Close Guantánamo: A Reminder of Why We Demand the Prison’s Closure, and a Call for Support for Shaker Aamer

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January with 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.

Ten years and seven months after the Bush administration’s “war on terror” prison opened at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, it is less clear than it was under George W. Bush that the prison is a moral, legal and ethical abomination, a place where men bought for bounty payments are held, and men picked up on the basis of deeply flawed intelligence, and others labeled as terrorists when they were nothing more than soldiers fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in an inter-Muslim civil war that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks or any other acts of international terrorism.

It is worth remembering that, of the 168 men still held, only around three dozen were allegedly involved in terrorism — and even those claims require scrutiny, as they include Omar Khadr, the Canadian former child prisoner obliged to admit that he committed war crimes by engaging in military conflict with US forces, which, to right-minded people, is a permanent mark of shame against Barack Obama. They also include the kind of low-level prisoners already freed after trials — the Australian David Hicks; Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden; and Ibrahim al-Qosi, a cook in an al-Qaeda compound, and also an occasional driver for bin Laden. Only a handful of the men still held are actually regarded as dangerous international terrorists.

Under President Bush, when international criticism began to sting — primarily during his second term in office — 532 prisoners were released. It was clear that the process was political, and the subtext, though never admitted publicly, was also clear — that Guantánamo was a huge, embarrassing mistake. Read the rest of this entry »

Bagram: Still a Black Hole for Foreign Prisoners

Back in March 2009, three foreign prisoners seized in other countries and rendered to the main US prison in Afghanistan, at Bagram airbase, where they had been held for up to seven years, secured a legal victory in the District Court in Washington D.C., when Judge John D. Bates ruled that they had habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right to challenge the basis of their imprisonment under the “Great Writ” that prevents arbitrary detention.

The men — amongst dozens of foreigners held in Afghanistan — secured their legal victory because Judge Bates recognized that their circumstances were essentially the same as the prisoners at Guantánamo, who had been granted habeas corpus rights by the Supreme Court in June 2008.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration appealed Judge Bates’ careful and logical ruling, and the judges of the D.C. Circuit Court agreed, overturning the ruling in May 2010, and returning the three men to their legal black hole.

In April 2011, the Associated Press reported that the three men — Redha al-Najar, a Tunisian seized in Karachi, Pakistan in May 2002; Amin al-Bakri, a Yemeni gemstone dealer seized in Bangkok, Thailand in late 2002; and Fadi al-Maqaleh, a Yemeni seized in 2004 and sent to Abu Ghraib before Bagram — had all been cleared for release by review boards at Bagram, or, as it is now known, the Parwan Detention Facility. Read the rest of this entry »

10 Years in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer, Cleared for Release But Still Held

Originally posted on the “Close Guantánamo” website, and written by Andy Worthington.

Ten years ago, on February 14, 2002, Shaker Aamer, a British resident, and originally one of 16 British prisoners in Guantánamo, arrived in Camp X-Ray, the rudimentary prison in the grounds of the US naval base in Cuba’s easternmost bay, which was used to hold prisoners until the first blocks of a more permanent facility, Camp Delta, opened for business in May 2002. On the same day, his fourth child, a son, was born.

A hugely charismatic figure, Aamer, born in Saudi Arabia in 1968, had moved to London in 1996, and had worked as an Arabic translator for a firm of solicitors working on immigration cases. He met and married a British woman and was granted residency. In June 2001, he took his family to Kabul — as did his friend Moazzam Begg — to volunteer for an Islamic charity. As his British solicitor Gareth Peirce noted in the Guardian on Tuesday, “Their work was teaching the sons and daughters of Arabic-speaking expatriates in the capital,” but after 9/11 and the US-led invasion, “the school was flattened in the first days of the bombing.”

Shaker made sure his pregnant wife and their three young children were safe, but was seized by Afghan bounty hunters, at a time when bounty payments of $5,000 a head were widespread. He was then sold on to other bounty hunters on two occasions, and on the third occasion was bought by Northern Alliance soldiers, who eventually handed him over — or sold him — to US forces. Read the rest of this entry »

The Guantánamo Files: An Archive of Articles — Part Ten, July to September 2011

The Guantanamo Files

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For nearly six years, I have been researching and writing about Guantánamo and the 779 men (and boys) held there over the last ten years, first through my book The Guantánamo Files, and, since May 2007, as a full-time independent investigative journalist. For three years, I focused on the crimes of the Bush administration and, since January 2009, I have analysed the failures of the Obama administration to thoroughly repudiate those crimes and to hold anyone accountable for them, and, increasingly, on President Obama’s failure to charge or release prisoners, and to show any sign that Guantánamo will eventually be closed.

As the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo approaches, this is an intolerable situation, as the prison remains as much of an aberration, and a stain on America’s belief in itself as a nation ruled by laws, as it was when it was opened by George W. Bush on January 11, 2002. Closing the prison remains as important now as it did when I began this work in 2006.

Over the last six years of researching Guantánamo and writing about it on an almost daily basis, my intention has been to puncture the Bush administration’s propaganda about Guantánamo holding “the worst of the worst” by telling the prisoners’ stories and bringing them to life as human beings, rather than allowing them to remain as dehumanized scapegoats or bogeymen. Read the rest of this entry »

Libyan Rebel Leader, Rendered by UK to Torture by US in Thailand and Gaddafi in Libya, Sues British Government

This week, Abdel Hakim Belhadj (aka Belhaj), a Libyan military commander and rebel leader, who is the head of the Tripoli Military Council and the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, initiated legal proceedings against the British government and the security forces for their key role in his illegal abduction, rendition and barbaric treatment — and that of his pregnant wife Fatima Bouchar — in March 2004.

Mr. Belhadj, also identified as Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq, has instructed solicitors at Leigh Day & Co. to take legal action, and the legal action charity Reprieve are acting as US counsel and are also providing investigative support.

In 2004, when Mr. Belhadj’s ordeal at the hands of the British, the Americans and the Gaddafi regime began, he was living in Beijing, China, having previously led the resistance to the Gaddafi regime, and having, for a while, lived in Afghanistan. In early 2004, when Fatima Bouchar began to fear they were under surveillance, they decided to try to seek asylum in the UK. At the airport, however, they were detained and deported to Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, their previous destination before China.

Read the rest of this entry »

British Court Orders Release of Bagram Prisoner Rendered by UK from Iraq, Held for Seven Years

In an extraordinary ruling in the UK yesterday (PDF), the Court of Appeal ordered the British government to secure the release of a prisoner, Yunus Rahmatullah, who is 29 years old, and has been held in the US prison at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan since March 2004. Born in Pakistan but raised in the Gulf States, Yunus was seized by British forces nearly eight years ago, in February 2004, and was then “handed to the US and illegally rendered to Afghanistan,” as the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, whose lawyers represent him, along with lawyers from Leigh Day & Co., explained in a press release.

Despite being held for nearly eight years, Yunus, also known as “Saleh Huddin,” was held incommunicado, unable even to contact his family, for six years, and has only recently been allowed to establish telephone contact with his relatives. Reprieve noted its lawyers and investigators had been “told by multiple sources that, as a result of his abuse in UK and US custody, he is in catastrophic mental and physical shape, and now spends most of his time in the mental health cells at Bagram.”

As Reprieve explained, this “historic decision” also “marks the first time any civilian legal system has penetrated Bagram, a legal black hole where nearly three thousand prisoners — many rendered from all over the world — have been unlawfully held by the US military for up to a decade.” Unlike at Guantánamo, itself an opaque and unjust facility, but one where civilian lawyers have had access since the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights in June 2004, no civilian lawyer has ever been allowed into Bagram, which, as Reprieve described it, “is notorious for torture and homicides and has been called ‘Guantánamo’s Evil Twin.'” Read the rest of this entry »

Britain’s Secret Post-9/11 Torture Policy Revealed: Was Tony Blair’s Government Guilty of “Developing Something Close to a Criminal Policy”?

As the British government’s toothless torture inquiry is abandoned by ten NGOs and lawyers for the former Guantánamo prisoners, who have long recognized that it was nothing more than a whitewash, but have now given up on even trying to engage with it, politicians in the Tory-led coalition government are not the only ones feeling the heat. Yesterday, in a world exclusive, the Guardian‘s Ian Cobain exposed a top secret document, entitled, “Agency policy on liaison with overseas security and intelligence services in relation to detainees who may be subject to mistreatment,” which “reveal[ed] how MI6 and MI5 officers were allowed to extract information from prisoners being illegally tortured overseas.”

Describing the document as reportedly being “too sensitive to be publicly released at the government inquiry into the UK’s role in torture and rendition,” and as contributing to the decision by the NGOs and lawyers to boycott the inquiry because it does not have “credibility or transparency,” the Guardian explained how the secret policy “was operated by the British government for almost a decade,” and how it “instructed senior intelligence officers to weigh the importance of the information being sought must be balanced against ‘the level of mistreatment anticipated’ — the degree to which the prisoner or prisoners will suffer.”

The Guardian also explained how the document revealed the fears of the government and the intelligence agencies that they were breaking laws, as it “acknowledged that MI5 and MI6 officers could be in breach of both UK and international law by asking for information from prisoners held by overseas agencies known to use torture,” and also “explained the need to obtain political cover for any potentially criminal act by consulting ministers beforehand.” Read the rest of this entry »

Ten NGOs Withdraw from UK Torture Inquiry, Citing Lack of Credibility and Transparency

As I reported last month, ten NGOs, including Amnesty International, Liberty and Reprieve, announced their intention to boycott the government’s proposed inquiry into UK complicity in torture following the 9/11 attacks, on the first anniversary of Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement that an inquiry would take place. Although the inquiry was initially greeted with guarded optimism, it rapidly became apparent that it was intended to be a whitewash, as I reported here, here, here and here.

Yesterday, the groups confirmed their intention to boycott the inquiry, sending a letter to the inquiry, asserting that “they will not be participating” and “do not intend to submit any evidence or attend any further meetings with the Inquiry team.”

In the letter, the NGOs said that the inquiry’s protocol and terms of reference showed it would not have the “credibility or transparency” to establish “the truth about allegations that UK authorities were involved in the mistreatment of detainees held abroad.”

As the Guardian reported, “Key sessions will be held in secret and the cabinet secretary will have the final say over what information is made public. Those who alleged they were subject to torture and rendition will not be able to question MI5 or MI6 officers, and foreign intelligence agencies will not be questioned.” Specifically, “Former detainees and their lawyers will not be able to question intelligence officials and all evidence from current or former members of the security and intelligence agencies, below the level of head, will be heard in private.” Read the rest of this entry »

A Good Day for Justice: British Supreme Court Bans Use of Secret Evidence by Intelligence Services

In a triumph for the principles of open justice, and a snub to the Tory-led coalition government, the British Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Wednesday that the government and the intelligence agencies cannot use secret evidence in court to prevent open discussion of allegations that prisoners were subjected to torture.

The appeal, by lawyers for MI5 — but with the explicit backing of the government — sought to overturn a ruling in the Court of Appeal last May, when judges ruled that the intelligence services could not suppress allegations, in a civil claim for damages submitted by six former Guantanamo prisoners, that the British government and its agents had been complicit in their ill-treatment. The six are Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna, Richard Belmar, Omar Deghayes, Binyam Mohamed and Martin Mubanga, and they argued, as the Guardian put it, that “MI5 and MI6 aided and abetted their unlawful imprisonment and extraordinary rendition.”

The ruling last May precipitated a huge crisis in the government, as the first of hundreds of thousands of classified documents emerged from the court, revealing the extent to which Tony Blair and Jack Straw were up to their necks in wrongdoing, preventing consular access to a British citizen in Zambia, in Tony Blair’s case, and in Straw’s, approving the rendition of British citizens to Guantanamo the day before the prison opened in January 2002. I covered this story in detail in my article, UK Sought Rendition of British Nationals to Guantánamo; Tony Blair Directly Involved. Read the rest of this entry »

UK Torture Inquiry Boycotted by Lawyers, As David Cameron Fails Again to Demonstrate an Interest in Justice

Last Wednesday, just before David Cameron was engulfed in the News of the World phone hacking crisis, he had the opportunity to practice demonstrating the disregard for justice that he called on in response to the Murdoch scandal, when he attempted to distance himself from his friendship with two former News of the World editors, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, who, of course, served as his director of communications until January this year.

The practice run last Wednesday involved the torture inquiry that Cameron announced exactly a year before, on July 6, 2010, when he told the House of Commons that he had asked a judge, Sir Peter Gibson to “look at whether Britain was implicated in the improper treatment of detainees held by other countries that may have occurred in the aftermath of 9/11,” noting that, although there was no evidence that any British officer was “directly engaged in torture,” there were “questions over the degree to which British officers were working with foreign security services who were treating detainees in ways they should not have done.” Last Wednesday, the terms of reference for the torture inquiry were published. With storm clouds gathering over Wapping, David Cameron did not comment directly as human rights groups and lawyers savaged the pending inquiry as a whitewash, but he had already done all that was needed in the preceding twelve months. Read the rest of this entry »

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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, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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