Obama’s Mixed Messages on Guantánamo, as Justice Department Tells Judge Not to Intervene in Case of 75-Pound Hunger Striker at Risk of Death

Members of the campaigning group Witness Against Torture hold up a banner featuring an image of Tariq Ba Odah outside the White House in June 2015 (Photo: Matt Daloisio via Flickr).I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 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.

One day, when we’re looking back on Guantánamo and apportioning blame to those who contributed most powerfully to its cruelty, and to keeping it open long after the most senior officials in two governments conceded that it should be closed, a spotlight will be shone on the lawyers in the Civil Division of the Justice Department who have worked so assiduously to prevent prisoners from being released.

I have criticized these lawyers occasionally, but I have rarely heard any criticism of them in the mainstream media, and yet, from the moment that the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, they have been making life difficult for lawyers representing the prisoners, micro-managing their meetings with their clients and their travel arrangements, and often, it is impossible not to conclude, in an effort to obstruct the lawyers’ ability to represent their clients.

In addition, as I noted in an article in August, the Civil Division lawyers “have fought tooth and nail against every single habeas petition submitted by the prisoners, with just one exception — the severely ill Sudanese prisoners Ibrahim Idris, whose petition was granted unopposed in 2013.” I added, “Disgracefully, the Justice Department lawyers have repeatedly challenged habeas petitions submitted by prisoners whose release has already been approved by the Guantánamo Review Task Force,” the high-level, inter-agency task force set up by President Obama shortly after taking office in January 2009, which issued its final report a year later, recommending 156 men for release, 36 for trials and 48 others for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the alarming basis that they were “too dangerous to release,” but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »

Former Guantánamo Prisoner Betrayed by Morocco: Are Diplomatic Assurances Worthless?

Guantanamo prisoner Younous Chekkouri (aka Younus Chekhouri), repatriated to Morocco  on September 16, 2015 (Photo collage by Reprieve).I’ve been so busy with the news of the planned release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, that I have a few other stories to catch up on, one being the case of Younous Chekkouri (aka Younus Chekhouri), a Moroccan who was repatriated on September 16, but is now imprisoned and awaiting a trial, in defiance of the diplomatic assurances agreed between the US and Moroccan governments prior to his release.

Immediately after his release, as I wrote about here, Younous was imprisoned incommunicado, in an unknown location. His brother was then allowed to speak to him, and he “said he sounded OK and in good spirits.” However, on September 20, AFP reported that “he was under investigation on suspicion of terror-related offences and would appear before a public prosecutor,” noting that, in Morocco, terror suspects “can be held without charge for 48 hours, which is renewable once,” and Younous “could therefore appear in court on Monday [September 21].”

By September 21, he had has been “placed in ‘provisional detention’ in Morocco’s notorious Salé prison without bail.” He had been allowed to meet with a local lawyer, but the news was not good. Reprieve noted that he was “facing the possibility of charges of ‘attempts to disrupt the security of the country,’” which Cori Crider, his lawyer in London, described as “utterly baseless.” Read the rest of this entry »

Disgraceful US Justice Department Secretly Blocks Release from Guantánamo of Gravely Ill Hunger Striker Tariq Ba Odah

Guantanamo hunger striker Tariq Ba Odah, photographed at Guantanamo before the long-term effects of his eight-year hunger strike took hold. He now weighs just 74.5 pounds.“Wonderful.” This is the only word that Guantánamo prisoner Tariq Ba Odah said, over and over, as he “looked through photos of vigils and protests, tweets and Facebook posts, and dozens of articles about efforts to free him” from Guantánamo, at a meeting last week with his lawyer, Omar Farah, of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

Tariq, as regular readers will know, is a Yemeni, and a long-term hunger striker, who has been refusing food since 2007, and is force-fed on a daily basis. He now weighs just 74.5 pounds, and is at risk of death, but the Obama administration refuses to help him. Three weeks ago, I wrote about his lawyers’ efforts to have a US judge order his release because of the very real risk he faces of imminent death.

Tariq’s plight sparked media interest — and gasps of horror from anyone still sensitized enough, after nearly 14 years of the “war on terror” declared by the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to realize that a man weighing just 74.5 pounds would look like a survivor of — or a corpse at — the concentration camps run by the Nazis. Read the rest of this entry »

Tariq Ba Odah, Hunger Strikes, and Why the Obama Administration Must Stop Challenging Guantánamo Prisoners in Court

Members of the campaigning group Witness Against Torture hold up a banner featuring an image of Tariq Ba Odah outside the White House in June 2015 (Photo: Matt Daloisio via Flickr).In June, I wrote an article, “Skeletal, 75-Pound Guantánamo Hunger Striker Tariq Ba Odah Seeks Release; Medical Experts Fear For His Life,” about the desperate plight of Tariq Ba Odah, a Guantánamo prisoner who has been on a hunger strike since 2007 and is at risk of death. His weight has dropped to just 74.5 pounds, and yet the government does not even claim that it wants to continue holding him. Over five and a half years ago, in January 2010, the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established when he took office in 2009 to review the cases of all the prisoners still held at that time, concluded that he should no longer be held.

The task force approved 156 men for release, although Tariq was one of 30 placed in a category invented by the task force — “conditional detention,” made dependent on a perception that the security situation in Yemen had improved or “an appropriate rehabilitation program or third- country resettlement option becomes available,” as his lawyers described it.

Collectively, the whole of the US establishment has — with one exception — refused to repatriate any Yemenis approved for release since January 2010 (after a foiled terror plot was revealed to have been hatched in Yemen), although, since last November, the administration has been finding third countries willing to offer new homes to Yemenis approve for transfer — in part became of persistent pressure from campaigning groups. 18 Yemenis have so far been found homes in third countries — in Georgia, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Estonia and Oman — so all that now ought to prevent Tariq Ba Odah’s release is if the US government proves unable to find a third country prepared to offer him a new home. Read the rest of this entry »

US Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo Force-Feeding Tapes, Condemns Government Delays

Former Guantanamo prisoner Abu Wa'el Dhiab after his release (in Uruguay in December 2014). This is a screen shot from a TV broadcast in Argentina, where Mr. Dhiab travelled in February, to call for the government to offer new homes to other Guantanamo prisoners.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 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.

Sick of delaying tactics, a US federal court judge has ordered the government to stop wasting time with “frivolous” appeals against her rulings, and to release videotapes showing a Guantánamo prisoner being brutally force-fed.

On October 3 last year, in the District Court in Washington D.C., Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the government to prepare for public release 32 videotapes of a Guantánamo prisoner, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, being dragged from his cell and force-fed. The tapes contained 11 hours of footage in total, and, as I explained at the time, Judge Kessler responded to the government’s concerns about the need for anonymity for US personnel by ordering them to be “redacted for ‘all identifiers of individuals’ other than Mr. Dhiab.”

That was over nine months ago, and on Friday (July 10), Judge Kessler ordered the government to “complete all national security-related redactions to the first eight tapes — which show Abu Wa’el Dhiab being forcibly removed from his cell and tube-fed — by August 31, and to complete other key redactions by September 30,” as Mr. Dhiab’s lawyers at Reprieve explained in a press release. Read the rest of this entry »

Some Progress on Guantánamo: The Envoy, the Habeas Case and the Periodic Reviews

I wrote the following article — under the heading, “Progress on Guantánamo,” for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 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.

Progress towards closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay — or even getting men freed who have been cleared for release by a government task force — has become such a slow and difficult process that any positive developments must be greeted with a sense of relief that at least something is being done.

In the last week, three developments that offer some hope have taken place — the appointment of a “Special Envoy for Guantánamo closure” in the Pentagon; the decision by the Justice Department not to contest the habeas corpus petition of a severally mentally ill prisoner; and the start of a review process for the majority of the 80 prisoners still held at Guantánamo who are not amongst the 84 prisoners who were cleared for release by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010.

The fact that 84 prisoners who were cleared for release nearly four years ago are still held shows the extent to which progress towards closing Guantánamo has almost ground to a halt. Read the rest of this entry »

Justice Department Tells Court that Force-Feeding Guantánamo Hunger Strikers is “Maintaining the Status Quo”

What a disgrace the Justice Department lawyers dealing with Guantánamo are. On Wednesday, Andrew Warden, Timothy Walthall and Daniel Barish of the Civil Division’s Federal Programs Branch argued in federal court in Washington D.C. against a motion submitted on behalf of four of the prisoners involved in the prison-wide hunger strike that is nearing its sixth month, asking Judge Rosemary Collyer to order the government to stop force-feeding prisoners engaged in the hunger strike, and also to stop administering medication without the prisoners’ consent.

45 of the prisoners are currently being force-fed, and according to the government 106 of the remaining 166 prisoners are on a hunger strike. The prisoners themselves claim that around 120 of them are refusing food. Two of the four men represented in the motion are being force-fed — Ahmed Belbacha and Nabil Hadjarab, both Algerians — while the other two are taking part in the hunger strike but are not being force-fed. They are Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian.

All four were cleared for release from the prison in January 2010, by the inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established when he took office, and all but Abu Wa’el Dhiab were also cleared for release under President Bush. 86 men in total were cleared for release by Obama’s task force, but are still held. Read the rest of this entry »

WikiLeaks and the Lawyers: Justice Department Finally Allows Attorneys to See Leaked Guantánamo Files, But Not to Download, Save or Print Them

In the US government’s farcical world of overclassification, four reporters were banned from Guantánamo last year for reporting the name of a witness in the trial by Military Commission of the Canadian citizen and former child prisoner Omar Khadr, even though his name had been widely reported in the media, and was available online.

That was the Defense Department’s doing, but the whole story of WikiLeaks and its exposure of classified US documents — whether it is the Collateral Murder video, the Afghan and Iraqi war logs, the diplomatic cables, or the Detainee Assessment Briefs from Guantánamo — is one of overclassification across every government department, in which material that should not necessarily be secret was, until it was leaked, jealously guarded by a government that behaves as though it was not elected by the people, and is not answerable to them.

The treasure trove of documents released to WikiLeaks also came about because, after the pre-9/11 failures of the intelligence agencies to communicate with one another, the creation of a vast database accessible by, literally, millions of government employees, was designed to facilitate the sharing of useful information. This was in spite of the fact that it should also have been obvious that, with so many people having access to it, it was only a matter of time before someone concerned with transparency and justice — allegedly Pfc. Bradley Manning, imprisoned for leaking the documents since last May — would take advantage of the 21st century whistleblowing opportunities made available by WikiLeaks to let the world know what it was missing. 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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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