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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The Taliban’s Victory in Afghanistan Mustn’t Prevent the Closure of Guantánamo

Asadullah Haroon Gul and Muhammad Rahim, the last two Afghans in Guantánamo. Following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, in which it has been revealed that two former Guantánamo prisoners hold leadership positions in the Taliban, some right-wing commentators are insinuating that Guantánamo should remain open. However, neither Gul nor Rahim, nor any of the other 37 men still held, were members of the Taliban, and, as “forever prisoners,” held without charge or trial, the two Afghans are amongst 17 of the remaining 39 prisoners who, it is now widely recognized in US circles, must be released if they are not to be charged with crimes.

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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.

As the final US troops left Afghanistan two weeks ago, and the Taliban rolled into Kabul, taking the Presidential Palace on August 15 after President Ashraf Ghani fled, the presence of one particular Taliban member — Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir — caught the attention of the western media, when he declared that he had been held at Guantánamo for eight years.

Guantánamo: the mere mention of the word, from the mouth of a conquering Talib, standing in the very place so recently occupied by the US-backed president, reinvigorated the right-wingers in Congress, and in the US media, who had been worried that President Biden might finally close their beloved gulag once and for all.

Once upon a time, the merest mention of Guantánamo had summoned up images of bloodthirsty Al-Qaeda terrorists, hell-bent on the destruction of America, that had helped to keep ordinary Americans docile, and in a state of fear. However, over the years, as the horrors of Guantánamo leaked out to the world, revealing the use of torture and other forms of abuse on prisoners who, for the most part, were not involved in any kind of terrorism at all, defending its existence became more difficult. By his second term, even George W. Bush was aware that it was an embarrassment, and left office having released 532 of the 779 men he had imprisoned there.

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75 House Representatives Urge President Biden to Close the Prison at Guantánamo Bay

Campaigners calling for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay stand in front of the U.S. Congress on January 11, 2020, the 19th anniversary of the prison’s opening (Photo: Alli Jarrar).

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Ever since the inauguration of Joe Biden as President, nearly seven months ago, an impressive and unprecedented number of organizations and significant individuals have been queuing up to urge him to finally close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, that wretched symbol of executive overreach created as part of the misguided “war on terror” that the Bush administration launched in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

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 the Close Guantánamo campaign, which I co-founded in January 2012 with the U.S. attorney Tom Wilner.

There have also been op-eds by former Bill Clinton advisor Anthony Lake and Tom Wilner, by Lee Wolosky, the former Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure in the State Department, 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, 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, and by Omar Ashmawy, a former prosecutor in the military commissions.

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Biden Frees First Prisoner from Guantánamo: Abdul Latif Nasser, Approved for Release Five Years Ago

Abdul Latif Nasser, in a photo taken at Guantánamo in recent years.

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In great news from Guantánamo, the Department of Defense announced today that Abdul Latif Nasser (aka Nasir), the last Moroccan national in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, has been repatriated. I’ve been writing about Nasser’s case since I first began researching and writing about Guantánamo over 15 years ago, and in recent years his story has frequently featured in the media, not least via a six-part Radiolab series last year.

Nasser, 56, was approved for release five years and eight days ago, after a Periodic Review Board, a review process set up under President Obama, established that, to use the PRB’s own studiously careful terminology, “law of war detention of Abdul Latif Nasir no longer remained necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the national security of the United States.” As a result, as the DoD’s news release explained, the board — which “consists of one senior career official from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State, along with the Joint Staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence” — authorized his “repatriation to his native country of Morocco, subject to security and humane treatment assurances.”

Nasser’s release from Guantánamo should have been straightforward, but the paperwork between the US and the Moroccan government wasn’t completed until 22 days before Obama left office, and, because legislation passed by Congress stipulated that lawmakers had to be informed 30 days before a prisoner release, he missed being freed by just eight days.

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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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UN Experts Condemn UAE Plans to Forcibly Repatriate Former Guantánamo Prisoner Ravil Mingazov to Russia, Where He Faces “Substantial Risk of Torture”

Ravil Mingazov, photographed at Guantánamo before his transfer to the UAE in January 2017.

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Yesterday (July 2), UN human rights experts, including Nils Melzer, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, condemned the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for its proposals to repatriate Ravil Mingazov, a former Guantánamo prisoner who was sent to the UAE from Guantánamo in January 2017, just before President Obama left office.

Despite what the experts describe as “informal assurances guaranteeing his release into Emirati society after undergoing a short-term rehabilitation programme,” Mingazov — and 22 other former prisoners (18 Yemenis and four Afghans), who were sent to the UAE from Guantánamo between November 2015 and January 2017 — found that, on their arrival in the UAE, the assurances evaporated, and they have instead been “subjected to continuous arbitrary detention at an undisclosed location in the UAE, which amounts to enforced disappearance.”

The only exceptions to this continued pattern of “arbitrary detention” and “enforced disappearance” are three of the Afghans, who, after suffering the same disgraceful treatment, were repatriated as a result of peace negotiations in Afghanistan involving the Afghan government and Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), a militant group that had supported al-Qaeda at the time of the US-led invasion of 2001, but that reached a peace deal with the Afghan government in 2016.

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Who Are the Two “Forever Prisoners” Approved for Release from Guantánamo by Periodic Review Boards?

Guantánamo protests over the years: on the left, Abdulsalam al-Hela’s children call for his release from Guantánamo in Yemen in 2005, and, on the right, Sharqawi al-Hajj’s attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei, calls for his release outside the White House on January 11, 2018.

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In extraordinary news from Guantánamo, two more “forever prisoners” — the Yemeni tribal leader Abdulsalam al-Hela, 53, and Sharqawi al-Hajj, 47, another Yemeni, and a long-term hunger striker — have been approved for release by Periodic Review Boards, the parole-type system established under President Obama, to add to the three approved for release in May.

Eleven of the 40 men still held have now been approved for release — the five under Biden, one under Trump, the only two of the 38 men approved for release by the PRBs under Obama who didn’t manage to escape the prison before he left office, and three other men, still languishing in Guantánamo despite being approved for release by Obama’s first review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, in 2010.

No one who cares about the need for Guantánamo to be closed should be in any doubt about the significance of these decisions.

Both men arrived at Guantánamo from CIA “black sites” in September 2004, and were both regarded as being of significance when the Guantánamo Review Task Force published its report about what President Obama should do with the 240 prisoners he inherited from George W. Bush in January 2010. At that time, as was finally revealed when the Task Force’s “Dispositions” were released in June 2013, Sharqawi al-Hajj was one of 36 men “[r]eferred for prosecution,” while al-Hela was one of 48 others recommended for “[c]ontinued detention pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001), as informed by principles of the laws of war, subject to further review by the Principals prior to the detainee’s transfer to a detention facility in the United States.”

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Retired Admirals Urge Biden to Release Everyone at Guantánamo Not Charged With a Crime — 28 of the 40 Men Still Held

Retired Rear Admirals Donald J. Guter and John Hutson, who recently wrote an op-ed for the Nation calling on President Biden to release all the men at Guantánamo who have not been charged with a crime — 28 men out of the 40 still held.

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. 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.

Since Joe Biden became president five months ago, there have been numerous high-profile calls for him to fulfill a promise that President Obama failed to fulfill (when Biden was vice president) and that Donald Trump had no interest in whatsoever; namely, closing the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay.

A week after President Biden’s inauguration, 111 organizations, including Close Guantánamo, sent a letter to the new president urging him to close the prison, around the same time that seven former prisoners — all authors —  wrote an open letter to Biden, urging the prison’s closure, which was published in the New York Review of Books. Other calls for the prison have come from Bill Clinton advisor Anthony Lake and our co-founder, the attorney Tom Wilner, from Lee Wolosky, former Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure under Barack Obama, and from former CIA analyst Gail Helt.

The most seismic shift, politically, came in April when 24 Senators wrote a letter to the president, not only urging him to close the prison, but also providing details of how that can be achieved — through the appointment of a senior White House official to oversee the closure process, and also though the re-establishment of the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure at the State Department, established by Obama but shut down under Trump, which was responsible for “identifying transfer countries and negotiating transfer agreements.”

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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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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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