Letter from America

Futility at Guantanamo

Print edition : August 09, 2013

Demonstrators in front of the U.S. embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, on June 17, dressed in prison uniforms, demanding the release of Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo. Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP

Courthouse One at Guantanamo on June 17, where preliminary hearings were reconvened in the 9/11 case. Photo: Bill Gorman/AP

Yemen's Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour has begun to speak out for the release of the prisoners. Photo: AFP

A drone being prepared for launch on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Ocean on July 10. Photo: Rich-Joseph Facun/Reuters

Attorney General Eric Holder says the drone programme is “not a function of not trying to take people to Guantanamo”. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The shadowy status of the U.S.’ penal colony at Guantanamo Bay has the prisoners stuck in purgatory: unable to be tried for unknown crimes and unable to be released by a government paralysed by its own counterterrorism menagerie.

INTERNATIONAL law streaks past the United States’ penal colony at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Despite the howls of protest from United Nations agencies and from campaigners for human rights, the camps at Guantanamo remain intact. On August 2, 2007, Senator Barack Obama electrified the liberal base in the U.S. with his promise that if elected President he would “close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act and adhere to the Geneva Conventions”. A few days after taking office as President, Obama surrounded himself with retired generals and signed an Executive Order to close down the prison within the year. Now in his second term, Obama has not fulfilled this promise. In fact, 166 prisoners remain at Guantanamo, and the overwhelming sense of futility about their future drove 106 of them to begin a hunger strike in February 2013. To break the strike, the Obama administration authorised the force-feeding of the prisoners. A court case brought by three prisoners who sought an end to the force-feeding at least during Ramadan was rejected by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler on July 9, who said that her court did not have jurisdiction over the enemy combatants in Guantanamo. The shadowy status of Guantanamo has these prisoners stuck in purgatory—unable to be tried for unknown crimes and unable to be released by a government paralysed by its own counterterrorism menagerie.

To raise awareness about the hunger strike, the force-feeding and the prisoners themselves, the organisation Reprieve, which also offers legal counsel for some prisoners, released an informative report, “Down the Tubes: the 2013 Hunger Strikes at Guantanamo Bay”, in July. This report of 30 pages introduces readers to a few of the prisoners and lays out the main issues raised by the strike and by the prison. Of the 800 prisoners who have been at Guantanamo since 2001, only 166 remain. A U.S. government study found that fewer than 3 per cent of the total number of Guantanamo prisoners would ever be charged with a crime. Of those who remain in the prison, more than half have been cleared for release by the Guantanamo Review Task Force of 2009. This means that some of these clearances have been frozen in amber for the past four years.

Nabil Hadjarab, a 33-year-old French-Algerian, has been in prison for the past 11 years despite being cleared for release. In the Reprieve report, Hadjarab lays out his mental state, including the reason why he participated in the hunger strike: “I have no hope of getting out and that’s why I started. I want to go home. I have come to the conclusion that nothing can substitute for my freedom. I’m being detained here indefinitely with no charge. I’ve been waiting so long for my freedom. I’m tired of having my rights violated. It was hard enough in Obama’s first term when there was so little progress on this issue. For him still to have ignored us in his second term—this, to us, is insanity. As time passes I feel more and more like I will be here indefinitely. The mind cannot take this, day after day. I will eat again when I know I will go, when I see some hope that cleared men go.”

The Guantanamo authorities responded to the hunger strike with force-feeding and other techniques to break the spirit of the prisoners. As Reprieve put it, “based on the language used by the prison authorities, it is clear that they forcibly feed for two reasons: to meet a perceived hostile act with a violent response and to prevent the death of hunger strikers which would result in public outcry”. Prisoners reported to Reprieve that the methods of force-feeding—a lubricated tube forcibly inserted into the throat through the nose—was degrading and violent. To raise popular awareness of what is happening at Guantanamo, the musician Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) agreed when Reprieve asked him to be force-fed on camera. Following the “Standard Operating Procedure: Medical Management of Detainees on Hunger Strike” (a U.S. government document obtained by Al Jazeera), Dr Adeeb Husain strapped Bey down and proceeded to put the tube into his nose. Bey began to thrash and begged that the procedure end. “I can’t do this,” he said when it stopped, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” The video went viral. In 1975, and again in 2006, the World Medical Association considered the use of force-feeding to be “unethical”. No wonder, then, that Rupert Coville, spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in early May: “If it’s perceived as torture or inhuman treatment—and it’s the case, it’s painful—then it is prohibited by international law.”

Republic of drones

Eight hundred people have been through the Guantanamo system. It was the “white site”, while the “high-value targets” of the George W. Bush years went to the “black sites” where the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence agencies were able to freely interrogate them. These “black sites” were in parts of the Arab world (now in turmoil: Egypt, Libya and Syria) and in Eastern Europe. It became clear that the prisoners in Guantanamo, swept up from Afghanistan and Pakistan after 2001, had very little material connection to Al Qaeda’s operations. European countries used their leverage against the U.S. government to bring out their citizens. When three Saudi Arabian nationals (Yasser Talal al-Zahrani, Mani Shaman Turki al-Harbadi al-Utaybi and Abdul Rahman al-Amri) died in custody (the U.S. claimed that they had committed suicide), the Saudis were able to reclaim the rest of their nationals between 2006 and 2007. If the home country did not want to claim their nationals, or if the U.S. government had doubts about those countries, the detainees remained. The detention of the men in Guantanamo, then, was less about their potential threat than about the state of their home country.

Fifty-six of the prisoners who are slated for release are from Yemen. The now deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh played a double game with the U.S. during the 2000s. He used the potential threat of Al Qaeda to secure U.S. aid and assistance for his increasingly unpopular regime. In March 2009, while meeting U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan, Saleh said that he would entertain the repatriation of the Yemeni prisoners only if the Saudis built a Guantanamo-like prison (“rehabilitation centre”) in Aden with $11 million in U.S. funding. “We will offer the land in Aden,” Saleh told Brennan, “and you and the Saudis will provide the funding.” All this went by the wayside after the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airline by Yemen’s branch of Al Qaeda in late 2009. In January 2010, the Obama administration imposed a moratorium on transfers to Yemen, and in the next year’s U.S. federal budget, it restricted funds for such transfers.

Legal grey area

The Guantanamo dilemma comes from the Bush-era style of counterterrorism. Prisoners picked up in the battlefields of Afghanistan or else arrested in Al Qaeda redoubts from Malaysia to Somalia were dispatched either to the “black sites” or to Guantanamo. The Bush administration entered a legal grey area, treating the men as “enemy combatants” who deserved neither the protections under the Geneva Conventions nor the benefits of the U.S. legal system. Uncomfortable with the legal ecology of the Bush administration, the Obama government attempted a new strategy. Rather than arrest Al Qaeda operatives, it sought to use its allied regimes, its surveillance networks and its drones to assassinate them. Skirting the legal marshland of the Bush years, the Obama administration has stepped into its own legal quicksand. A May 2012 article in The New York Times noted that the Obama administration “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”. As U.S. counterterrorism officials told The Times, “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Al Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good”. The Yemeni government had colluded with the U.S. on this drone strategy, which is far easier to live with than the constant irritation of Guantanamo.

The treatment of Yemen as the front-line of the war against Al Qaeda has built up a coalition in the U.S. that specifically opposes any repatriation to Yemen. Senator Kelly Ayotte, who has led the effort to block transfers out of Guantanamo, said, “We know there is significant Al Qaeda activity in Yemen. I obviously have some serious questions about Yemen.” Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda and America’s War in Arabia (2013) shows that Al Qaeda flourished briefly in the interstices of Yemen’s domestic politics. When Saleh found them useful he encouraged the jehadis, only to drop them when the U.S. turned its eye on them. When Saleh ceded power to his successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, in February 2012, stability still eluded Yemen. Battles against Al Qaeda in Zinjibar and Lawdar in 2011 and 2012 went the government’s way, but a suicide bombing in the capital, Sana’a, in May 2012 worried the authorities. Add to this conflict the Houthi rebels in the north and piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and the reality of Yemen’s instability comes into focus. The drone attacks have helped little to bring legitimacy to the Hadi government, which labours under the perception that it is simply a continuation of the Saleh regime and that it too kowtows to U.S. pressure.

Yemeni politics has been impacted by the hunger strike at Guantanamo. The families of some of the detainees came to Sana’a in April to protest outside the U.S. embassy and to meet Yemen’s officials. Meanwhile, Yemen’s charismatic Minister for Human Rights, Hooria Mashhour, took up the case of the political prisoners arrested during the uprising against Saleh and held in Yemen’s jails. Her hunger strike earned several of them their freedom. With the issue of political prisoners in the air, Hooria Mashhour then began to speak out openly for the release of those held in Guantanamo. She travelled to Washington to lobby for their release, noting that a rehabilitation centre in Yemen would cost less than the exorbitant sums spent to maintain Guantanamo.

Hooria Mashhour’s sustained campaign, alongside the entreaties of the detainees’ families, pushed Hadi to openly express his own dismay. “We believe that keeping someone in prison for over 10 years without due process is clear-cut tyranny,” Hadi told the Russian news channel RT. “The United States is fond of talking democracy and human rights. But when we were discussing the prisoner issue with the American Attorney General, he had nothing to say.” In fact, when Attorney General Eric Holder was asked whether the drone programme had become a substitute for a Guantanamo-type scenario, he told a Congressional committee: “It is not a function of not trying to take people to Guantanamo.” Drones crowd the sky over Yemen, casting judgment from the sky against people who would otherwise be sitting in limbo in Guantanamo. That only 3 per cent of those taken to the penal colony will be charged with an offence should caution the government about its certainty that those who it is killing in Yemen are actually terrorists.

Meanwhile, back in Guantanamo, the U.S. authorities announced on July 12 that two of the prisoners had given up their hunger strike. The pressure on them is enormous; 104 prisoners remain on strike and 45 of them are force-fed at night time to keep with a Ramadan fast. The prisoners have been quiet, said Navy Captain Robert Durant, the camp’s spokesperson. “It may be Ramadan is generous,” he said.

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