UN Finally Gets to Visit Guantánamo; Also Secures End to Trump-Era Ban on Prisoners Leaving With Their Artwork

One of the ships made at Guantánamo out of recycled materials by Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni prisoner who was approved for release in December 2021, but is still held. A third country must be found that is prepared to offer him a new home, because provisions in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, passed by Republicans under President Obama, and maintained ever year since, prohibit the repatriation of Yemenis from Guantánamo.

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Finally, over 21 years after the prison at Guantánamo Bay opened, a UN Rapporteur has visited the prison, to meet with prisoners as part of what a UN press release described as “a technical visit to the United States” by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

“Between 6 and 14 February,” as the UN explained, Ní Aoláin “will visit Washington D.C. and subsequently the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” and, over the next three months, “will also carry out a series of interviews with individuals in the United States and abroad … including victims and families of victims of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and former detainees in countries of resettlement/repatriation.”

Ever since Guantánamo opened, successive UN Rapporteurs for Torture tried to visit the prison, but were rebuffed, either by the hostility of the US government, or through a failure on the part of officials to guarantee that any meetings that took place with prisoners would not be monitored.

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Guantánamo Art Ban: Ex-Prisoners Urge Biden to Drop Trump Ban on Released Prisoners Leaving With Their Artwork

A ship made entirely out of recycled materials by Guantánamo prisoner Moath al-Alwi. This was allowed out of the prison before the ban on any more prisoner artwork leaving the prison was enacted in November 2017, but al-Alwi, who was finally approved for release in January this year, has continued to make art, and recently told his lawyer that he would rather his artwork be released than himself, “because as far as I am concerned, I’m done, my life and my dreams are shattered. But if my artwork is released, it will be the sole witness for posterity.” 

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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.

I’m delighted to be posting below a letter to President Biden written by eight former Guantánamo prisoners, urging him to drop a ban on prisoners leaving the prison with artwork they have made — and also giving artwork they have made to their lawyers (and, via them, to their families) — which has been in place since November 2017.

I’ve been writing about this outrageous ban since it was first implemented, when the Pentagon took exception to “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay,” an exhibition of artwork by eight current and former prisoners at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which ran from October 2017 to January 2018.

As I explained in an article six weeks ago, The Powerful Artwork Still Being Created by Prisoners at Guantánamo, and the Outrageous Ban on its Dissemination That is Still in Place, following up on a BBC World article by Joel Gunter, The sudden silencing of Guantánamo’s artists, the artwork featured in the show was “mostly innocuous scenes drawn from nature, all of which had been approved for release by the Pentagon after screening to assure officials that they didn’t contain hidden terrorist messages.”

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The Powerful Artwork Still Being Created by Prisoners at Guantánamo, and the Outrageous Ban on its Dissemination That is Still in Place

A painting from 2016 by Guantánamo prisoner Khalid Qasim, created before the ban on any artwork being released from the prison was introduced under Donald Trump in 2017, a ban which, shamefully, still stands.

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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.

Many thanks to BBC World reporter Joel Gunter for his recent detailed article, “The sudden silencing of Guantánamo’s artists,” about the wonderful artwork produced by some of the men held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, a lifeline for them since they were first allowed to express themselves during the Obama presidency, but one that has become considerably compromised in recent years, after the Pentagon took exception to an exhibition of some of the prisoners’ artwork at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City from October 2017 to January 2018.

Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay” featured art by eight current and former prisoners, mostly innocuous scenes drawn from nature, all of which had been approved for release by the Pentagon after screening to assure officials that they didn’t contain hidden terrorist messages. Some of the artists showed noticeable talent, although the most striking works were ships and boats made by a Yemeni prisoner, Moath al-Alwi, using recycled materials.

I wrote at the time about the importance of prisoners being allowed to express themselves artistically after their long years of what was, fundamentally, profound isolation under President Bush, and of the importance of their art being allowed to be seen in the US, to show the men as human beings rather than the “super-terrorist” bogeymen that is the default position towards them that has been taken by the US government and the mainstream media, even though the overwhelming majority of the 779 men held at Guantánamo since it first opened in January 2002 have never been charged with a crime, and were almost certainly nothing more than foot soldiers or even civilians seized by mistake.

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Joy as the Talented Artist Khaled Qassim is Approved for Release from Guantánamo, But When Will He Be Freed?

Khaled Qassim, in an undated photo taken at Guantánamo in the early years of his imprisonment.

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20 years and two months since the Yemeni prisoner Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim) arrived at Guantánamo, where he has been held ever since without charge or trial, he has finally been approved for release. 25 years old at the time his capture, and frozen in time in the only known photo of him, taken at Guantánamo in the early years of his imprisonment, he is now 45 years old, and has, as a result, spent almost half his life at the prison.

The announcement that Khaled has been approved for release is wonderful news, as those of us who have been studying Guantánamo closely know that he is a talented artist (I posted an article about his art when it was shown in New York two years ago), and, in addition, we learned via his close friend, the released prisoner and author Mansoor Adayfi, that he is also a natural leader, a beautiful singer, a writer, a teacher and a talented football player.

Mansoor told us that Khaled’s natural leadership abilities meant that, in 2010, a Navy Commander said of him, “We like Khalid to represent all the detainees. He talks like a poet when he speaks on behalf of the detainees, and he’s an easy man to deal with,” although he was also, in the prison’s early years, a persistent hunger striker, one of around dozen young, mainly Yemeni prisoners who, as Adayfi explained in his powerful memoir, “Don’t Forget Us Here,” published last year, countered the US’s brutality and injustice with perpetual resistance, as did Adayfi himself.

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“A Good Man With A Lot to Offer This World”: Khaled Qassim’s Attorney Urges Periodic Review Board to Approve His Release from Guantánamo

Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), in a photo taken at Guantánamo around 15 years ago, and included in his classified military file 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.

Two weeks ago, in an article entitled, The U.S.’s Ongoing “Forever Prisoner” Problem at Guantánamo, I discussed the last five men held at Guantánamo as “forever prisoners,” the only men out of the 37 still held who have not been either charged with a crime (eleven of the 37), or approved for release (the remaining 21).

Most of those approved for release had those recommendations made by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established under President Obama, with 16 of those decisions taking place since President Biden took office. The men in question demonstrated to the board members — comprising representatives of the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State, and the offices of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence — that they were contrite, and had plans for a peaceful life if released, with the board members also concluding that they did not pose a significant security threat.

For a variety of reasons, however, the five “forever prisoners” have been unable to persuade the boards to approve their release, generally through a failure to engage with the review process, and/or because of ongoing concerns about the threat they purportedly still pose.

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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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“Forever Prisoner” at Guantánamo: The Shameful Ongoing Imprisonment of Khaled Qassim

Guantánamo prisoner Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011. Please be aware that this photo doesn’t reflect what Khaled looks like now, as it was taken 14 or 15 years ago, when he was around 30 years old. According to his birthdate in the Pentagon’s records, he has just marked his 45th birthday, and in May will have been held at Guantánamo for 20 years without charge or trial.

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On the 20th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay — a disgraceful anniversary that should never have come to pass — President Biden sought to divert attention from his general inaction on Guantánamo in his first year in office by announcing that five men had been approved for release from the prison by Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process established under President Obama. 

What was less widely reported was that another prisoner, Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), held for nearly 20 years, had his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial approved by a Periodic Review Board, not because of any crime he has committed — the board members recognised his “low level of training and lack of leadership in al Qaida or the Taliban” — but because of his “inability to manage his emotions and actions”, his “high level of significant non-compliance in the last year”, and his “lack of plans for the future if released.”

The decision reveals a fundamental weakness in the PRB system, a purely administrative process, which is not legally binding, and has, essentially, replaced reviews of prisoners’ cases in the courts via habeas corpus petitions — a process that led to dozens of prisoners having their release ordered by the courts between 2008 and 2010, when cynical, politically motivated appeals court judges passed rulings that shut the process down.

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Video: The “Disrupt, Confront, and Close Guantánamo” 20th Anniversary Virtual Rally on Jan. 11, 2022

A screenshot of participants in “Disrupt, Confront, and Close Guantánamo,” a “Virtual Rally” for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay on January 11, 2022.

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In the second of a series of articles linking to and promoting the videos of events held to mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay on January 11, 2022, I’m posting below the video of “Disrupt, Confront, and Close Guantánamo,” a powerful “Virtual Rally” organized by a number of groups, including Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Witness Against Torture, which, for the second year running, because of Covid concerns, formally replaced the live rally outside the White House that has been taking place for many years, and which I took part in every year from 2011 to 2020 — although I do want to point out that, this year, local activists from the Washington, D.C. area held an actual physical vigil outside the White House, which you can watch here.

Here’s the video of the “Virtual Rally”:

The “Virtual Rally” was compered by Lu Aya of the Peace Poets, and the speakers began with Aliya Hussain, Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights, followed by Erika Guevara Rosas, the Americas Director at Amnesty International, and two remarkably eloquent young women, Jessica Murphy and Leila Murphy of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, whose father, Brian Joseph Murphy, was killed on 9/11.

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President Elect Biden, It’s Time to Close Guantánamo

Eight of the 40 remaining Guantánamo prisoners, who, along with other men still held, should be released by Joe Biden as soon as possible after he becomes president in January 2021. Top row, from L to R: Abdul Latif Nasser, Sufyian Barhoumi and Tawfiq al-Bihani, all approved for release by high-level government review processes under President Obama, and Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner. Bottom row, from L to R: Khaled Qassim, Asadullah Haroon Gul, Ahmed Rabbani and Omar al-Rammah. Paracha and the four others in the bottom row haven’t been approved for release, but they should be, as none of them pose a threat to the US.

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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.

Congratulations to President Elect Joe Biden and Vice President Elect Kamala Harris for persuading enough people to vote Democrat to end the dangerous presidency of Donald Trump.

Trump was a nightmare on so many fronts, and had been particularly dangerous on race, with his vile Muslim travel ban at the start of his presidency, nearly four long years ago, his prisons for children on the Mexican border, and, this last year, in his efforts to inflame a race war, after the murder of George Floyd by a policeman sparked huge protests across the country.

At Guantánamo, Trump’s racism manifested itself via indifference to the fate of the 40 Muslim men, mostly imprisoned without charge or trial and held for up to 15 years when he took office. To him they were terrorists, and he had no interest in knowing that very few of the men held at Guantánamo have ever been accused of involvement with terrorism, and that, of the 40 men still held, only nine of them have been charged with crimes, and five of them were unanimously approved for release by high-level government review processes under President Obama.

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Photos and Report: The Launch of “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison” at CUNY School of Law in New York

One of the extraordinary ships made out of recycled materials at Guantánamo by Moath al-Alwi, who is still held, as shown in the exhibition, “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison,” at CUNY School of Law in New York (Photo: Elena Olivo).

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Last week was the launch of “Guantánamo [Un]Censored: Art from Inside the Prison,” a powerful new art exhibition featuring work by eleven current and former Guantánamo prisoners at CUNY School of Law’s Sorensen Center for International Peace and Justice, in Long Island City in Queens, New York, which I wrote about in an article entitled, Humanizing the Silenced and Maligned: Guantánamo Prisoner Art at CUNY Law School in New York

This is only the second time that Guantánamo prisoners’ artwork has been displayed publicly, following a 2017 exhibition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, also in New York, which became something of a cause célèbre after the Pentagon complained about it. That institutional hissy fit secured considerable sympathy for the prisoners — and criticism for the DoD — but in the end the prisoners lost out, as the authorities at Guantánamo clamped down on their ability to produce artwork, and prohibited any artwork that was made — and which the prisoners had been giving to their lawyers, and, via their lawyers, to their families — from leaving the prison under any circumstances. 

Since the launch, a wealth of new information has come my way, via Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who represents around ten of the 40 men still held at Guantánamo, and who was one of the main organizers of the exhibition, which is running until mid-March, with further manifestations continuing, I hope, throughout the rest of the year.

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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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