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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The 15th Anniversary of the Contentious “Triple Suicide” of Three Prisoners at Guantánamo

Yasser al-Zahrani and Ali al-Salami (aka Ali Abdullah Ahmed), two of the three prisoners who died at Guantánamo on the night of June 9, 2006, in what was described by the authorities as a “triple suicide,” an explanation that has been robustly challenged on numerous occasions in the years since. No known photo exists of the third man, Mani al-Utaybi.

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There are some days that are so significant that everyone remembers what they were doing. September 11, 2001 is one such day, when planes flew into the Twin Towers in New York, and for those paying attention to the US response to the 9/11 attacks, January 11, 2002 is also significant, when the first prisoners — “detainees,” in the Bush administration’s words — arrived at Guantánamo.

Almost immediately, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized the release of photos taken by a serving US soldier — photos that showed US soldiers shouting at men who were kneeling on gravel under the burning sun at a US naval base in Cuba, half a world away from the battlefields of Afghanistan, men who were wearing orange jumpsuits, and who had their eyes, ears and mouths covered, creating the vivid impression that they were being subjected to sensory deprivation.

For US viewers, the photos were not necessarily noteworthy. Prisoners on the US mainland often wear orange, and the clearly abusive conditions captured in the photos were part of a depressingly successful narrative that the Bush administration was selling to the American people — that these men were, as Rumsfeld described it, “the worst of the worst,” terrorists so hardened and so bloodthirsty that, as General Richard E. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described it, they “would chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 [transport plane] down.”

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As You Read This, Guantánamo Prisoner Ahmed Rabbani Has Been On A Hunger Strike for 2,846 Days

An image from the website, “Gitmo Hunger Strikes,” set up by Reprieve to highlight the plight of their client, Ahmed Rabbani.

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With the media spotlight hopefully being shone anew on the prison at Guantánamo Bay, now that Joe Biden has been elected as the US president, it is to be hoped that, as I explained in my recent article, President Elect Biden, It’s Time to Close Guantánamo, arrangements will be made to release the five men still held who were unanimously approved for release by high-level government review processes under President Obama, and that there will be an acceptance within the Biden administration that holding 26 other men indefinitely without charge or trial is unacceptable.

These 26 men — accurately described as “forever prisoners” by the media — were recommended either or for prosecution, or for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the basis that they were “too dangerous to release,” even though it was acknowledged that insufficient evidence — or insufficient untainted evidence — existed for them to be charged, by the first of Obama’s two review processes, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, in 2009.

Four years later, the 26 — along with 38 others — were deemed eligible for a second review process, the Periodic Review Boards. Unlike the first process, which involved officials assessing whether prisoners should be freed, charged or held on an ongoing basis without charge or trial, the PRBs were a parole-type process, in which the men were encouraged to express contrition for the activities in which they were alleged to have been involved (whether those allegations were accurate or not), and to present credible proposals for a peaceful and constructive life if released.

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Asadullah Haroon Gul: The Hunger Striking Afghan Forgotten at Guantánamo

Sehar Bibi, the mother of Guantánamo prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul, at the refugee camp in Peshawar where she lives with her son’s wife and daughter, and other family members. Gul has been held at Guantánamo without charge or trial since 2007. (Photo: AFP/Abdul Majeed).

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Regular readers will recall the sad story of Asadullah Haroon Gul, one of the last two Afghans amongst the 40 men still held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay. In correspondence from Guantánamo this year, Gul has written about the coronavirus, about being a “no value detainee”, and about the murder by police of George Floyd and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement.

As seems abundantly clear — to everyone except his captors — Gul, one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo, in June 2007, is a fundamentally insignificant prisoner whose ongoing imprisonment makes no sense. The US has quite nebulously alleged that he was involved with Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), led by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had supported Al-Qaeda at the time of the US-led invasion. However, as I explained in July, “Gul very clearly had no meaningful connection with HIG, his involvement extending only to having lived, with his wife and family, in a refugee camp that HIG ran, but, as in so many cases of mistaken identity at Guantánamo, the US authorities didn’t care.”

To add insult to injury, Hekmatyar’s status has now changed. He reached a peace agreement with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and at the start of this year a former Guantánamo prisoner with HIG associations, Hamidullah, was repatriated from the United Arab Emirates, where he had been sent with other Afghans in 2016, because of this agreement, surely undermining any efforts by the US to claim that Gul should still be held.

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18 Years After 9/11, the Endless Injustice of Guantánamo is Driving Prisoners to Suicidal Despair

The terrorist attacks on New York on September 11, 2001, and the prison at Guantánamo Bay on the day it opened, January 11, 2002.

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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.

18 years ago, on September 11, 2001, the world changed irrevocably, when terrorists, using hijacked passenger planes, attacked the US mainland, killing nearly 3,000 people. In response, the administration of George W. Bush launched a brutal, global “war on terror,” invading Afghanistan to destroy Al-Qaeda and to topple the Taliban government, and embarking on a program of kidnapping (“extraordinary rendition”), torture and the indefinite detention without charge or trial of alleged “terror suspects.”

18 years later, the war in AfghanIstan drags on, the battle for “hearts and minds” having long been lost, a second occupied country — Iraq — illegally invaded on the basis of lies, and of false evidence obtained through torture, remains broken, having subsequently served as an incubator for Al-Qaeda’s savage offshoot, Daesh (or Islamic State), and the program of indefinite detention without charge or trial continues in the prison established four months after the 9/11 attacks, at Guantánamo Bay on the US naval base in Cuba.

Torture, we are told, is no longer US policy and the CIA no longer runs “black sites” — although torture remains permissible in Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, and no one can quite be sure what the US gets up to in its many covert actions around the world.

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“The World Has Forgotten Me” Says Ahmed Rabbani, 95-Pound Hunger Striker in Guantánamo

Guantanamo prisoner Ahmed Rabbani in a photo made available by his lawyers at Reprieve, and taken before his weight dropped to under 100 pounds as a hunger striker.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.




 

Over 16 and a half years since the ill-conceived prison at Guantánamo Bay opened, and over two and a half years into the presidency of Donald Trump, the terrible injustice of Guantánamo has, sadly, largely slipped off the radar.

The reasons are many — and none reflect well on the US, its institutions and its people. The American people have never cared sufficiently about what is being done in their name at Guantánamo, where the fundamental right not to be imprisoned without due process has been done away with since the prison opened, a product of the country’s all-consuming vengeance after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Few people, it seems, either know or care that very few people accused of terrorism have actually been held at Guantánamo, and that most of those held were foot soldiers in an inter-Muslim civil war in Afghanistan, or civilians swept up in incompetent dragnets, and that the majority — whether soldiers or civilians — were not “captured on the battlefield,” but were sold to the US by their Afghan and Pakistani allies.

When it comes to America’s institutions, everyone has failed to live up to their responsibilities — President Obama, for example, who took eight years to fail to close the prison, despite promising to do so on his second day in office; Congress, where lawmakers generally take little interest in anything other than appeasing big business; and the courts, who have failed to fundamentally challenge the lawlessness of Guantánamo. Read the rest of this entry »

Ten Years After His Release From Guantánamo, Sami al-Hajj Publishes His Compelling Memoir, ‘Prisoner 345,’ Free Via Al-Jazeera

'Prisoner 345': the front cover of Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Hajj's account of his six and a half years in US custody in the "war on terror," in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo. 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.





 

Just over ten years ago, on May 1, 2008, one of the better-known prisoners at Guantánamo, the Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj (aka al-Haj), was freed from the prison and repatriated to his home country of Sudan. I meant to mark the occasion with an article, but, at the time, I was caught up in issues involving my campaigning for social housing in the UK, and the local government elections that took place on May 3.

Now, however, belatedly, I’m getting round to it, as I want to promote ‘Prisoner 345: My Six Years in Guantánamo,’ Sami’s powerful and emotional account of his capture and imprisonment, which is available for free as a PDF via Al-Jazeera.

Sami’s story was of particular interest during his imprisonment because he was working for Al-Jazeera as a journalist and cameraman at the time of his capture, and his captors quite shamelessly tried to get him to work for them instead — as well as very publicly threatening the Qatar-based channel by imprisoning, without charge or trial, one of their journalists. Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo Hunger Striker Khalid Qassim Says, “We Are Like Lab Rats,” Says Doctor Told Him, “If You Lose Organs, It Is Your Choice”

Guantanamo prisoner Khalid Qassim, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.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.





 

Last Thursday, as I travelled across London to show solidarity with the victims of a recent injustice in the UK — the Grenfell Tower fire in June, in which 71 people died needlessly because safety standards had been so gravely eroded by those responsible for residents’ safety — the victim of another injustice, not adequately dealt with for 16 years, had an article published in the Guardian.

That victim of injustice is Khalid Qassim (aka Qasim), a Yemeni prisoner at Guantánamo, held for almost 16 years without charge or trial. That would be unacceptable if he were a prisoner of war, as it is longer than the absurdly long Vietnam War, and it is insulting to claim that any war can last forever. However, Qassim and all the men held at Guantánamo since January 2002 have never been held as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, who can be held unmolested until the end of hostilities.

Instead, they are, essentially, the same prisoners without any rights whatsoever that the Bush administration first defined them as back in January 2002. Just ten of the 41 men still held are facing or have faced trials (in the military commission trial system that, in any case, is not fit for purpose), while the rest are still largely invisible, never tried, never charged, and unable to be freed except at the whim of the president. Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo’s Oldest Prisoner Calls Conditions “Hell,” Says, “We Are Getting Collective Punishment Because of the Hunger Strike”

Guantanamo prisoner Saifullah Paracha in an updated photo taken by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and provided to his family, who made it public.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.





 

The horrors of Guantánamo — ever present in a prison where men have been held for nearly 16 years without ever being charged with a crime, and with no notion of when, if ever, they will get to leave — seem to be being ramped up under Donald Trump, as we might have suspected from his aggressive stance towards the prison and the men held there, even before he took office in January, and from witnessing his racism, and glimpsing the violence that permanently seems to lurk beneath his blubbery exterior.

Despite threats to send new prisoners to Guantánamo — threats which have not, mercifully, transpired — Trump did nothing in his first eight months regarding the prison except shutting the door on it and refusing to contemplate releasing anyone, even the five men — out of the 41 still held — who were approved for release by high-level government review processes under President Obama.

Two months ago, however, according to hunger striking prisoners, whose story I reported before the mainstream media took an interest, Trump finally made his influence felt, changing the rules about the way they are treated. For over ten years, hunger striking prisoners were closely monitored, but now, according to those refusing food, new instructions, initiated from September 20 onwards, mean that they are no longer having their health assessed at all. Read the rest of this entry »

300 Days of Trump: Join Our Photo Campaign Calling for the Closure of Guantánamo

Andy Worthington calls on Donald Trump to close Guantanamo on his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2017, during the massive women's march against his presidency in New York City.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.





 

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.

What a disappointment Donald Trump is — something that many of us suspected when he was elected as the 45th President of the United States over a year ago, but that does not become any easier to bear with the passage of time.

Largely governing by tweet, Trump has nothing positive to show for his first 300 days in office (yesterday, Nov. 16), as he alienates allies and does nothing to improve the lives of ordinary Americans. His Muslim ban, which he still persists in trying to enforce, remains shockingly racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic, and it is clear that he also extends these prejudices to the men held at Guantánamo.

Uninterested in any nuances regarding Guantánamo  — the fact that indefinite detention without charge or trial ought to be fundamentally un-American, for example, or that there are men held at the prison who have been approved for release — Trump has always behaved as though the prison contained “the worst of the worst,” turning the clock back to the terrible hyperbole of Guantánamo’s early days under George W. Bush. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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