End 22 Years Of Injustice

Video and Report: The Incredibly Powerful “Close Guantánamo!” Event in the E.U. Parliament, September 28, 2023

Mansoor Adayfi and Mick Wallace at the "Close Guantánamo!" event in the E.U. Parliament on September 28, 2023.

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By Andy Worthington, October 3, 2023

As posted on Andy Worthington's website.

I’ve recently returned from the most extraordinary three-day trip to Brussels, the centrepiece of which was "Close Guantánamo!," an astonishing and deeply moving three-hour event in the E.U. Parliament featuring nine speakers.

Three of the speakers were former prisoners, including Mansoor Adayfi, held for over 14 years at Guantánamo and subsequently resettled in Serbia, where, after nearly seven years, he has only this year secured a passport and been able to travel outside the country. Also speaking were two lawyers, a U.N. Rapporteur and myself, as well as the former Muslim Chaplain at the prison, and the relative of a victim of the 9/11 attacks.

The full video is below, via YouTube, and I hope that you have time to watch it, and that you’ll share if if you find it as inspiring as those who attended it, and those who took part in it. An edited version will hopefully be available soon, including the contents of PowerPoint presentations that were made by some of the speakers, which are not visible in this recording of the event, and the removal of some of the dead time — for example, the general milling about between the first and second sessions.

The event was organized and hosted by the independent Irish MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, and it came about after I first approached them in February, having been inspired by their energy and their anti-war stance, both of which are readily evident to anyone who has come across them on social media.

After a great introductory chat on Zoom, I travelled to Brussels to meet them at the end of March, where, over lunches of fresh baguettes, cheese, salami and olives, prepared by Mick, we began hatching a plot to hold the event that I’ve just returned from, and also began quietly sounding out MEPs to try and find any who might support the notion of offering new homes to the men still held at Guantánamo who have been unanimously approved for release by high-level U.S. government review processes, but who cannot be freed because of a ban imposed by Congress on sending them back to their home countries.

That ban was first imposed by Republicans when Barack Obama was president, and is renewed every year in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, a ban that also, cynically, prevents former prisoners from being resettled in the U.S., or, indeed, from setting foot on U.S. soil for any reason.

Out of 30 men in total who are still held at Guantánamo, 16 have been approved for release, but new homes must be found for at least 13 of these men, as their home countries are on Congress’ proscribed list of countries — eleven are from Yemen, one is from Somalia and one is from Libya.

In that introductory Zoom call, I had also raved to Clare and Mick about Mansoor, and his compelling memoir, "Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost And Found At Guantánamo," and I was delighted to discover, on my visit, that they loved Mansoor’s book, that they had ordered copies of it for all their staff, and that they had all become members of the Mansoor Adayfi Fan Club, an unofficial collection of groups and individuals around the world who recognize that Mansoor, with his boundless energy and kindness — as articulated so clearly in his book, which manages, simultaneously, to be harrowing, hilarious and bursting with humanity — is an unassailably powerful front man for the ongoing efforts to finally get Guantánamo closed.

When Mansoor, a Yemeni, was finally approved for release from Guantánamo, his resettlement in Serbia, in October 2016, was part of a wave of resettlements under President Obama throughout his eight years in office, but mainly during his second term. Those resettlements primarily involved Yemenis, because of the Congressional ban I mentioned above, and also involved high-level diplomatic efforts centered on the role of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, created by Obama.

Although many of these resettlements — in Oman, for example, and in a number of western European countries — were successful, other cases were much more problematical, especially for the 23 men sent to the United Arab Emirates between 2015 and 2017, where promises that they would be helped to rebuild their lives and to be reunited with their families turned to ashes when they were imprisoned instead — subject to abuse, with no access to lawyers, and with extremely limited contact with their families via sporadic phone calls. Five other men, sent to Kazakhstan in December 2014 (where one subsequently died because of medical neglect), have also faced, and are still facing persecution, effectively held under house arrest, and unable to rebuild their shattered lives.

Even when not subjected to these intolerable abuses, however, many of these men have continued to be regarded as a security threat, have found themselves unable to work, inadequately supported, unable to travel, and prevented from having family visits. This was also the case for Mansoor after his resettlement, but the publication of his book, in August 2021, raised his profile internationally, allowing him to reach out to a worldwide community of supporters, and, through dogged perseverance, his attorney, Beth Jacob, eventually secured a Yemeni passport for him, allowing him finally to travel.

In June this year, after 21 and a half years in which his only experience of the world has been via being trapped in Guantánamo and Serbia, Mansoor visited Norway for two days for a human rights event, and his visit to Brussels was his second taste of freedom.

With Mansoor as the focal point of Thursday’s event, Clare, Mick, Mansoor and I had spent the summer formalizing plans for who else to invite to speak, extending invitations to a number of key individuals, and also receiving requests from various interested parties in the U.S. In the days leading up to the event we all gathered in Brussels, transforming the lounge of the hotel where most of us were staying into a venue for the reunion of former prisoners, for comparing notes from the frontline of the struggle to get Guantánamo closed, and for hatching plans for how to move forward in the last 16 months of the Biden presidency.

First meetings and reunions

It was here that I finally got to meet Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian and a dapper family man who was freed in France in 2009, but who is still bewildered by his kidnap, with five other Algerians, in Bosnia-Herzegovina in January 2002, based on startlingly inept U.S. intelligence, and it was here that I also finally got to meet Mansoor, after years of taking part in events with him online, and talking to him via Zoom. To say that he was excited by his visit to Brussels would be an understatement, and it was a true delight for me to finally meet him and to give him a very big hug!

Also present were old friends — Valerie Lucznikowska of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and James Yee, the former Muslim Chaplain at Guantánamo in the prison’s earliest days, who was falsely imprisoned in 2003 on charges of being a spy. Another old friend, Alka Pradhan, Human Rights Counsel at the Guantánamo Bay Military Commissions, part of the defense team for Ammar al-Baluchi, one of five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, arrived soon after with two of her colleagues, and Beth Jacob, who represents a number of the men still held at Guantánamo and approved for release, joined us as we headed out for pizza to a nearby restaurant, where we were joined by another former prisoner, Moazzam Begg, who, of course, I have known for many years.

Also present were other friends of mine who had travelled to Brussels for Thursday’s event — Khandan Lolaki-Noble, a comparatively recent convert to the Guantánamo cause, who has brought phenomenal energy to the British campaign to get Guantánamo closed, and her daughter Yasmin, who helped arrange a recent U.K. tour for former prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi, his former guard Steve Wood and myself, and, from Poland, Anna Minkiewicz, who, in January 2011, brought Moazzam and I out to Poland for a tour of "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo," the documentary film that I co-directed with film-maker Polly Nash, which was released in 2009.

Former Guantánamo prisoners Lakhdar Boumediene, Mansoor Adayfi and Moazzam Begg in Brussels, September 27, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

Later, back at the hotel, I was delighted to finally meet Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, because, in June, she published the most devastating report about historic and continuing abuses at Guantánamo, based on the first ever visit to Guantánamo by a U.N. Rapporteur, which she undertook in February.

I published an annotated edit of her report at the time, which I urge you to read if you haven’t already, to find out how and why she concluded that — even with just 30 men still held, and with some tinkering to improve conditions under Obama and Biden — the failure to "provide any torture rehabilitation to detainees," the continuing violence at the prison, the "structural and entrenched physical and mental healthcare deficiencies," the "inadequate access to family," and the "ongoing, arbitrary detention characterized by fair trial and due process violations," even though the U.S. government "is intimately aware of the depth and severity of many detainees’ current physical and psychological harms," means that "the totality of these factors, without doubt, amounts to ongoing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, and may also meet the legal threshold for torture."

The “Close Guantánamo!” event: the first session

And so to Thursday, and the main event, which, when we arrived, was already full of audience members wearing orange "Close GTMO" T-shirts, created for the event, featuring Mansoor’s prisoner number, 441, and a painting of a kneeling, hooded prisoner by Sabri Al-Qurashi, one of the released prisoners trapped under house arrest in Kazakhstan.

After a brief introduction by Clare, and a few words in French from Lakhdar, Mansoor took to the mike, his infectious good nature on full display, along with his inspiring dedication to his fellow prisoners. Mansoor received a standing ovation after his rousing speech, delivered — finally — after so many years in which he has been prevented from having a public platform at a live event, and, along with piercing insights into how the U.S. government is sick, and needs medical help, what is perhaps his greatest strength is his total lack of rancor, his enthusiasm for a better world so starkly at odds with the violence and brutality of the U.S. authorities at Guantánamo since the prison first opened nearly 22 long years ago.

Everything about Mansoor’s speech was so emotional — his kindness and essential humanity, and his joy at his freedom to be in Brussels and to address the E.U. Parliament — that Clare and Mick were in tears, as were many members of the audience. This was a pattern that was repeated on several occasions throughout the event, and I was struck by a notion that what the world needs much more of is politicians who cry when confronted by monstrous injustices, rather than the dead-eyed sociopaths who so often inflict us with their presence, and from whose ranks, almost invariably, arise individuals who rise to positions of leadership, even though they lack any of the attributes that we actually need.

Former Guantánamo prisoner Mansoor Adayfi speaking at the "Close Guantánamo!" event in the EU Parliament on September 28, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

Mansoor was followed by James Yee, who spoke about his experiences of the prisoners’ religious persecution, and Beth Jacob, who provided an overview of Guantánamo past and present, and also discussed the prisoners’ artwork — a lifeline for a number of the men still held, which, in 2017, under Donald Trump, they were prevented from taking with them when they left the prison, a ban that was only lifted this year after pressure from Fionnuala Ní Aoláin and Alexandra Xanthaki, the U.N. Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights.

The first session ended with Valerie Lucznikowska, whose nephew was killed in the 9/11 attacks, and whose moving speech was very well-received. Valerie, as I noted above, is a member of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, which was created, as they explain on their website, after "a small group of family members of those killed on 9/11 became connected after reading each others’ pleas for nonviolent and reasoned responses to the terrorist attacks." The members of the group are calling for the death penalty to be dropped in the cases of the five men charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks, and for plea deals to be negotiated instead.

This is the only practical solution to the fundamental problem with the 9/11 case — that the use of torture has made a fair trial impossible — but recently, even as the military judge in the 9/11 case accepted a DoD Sanity Board ruling that another of the 9/11 co-accused, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, is mentally unfit to stand trial because of the torture to which he was subjected, President Biden refused to endorse the terms of a plea deal that has been negotiated by prosecutors over the last 18 months.

A rare light-hearted moment at the “Close Guantánamo!” event in the E.U. Parliament on September 28, 2023. From L to R: Beth Jacob, Clare Daly, Mick Wallace and Mansoor Adayfi (Photo: Andy Worthington).

The “Close Guantánamo!” event: the second session

After the speeches ended, around 1:10, there were questions and answers until 1:32, when the process of moving the second set of speakers to the main stage took place. The second session, led by Mick, began at 1:41:30, and, after Mick’s introduction, Alka Pradhan spoke about her client, Ammar al-Baluchi, and the horrendous torture to which he was subjected in the CIA "black sites," which has led to him suffering brain damage. Recently, it has also become clear that Ammar has a tumor on his spine, but, because the provision of appropriate medical care is non-existent at Guantánamo, as Fionnuala made clear in her report, it is a huge uphill struggle to get him the assessment he needs to ascertain whether it is a serious threat to his health.

Fionnuala then spoke, delivering an invaluable précis of her report from 2:08:50 to 2:24:40, reiterating how the current and cumulative effects of policies at Guantánamo "continue to constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment," and adding that "it may well be, in my view, that we meet the threshold for torture in this context." As she also explained, "Many of the men, I think, would make the point that the gap between the past and the present is non-existent at Guantánamo, so their lived experience, notwithstanding the improvement of conditions, means that actually the past isn’t the past, the past is the lived present." She also reminded the U.S. government that they have "an ongoing obligation to ensure that the current conditions of confinement for those who remain there meet fundamental international standards, which they do not do at this time."

Fionnuala also addressed the plight of former prisoners — particularly those resettled in third countries, as also discussed in her report — stressing that the U.S. government "continues to have distinct and concrete legal obligations, both before, during and after transfer of detainees to other countries, whether that’s a country of resettlement, or a country of citizenship." As she added, "When you torture someone, your obligations do not end when you transfer them. There is a clear relationship with the fact of torture and the right of repair for detainees."

The second session at the “Close Guantánamo!” event in the E.U. Parliament on September 28, 2023. From L to R: Moazzam Begg, Andy Worthington, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Alka Pradhan, Clare Daly and Mick Wallace.

I’m delighted to note that, in closing, Fionnuala spoke specifically about the plight of Ravil Mingazov, a Russian Tatar and the last of the 23 men sent to the UAE who is still held largely incommunicado and without access to a lawyer (the others having been repatriated, whether willingly or not, to Afghanistan and Yemen). Not for the first time, the Emirati authorities have made it clear that they want to send Ravil back to Russia, despite the fact that he was specifically sent to the UAE by the U.S. government, in January 2017, because it was regarded as profoundly unsafe for him to return home.

Campaigners, myself included, and MPs and peers in the U.K. are currently working to try and get Ravil resettled in the U.K., where his family members, including his son Yusuf, were granted asylum many years ago, and Fionnuala, who recently reminded the UAE government of their obligations, spoke powerfully about how his case shamefully undermines the credibility of diplomatic assurances regarding transfers from Guantánamo, as it also does in the cases of men transferred to other countries — Kazakhstan, for example — where all pre-transfer agreements have been broken. As she explained, the U.S. government has an ongoing, and unswervable obligation to make sure that, firstly, diplomatic assurances are adhered to, and to follow up if they are not, and, secondly, to arrange second resettlements for men transferred from Guantánamo if the first are unsuccessful.

In her final words, she pointed out, "There is no statute of limitations for torture, and the people who ordered, committed, supported, acquiesced in torture remain liable for the rest of their lives for the acts that they have committed, and, as Martin Luther King said, sometime the arc of justice moves slowly, but we do not forget, and we do not forget torture."

Fionnuala was a hard act to follow, obviously, but I think I managed to keep the momentum going in a punchy, ten-minute, largely improvised speech (from 2:25 to 2:35:45), in which I returned to the cases of the 16 men still held who have been approved for release, noting how, from the beginning, the U.S. government, horrifyingly, held all the men imprisoned at Guantánamo as human beings with no rights whatsoever.

I then ran through the various legal challenges and administrative review processes of the last 21 years to demonstrate that, apart from a period from 2008 to 2010 when 32 men secured release through having their habeas corpus petitions granted by U.S. judges (a legal right that was then shut down by politically motivated appeals court judges), the 16 men hoping that they will one day be freed — and in most cases hoping that the countries of the E.U. will help them — remain as fundamentally without rights now as they were when Guantánamo opened.

This is because the administrative processes used to approve them for release have no legal weight, and they cannot appeal to a judge to order their release if, as is shamefully apparent, the U.S. government is dragging its heels when it comes to freeing them. As I explained, on the day our event took place, these 16 men had been waiting for between 370 and 1,035 days since the U.S. government first decided that it no longer wanted to hold them — and in three cases for 4,997 days.

As I stated in my concluding comments, "The United States has dug the most disgusting immoral hole of its own making at Guantánamo, approving men for release who have never been charged with a crime, and not being able to release them. And we are in this powerful political bloc of countries, in Europe, who can do something about it. And as I say, it’s 16 men in total, and I estimate that it’s 13 of those men that need resettling. Can we please find a way to do that, and to do our own small part, in Europe, to bring to an end this absolutely monstrous and ongoing injustice?"

I was delighted that Mick responded to my speech by describing it as "a short description of a horror story, in layman’s language," before moving on to the final speaker, Moazzam Begg, who spoke about recently visiting the former U.S. prison at Bagram airbase, where prisoners were held before their transfer to Guantánamo, and where he witnessed the murder of an innocent Afghan taxi driver in U.S. custody. Moazzam also spoke about the sorrow and injustice of prisoners being separated from their families, often never knowing their children until their release, and railed against the persistent deprivation of the rights of former prisoners, even when released. His most memorable soundbite was that, as the U.S. perceives it, and as has spread across the world over the last 22 years, "Although not all terrorists are Muslims, all Muslims are terrorists."

A photo taken at the end of the “Close Guantánamo!” event in the E.U. Parliament on September 28, 2023. In the front row, from L to R, Alka Pradhan, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Lakhdar Boumediene, Belgian former Guantánamo prisoner Moussa Zemmouri, Moazzam Begg, Andy Worthington, Mansoor Adayfi, Clare Daly, James Yee, Valerie Lucznikowska, Mick Wallace and Beth Jacob.

After another Q&A session, and opportunities to meet with audience members and to take photos, we went for lunch, and then five of us — Mansoor, myself, Valerie, Alka and Beth — held a press conference with Clare, each speaking for two to three minutes, which was subsequently posted on X (formerly Twitter). Follow the thread for all the speeches, and see here and here for my contribution.

That evening, we went out for a meal to a Middle Eastern restaurant, where, of course, the Guantánamo chatter continued, and on Friday, before my return to London, I returned to the E.U. Parliament for a debrief with Clare and Mansoor, before which, I was delighted to note, I got to once more enjoy one of Mick’s wonderful lunches.

Reflections and future plans

In an unfortunate, but totally expected manner, the mainstream media failed to report on the event, despite the evident newsworthiness of Mansoor’s presence, but that, of course, is something that we’re all by now painfully used to. Fortunately, as I noted above, both Clare and Mick have a significant online presence, and it is reassuring that, in the weeks to come, they will continue to promote the event on their various social media platforms, including some of the speeches in their podcasts, and editing some of the presentations into short, or even shorter videos depending on the attention span of their various audiences.

What was also noticeable, however, and as I frequently discussed during my visit, was how remote the U.S. government was, as though they live on another planet. Opinions vary as to how engaged the State Department is with the resettlement issue, despite the presence of Tina Kaidanow, a veteran diplomat who was appointed in August 2022 as the Special Representative for Guantánamo Affairs, and who is "responsible for all matters pertaining to the transfer of detainees from the Guantánamo Bay facility to third countries." However, it was hard not to reflect on what appeared to be the U.S. government’s complete indifference towards our efforts to help them find new homes for men who cannot be repatriated, and to wonder at how much effort the State Department has actually put into encouraging the countries of the E.U. to engage in the U.S.’s desperately important resettlement problem.

We must all hope that Tina Kaidanow and her team are working on plans that will eventually materialize, but it really doesn’t help that the entire U.S. government seems so remote and uninterested, and it is, of course, also noticeable that, while Kaidanow’s boss, Antony Blinken, can find the time to sing and play a blues song by Muddy Waters at a comfortable U.S. establishment event, neither he nor President Biden appear to be engaged at all in the resettlement problem, even though it almost certainly requires high-level input and support at the highest levels of government.

While some avenues to potential settlement in Europe will continue to be explored by Clare and Mick, with whatever help the rest of us can provide, it also remains apparent that the rightwards drift of politics in the E.U. — especially noticeable since the Obama-era resettlements — has only made what was already an uphill struggle even harder.

That said, our event, by bringing together such powerful advocates for justice, spelled out clearly to us how we must continue to focus our efforts on further events, in other countries, and at other prominent locations, throughout the rest of the Biden presidency, and also crystallized for all of us how our efforts must focus unerringly on the particular points highlighted repeatedly throughout the event: securing freedom for the 16 men approved for release, securing adequate medical treatment for all the men still held, reminding the U.S. government that it continues to have an obligation to ensure the welfare of former prisoners, even after their release, and, in the longer run, working towards accountability for the crimes that the U.S. government has committed, and still continues to commit at Guantánamo.