End 21 Years Of Injustice

Guantánamo In Its 22nd Year: “The US Created a Category of Prisoners With No Rights Whatsoever”

Witness Against Torture campaigners process past the White House marking the 21st anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo on January 11, 2023.

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By Andy Worthington, January 31, 2023

For more years than we care to remember, campaigners for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay have met in Washington, D.C., on and around January 11, the anniversary of its opening (in 2002), to call for its closure.

Although a coalition of groups have been involved in these annual protests — including Amnesty International USA, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture — the protests’ beating heart has always been Witness Against Torture, founded in 2005 by 25 Catholic Workers. The Catholic Worker Movement was founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, whose Christian anarchism, as it has been described, is focused on "liv[ing] in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ," with "no place for economic exploitation or war," and no "racial, gender or religious discrimination."

The 25 founding members of Witness Against Torture, including Frida Berrigan, Matt Daloisio and Art Laffin, who are still involved today, visited Cuba in December 2005, raising publicity as they bravely attempted to visit Guantánamo, and on their return they began organizing with other groups, including CCR, protesting at the White House, and other key locations — the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Justice Department — and sometimes getting arrested.

On January 11, 2007, as they explain on their website, they held their first "day of national shame" on the anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, "organizing major demonstrations and civil resistance at sites in Washington, D.C." — including the White House — "and around the country," and as they also explain, "During our demonstrations, we lift up the words of the detainees themselves, bringing them to public spaces they are not permitted to access. We fast when we gather as a means to raise awareness of the hunger strikes of the men detained in Guantánamo, fighting for their right to justice and freedom."

At the time of this first "day of national shame," I was in London, deep in the research and writing that consumed 14 months of my life from March 2006 to May 2007, as I told the stories of the men held at Guantánamo in what became The Guantánamo Files, published in September 2007.

I first visited the U.S. in March 2008, to promote the book, and returned in November 2009, to promote "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo," the documentary film that I co-directed with Polly Nash, and I visited again in October 2010, to take part in an intensive week of protests against John Yoo — the author of the notorious "torture memos" that sought to justify the use of torture by the CIA in their "black site" prisons — in Berkeley, California, where Yoo was, and still is, a law professor.

It wasn’t until January 2011 that, with the particular support of Debra Sweet and the World Can’t Wait, I first joined Witness Against Torture in Washington, D.C., finally getting to deliver a call for Guantánamo’s closure outside the White House, and also finally getting to meet members of the group — some of whom had, in the meantime, become online friends through emails and social media — for the first time.

It was the first of ten successive visits for the anniversary of Guantánamo’s opening (from 2011 to 2020), in which I not only embraced an entire U.S. family of people who, I have always maintained, really should be running the country, but also got to appreciate at first-hand the power of WAT’s gatherings.

The many dozens of people who gathered together in these years for at least a week up to and including the anniversary fasted together, held regular discussions about Guantánamo and the men held there, and, every day, engaged in disruptive actions to highlight the prison’s ongoing injustices. One particularly memorable incident that stands out for me was the staging of a living exhibition, "Make Guantánamo History!," in the Smithsonian Museum of American History on January 11, 2014.

All WAT’s actions, I came to understand, involve a deep connection with the men they are representing, and I’m both humbled and honored that my writing, and my occasional talks to the WAT gatherings, have helped those involved to connect more deeply with the prisoners.

This year, after Covid derailed my visits for two years, my awareness of the environmental cost of flying persuaded me to stay in London, where I was busy both online and in events in London, although I very much missed being reunited with my American friends.

Holding men without rights is Guantánamo’s foundational truth

However, on January 10, I was delighted to be asked to speak to the WAT family (gathering for the first time properly since 2020) by Zoom from London, and over the course of an hour, in which I ran through Guantánamo’s story past and present, I realized that this year’s theme, for those of us who care, is that, although only 35 men are still held at Guantánamo, and 20 of those men have been approved for release, with 16 of those decisions having been taken since Joe Biden became president two years ago, these men are still, after 21 years, as fundamentally without rights as they were when they were first rounded up— in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, and in a largely arbitrary manner — and flown to Guantánamo to be held as "enemy combatants."

I don’t mean to imply that this crucial fact has ever been forgotten, because the very basis of being defined as "enemy combatants" involved, uniquely, stripping the 779 men — and boys — held at Guantánamo of all of their rights from the very beginning, and it is apparent, from any careful review of the prison’s history, that the only time that they ever gained any rights — when the law was briefly allowed to shine a light into the prison’s malignant reality of indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial, spuriously based on tortured or otherwise dubious "confessions" — was during a two-year period between 2008 and 2010.

This was the period when, having been granted constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights by the Supreme Court in Boumediene v. Bush in June 2008, 32 men had their release ordered by judges, who, after reviewing the government’s supposed evidence, concluded that they had failed to make a case that the men in question were involved in any meaningful way with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces.

This period only lasted until right-wing appeals court judges managed to issue a number of shameful rulings that ended up gutting habeas of all meaning for the prisoners, but since then, although we have not forgotten Guantánamo’s foundational truth — that, as I describe it in this article’s heading, the U.S., at Guantánamo, "created a category of prisoners with no rights whatsoever" — it has largely been overlooked as we have struggled to put pressure on the government to actually get men released: in that nearly three-year period under Obama, for example, from 2010 to 2013, when almost no one was released because he was unwilling to spend the political capital necessary to fight back against cynical Republican obstructions, or in the wilderness years of Donald Trump, when, with one exception, the remaining men at the prison were, essentially, entombed alive.

However, the grim reality of Guantánamo’s enduring foundational truth struck me with such particular power and poignancy this year because of the plight of the 20 men approved for release but still held, who still have no idea of when, if ever, they will be freed, and who are in that position because their approval for release came not through a recognized legal route, but through an administrative process, which has no legal weight, and no court that can be appealed to when, as now, the administration is dragging its heels in securing their release.

This administrative process, the Periodic Review Boards, is a parole-type process that was established by President Obama in 2013 to review the cases of a specific group of men who were regarded as too dangerous to release by Obama’s first review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, which, throughout 2009, reviewed the cases of all the men that he had inherited from George W. Bush, recommending two-thirds of them for release (who were almost all eventually released). However, in the cases of the 48 men recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial (later, and accurately, dubbed "forever prisoners" by Carol Rosenberg of the New York Times), the task force made its recommendations for enduring imprisonment without charge or trial even while accepting that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

Subsequently, a number of men initially recommended for prosecution were also added to this group, after the military commission trial system was robustly challenged in court, and a number of convicted prisoners (out of the handful convicted) had those convictions overturned because, shamefully, the "war crimes" for which they had been convicted — generally, through plea deals that they accepted because they could see no other way of getting out of Guantánamo — had been invented as "war crimes" by Congress.

I have no doubt that, within the Biden administration, Tina Kaidanow, the senior diplomat appointed last summer as the Senior Representative for Guantánamo Affairs in the State Department, "responsible for all matters pertaining to the transfer of detainees from the Guantánamo Bay facility to third countries," is doing her best to negotiate repatriations from Guantánamo for those men who can be returned home, and deals with third countries for those who cannot (primarily, a number of Yemenis), but without any legal weight backing their recommendations for release, the men have no body to turn to for help and enforcement if these processes are protracted, or even — in the worst case scenario — if they prove impossible to achieve.

No rights even when released from Guantánamo

Beyond Guantánamo, it has also become particularly evident over the last few years that even men released from the prison continue to be tainted by their designation on capture as "enemy combatants," from which there is, fundamentally, no escape.

This, again, is not news. I knew from the cases of British residents released from Guantánamo, for example, that they resumed their lives without passports, and were therefore unable to travel outside the U.K., and, in the case of Moazzam Begg, a British citizen, the fact that former prisoners can also be subjected to arbitrary harassment became startlingly apparent in 2014, when he was arrested and imprisoned for seven months, before being freed on the eve of his planned trial, on terrorism charges that were connected with fact-finding trips to Syria, which British intelligence knew about, but had allegedly forgotten to declare to the police.

In recent years, however, examples of former prisoners remaining deprived of their rights after leaving Guantánamo have become more prevalent. After Mohamedou Ould Slahi, torture victim and best-selling author, was repatriated to Mauritania in October 2016, he was told that his passport would be returned to him in two years’ time, but it actually took several more years until his passport was eventually returned, allowing him to travel freely. And in Serbia, meanwhile, Mansoor Adayfi, a Yemeni resettled there in July 2016, has no passport, cannot travel, cannot receive family visits, and for many years was subject to arbitrary harassment by the authorities. In August 2021, Adayfi’s memoir, Don’t Forget Us Here, was published to widespread acclaim, but although he has an extraordinary international presence online, taking part in numerous meetings on Zoom, he is still physically trapped and isolated in Belgrade.

In other cases, however, far worse treatment has followed prisoners’ resettlement. In 2016, two Libyans resettled in Senegal in 2014 were repatriated, even though one of the men was extremely unwilling to return, and both subsequently disappeared into the custody of one of post-Gaddafi Libya’s militias. And in the UAE, where 23 men — 18 Yemenis, four Afghans and a Russian — were sent between 2015 and 2017, promises that they would be helped to rebuild their lives turned to ashes when they were, instead, imprisoned in circumstances at least as harsh as those at Guantánamo. In the end, the Afghans were repatriated, and the Yemenis were forcibly sent back to Yemen (in complete defiance of U.S. law regarding the release of Yemenis from Guantánamo), where they were also at the mercy of militias in Yemen’s ongoing civil war, but the Russian — Ravil Mingazov, a Tatar — is still held, with the threat hanging over him that the Emirati authorities will forcibly return him Russia, where his life is at risk.

Other men, sent to Kazakhstan, fared no better. One died of medical neglect shortly after his arrival in 2015, another, also gravely ill, managed to arrange to be transferred to Mauritania, but died there in 2021, having been unable to secure the medical treatment he needed. Most recently, in a heartbreaking article for the Intercept, Elise Swain reported the story of Sabri al-Qurashi, a talented artist, who explained, "I have no official status, no ID card, no right to work or education, and no right to see my family. I have been married for eight years, but my wife is not allowed to come and live with me." As he also said, "Truly, my life now is just as bad as w­­hen I was in Guantánamo, and in many aspects even worse. At least there, I knew I was in prison and that I would get out one day. Now I’m living as if I’m dead and being told I am free when I am not."

In the cases of these men — and many others, sadly — the U.S. government still shows no willingness to act on their behalf with their host governments, and, in the face of this inaction, campaigners have stepped in to fill a much-needed gap, with the Guantánamo Survivors Fund recently established to provide "immediate short-term support" for the "most urgent needs" of some these men, "such as medical care, rent, language classes, tuition and job training."

In the longer term, what is clearly needed is for the government to be held accountable for the fallout from its often botched resettlement programs, part of a process of accountability that I will be pursuing through the Guantánamo Accountability Project, which I hope to establish later this year, at the heart of which will be a call for the repudiation of the lifelong stigma of having been an "enemy combatant" at Guantánamo, despite never having been charged with a crime or put on trial, which continues to haunt former prisoners in all the ways outlined above.

However, while all of the above is of huge importance, the plight of the 20 men still held who have approved for release still needs highlighting as vigorously as possible, and pressure exerted to try to make sure that the Biden administration doesn’t resort to doing nothing, just because it can.

Below, I’m posting Frida Berrigan’s reflections on the talk I gave to the WAT family in Washington, D.C. on January 10, as she highlighted the foundational truth about the prison that has been the focus of this article: that the men still held are as fundamentally without rights as they were when Guantánamo opened 21 years ago, and that, with the courts having failed, it is up to us, in the court of public opinion, to keep reminding the Biden administration of the urgent need to free these men, and to do so whilst also making sure that, on release, the taint of Guantánamo will no longer cling to them, as it has with so many others freed from the prison, but still regarded as "enemy combatants."

Andy Worthington speaking via Zoom to Witness Against Torture activists in Washington, D.C., January 10, 2023.

Leaning In, Listening Hard
By Frida Berrigan, Witness Against Torture, January 12, 2023

Andy Worthington’s face was as big as the wall, and when he leaned forward to emphasize one of his many points, his glasses filled the screen. We, fasting members of Witness Against Torture, sat in the dark, in our masks, close together and leaned in to listen, and catch every word as he ran through two decades of history in under an hour.

Here is what I hurriedly scribbled as he spoke:

  • 779 men have been held at the prison since it opened on January 11, 2002.
  • Under the administration of President George W. Bush, 532 men were released.
  • The Obama administration released 196.
  • One man was transferred out of Guantánamo in spite of President Trump’s obstructionism and Islamophobia during his time behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
  • So far, nearly two years into the Biden administration, 5 men have departed from Guantánamo.
  • "Not good enough," Worthington said.

After all the numbers and the data and the rapid fire recounting of the myriad ways in which the Bush administration, Obama administration, Trump administration AND Biden administration have failed the men at Guantánamo, their families and the rule of law, Worthington dropped this wisdom: In choosing to establish the "War on Terror" prison at the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo 21 years ago, "the United States created a category of humans who have NO Rights."

Mic Drop. He meant that many of the hundreds of men released from Guantánamo face a whole new set of problems once they depart. For many, it is a tenuous sort of freedom, leaving Guantánamo for uncertain and difficult futures in third nations where they are viewed — at best — as objects of fear and scrutiny. Many live far from their families, without passports or a way of earning a living. And there is no one in the United States who is responsible for safe-guarding their rights or resolving the many issues that arise for them in new and strange countries.

This issue has been recently reported on by The Intercept and other outlets. Mansoor Adayfi, a Yemeni man imprisoned at Guantánamo for more than 14 years, is now living in Serbia. He is the author of the recently published Don’t Forget Us Here. He said, "It all goes to the stigma of life after Guantánamo. So Guantánamo doesn’t leave you as soon as you say: Hi, goodbye. Nope, it hasn’t finished with you yet. So we still live in Guantánamo 2.0."

Over all these years, there has been plenty of blame to go around. But, now, at the beginning of 2023, Worthington laid responsibility for closing Guantánamo and transferring the men cleared for release out of the island prison, squarely at the feet of the current president, Joe Biden. "Biden and Blinken [Secretary of State] need to accept responsibility," said Worthington, "they have two more years to get this done."

He called on campaigners to focus on the cases of Moath Al-Alwi and Khalid Qasim in particular, two artists who have been cleared for release. They need the United States to arrange for safe settlement in new countries, as U.S. law bars them from returning to Yemen.

Al-Alwi was one of the first men brought to Guantánamo. A self-taught and gifted artist, who makes fanciful models of boats, his work has been shown at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, featured in a New York Times Op-Doc and elsewhere. In 2015, he penned a letter published in Al Jazeera, writing: "I hear the war in Afghanistan is over. This war was supposedly the reason I remained trapped, rotting in this endless horror at Guantánamo Bay. I write this letter today to ask, if this war has ended, why am I still here? Why has nothing changed?"

Qasim was only 25 when he was captured on his first trip outside of his home country and ended up in Guantánamo. There he paints vividly alive sea scenes and abstracts that express his deep frustration at his imprisonment. He has been at the prison for about half his life, and has spent seven years of his imprisonment on hunger strikes in protest.

Cleared for release, these men could be free tomorrow if the administration were serious about closing this grim chapter of our history.

Andy Worthington maintains the GITMO Clock, reminding us that as of this minute the prison has been open for 7,670 days, 22 hours, 11 minutes and 7 seconds [now 7,691 days]. His website is a rich trove of information, analysis and connection to the wider Close Guantánamo movement.

We kept leaning in, listening hard, as Andy Worthington spoke on, hungry not for food but for this breadth and depth of knowledge. Thanks for all you do, Andy!