End 22 Years Of Injustice

Justice Denied: The Stories of Fawzi Al-Odah and Fayiz Al-Kandari, the Last Two Kuwaitis in Guantánamo

Last week, the attorney Tom Wilner and the journalist Andy Worthington (the steering committee of the "Close Guantánamo" project) were in Kuwait to raise awareness of the ongoing detention of Fayiz Al-Kandari and Fawzi Al-Odah, the last two Kuwaiti citizens in Guantánamo, and to encourage the Kuwaiti people and the government to push for their release, after ten long years in the terrible experimental prison at Guantánamo Bay, where justice has gone missing, and arbitrary detention has become the norm.

Please see here for videos of Tom and Andy (dubbed into Arabic) discussing the men's cases on Kuwaiti TV (the Al-Rai channel), and emphasizing the need for concerted action to secure their release, along with subtitled clips from the documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo," which Andy co-directed with Polly Nash. And see here for the petition for Fayiz, calling for the U.S. government to release him, which is hosted by Al-Oula Law, the website of his Kuwaiti lawyers.

Fawzi Al-Odah: A Profile by Tom Wilner and Neil Koslowe

Fawzi Al-Odah, in a photo from the military documents released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

Fawzi Al-Odah, in a photo from the military documents released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

Today, February 28, 2012, Fawzi Khalid Abdullah Fahid Al-Odah, a 34-year old citizen of Kuwait, will complete ten years as a prisoner in the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay. In all those years, the United States Government has never charged Fawzi in any court with wrongdoing or referred him to a military commission for trial. He is being held indefinitely.

Fawzi is the oldest of the five children of Khalid Al-Odah and his wife, Soad Abdul Jaleel. Khalid first visited the United States in 1975 when he was a pilot in the Kuwaiti Air Force and assigned to learn to fly the F-5 Freedom Fighter jet in Wichita Falls, Texas. During the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Khalid went underground and joined the Kuwaiti resistance. He provided valuable intelligence to U.S. military officials. In February 1991, when the United States freed Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, young Fawzi, then 13, joined his father in cheering the marching liberators from a road overpass. Fawzi jumped down to join the parade and grabbed and proudly waved an American flag.

After graduating from the University of Kuwait in 2000, Fawzi became a teacher. Along with other religious Kuwaitis, Fawzi spent his summer vacations in 2000 and 2001 in Pakistan, teaching and helping to distribute charitable donations he had collected at home to villagers near the Afghan border. Just after 9/11, Fawzi called his family to say that he planned to spend a few weeks working with Afghani refugees. However, when U.S. planes began bombing in Afghanistan and war broke out, Fawzi, along with thousands of other Arab volunteers, fled Afghanistan for the Pakistani border. Fawzi made his way to the Afghan-Pakistani border and placed himself in the custody of the Pakistani army with the request that they transfer him to the Kuwait Embassy. Instead, he was transferred to U.S. custody and summarily transferred to Guantánamo in late February 2002. He has been there even since.

While at Guantánamo, Fawzi has endured harsh interrogation and treatment. Until very recently, he had virtually no contact with his family. In despair, he has gone on several hunger strikes and has lost considerable weight. He ended his most recent hunger strike a few months ago only because his jailers threatened him with permanent isolation unless he ate.

Although the federal courts denied Fawzi’s habeas corpus petition, the U.S. Government has never claimed, and no court has found, that Fawzi was a member of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, that he ever engaged in combat against U.S. forces or fired a single shot against U.S. soldiers, or that he participated in, assisted, or encouraged any terrorist activity against the United States. Nevertheless, and with no explanation from the U.S. Government, Fawzi faces indefinite detention at Guantánamo for the rest of his life.

Fayiz Al-Kandari: A Profile by Andy Worthington

Fayiz Al-Kandari, in a photo taken at Guantánamo by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2009.

Fayiz Al-Kandari, in a photo taken at Guantánamo by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2009.

Fayiz Al-Kandari, a 36-year old citizen of Kuwaiti, has been in U.S. custody for over ten years, and will mark the 10th anniversary of his arrival at Guantánamo on May 1, 2002. As in the case of Fawzi Al-Odah, the United States Government has never charged Fayiz in any court with wrongdoing. Under President Bush, he was referred him to a military commission for trial, but charges have not been filed anew under President Obama.

It is difficult to imagine how Fayiz could be charged at all, so thin is the evidence against him, but this is Guantánamo, where guilt and innocence have largely been replaced by a misplaced reliance on innuendo and hearsay, and where most of what passes for evidence is the product of the torture, coercion or bribery of the prisoners themselves, or of their fellow prisoners.

Fayiz, for example, visited Afghanistan as a humanitarian aid worker in August 2001, but was then caught up in the chaos following the 9/11 attacks and the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and was seized by Afghan forces in December 2001 and handed over to U.S. forces soon after, as he tried to cross the mountains to Pakistan.

As is apparent from discussions with Fayiz's family (which the U.S. authorities have never bothered to undertake), from when he was a child, Fayiz took the charitable obligations of Islam very seriously. In discussions with his lawyers at Guantánamo, he has explained how his mother used to cook large amounts of food -- particularly at Ramadan -- and then instructed him and his siblings to deliver it to all the neighbors, especially those who were in particular need of additional help.

As a teenager, Fayiz lived through the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, which taught him more about generosity, and also about cooperation. He recalls working with other teenagers in his neighborhood to deliver food to his fellow citizens, who were afraid to leave their houses because, during the occupation, rape, robbery, kidnapping and murder were experienced on a daily basis. Every morning, before sunrise, Fayiz and his friends would take a truck to a warehouse in the desert and, for a small sum paid to a local official, would receive flour, rice, tomato sauce, and baby milk, to be delivered to those in need.

After the food was delivered, he and the other teenagers would load the truck with garbage and would accompany the driver to the desert to burn it. He has explained that this same process was repeated every day throughout the long months of the occupation, and that he has never forgotten that it was the Americans who liberated his country. “The Americans and Kuwaitis have had a mutual relationship ever since,” he has said, “which is why this whole thing is even more strange.”

When Fayiz was 20, he recalls seeing on TV the horrific aftermath of the war in Bosnia: people without homes, suffering from hunger and with their loved ones missing. He perceived it as being very similar to what the Kuwaiti people had gone through during the Iraqi occupation, and so, in between semesters at the Kuwait University School of Engineering, he took a ten-day trip to Sarajevo to visit the various Kuwaiti charities that had been established to help the poor, the wounded, the homeless and the orphans, taking several duffel bags of clothes with him. In Bosnia, he noted many similarities between the occupation of Kuwait and and the siege of Sarajevo.

With this history of charitable deeds, it was unsurprising that Fayiz's interest finally turned to Afghanistan. For many years prior to his visit in August 2001 he had contributed money to various charities, but as he has said, "it is not the same as being there to provide muscle.” After realizing that Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the Islamic world, and that its people might benefit from his assistance, he decided to visit, but was shocked to discover, on the ground, that “those people had less than anyone I had ever met.”

In a village, he met up with local officials, and agreed to provide work for some of the local people, building two wells and repairing a mosque. Life was peaceful and productive for two months, but after the U.S.-led invasion began, and he was shown a leaflet that encouraged the Afghan people to turn in Arabs for money, he tried to flee to Pakistan, but was captured and ended up in U.S. custody, eventually being transferred to Guantánamo.

In Guantánamo -- in part because of his refusal to incriminate himself or others -- Fayiz was subjected to the torture program whose use was widespread between 2002 and 2004, including sleep deprivation (the “frequent flier program,” which involved prisoners being moved from cell to cell every few hours over a period of days, weeks or even months), physical and verbal assaults, attempts at sexual humiliation through the use of female interrogators, the prolonged use of stress positions, the use of dogs, the use of loud music and strobe lights, and the use of extreme heat and cold.

Even though Fayiz only arrived in Afghanistan the month before 9/11, a handful of his fellow prisoners -- who are known to be unreliable witnesses -- have claimed that he “provided instruction to Al-Qaeda members and trainees” at a training camp, “served as an adviser to Osama bin Laden,” and “produced recruitment audio and video tapes which encouraged membership in Al-Qaeda and participation in jihad.”

These allegations are so ridiculous that they prompted the following response from Fayiz during a military review in 2005:

At the end of this exciting story and after all these various accusations, when I spent most of my time alongside bin Laden as his advisor and his religious leader … All this happened in a period of three months, which is the period of time I stayed in Afghanistan? I ask, are these accusations against Fayiz or against Superman?

Despite the unreliability of the allegations against Fayiz, he remains in Guantánamo, indefinitely detained, having had his habeas corpus petition denied over a year ago. Such is America's flight from justice since the 9/11 attacks that even habeas corpus -- the ancient bulwark against arbitrary detention -- has been gutted of meaning in the U.S. courts over the last few years.

In July 2009, when Lt. Col. Wingard wrote an op-ed about Fayiz al-Kandari for the Washington Post, he noted:

Each time I travel to Guantanamo Bay to visit Fayiz, his first question is, “Have you found justice for me today?” This leads to an awkward hesitation. “Unfortunately, Fayiz,” I tell him, “I have no justice today.”

It is time for justice to be shown to Fayiz Al-Kandari and to Fawzi Al-Odah, and for both men to be returned to Kuwait, where their families await to help them readjust to normal life after their extraordinary ten-year ordeal.

This article is party adapted from a previous article by Andy Worthington, "Resisting Injustice In Guantánamo: The Story Of Fayiz Al-Kandari," originally published in October 2009.