End 20 Years Of Injustice

Lockdown Listening: Radiolab’s Six-Part, Four-Hour Series About Guantánamo Prisoner Abdul Latif Nasser, Cleared for Release But Still Held

An image produced by Will Paybarah for Radiolab's series "The Other Latif," about Guantánamo prisoner Abdul Latif Nasser.

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By Andy Worthington, May 7, 2020

As the coronavirus continues to impact massively on our lives, via lockdowns and a global death count that has now reached over 250,000, spare a thought for the prisoners at Guantánamo, who are more isolated than ever. Although it is profoundly reassuring that the virus has not reached the prison — despite a U.S. sailor contracting it on the naval base in March — the 40 men still held have not had any contact with anyone outside of their captors since the U.S. lockdown began.

Their attorneys are no longer able to fly out to see them, and, last Saturday, Carol Rosenberg of the New York Times tweeted that the International Committee of the Red Cross had "canceled its quarterly visit because of the virus." As she proceeded to explain, ICRC delegations have been "meeting with the detainees and prison commander since Camp X-Ray opened in 2002," and the visit on May 22 would have been the ICRC’s 135th visit to the prison.

As the lockdown continues — and so many of us have more time on our hands than previously — now seems like a good opportunity for those of you who are interested in Guantánamo to listen to "The Other Latif," an unprecedented six-part, four-hour series about one particular prisoner, Abdul Latif Nasser, the last Moroccan national in the prison, whose case we have covered many times over the years — see, for example, Abandoned in Guantánamo: Abdul Latif Nasser, Cleared for Release Three Years Ago, But Still Held, from last August, and Trump’s Personal Prisoners at Guantánamo: The Five Men Cleared for Release But Still Held, from last November.

Of the 40 men still held at Guantánamo, Abdul Latif Nasser is one of the most unfortunate, having been unanimously approved for release in July 2016 by a high-level U.S. government review process, the Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), which was established under President Obama, but not released.

By the time the Moroccan authorities finalized the necessary paperwork and got it back to the U.S. government, President Obama had just 22 days left in office, whereas, for many years, Congress had demanded that 30 days’ notification be given to lawmakers before any prisoner could be released — meaning, as a result, that Nasser missed being released by just eight days.

Donald Trump, of course, has no interest in releasing anyone from Guantánamo under any circumstances, leaving Nasser trapped, along with four other men approved for release but still held when Obama left office, 26 other men appropriately identified by the mainstream media as "forever prisoners," who were approved for ongoing imprisonment by their PRBs, and just nine men facing, or having faced trials.

"The Other Latif" is the first ever multi-part series produced for Radiolab, part of WNYC Studios, which, in turn, is part of the esteemed New York Public Radio, and the series was inspired by a single tweet seen by Radiolab’s Latif Nasser — a tweet by Reprieve, dated January 19, 2017, which stated, "Read our urgent letter to @POTUS seeking intervention for Abdul Latif Nasser, cleared yet stranded at Guantánamo Bay."

As the Radiolab website explains, "Latif Nasser always believed his name was unique, singular, completely his own," until he made "a bizarre and shocking discovery," that "he shares his name with another man: Abdul Latif Nasser, detainee 244 at Guantánamo Bay." As the website proceeded to explain, the U.S. government painted "a terrifying picture of The Other Latif as Al-Qaeda’s top explosives expert, and one of the most important advisors to Osama bin Laden.” However, Nasser’s lawyer, Shelby Sullivan Bennis, told Radiolab’s Latif that "he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he was never even in Al-Qaeda."

In seeking to establish the truth about his namesake, Latif was led "into a years-long investigation, picking apart evidence, attempting to separate fact from fiction, and trying to uncover what this man actually did or didn’t do."

Some have criticized the end result for its tone. Josephine Livingstone of the New Republic, for example, lamented that Radiolab’s "house podcast style holds back what is otherwise an extraordinary series." She stated that the series "contains what I can only call some beautiful lines of inquiry," adding that "Nasser chases the story through sunflower fields in Sudan, through his own uncertain youth, along the halls of Guantánamo Bay itself," and that "[t]hese investigations throw an unexpected and rather poignant light across the subject matter," but suggests that "the show is constrained by a few flaws that feel endemic to trends within the medium of podcasting itself, rather than to Nasser’s particular work."

These flaws involve, primarily, a kind of forced levity that is obviously very much at odds with the seriousness of the subject matter. As Livingstone describes it, Radiolab’s house style, "in this context — a very serious story with tragic consequences — feels like a deliberate signature imposed without concession to the topic."

That said, she concludes her article by stating, "You’d be hard-pressed to listen to The Other Latif and not learn something, and that seems like success to me" — and there is indeed an extraordinary depth to Latif’s investigation, regardless of how it is often presented. Guantánamo is so rarely covered in depth in the mainstream media, and yet here is a four-hour radio series about a single prisoner in Guantánamo, defying every expectation that, at an editorial meeting, it would have been confined to, at most, a single one-hour show.

Instead, in the first episode, Latif begins to explore who his namesake may be, discussing the alleged evidence with Shelby Sullivan Bennis, and hearing about how he should have been released until Donald Trump happened; in the second episode he travels to Morocco to meet Nasser’s family, who welcome him so thoroughly that he feels his "objectivity" being threatened; in the third episode, he investigates Nasser’s time working on a sunflower farm in Sudan; in the fourth episode, he investigates his time in Afghanistan; in the fifth episode he visits Guantánamo; and in the sixth episode he visits Washington, D.C. to talk to those with knowledge of how and why Nasser was approved for release, but was not actually freed, which the website describes as "a surprisingly riveting story of paperwork, where what’s at stake is not only the fate of one man, but also the soul of America."

We hope you have time listen to "The Other Latif," and will share it if you find it useful.