As Guantánamo Turns 20, It Is Imperative That President Biden Finds the Political Will to Close It

Advocates for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, including Roger Waters, call on President Biden to close it on the 20th anniversary of its opening, Jan. 11, 2022. Check out all the photos here.

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It is, to be blunt, beyond dispiriting to have to be calling for the closure of the tired and discredited “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay 20 years — 7,306 days — since it first opened.

The prison, as I have long explained, is a legal, moral and ethical abomination, and every day that it remains open ought to be a source of shame to anyone with any respect for the law — or, for that matter, with any common decency.

In countries that respect the rule of law, the only way to be stripped of your liberty is as a criminal suspect or as a prisoner of war protected by the Geneva Conventions. At Guantánamo, the Bush administration threw away the rulebook, holding men without any rights whatsoever as “enemy combatants”, who could be held indefinitely, with no requirement that they ever face charges, and with no legal mechanism in place to ever ensure their release. And despite legal challenges over the last 20 years, that is still fundamentally the situation that prevails today.

Statistics alone can’t capture the misery and lawless brutality of Guantánamo on this grim anniversary. 779 men have been held at Guantánamo by the US military since the prison opened on January 11, 2002. Nine men have died at the prison, all held without charge or trial, and all slandered by military after their deaths, just one man was successfully transferred to the US court system, where he was tried and convicted and is serving a life sentence in a Supermax prison, and 730 men have been released.

Even when they are released from Guantánamo, however, these former prisoners are not free. Many have been accused of being “recidivists” — of returning to the battlefield — in US government reports that are fundamentally unbelievable, and those freed also remain haunted by the “taint” of Guantánamo — still existing fundamentally without rights, prevented from traveling, harassed indiscriminately and sometimes even imprisoned, and generally finding it impossible to find work to support themselves. Of particular concern are many of those who, for a variety of reasons, could not be safely repatriated, and who have ended up in third countries, based on confidential agreements between the US and their host countries that are not publicly disclosed, and that have often failed to provide them with any basic protections or support.

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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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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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Former Military Commissions Prosecutor Calls for the Closure of Guantánamo

Former Guantánamo military commissions prosecutor Omar Ashmawy, and a court sketch of Salim Hamdan, at his trial in 2008, one of only two military commission cases that have proceeded to full trials since Guantánamo was first established 19 and a half years ago.

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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.

Since Joe Biden was inaugurated as president in January, there has been a considerable outpouring of high-level demands for the closure of the shameful and disgraceful prison at Guantánamo Bay, which marked the 19th anniversary of its opening just before Biden’s inauguration, as the fatigue of the Trump years, when the White House was occupied by a president with no interest in addressing the horrors of Guantánamo, came to an end.

In January, seven former prisoners (all authors) had a letter published in the New York Review of Books calling for the prison’s closure, followed in February by a letter from 111 human rights organizations, including Close Guantánamo. Most significantly, in April, 24 Democratic Senators, including Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein, followed up with their own demand for the prison’s closure, including detailed explanations of how that is possible.

There have also been op-eds by former Bill Clinton advisor Anthony Lake and Close Guantánamo co-founder Tom Wilner, by Lee Wolosky, the former Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, by retired Rear Admirals Donald J. Guter and John Hutson, by former CIA analyst Gail Helt, by Valerie Lucznikowska of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and by the attorney Benjamin R. Farley, who represents one of the men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, as part of the DoD’s Military Commissions Defense Organization.

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Biden’s Slow Progress on Closing Guantánamo

A composite image of President Biden and a tattered US flag at Guantánamo.

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An article last week by NBC News — “Biden quietly moves to start closing Guantánamo ahead of 20th anniversary of 9/11” — was widely shared by opponents of the continued existence of the shameful prison at Guantánamo Bay, but frustratingly failed to live up to the promise of its headline.

40 men are still held at Guantánamo, and nine of these men have been approved for release by high-level US government review processes — three in 2010, two in 2016, one in 2020, and three just last month, in decisions taken by the Periodic Review Boards set up under President Obama that show a willingness on the part of the Biden administration to recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that continues to hold, indefinitely, men who have been held for up to 19 years, and have never been charged with a crime.

The PRBs reviewed the cases of 64 men under Obama, and approved 38 of them for release, but since then the process of reviewing the other 26 men has largely ossified into rigid threat assessments based on the initial decisions taken under Obama. That has finally changed with the recent decisions to approve three men for release, and it is to be hoped that further recommendations for release will be forthcoming in the PRBs, although none of this will mean anything if these men are not actually freed.

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Seven Authors, All Former Guantánamo Prisoners, Urge President Biden to Close the Prison Before its 20th Anniversary

The books of the seven authors and former Guantánamo prisoners who have just written an open letter to President Biden, urging him to close the prison, which was published in the New York Review of Books.

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As the Biden administration settles in, and we await news of its plans for Guantánamo — after defense secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin told the Senate during his confirmation hearing, “I believe it is time for the detention facility at Guantánamo to close its doors” — it’s good to see the need for Guantánamo to be closed being discussed in the New York Review of Books by seven former prisoners who have all written books about their experiences.

The seven authors are Mansoor Adayfi, whose memoir Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo is being published this August, Moazzam Begg (Enemy Combatant, 2006), Lakhdar Boumediene (Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantanamo, 2017), Sami Al Hajj (Prisoner 345: My Six Years in Guantánamo, 2018), Ahmed Errachidi (The General: The Ordinary Man Who Challenged Guantánamo, 2013), Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Guantánamo Diary, 2015) and Moussa Zemmouri (Onschuldig in Guantánamo, 2010).

I’ve read all of the above — with the exceptions of Moussa Zemmouri’s book, which hasn’t been translated into English, and Mansoor Adayfi’s, which hasn’t been published yet  — and what I know from all of them is how eloquent the authors are, and how keenly they experienced and articulated the injustices of 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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