Guantánamo and the U.S. Courts: When Is A War Not Over? Apparently, When It’s the “War on Terror”

Guantánamo prisoner Khalid Qassim, and Senior Judge Thomas Hogan, of the District Court in Washington, D.C., who is responsible for delivering a ruling in a case brought by Qassim, whose lawyers are seeking to have Judge Hogan order his release, on the basis that he was nothing more than a foot soldier in Afghanistan at the time of his capture over 21 years ago, and that, as such, the U.S. government can no longer claim any right to hold him, after the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021.

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It’s a sign of the fundamental lawlessness of Guantánamo that, 19 months since the United States decisively brought to an end its nearly 20-year military presence in Afghanistan by withdrawing all its troops, a Guantánamo prisoner — who is not alleged to have been anything more than a foot soldier for the Taliban at the time of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan — is fighting in a U.S. court to try to get a judge to recognize that, given the definitive end to the U.S.’s involvement in hostilities in Afghanistan, he must be freed.

The prisoner in question is Khalid Qassim (aka Qasim), a Yemeni who has been held for nearly 21 years without charge or trial at Guantánamo, and is still held, even though, last July, a Periodic Review Board (a parole-type review process introduced by President Obama) approved him for release, recognizing his “low level of training and lack of a leadership role in al Qaida or the Taliban.”

This was an important decision, which finally brought to an end the U.S. government’s insistence that it could continue to hold him not because of anything he was alleged to have done prior to his capture, but because of concerns regarding his lack of compliance during his imprisonment at Guantánamo.

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Torture Victim Mohammed Al-Qahtani Finally Released from Guantánamo, Sent to Mental Health Facility in Saudi Arabia; But 19 Other Cleared Prisoners Remain

Mohammed al-Qahtani, photographed before his capture (on the left), in a photo provided by one of his lawyers, Ramzi Kassem, and, on the right, photographed at Guantánamo.

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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 Monday (March 7), Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi prisoner at Guantánamo, who was shamefully tortured at the prison in 2002-03, despite suffering from schizophrenia, related to a car accident as a child, was released from Guantánamo, and sent back to Saudi Arabia to receive appropriate mental health care in a rehabilitation facility. His release brings to 38 the number of men still held at the prison.

Al-Qahtani had been tortured, over many months in Guantánamo’s first year of operations, because it had emerged that he had tried to get into the US in August 2001 to be the 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, but had been turned away by the authorities, presumably because he was incapable of disguising his already existing mental health problems. He then made his way to Afghanistan, where he was seized and sent to Guantánamo.

At Guantánamo, US personnel had been persistently unable to cope with his profound mental health problems, exacerbated by his torture, and yet it had taken until March 2020 for anyone in a position of authority to recognize that a valid case could be made that he should be sent back to Saudi Arabia because the authorities at Guantánamo were unable to adequately deal with his illness.

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Over Half Of Guantánamo’s Prisoners Have Now Been Approved for Release, As Periodic Review Board Approves Release of Ghassan Al-Sharbi

Dawn at Guantánamo in 2013 (no photo exists of Ghassan al-Sharbi).

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In more good news from Guantánamo, Ghassan al-Sharbi, a 47-year old Saudi who has been held at the prison for nearly 20 years, has been approved for release by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established by President Obama. His approval for release means that the US government has now accepted that over half of the men held — 20 of the 39 men still imprisoned — should be freed, with 15 of those decisions taking place since President Biden took office just over a year ago.

It has been a long journey to reach the point where a panel of US officials — from the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — has approved al-Sharbi for release.

Al-Sharbi was captured on March 28, 2002, with several other men who ended up at Guantánamo (most of whom have already been released), in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan that also secured the capture of Abu Zubaydah, for whom the US torture program was subsequently developed.

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Mentally Ill Torture Victim Mohammed Al-Qahtani Approved for Release from Guantánamo

Mohammed al-Qahtani, photographed before his capture, in 2001, and subsequently photographed at Guantánamo.

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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 February 4, another Guantánamo prisoner was approved for release from the prison by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established by President Obama, which led to the release of 36 men in his second term in office. Of the 39 men still held, 19 — very nearly half of those still imprisoned — have now been approved for release, with 14 of those decisions taking place since President Biden took office just over a year ago.

There was surprise in some quarters, because the prisoner in question, Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi, was, in Guantánamo’s early days, considered the 20th intended hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, and was subjected to a specific torture program, approved by then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which, as the New York Times reported after the PRB decision was announced, involved him “undergo[ing] two months of continuous, brutal interrogation by the US military inside a wooden hut at Camp X-Ray in late 2002 and early 2003.”

The details of his torture shocked the world when a day-by-day interrogation log was leaked to Time magazine in 2006. As the Times described it, the log revealed how “military interrogators placed Mr. Qahtani in solitary confinement, stripped him naked, forcibly shaved him, and subjected him to prolonged sleep deprivation, dehydration, exposure to cold, and various psychological and sexual humiliations like making him bark like a dog, dance with a man and wear women’s underwear on his head.” As the Times added, “They extracted a confession, which he later recanted,” which included allegations that he had made against 30 other prisoners, falsely claiming that they were bodyguards of Osama bin Laden.

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The Bleak Legacy of Donald Rumsfeld: Guantánamo, Torture and Two Failed and Astonishingly Destructive Wars

Former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has died at the age of 88, and a grimly iconic photo of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

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If there was any justice in this world, Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defense secretary from 2001 to 2006 under George W. Bush, who has died at the age of 88, would have been held accountable for his crimes against humanity at Guantánamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq; instead, he apparently passed away peacefully surrounded by his family in Taos, New Mexico.

In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Rumsfeld directed the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, when the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners in wartime were shamefully jettisoned, and he was also responsible for the establishment of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, which opened on January 11, 2002.

At Kandahar and Bagram — and at numerous other prisons across Afghanistan — all those who came into US custody were regarded as “enemy combatants,” who could be held without any rights whatsoever. The torture and abuse of prisoners was widespread, and numerous prisoners were killed in US custody, as I reported in When Torture Kills: Ten Murders In US Prisons In Afghanistan, an article I published 12 years ago today.

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Fighting Guantánamo in the Courts Under President Biden

Three of the Guantánamo prisoners who are currently seeking their release from the prison through the US courts. From L to R: Khalid Qassim and Abdulsalam al-Hela, both Yemenis, and Asadullah Haroon Gul, an Afghan.

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I wrote the following article (as “The Ongoing Legal Struggles to Secure Justice for the Guantánamo Prisoners Under President Biden”) 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.

In the nineteen unforgivably long years since the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay was first established, lawyers have worked tirelessly to challenge and overturn the Bush administration’s outrageous contention that everyone who ended up at Guantánamo was an “enemy combatant” with no rights whatsoever, who could be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

There have been victories along the way, but the sad truth is that Guantánamo’s fundamental lawlessness remains intact to this day. Since 2010, only one prisoner has been freed because of the actions of lawyers and the US courts (a Sudanese man whose mental health issues persuaded the Justice Department, in this one instance only, not to challenge his habeas corpus petition), and, as the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency showed, if the president doesn’t want anyone released from Guantánamo, no legal avenue exists to compel him to do otherwise.

The lawyers’ great legal victories for the Guantánamo prisoners came in the Supreme Court in what now seems to be the distant, long-lost past. In June 2004, in Rasul v. Bush, the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right to have the evidence against them objectively assessed by a judge. That ruling allowed lawyers into the prison to begin to represent the men held, breaking the veil of secrecy that had allowed abusive conditions to thrive, but Congress then intervened to block the habeas legislation, and it was not until June 2008 that the Supreme Court, revisiting Guantánamo, ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that Congress had acted unconstitutionally, and affirmed that the prisoners had constitutionally guaranteed habeas rights.

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Mohammed Al-Qahtani: Will Severe Mental Illness Secure His Release from Guantánamo?

Guantánamo prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani, who is seeking release from the prison because of severe mental health issues that cannot be adequately addressed by Guantánamo staff. The text accompanying the photo describes his current mental state.

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For anyone seeking a single story that is emblematic of the horrors of Guantánamo, the story of Mohammed al-Qahtani ought to be instructive.

One of hundreds of prisoners seized in the chaos of Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in October 2001 and sent to Guantánamo after brutal treatment in US prisons in Afghanistan, al-Qahtani finally came to the attention of the US authorities in Guantánamo when it was assessed that he was the same man who had tried and failed to enter the US before the 9/11 attacks, and was presumed to have been intended to be the 20th hijacker.

He was then subjected to a horrible torture program, personally approved by then-defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which lasted for several months in late 2002, and which, as Murtaza Hussain explained for the Intercept in April 2018, involved him being subjected to “solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, extreme temperature and noise exposure, stress positions, forced nudity, body cavity searches, sexual assault and humiliation, beatings, strangling, threats of rendition, and water-boarding.” On two occasions he was hospitalized with a dangerously low heart rate.

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Judge Upholds Ruling Ordering Independent Medical Review for Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner Mohammed Al-Qahtani

A composite image of Guantánamo prisoner and torture victim Mohammed al-Qahtani and District Judge Ellen Huvelle.

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Back in March, as I explained in an article at the time, District Judge Rosemary Collyer made history when she ordered the US government to allow independent medical and psychiatric experts from outside the US to assess a prisoner at Guantánamo.

The prisoner in question is Saudi national Mohammed al-Qahtani, who had pre-existing serious mental health issues that the US authorities failed to disclose when, at Guantánamo, they came to regard him as the intended 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, and subjected him to a torture program involving months of sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation.

Judge Collyer’s ruling involved her, as Carol Rosenberg explained for the New York Times, stating that “she was granting a request” by al-Qahtani’s lawyers “to compel the United States to apply an Army regulation designed to protect prisoners of war and to create ‘a mixed medical commission’ made up of a medical officer from the US Army and two doctors from a neutral country chosen by the International Committee of the Red Cross and approved by the United States and Saudi Arabia.”

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“The Use of Power and Ideology in Guantánamo”: New Academic Paper Focuses On My Book “The Guantánamo Files”

The cover of Andy Worthington’s 2007 book “The Guantánamo Files.”

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Imagine my surprise last week when a post popped up on Facebook, which I was tagged in, that read, “The Use of Power and Ideology in Guantánamo: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Andy Worthington’s The Guantánamo Files.”

Clicking through, I found that it was an entire academic article focusing on my 2007 book The Guantánamo Files, published in the latest issue (June 2020) of the European Journal of English Language and Literature Studies, a publication by EA Journals (European-American Journals), part of the UK-based European Centre for Research Training and Development, which is “an independent organisation run by scholars mainly in the UK, USA, and Canada.”

Written and supported by students and supervisors at GC University, in Faisalabad, Pakistan, the abstract explains that “[t]he research deals with the use of power and ideology in Andy Worthington’s The Guantánamo Files (2007) as the narratives (generally called Gitmo narratives) of the detainees show the betrayal of American ideals, [the] US constitution and international laws about human rights. Since its inception, Guantánamo Bay Camp is an icon of American military power, hegemony and legal exceptionalism in the ‘Global War on Terror.’”

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US Judge Orders Independent Psychiatric Assessment of Tortured Guantánamo Prisoner Mohammed Al-Qahtani

Tortured Guantánamo prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani, and US District Judge Rosemary Collyer, who has ordered the US government to allow independent psychiatrists to visit him at Guantánamo, to assess whether his long-standing mental health problems are so severe that he should be sent back to Saudi Arabia.

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In a breakthrough legal ruling, a US judge has ordered the government to allow a psychiatric assessment of a Guantánamo prisoner, involving not only US doctors, who have been allowed into the prison before, to make assessments of certain prisoners’ mental and  physical health, but also, for the first time, foreign doctors, the intention being, as Carol Rosenberg of the New York Times explained, “to determine whether he should be released from the prison” and “sent home for psychiatric care.”

The prisoner in question, Mohammed al-Qahtani, is well-known to seasoned Guantánamo watchers, as he is one of only two prisoners at Guantánamo to have been subjected to torture programs specifically approved for them (the other one being Mohamedou Ould Slahi). Al-Qahtani was regarded as the intended 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, and was subjected to what Carol Rosenberg described, accurately, as “two months of continuous, brutal interrogation”, by US soldiers, at the end of 2002 and the start of 2003. The torture took place in a wooden hut at Guantánamo’s Camp X-Ray, after that facility — the prison’s first camp — had closed, and TIME magazine published the harrowing log of those torture sessions in 2006, which are available here.

What was not publicly known until long after al-Qahtani’s torture was that, as Carol Rosenberg put it, he “had a history of profound mental illness and psychiatric hospitalization in Saudi Arabia before he left in 2000 or 2001,” although this has been consistently ignored by the US authorities.

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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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