13 Years Ago, Three Men Died at Guantánamo, Victims of a Brutal Regime of Lawlessness That Is Fundamentally Unchanged Today

Yasser al-Zahrani and Ali al-Salami, two of the three men who died at Guantánamo on the night of June 9, 2006, in circumstances that remain deeply contentious. The US authorities insist that they committed suicide, but other troubling accounts have robustly questioned that conclusion. No photo publicly exists of the third man, Mani- al-Utaybi.

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On the night of June 9, 2006, three prisoners at Guantánamo died, their deaths shockingly and insensitively described by the prison’s then-commander, Adm. Harry Harris Jr., as “an act of asymmetrical warfare against us.”

The three men were Yasser al-Zahrani, a Saudi who was just 17 when he was seized in Afghanistan in December 2001, Mani al-Utaybi, another Saudi, and Ali al-Salami, a Yemeni. All three had been prominent hunger strikers.

Al-Zahrani, the son of a prominent Saudi government official, was a survivor of the Qala-i-Janghi massacre, which John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban,” who was recently released after 17 years in a US prison, also survived. Over 400 fighters, supporting the Taliban, had been told that if they surrendered, they would then be set free, but it was a betrayal. They were taken to a fort, Qala-i-Janghi, run by General Rashid Dostum, one of the leaders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, where some of the men, fearing they would be killed, started an uprising with concealed weapons. Over the course of a week, the prisoners were bombed, set on fire, and, finally, flooded out of a basement, and when they finally emerged, only 86 of the original prisoners had survived.

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The Long Persecution of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban”

John Walker Lindh, strapped to a gurney in Camp Rhino, near Kandahar, after his capture in December 2001, when he had already survived a massacre at the Qala-i-Janghi fort.

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The US establishment is nervous about John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban.” 

A US citizen, Lindh was taken into custody by US forces in Afghanistan in December 2001, along with around 85 other Taliban fighters, survivors of a massacre — the Qala-i-Janghi massacre — that is largely forgotten. He received a 20-year prison sentence in a federal court on the US mainland in May 2002 for providing material support to terrorism, but had his sentence reduced by three years because of good behavior. 

He was released on May 23, but with restrictions imposed by a federal judge. As the Associated Press described it, “Lindh’s internet devices must have monitoring software; his online communications must be conducted in English; he must undergo mental health counseling; he is forbidden to possess or view extremist material; and he cannot hold a passport or leave the US.”

Donald Trump opposed his early release, as did Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. It was reported back in 2015 that, from prison, he had expressed support for Daesh (aka Islamic State or Isis). For the Atlantic, staff writer Graeme Wood, based on prison correspondence with Lindh, claimed that he was “permanently devoted” to violent jihad, and that “public security demands nothing less than close observation [of Lindh] for a very, very long time.” 

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US Readers: Please Tell Congress to Ease Restrictions on Transferring Prisoners Out of Guantánamo in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)

A photo of the operating room at the prisoner hospital at Guantánamo, taken by a member of the US military on December 3, 2002.

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Ever since Barack Obama left the White House, in January 2017, having failed to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, despite promising to do so on his second day in office eight years before, it has been difficult to see any light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to that wretched offshore prison. 

The 40 men still held are, for the most part, held indefinitely without charge or trial, while the few who are charged are caught in seemingly endless pre-trial hearings in the military commissions, a broken facsimile of a functioning judicial system. And in the White House, of course, is Donald Trump, who has no interest in justice when it comes to the Guantánamo prisoners; Donald Trump, who wants no one released under any circumstances, and would happily add to the prison’s population if he could.

However, a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel finally re-emerged in November, in the mid-term elections, when Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives. Given the track record of the Obama years, it would be unwise to read too much into this slight shift in the balance of power amongst the US’s elected representatives, but, as Shilpa Jindia noted in a recent article for the Intercept, “On the anniversary of the prison’s opening in January, a coalition of NGOs visited with key House Democrats, who expressed support for various tactics to close Guantánamo.”

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The Taint of Guantánamo: Uighurs in Albania and Bermuda Seek Permission to Join Their Families in Canada

Former Guantánamo prisoner Salahadin Abdulahad, a Uighur (one of 22 Uighurs mistakenly held at the prison), with his three children in Bermuda, where he was resettled after being freed from Guantánamo in 2009. His wife and children are Canadian citizens, and he is seeking permission to join them in Canada. Two other Uighurs are also seeking to join their families in Canada.

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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.

Two months ago, in an article about how former Guantánamo prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi was being prevented from having a passport, two and a half years after he was freed from Guantánamo, despite being promised that it would be returned after two years, I wrote about the scandal of how everyone released from the prison “will continue to be branded as ‘enemy combatants’ for the rest of their lives — unless, eventually, concerted action is taken by those who respect the law to hold the US to account.” As I also put it, “The status of the ‘un-people’ of Guantánamo is a peculiarly aberrant post-9/11 creation, and one that cannot be allowed to stand forever.”

I also explained that, although it is reasonable to assume that all kinds of deals were made between the US government and the prisoners’ home governments, details of these deals have never been made public — and even if they were, of course, we shouldn’t forget that whatever deals were arranged have absolutely no basis in international law.

I had reason to think yet again about this enduring injustice just last week, when the National Post, in Canada, published an article by reporter Tom Blackwell looking at the case of former Guantánamo prisoner Ayub Mohammed, a Uighur, part of an oppressed Turkic minority from north western China, also known as the Uyghurs.

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Slow Death at Guantánamo: Why Torture and Open-Ended Arbitrary Detention Are Such Bad Ideas

An undated photo of a prisoner at Guantánamo being escorted by guards (Photo: Chris Hondros / Getty Images).

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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.

Let’s be clear about two things before we start: torture and indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial are never acceptable under any circumstances. Torture is prohibited under the UN Convention Against Torture, introduced in 1985 and ratified by Ronald Reagan, and Article 2.2 of the Convention states, unequivocally, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” 

In addition, indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial is unacceptable because there are only two ways in which it is acceptable for countries that claim to respect the rule of law to deprive someone of their liberty: either by trying them for a crime in federal court, or holding them as a prisoner of war until the end of hostiliites, with the protections of the Geneva Conventions. 

After 9/11, however, the US created a network of torture prisons around the world, and invented a third category of prisoner — illegal or unlawful enemy combatants — who had no rights whatsoever. 

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The Case for Closing Guantánamo: The New Yorker’s Major Profile of Mohamedou Ould Salahi and His Former Guard Steve Wood

Mohamedou Ould Salahi (Slahi) on the right, and his former guard Steve Wood on the left. The photo was taken by Salahi in Mauritania in January 2019, when Wood had come to visit him.

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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.

Over the 13 years that I’ve been working to close Guantánamo, some of the most rewarding moments I’ve experienced have been when former prisoners or former guards have got in touch to thank me for my work. 

I was enormously gratified when Moazzam Begg said that he turned to my book The Guantánamo Files to find out who he was at Guantánamo with, because he was held in solitary confinement, and when Omar Deghayes told me that I wrote about Guantánamo as though I had been in the prison with him and the other prisoners. 

I was also moved when former guards got in touch — Brandon Neely, for example, who had been at Guantánamo in its early days, and who got in touch with me when his discomfort with what he had been required to do, which had haunted him, turned into public criticism that persists to this day. On another occasion, I recall, a former guard got in touch. He didn’t want go public, but he wanted to talk about Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who he had been guarding. 

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Defend Julian Assange and WikiLeaks: Press Freedom Depends On It

Julian Assange, photographed after his arrest at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on Thursday April 10, 2019 (Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters).

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Last week, when Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, was dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after the Ecuadorian government withdrew the asylum it had granted to him after he sought shelter there in 2012, I was about to set off on a long weekend away, without computer access, and I only had time to write a few brief paragraphs about the significance of his case on Facebook.

I noted that his arrest “ought to be of great concern to anyone who values the ability of the media, in Western countries that claim to respect the freedom of the press, to publish information about the wrongdoing of Western governments that they would rather keep hidden.” 

I also explained, “Those who leak information, like Chelsea Manning” — who leaked hundreds of thousands of pages of classified US government documents to WikiLeaks, and is now imprisoned because of her refusal to testify in a Grand Jury case against WikiLeaks — “need protection, and so do those in the media who make it publicly available; Julian Assange and WikiLeaks as much as those who worked with them on the release of documents — the New York Times and the Guardian, for example.”

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How the US Fell for Chinese Lies Regarding the Uighurs at Guantánamo, and Why the Uighurs Need Our Support

A cross-post, with my own detailed introduction, of an article by Richard Bernstein for the Atlantic about how the Bush administration overrode its own considered assessments to support the Chinese government's false description of the Uighurs, an oppressed minority from north west China, as terrorists, in relation to 22 Uighurs who had ended up at
An undated photo of supporters of China’s oppressed Uighur people protesting outside the White House about the imprisonment of Uighurs at Guantánamo. The last of the prison’s Uighurs were freed in 2013, but nowadays the Uighurs are suffering from particularly harsh repression from the Chinese government, with at least a million Uighurs arbitrarily imprisoned in internment camps (Photo: futureatlas.com/flickr).

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Thanks to the Atlantic, and Richard Bernstein, former foreign correspondent for Time and the New York Times, for revisiting the story of Guantánamo’s Uighurs, the ethnic group in the prison who were most transparently unconnected to the anti-American activities of Al-Qaeda.

The timing of Bernstein’s article, ‘When China Convinced the U.S. That Uighurs Were Waging Jihad,’ is evidently intended — and with good reason — to highlight the terrible situation faced by the UIghurs, a Turkic group from Xinjiang province in north western China, who are currently facing the harshest clampdown by the Chinese government in a long history of oppression, with at least a million Uighurs “arbitrarily detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, where they are forced to undergo political indoctrination,” as the Guardian explained in November 2018, after the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (the first to study China since 2013) had condemned China for its deteriorating human rights record. As Vox explained, Western governments “had the harshest words for China,” with the US chargé d’affaires Mark Cassayre demanding that China “abolish all forms of arbitrary detention” for Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, and calling on the government to  “release the ‘possibly millions’ of individuals detained there.”

Bernstein’s article focuses on how the Bush administration — shamefully — reversed its opinion about the Chinese government’s oppression of the Uighurs in 2002, to justify its imprisonment of 22 Uighur prisoners at Guantánamo, some of whom spent a total of 12 years in US custody, despite it having been obvious to anyone actually paying attention to their cases that, as many of the Uighurs themselves explained, they had only one enemy — the Chinese government — and had no animosity whatsoever towards the US.

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Rare Words From Guantánamo, From “Forever Prisoner” Ghassan Al-Sharbi

The perimeter fence at Guantánamo, photographed on March 6, 2013 (Photo: Bob Strong/Reuters).

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When the prison at Guantánamo Bay was set up by the Bush administration, over 17 long years ago, the intention was to hide the men held from any kind of outside scrutiny, an intention reflected within the prison, where the prisoners were dehumanized, identified not by name but by what were known as Internment Serial Numbers (ISNs). The ISN system persists to this day, with the 40 men still held after first George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama, shrank the prison’s population to just 5% of the total number of men held since it first opened.

In addition, the effort to hold the men in a permanent state of dehumanization — to prevent any serious form of outside scrutiny — also persists. It is only because the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights in 2004 that the men were finally allowed to have lawyers visit them, breaking through the shroud of total secrecy that had previously enveloped the prison, and that had allowed horrendous torture and abuse to take place in its first few years of operations.

Of the 40 men still held, most are unknown to the general public. The most prominent are the seven men facing seemingly interminable pre-trial hearings in the broken military commission system, but few people know who most of the others are — five men approved for release under Barack Obama, but still held, and 26 others, accurately described as “forever prisoners” by the mainstream media, whose ongoing imprisonment was recommended by Obama administration officials who reviewed all the prisoners’ cases after Obama took office, and decided that they were too dangerous to release, while conceding that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

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Supporting Whistleblower Chelsea Manning, Imprisoned for Refusing to Testify in Grand Jury Case Against WikiLeaks

Chelsea Manning, in a photo from a fashion shoot for Dazed on February 12, 2019, just 24 days before she was imprisoned for refusing to testify in a Grand Jury case against WikiLeaks.

Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration. If you can help, please click on the button below to donate via PayPal.




 

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 three weeks since Chelsea Manning was imprisoned for refusing to testify in a Grand Jury case against WikiLeaks, and I wanted to make sure that I expressed my solidarity with her, as, without her contributions to breaking through the US government’s deliberate secrecy surrounding the prisoners held at Guantánamo, we would know far less than we do about how weak so much of the so-called evidence is that has been used to defend the imprisonment without charge or trial of the men — and boys — held at Guantánamo without charge or trial since the disgraceful prison opened in January 2002.

It was while working as an intelligence analyst for the US Army in Iraq, in 2009, that Manning leaked to WikiLeaks nearly 750,000 classified — or unclassified but sensitive — US military and diplomatic documents, including the “Collateral Murder” video, featuring footage of a US Army helicopter gunning down a group of unarmed civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists, the Afghan and Iraq war logs, a vast number of US diplomatic cables from around the world, and the classified military files from Guantánamo.

I worked as a media partner with WikiLeaks on the release of these documents in April 2011, and as I stated in an article in January 2017, when President Obama commuted the 35-year sentence that Manning had received after her court-martial in 2013:

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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, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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