End 22 Years Of Injustice

It’s Groundhog Day: Lawyer Clive Stafford Smith Reports from Guantánamo After 70 Days of Trump’s Presidency

Soldiers jogging in front of five of the ten concrete drums at Guantánamo that spell out "Honor Bound" (Photo: US Army, via Flickr Commons).

Today, March 30, marks 70 days since Donald Trump became president, and we hope you’ll join us in our photo campaign. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, we set up a page on the Close Guantanamo website featuring photos of supporters holding posters asking Donald Trump to close the prison, and, to join us, please print off a poster, take a photo with it, and send it to us.

Since Trump took office, there have been disturbing suggestions of new activities regarding Guantánamo, although nothing has yet come to fruition. A week after his inauguration, as I wrote about in an article entitled, Say No to Donald Trump’s Proposed Executive Order to Keep Guantánamo Open, to Prevent Further Releases, and to Reintroduce Torture and "Black Sites", a draft executive order was leaked, revealing that he intended not only to keep Guantánamo open, but also to send new prisoners there, and to "suspend any existing transfer efforts pending a new review as to whether any such transfers are in the national security interests of the United States."

Trump also intended to reinstate torture and the use of CIA "black sites," but immediately faced a huge backlash from the intelligence agencies, from lawmakers, and even from his own appointment as defense secretary, retired general James Mattis. In early February, another draft executive order was leaked, in which all mention of torture and "black sites" was dropped, and the focus shifted to a proposal to bring Islamic State prisoners to Guantánamo.

Again, Trump faced criticism, this time primarily from legal experts, who warned that the existing legislation covering the imprisonment of men at Guantánamo — the Authorization for Use of Military Force, passed just after the 9/11 attacks — would probably be insufficient to cover IS prisoners, and, in any case, there was no compelling reason to bring new prisoners to Guantánamo, because, throughout the last 15 years, even when Guantánamo was being set up and trumpeted by the Bush administration as an important innovation, U.S. federal courts had established that they are perfectly capable of dealing with the cases of anyone accused of terrorism — unlike, it should be added, the military commissions at Guantánamo, which have failed to establish any credibility and are permanently plagued with irreconcilable problems that are incompatible with justice.

While we wait to see if an executive order will be issued, or if Trump has been convinced that Guantánamo is actually a legacy issue, as President Obama realized, in spite of his inability to close it, we have heard little from the 41 men still held. Ten are facing (or have faced) military commission trials, and pre-trial hearings are ongoing in the cases of the five men charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks, and in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, accused of masterminding the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. However, of the 31 other men, almost nothing has been heard.

26 of the 31 are still part of the parole-type Periodic Review Board process, which began in November 2013, and, for the next three years, reviewed the cases of 64 men previously regarded (with evidently undue caution) as "too dangerous to release" or as eligible for prosecution, approving 38 men for release. Although the first rounds of the PRBs were completed in September, further reviews continue for those men recommended for ongoing imprisonment, via administrative file reviews (every six months), and, less frequently, full reviews, in which the prisoners, by video-conference, are questioned by government officials. On February 9, eleven notoriously right-wing Republican Senators wrote to Donald Trump to urge him to suspend the PRBs, but, we are pleased to note, he has not acted on that request.

The other five men still held have all been approved for release from the prison, but are still held, which is unforgivable regardless of whoever the president is. Three were approved for release in 2009 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama set up shortly after taking office for the first time, and the other two were recommended for release by PRBs.

Below, we’re cross-posting a recent article by Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of international human rights group Reprieve, who has just returned from Guantánamo, where he saw four of his clients. All have had their cases reviewed by the Periodic Review Boards, and one, Abdul Latif Nasser (aka Nasir), a Moroccan, is one of the men unfortunate enough to have been approved for release, but to still be held. The other three are Ahmad Rabbani, Haroon al-Afghani and Khalid Qassim (aka Qasim), whose ongoing imprisonment has been upheld by the PRBs, although al-Afghani had a second full review just two days ago.

Stafford Smith briefly runs through his client’s stories, and notes how “uniformly polite and helpful” the guards were, reinforcing what I was told this week by another attorney — that Rear Adm. Edward Cashman, the new commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), is making life as easy as possible for the remaining prisoners, either because he wants to avoid a backlash by the prisoners against their perception that, under Trump, their chances of release have once more diminished, or because he recognizes, at some level, that Guantánamo has run its course.

Stafford Smith ends his article by urging Donald Trump to recognize, if nothing else, that the $11 million a year it costs to keep each prisoner at Guantánamo is an insane waste of money, and “more than 100 times more than the costliest prison in the U.S.” and we too hope that, if Trump’s outrageous proposals to revive Guantánamo have indeed been shelved, it will become possible to persuade him that his best option is to close it once and for all.
- Andy Worthington

Groundhog Day In Guantánamo Bay
By Clive Stafford Smith, Huffington Post, March 27, 2017

It is Groundhog Day in Guantánamo Bay. I visited four of Reprieve’s clients last week. One was Abdul Latif Nasser, who was cleared for release to his native Morocco last year, after six US intelligence agencies determined he was no threat to anyone. He narrowly missed the plane home when the Obama Administration failed to organize his transfer before Donald Trump took office; the new president promises to keep the prison open, and end any releases. Understandably, Abdul Latif seemed downhearted.

Then there was Ahmed Rabbani, a Karachi taxi driver who was mistaken 15 years ago for a big time terrorist called Hassan Ghul. He spent 545 days in the CIA secret prison programme before making it to Guantánamo. The US Senate Report classifies him as one of the rare prisoners "who was subject to [torture] techniques without the approval of CIA headquarters." (I struggle to understand why it might have been better if American authorities had authorized it.)

Or there is Haroon al Afghani, the last Afghan among the 24, who is alleged to have played a minor role with a group that vehemently opposed the Al Qaida interlopers, and who now play a role in the U.S.-backed government. Or Khalid Qassim who (as he would say of himself) is simply nobody, from Yemen. And so it goes on and on. The original 762 "low value" detainees were identified by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as the "worst of the worst" terrorists in the world. Far from it. Even after distilling them to just 24, they are a motley crew.

I first came to Guantánamo in 2004. Thirteen years on, it remains surreal. The sign near the prison camp still boasts in massive letters, along ten drums of concrete, that we are "Honor Bound" to defend freedom. There is no solitary confinement — only "single cell operations." The military on the base continue to use fake names as if revealing their true identity will attract ISIS into middle America — this time, I was shepherded around by Wookie, Jack Sparrow, King Kong and others.

But the officers were uniformly polite and helpful, trying hard to keep busy. With more than two thousand soldiers, there are 50 for each detainee. The annual cost is estimated to be $454 million, a shade over $11 million per prisoner per year. By way of contrast, this is more than 100 times more than the costliest prison in the U.S. — a Colorado Supermax, which is a snip at $78,000. Each of my clients offers his own take on better ways of spending his millions.

In short, if Donald Trump had any interest in a sensible budget, he would begin by cutting out this monumental waste of money. It is a shame that President Obama failed to fulfil his promise to close the prison, but this should not lessen our own commitment to make sure it happens.