of the US secret detention and torture program,” have “the right to present their case before the regional tribunal.”

And those wheels of justice? Well, here goes. The case was only submitted to the IACHR — in November 2011 — after a long quest for justice in the US had been exhausted. The ACLU had first filed a lawsuit in May 2007 on behalf of three of the men — against Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing whose role as “The CIA’s Travel Agent” was first exposed, through statements made by a former Jeppesen employee, in an article by Jane Mayer for the New Yorker in October 2006.

As I explained in an article ten years ago:

In statements that were later submitted to the court, Sean Belcher, a former employee, said that the director of Jeppesen International Trip Planning Services, Bob Overby, had told him, “We do all the extraordinary rendition flights,” which he also referred to as “the torture flights” or “spook flights.” Belcher stated that “there were some employees who were not comfortable with that aspect of Jeppesen’s business” because they knew “some of these flights end up” with the passengers being tortured, but added that Overby had explained, “that’s just the way it is, we’re doing them” because “the rendition flights paid very well.”

In its press release last month, the ACLU explained how, “During rendition flights, victims were often stripped naked, sexually assaulted, diapered, chained, and strapped down to the floor of an airplane as part of a brutal procedure known as ‘capture shock’ treatment.”

As the ACLU explained in its page relating to the case, in February 2008 the District Court “dismisse[d] the ACLU’s case against Jeppesen after the government intervened, inappropriately invoking the ‘states secrets privilege’ to avoid legal scrutiny of an unlawful program.” The ACLU appealed, and in February 2009 a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case. Barack Obama was now president, but the Department of Justice “once again assert[ed] that the entire subject matter of the case [was] a state secret.”

In April 2009, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — led by Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, and also including Judges Mary M. Schroeder and William C. Canby, Jr. — reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the case, “ruling that the government cannot invoke the state secrets privilege to dismiss the entire suit, rather, the privilege can only be invoked with respect to specific evidence,” as the ACLU described it.

I wrote about it at the time, 100 days into Obama’s presidency, citing pertinent passages from the ruling, including the following:

At base, the government argues … that state secrets form the subject matter of a lawsuit, and therefore require dismissal, any time a complaint contains allegations, the truth or falsity of which has been classified as secret by a government official. The district court agreed, dismissing the case exclusively because it “involves allegations” about [secret] conduct by the CIA. This sweeping characterization of the “very subject matter” bar has no logical limit — it would apply equally to suits by US citizens, not just foreign nationals; and to secret conduct committed on US soil, not just abroad. According to the government’s theory, the Judiciary should effectively cordon off all secret government actions from judicial scrutiny, immunizing the CIA and its partners from the demands and limits of the law.

Following the April 2009 ruling, the case was remanded back to the District Court, but before that could happen the government asked the full appeals court — an 11-judge panel — to hear the case. That happened in December 2009, and in September 2010 the court reversed the April 2009 decision, as I explained in my article at the time, By One Vote, US Court OKs Torture and “Extraordinary Rendition”.

As I explained in my article, “when asked to rule on whether these five men should have their day in court, or whether the government should be allowed to dismiss their lawsuit by claiming that the exposure of any information relating to ‘extraordinary rendition’ and torture threatened the national security of the United States, American justice contemplated looking at itself squarely in the mirror, telling truth to power, and allowing these men the opportunity to address what had happened to them in a court of law, but, at the last minute, flinched and turned away. By six votes to five, the Court decided that, in the interests of national security, the men’s day in court would be denied.”

In December 2010, the ACLU “file[d] a cert petition, asking the US Supreme Court to review the lower court’s decision dismissing the lawsuit,” but in May 2011 the Supreme Court turned down the request, exhausting the legal options in the US, and leading the ACLU — with the NYU Global Justice Clinic — to approach the IACHR instead.

Meanwhile, in the US, the truth of the men’s claims was further highlighted with the publication, in December 2014, of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA torture program, which took five years to complete, and which, damningly for the CIA and the Bush administration, condemned the program for being brutal and counter-productive. 119 victims of rendition and torture were named in the report, including Binyam Mohamed, Bisher al-Rawi and Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, although, like an untold number of other prisoners who were not held in specific CIA “black sites,” but in facilities in, for example, Morocco, Jordan, Syria or Egypt, Abou Elkassim Britel (held in Morocco) was not. Mohamed and al-Rawi were also the only two of the four to also be held at Guantánamo.

Following the recent IACHR ruling, the ACLU explained that, “In ordering the case to move forward, the Inter-American Commission found that ‘insurmountable obstacles within the US legal system’ prevent victims of US counterterrorism operations from obtaining remedies before US courts.”

Steven Watt, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, said, “Unlike US courts, the Commission found that victims of US extraordinary rendition and torture can have their claims heard. Our clients’ decades-long pursuit of justice has finally paid off.”

The ACLU noted that the IACHR “found that the US is responsible under the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man to respect the rights of everyone under US control, even when such persons are located outside the country.” Following its decision to proceed, the IACHR “will now consider the merits of the survivors’ legal claims, including any US violations of the rights enshrined in the American Declaration.”

Professor Margaret Satterthwaite, Director of the NYU Global Justice Clinic, and counsel for Mr. Bashmilah, said, “At a time when the Trump administration is doing everything in its power to thwart accountability for US torture, this decision demonstrates that the US is not above the law. President Trump has relentlessly attacked international justice institutions, most recently with an executive order authorizing sanctions against the International Criminal Court for even investigating US war crimes. The Inter-American Commission’s decision to accept this case shows that the quest for accountability will not be quashed.”

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, 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 (and see the latest 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 here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from eight years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

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 he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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.

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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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