End 22 Years Of Injustice

Our Achievements in 2023, Marking Guantánamo’s 22nd Anniversary on Jan. 11, and What We Can Do in 2024

Photos from the monthly coordinated global vigils for the closure of Guantánamo on July 5, 2023. Clockwise from top L: London, Washington, D.C., Mexico City and New York.

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By Andy Worthington, January 29, 2024

Thanks to everyone who took part in events marking the 22nd anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay on January 11 — via the 20 vigils for the prison’s closure that took place across the U.S. and around the world, via our ongoing photo campaign, for which over 120 people sent in photos of themselves with a poster marking 8,036 days of the prison’s existence on January 11, and calling for its closure, and via a number of online events.

One of these events was an online panel discussion, hosted by the New America think-tank in Washington, D.C., at which I was joined by the eloquent former prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi, and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who, until recently, was the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism.

Last year, Fionnuala became the first U.N. Rapporteur to visit the prison, subsequently producing what I described at the time as "a devastatingly critical report about systemic, historic and ongoing human rights abuses at the prison," in which she concluded that, despite some improvements to the regime under Presidents Obama and Biden, the totality of ongoing conditions at the prison amounts to "ongoing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment," which, in certain cases, "may also meet the legal threshold for torture."

The video of the event is posted below, via YouTube, and I hope that you have time to watch it, and that you’ll share it if you find it helpful.

Sadly and shamefully, the U.S. mainstream media almost entirely ignored the anniversary, as though the passage of time somehow erases the significance of the continued existence of a facility that is so representative of the U.S.’s post-9/11 hubris, and so inimical to the values that the U.S. claims to hold dear, and that are meant to distinguish democracies — or federal constitutional republics like the U.S. — from dictatorships.

Media editors and journalists, politicians and the American people shouldn’t need reminding of these values, but apparently, in what in so many ways is now the United States of Amnesia, it is somehow considered irrelevant that, at Guantánamo, the U.S. continues to hold indefinitely men who have never been charged with a crime or put on trial, and to imagine, in defiance of logic, that it can successfully prosecute others in a broken trial system, the military commissions, that is largely incapable or recognizing that its efforts to prosecute men subjected, for many years, to horrific torture in CIA "black sites" is incompatible with justice.

For those of us who care, our job in 2024 is what it was in 2023: to continue to highlight, in whatever way we can, the unerring obligation on the U.S. government to release men held indefinitely without charge or trial (most of whom have long been unanimously approved for release by high-level government review processes), and to urge the Biden administration to accept the systemic failure of the military commissions, and to revive the notion of plea deals as the only just resolution of this particularly long and torture-stained travesty of justice.

Our review of 2023 and plans for 2024

In reviewing 2023, it’s noticeable that the most trenchant criticism of the prison came not just from Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, but also from other groups and individuals comprising the U.N.’s Special Mandates: the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which produced two devastating opinions about Abu Zubaydah, one of the three "forever prisoners" — men still held indefinitely without charge or trial, who have not even been approved for release — and one of the men charged, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, and a number of Rapporteurs and Working Groups who came together to condemn the treatment of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, Guantánamo’s most physically disabled prisoner, whose plight reveals the profound inadequacies of the prison’s medical system.

Other highlights came from within the government: a devastating ruling about torture evidence by the judge in al-Nashiri’s case, and a ruling by the DoD’s own Sanity Board that one of the men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, is mentally unfit to stand trial, because he suffers from PTSD and psychosis as a result of his torture.

Elsewhere, what was a good start to the year — the release in Belize of Majid Khan, and the repatriation to Pakistan of the Rabbani brothers — was overshadowed when two subsequent releases — of Ghassan al-Sharbi, returned to Saudi Arabia, and of Said Bakush (aka Saeed Bakhouche), returned to Algeria — revealed, not for the first time, how diplomatic assurances agreed between the U.S. and prisoners’ home countries (or host countries in the cases of men resettled in third countries) are often entirely worthless.

Both men effectively disappeared, and in both cases Fionnuala Ní Aoláin and other Special Mandate holders were obliged to intervene to try to ensure that their home countries and the U.S. recognized their obligations to provide returned prisoners with legal protections and humane treatment. See the letter to the Saudi Government here, and the letter to the Algerian government here.

Since that last release, last April, no one has been freed from Guantánamo, despite the fact that 16 of the 30 men still held have been approved for release. Most need resettling in other countries, because U.S. law prevents their repatriation, but the U.S. government has abjectly failed to devote the time and resources to their freedom that they dedicated to Majid Khan, because Khan’s release was legally required, as part of his plea deal in the military commissions, while the 16 other men — never even charged with a crime, let alone convicted — were only approved for release through administrative processes, which have no legal weight.

Throughout the year, I highlighted the plight of these men both in the U.K. and the E.U., helping to facilitate the creation of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Closure of Guantánamo in the U.K., and initiating a significant meeting in the European Parliament at the end of September, attended by several former prisoners, myself, Fionnuala and others, and hosted by the formidable independent Irish MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace.

The plight of these men was also highlighted at coordinated monthly global vigils for the prison’s closure that I initiated in February on the first Wednesday of every month, and that regularly saw vigils take place in Washington, D.C., in New York City, in London, in Mexico City, in San Francisco, Cobleskill, NY, Detroit, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Brussels and Copenhagen. The vigils are continuing this year, beginning next Wednesday, February 7, and I hope you can join us. The latest poster is shown below.

In addition, we are also continuing our photo campaign, with posters marking 8,100 days on March 15, 8,200 days on June 23, and 8,300 days on October 1, and I hope that you will also be able to support this ongoing initiative, which has now been running for six years.

For further action, U.S. readers are encouraged to write to their Senators and Representatives to ask them to urge President Biden to prioritize the release of the 16 men — and of the three remaining "forever prisoners" — and to reach a just resolution in the cases of the men caught up in the broken military commissions. A particularly useful focus is the 24 Senators and 75 Representatives who wrote to him in his first year in office, calling for urgent action to address the poisonous legacy of Guantánamo.

You can also write to the prisoners, to let them know that they haven't been forgotten. We posted an article about writing to prisoners last July, available here, with a new address that we have just had confirmed after two previous addresses provided led to letters being returned or not arriving, and we hope that this new address proves more reliable. Please feel free to provide feedback about any letters you send.

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin’s assessment

Also worth highlighting, in efforts to engage lawmakers, is the article Fionnuala Ní Aoláin wrote for the anniversary for Just Security, in which she presented "a list of positive steps that would meet some of the immediate rights and needs of the men still detained", as follows:

  • Advance meaningful torture rehabilitation available to all remaining men, including by enabling full access to their medical records and appointing medical personnel with training in complex geriatric care and trauma rehabilitation to the facility.
  • Institute a mechanism that would allow detainees prompt access to independent medical examination and
  • Make the detention facility’s Standard Operating Procedures available to the detained men and their lawyers – bringing certainty and removing trauma inducing helplessness and anxiety from those who remain.
  • Standardize the frequency and quality of family calls, to undo current arbitrariness to ensure that all detainees regardless of their categorization ("high-value" and "non-high-value") are provided with at least one call per month.
  • Increase the frequency of calls with family members for detainees who are now eligible for transfer; expand the level of "extended" family members included in family call (for example to include aunts, uncles, cousins).
  • Standardize and equalize the extent of access to counsel regardless of the category of legal representation, including with respect to the scope of what can be discussed with detainees, the scope of essential items that can be provided, and the scope of access to information and evidence about the detainees’ situation of confinement, including their medical condition.
  • Safeguard the prohibition of all torture-derived evidence from all proceedings, including pre-trial, post-trial and in plea bargains.

She also took aim at the significance of approving men for release, but then not freeing them, which she described as "a particularly egregious form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" in the following passage:

I highlight the unique trauma, anxiety, despair and helplessness felt by those men who have been cleared by the Periodic Review Board, a process in which several federal agencies determine whether continued detention is necessary for U.S. national security, but remain arbitrarily detained at the facility. To know that there is no reason for one’s detention, to have been told of one’s impending release, to have a family member effectively held arbitrarily due to the vastitudes of national policy and the inability to deliver transfer to another country, is a particularly egregious form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Ensuring that human rights compliant transfers happen for this group with urgency should be a priority for the Biden administration. The serious efforts of the State and Defense Departments must be matched by seriousness on the part of White House officials to complete these transfers expeditiously.

She also wrote about the plight of men freed from Guantánamo — far too many of whom, as she notes, have faced "despair, challenges, and undisputable harms," highlighting the cases of Ghassan al-Sharbi and Saeed Bakhouche, and also mentioning Ravil Mingazov, imprisoned in the UAE for the last seven years after being transferred there on the basis of patently false "diplomatic assurances" that he would be helped to rebuild his life.

As she notes, Ravil’s case "highlights the urgency with which the United States should accept its obligations to torture victim survivors and secure a second humanitarian transfer using all its diplomatic resources to a country where Mingazov will be protected, supported by family, and able to recover from sustained and tortuous harm," and that country, as campaigners in the U.K., myself included, are aware, ought to be the U.K., where Ravil’s family was granted asylum.

Fionnuala’s concluding words hopefully provide an inspiring conclusion to this survey of 2023, and our hopes and plans and determination for meaningful progress to be made in 2024. As she states, "The long shadow of Guantánamo is not going away. Until those who ordered, enabled, legally defended and carried out torture are held responsible, Guantánamo will remain with us. The work goes on, simply and most importantly, so it can never happen again."