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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Afghan Prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul Freed From Guantánamo, Where 36 Men Now Remain, 20 Approved For Release

Asadullah Haroon Gul (on the right), reunited with his father in Afghanistan on June 25, 2022 after being held in Guantánamo for 15 years without charge or trial.

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Good news from Guantánamo, where the prison’s population has dropped to 36 with the release of the Afghan prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul.

In a deal negotiated with the ruling Taliban government in Afghanistan, Gul was flown to Qatar, where he was welcomed by Taliban representatives who then arranged from him to be flown home to Afghanistan, to be reunited with his family, including his parents, his wife and his daughter, who he has not seen since she was a baby.

Gul’s release brings to an end a 15-year ordeal of imprisonment without charge or trial, which began when he arrived at Guantánamo in June 2007, at the age of 25 or 26, as one of the last detainees to arrive at the prison, having been seized in Afghanistan four months earlier.

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Sufyian Barhoumi Sent Home From Guantánamo to Algeria Nearly Five and a Half Years After Being Approved for Release; 19 Other Cleared Prisoners Remain

Sufyian Barhoumi, in a photo taken at Guantánamo in recent years by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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Great news from Guantánamo, as Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian who was approved for release in August 2016 by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established under President Obama, has finally been freed, sent back home to be reunited with his family

Barhoumi narrowly missed being released under Obama, was then stuck at Guantánamo for four years under Donald Trump — whose enthusiasm for Guantánamo was such that he released only one man during his four depressing years in office — and then had to wait another 14 months for President Biden to finally bring to an end his outrageous predicament — being approved for release but not actually being freed.

His release leaves just 37 men still held at Guantánamo, although it must be noted that over half of these men —19 in total — have also been approved for release: 14 since President Biden took office, one approved for release in October 2020, and three others who have been waiting for over 12 years, having been told that the US had no interest in continuing to hold them endlessly without charge or trial back in January 2010, when President Obama’s first review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, approved them for release. The other man awaiting release, as I wrote about two days ago, is Majid Khan, sentenced after a plea deal in the military commissions, whose sentence ended on March 1, but who is still held, despite the authorities having had ten years to arrange his release.

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Video: Mansoor Adayfi, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis and I Discuss Guantánamo’s 20th Anniversary and Its Chronic and Persistent Lawlessness at Revolution Books

A screenshot of “America’s Torture Chamber: 20 Years of Guantánamo … It Must Be Closed NOW!”, an event hosted by Revolution Books in Harlem, featuring Mansoor Adayfi, Andy Worthington and Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, and moderated by Raymond Lotta.

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On Sunday (January 30), I was delighted to take part in a powerful online discussion, hosted by Revolution Books in Harlem, about the prison at Guantánamo Bay, marking the 20th anniversary of its opening, on January 11, with former prisoner and author Mansoor Adayfi, in Serbia, and Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, an attorney who represents a number of the men still held.

Until Covid hit, I visited the US every January, to campaign for the closure of Guantánamo on and around the anniversary of its opening, and one of my regular events was a discussion at Revolution Books — in 2016, for example, discussing the successful campaign for the release of Shaker Aamer, in 2017, with the attorney Ramzi Kassem, in 2018, with Carl Dix, and in 2020, with Shelby.

Last year, as a resurgence of Covid shut down foreign travel, the event took place online, and I was again joined by Shelby, and so this year, as another Covid variant again shut down foreign travel, we again turned to Zoom to facilitate an online event. And while I miss my friends and colleagues in the US, and the thrill of a live event, Covid — and Zoom — have enabled us to hear directly from former prisoners, in a way that was not previously possible. This is particularly powerful when it comes to Guantánamo, as former prisoners are prevented from setting foot on US soil, and yet Zoom has now effortlessly dissolved that prohibition.

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Great News from Guantánamo As Three “Forever Prisoners,” Including 73-Year Old Saifullah Paracha, Are Approved for Release

Guantánamo prisoners Saifullah Paracha, Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani and Uthman Abd al-Rahim Uthman, whose long overdue release from the prison was approved by Periodic Review Boards on Monday, although it is not yet known when they will actually be released.

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In extremely encouraging news from Guantánamo, three men have been approved for release from the prison by Periodic Review Boards, the high-level government review process established under President Obama.

The three men are: 73-year old Pakistani citizen Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner; Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani, another Pakistani citizen who is 54 years old; and Uthman Abd al-Rahim Uthman, a 41-year old Yemeni. All have been held without charge or trial at Guantánamo for between 17 and 19 years.

Between November 2013 and January 2017, when President Obama left office, the Periodic Review Boards — consisting of representatives of 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 — reviewed the cases of 64 prisoners, to ascertain whether or not they should still be regarded as a threat to the US, and, in 38 cases, recommended the prisoners for release. All but two of these men were released before the end of Obama’s presidency.

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Video: Guantánamo Attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis and I Discuss the Prison’s Ongoing Horrors for Revolution Books Online

A screenshot from “America’s Torture Colony: 19 Years of Guantánamo … It Must Be Closed NOW!”, an online event hosted by Revolution Books, featuring Andy Worthington and Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, and host Raymond Lotta.

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Yesterday, I was delighted to take part in a two-hour online discussion about Guantánamo, with the attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, which was hosted by Revolution Books in New York, and live streamed on YouTube and Facebook.

Before the arrival of Covid, the Revolution Books event was one of the regular highlights of my annual visits to the US (every January from 2011 to 2020), to mark the anniversary of the prison’s opening on January 11, 2002 — and last year, Shelby joined me for the first time, in what was a highly-charged event, as we had just spent the day deep in discussion about Guantánamo, at an exhibition of art by the prisoners, at CUNY Law School in Queens, which Shelby had played a major part in organizing.

This year, of course, all live events on and around the anniversary were called off, and I wasn’t able to visit the US at all, but the Zoom event that replaced the in-store presentation was still a very powerful and emotional event, and while nothing quite compares to being in a room with an audience and interacting with them (and even going out for dinner in Harlem afterwards!), Zoom allows people to join an event from all round the world, and, as yesterday demonstrated, doesn’t necessarily hamper the ability to get a message across.

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“A Big Black Stain That Provides No Benefit Whatsoever”: Lawyers Urge Joe Biden to Close Guantánamo

An unidentified prisoner in the recreation yard of Camp 6 at Guantánamo Bay, probably photographed in 2015 (Photo: AFP).

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One month since the Presidential Election, and with less than seven weeks until Joe Biden is inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States, it’s reassuring that the need for the prison at Guantánamo Bay to be closed is being discussed in the US media. 40 men are still held at Guantánamo — five approved for release by high-level government review process under President Obama; nine facing or having faced trials in the military commissions; and 26 others officially held indefinitely without charge or trial.

For the Associated Press — in a story entitled, “Biden’s win means some Guantánamo prisoners may be released,” which was widely picked up on and reported across the US and around the world — longtime Guantánamo watcher Ben Fox began by speaking to attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who was at  Guantánamo for her client Saifullah Paracha’s latest Periodic Review Board hearing.

Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner, Paracha, 73, whose case I have covered extensively, has diabetes and a heart condition, and is one of the 26 “forever prisoners,” held on an ongoing basis without charge or trial because the US authorities allege that they pose some kind of “threat” to national security. However, as Ben Fox explained, he “went to his latest review board hearing with a degree of hope, something that has been scarce during his 16 years locked up without charges at the US base in Cuba,” because, as he added, he “had two things going for him that he didn’t have at previous hearings: a favorable legal development and the election of Joe Biden.”

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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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Guantánamo Voices: An Amazing Comic Book Version of the Guantánamo Story

The front cover of “Guantánamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison,” and a page from the chapter based on an interview with attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, featuring the campaign to secure the release of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, drawn by Kasia Babis, a Polish cartoonist and political activist.

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. 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.

I have nothing but praise for “Guantánamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison,” a brand-new book, just published by Abrams, which was written by Portland-based multi-media journalist Sarah Mirk, and illustrated by a number of talented graphic artists.

I should say upfront that I was the fact checker for the book, having been in contact with Sarah for many years. In 2018, I appeared, in comic book form, illustrated by the Australian artist Jess Parker, in Guantánamo Bay is Still Open. Still. STILL!, a story in the comics anthology magazine The Nib, for which Sarah is an editor, based on an interview she had conducted with me in October 2017.

Previously, I had met Sarah in London in January 2009, when she came to the UK with former Guantánamo guard Chris Arendt for an extraordinary tour of the UK, also featuring former prisoner and British citizen Moazzam Begg (released in 2005) and other ex-prisoners, called “Two Sides, One Story,” which was organized by the advocacy group Cageprisoners (now CAGE).

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“I Can’t Breathe”: Afghan Prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul on Black Lives Matter and Violent Oppression in Guantánamo

Asadullah Haroon Gul, as featured in a photo taken in Guantánamo by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and made available to his family.

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. If you can help, please click on the button below to donate via PayPal.





 

Over the last few months I’ve cross-posted, on two occasions, articles by Asadullah Haroon Gul, an Afghan prisoner in Guantánamo who is seeking the support of his government in securing his release — A Coronavirus Lament by Guantánamo Prisoner Asadullah Haroon Gul and Asadullah Haroon Gul, a “No-Value Detainee,” and One of the Last Two Afghans in Guantánamo, Asks to Be Freed — and below I’m cross-posting a third, written in response to the reawakening of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and originally published in Newsweek. In it, Gul takes George Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” and draws parallels with the brutal treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo, himself included, expressing support for Black Lives Matter and hoping that, like the civil rights movement, it will bring significant change.

As he states, “America’s business is not my business but if human beings anywhere are struggling for justice, I must support them even from my cell in Guantánamo Bay. Perhaps my brothers and sisters marching in the streets will turn their eyes on this island prison, and witness our common cause.”

One of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo, in June 2007, Gul was apparently seized because of his alleged involvement 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. 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.

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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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