A man held at the Guantánamo Bay prison for nearly 13 years without charge has been transferred to his home country of Kuwait. The Department of Defense made the announcement of his release Wednesday. Thirty-seven-year-old Fawzi al Odah is the first man to be released based on the assessment of the Periodic Review Board, a body established in 2011 through an executive order and tasked with evaluating the merits of ongoing detention for Guantánamo prisoners. Agence France-Presse reports that in 2001, Odah “was seized by tribesmen in northern Pakistan, who sold him to the Pakistani army, which in turn handed him over to the United States.” The transfer agreement requires al Odah to spend at least a year at a rehabilitation facility, according to reporting by the Associated Press.
On Monday October 6 a trial will begin in which attorneys for Wa-ei Dhiab will seek a stop to the brutal forced-feeding of men at Guantánamo protesting their indefinite detention and abuse at the prison. Witness Against Torture is calling for a public presence at the courthouse to demand an end to forced-feeding and the closing of Guantánamo. Dhiab is a Syrian man held without charge or trial at Guantánamo since 2002 and cleared for release in 2009 by the US government. He has, according to his attorneys, been forcibly extracted from his cell and force-fed as many as three times a day since the start of the most recent Guantanamo hunger strike in the winter/spring 2012. Dhiab’s lawsuit seeks an end to forced-feeding. Justice Gladys Kessler, who is hearing the case, has described forced-feeding at the prison as “painful, humiliating, and degrading.” The lawsuit is our best chance to have the courts do what President Obama has been unwilling to do — end forced-feeding.
Few realize how expensive it is to keep Guantanamo Bay prison operational. The Joint Task Force (JTF) detention center, which opened in 2002, costs US taxpayers $140 million a year, breaking down to about $800,000 per detainee. The JTF was never meant to be permanent, yet twelve long years after the first round of prisoners arrived, 149 prisoners remain detained there indefinitely. The oft repeated lie that these men are the “worst of the worst” has clouded the reality that the vast majority are completely innocent, and were simply swept up in a dragnet in Afghanistan. 78 have already been deemed innocent and cleared for release, yet pure political theater keeps them imprisoned.
Citing President Obama’s major 2013 counter terrorism speech, wherein he acknowledged that a US drone had targeted and killed a U.S. citizen (Anwar Al-Awlaki) and where the President was forced to discuss GITMO because, “it was the height of a hunger strike and it attracted attention around the world.” In that speech, Leopold notes, Obama lifted a moratorium, “that he put into place and here we are year later and there have been no Yemeni’s released. As we saw with the swap with the Taliban of the five prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, that was a fight he was willing to wage with Congress.”
There are many crimes committed in the pursuit of, or as an accessory to, the crimes of US Foreign Policy. I’m not exactly sure where to rank the operation of Guantanamo Bay on that list, but consider these numbers, compiled by the Center for Constitutional Rights: 779 men and boys have been imprisoned at Guantánamo since January 2002. 100% of them are Muslim. Of the 149 who remain there, 78 have been cleared for release for years but are still imprisoned. President Obama’s Task Force has designated 38 men for indefinite detention without charge or trial. The longer the illegal prison remains open, the more accepting of its existence American citizens seem to be, at least according to Gallup poll conducted in the days after the release of Sgt. Bergdahl in exchange for 5 prisoners who were not on that list cleared for release. That poll revealed that 66% of Americans said the U.S. should not “close this prison and move some of the prisoners to U.S. prisons.” That is up from the 53% of Americans who said the same thing in July of 2007. Today, again, according to that latest Gallup poll, just 29% of Americans want the facility closed and the prisoners either released or transported to the U.S.
If you didn’t think that things could get any lower in American politics, then the events of the last week were surely a shocking reminder that no matter how rancorous our discourse, things can always get worse. That’s because a simple prisoner exchange has suddenly, out of nowhere, become a fresh source of outrage for those on the partisan right. If you have been living under a rock and failed to notice it, the right-wing firestorm that erupted over the trading of five Guantanamo Bay prisoners for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years, was something completely unexpected. How is it, one can reasonably ask, that recovering Sgt. Bergdahl could have possibly been so controversial? To this, critics of the swap say, look at whom we traded and who we traded them for. If the American right wing is to be believed, the five prisoners released in exchange for Bergdahl were some of the worst-of-the-worst — diehard fanatics dedicated to killing our troops wherever and whenever they could. Bergdahl, on the other hand, is a traitorous deserter who, in leaving, provided the opportunity for a number of his fellow comrades to be ambushed while on a patrol looking for him.
Over the weekend the government of Qatar brokered a dramatic deal between the US and the Taliban to swap five Guantánamo prisoners for Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier held as a prisoner of war for almost five years. Flexing his political clout, President Obama demonstrated his ability to navigate with ease through the Congressional obstacles in the way of releasing prisoners from Guantánamo. Some House Republicans accused the President of breaking the law to get his way. But the Obama administration made it clear that the President had added a “signing statement” to the bill restricting the transfer of Guantánamo detainees, saying that the restrictions violated his Constitutional prerogative. Called “the hardest of the hardcore” by hawkish Republican Senator John McCain, the Guantánamo prisoners released in the swap have been identified as high-level Taliban operatives. According to Human Rights Watch, one of those released, Mullah Norullah Nori, could be prosecuted for possible war crimes, including mass killings. All of the men were recommended for continued detention because of their “high-risk” status. Qatar has assured the US that the released men will be held and monitored in Qatar for at least a year, but some US officials are highly critical of the move, saying that the men are likely to return to their former positions within the Taliban.
If you want to understand why it’s the case that on the one hand, the US public and the majority of Congress turned against the war in Afghanistan a long time ago, and yet on the other hand, it’s been so hard to end the war, this week’s warmonger media storm against the diplomatic rescue of US prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been very instructive. It’s been known for years that a key step toward ending the war would be exchanging five Taliban prisoners of war at Guantanamo for the release of Sgt. Bergdahl. There has never been any serious dispute of the case that this would be a key step toward ending the war. I challenge anyone to find a counter-example to my claim. The political forces that are trashing the deal to rescue Sgt. Bergdahl are the same political forces that got us into the Iraq war. They are the same political forces who want to keep the Afghanistan war going indefinitely. They are the same political forces who want to keep the Guantanamo prison open indefinitely. Again, I challenge anyone to provide a single counterexample of someone in Congress who voted against the Iraq war, or who has been a leader in trying to end the war in Afghanistan, or who has been a leader in trying to close the Guantanamo prison, who is now trashing the diplomatic deal to rescue Sgt. Bergdahl.
The excuse-making on behalf of President Obama has always found its most extreme form when it came time to explain why he failed to fulfill his oft-stated 2008 election promise to close Guantanamo. As I’ve documented many times, even the promise itself was misleading, as it became quickly apparent that Obama — even in the absence of congressional obstruction — did not intend to “close GITMO” at all but rather to re-locate it, maintaining its defining injustice of indefinite detention. But the events of the last three days have obliterated the last remaining excuse. In order to secure the release of American POW Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Obama administration agreed to release from Guantanamo five detainees allegedly affiliated with the Taliban. But as even stalwart Obama defenders such as Jeffery Toobin admit, Obama “clearly broke the law” by releasing those detainees without providing Congress the 30-day notice required by the 2014 defense authorization statute (law professor Jonathan Turley similarly observed that Obama’s lawbreaking here was clear and virtually undebatable).
Shortly after he became President in 2009, Barack Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay within a year. “The detention facilities at Guantanamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order,” said Obama’s executive order. “If any individuals covered by this order remain in detention at Guantanamo at the time of the closure of those detention facilities, they shall be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility.” Five years later, Guantanamo Bay remains open. On Friday in more than 30 cities around the world including Toronto, a global day of action was held calling for the end of indefinite detentions and the closure of Guantanamo.
The U.S. ‘must’ force-feed a hunger striking Guantánamo detainee, according to a U.S. federal judge who late Thursday night lifted a temporary restraining order against performing the process—widely considered a form of torture—on Syrian inmate Abu Wa’el Dhiab. District judge Gladys Kessler said the decision was made because of the “very real probability” that Dhiab, who continues to be held at the detention facility despite having been cleared for release in 2009, might die. While issuing the decision, Kessler slammed the Department of Defense for inflicting what she described as “unnecessary pain” on those being held—both through force-feeding and the practice of “Forcible Cell Extractions,” which Kessler halted in a ruling last week. “The Court is now faced with an anguishing Hobson’s choice,” said Kessler.
Lawyers for the Obama administration have described as “frivolous” attempts to ensure that videos of force-feeding at Guantanamo Bay are not destroyed, in response to a case brought by a detainee over his mistreatment. Legal charity Reprieve, acting on behalf of Abu Wa’el Dhiab – who has been cleared since 2009 but continues to be held without charge or trial – had sought to ensure that videos showing his force-feeding cannot be destroyed by the military. However, the US Government is strongly resisting efforts to secure a court order preserving the videos, which could be crucial evidence for Mr Dhiab’s efforts to stop his force-feeding. Government lawyers did however admit that “there are approximately 140 to 150 FCE videos of [Mr Dhiab] between April 9, 2013 and February 19, 2014 [and] it appears that the vast majority of these videos are of FCEs in connection with enteral feeding or otherwise arguably related to enteral feeding.” An FCE, or ‘Forcible Cell Extraction,’ is the process by which detainees who do not wish to be force-fed are restrained, often violently, and taken to the force-feeding chair.
In a decision welcomed as “a major crack in Guantanamo’s years-long effort to oppress prisoners,” a federal judge on Friday ordered the United States to halt the force-feeding and “Forcible Cell Extractions” of a prisoner at the notorious offshore prison. The order from District Court Judge Gladys Kessler also requires the U.S. to preserve videotapes of the FCEs and force-feedings of the inmate, Abu Wa’el Dhiab. Forcible Cell Extractions or FCEs refer to when a team of guards forcibly remove from his cell a prisoner who refuses to submit to the torturous process of force-feeding. According to Reprieve, a UK-based rights group that represents 15 Guantanamo prisoners, including Dhiab, the 42-year old Syrian was arrested in 2002 in Pakistani, where he and his family were living, and was turned over the the United States. He has spent over a decade languishing at the prison, was never charged and was cleared for release in 2009. He is depressed and wheelchair-bound, the group says.
A prisoner in Guantánamo Bay has revealed to his lawyers the increasingly brutal punishment meted out to detainees peacefully protesting their indefinite detention via hunger strike. Emad Hassan wrote in a letter to his lawyers: “One Yemeni is 80 pounds and he was brought to his feeding by the Forced Cell Extraction (FCE) team, Guantánamo’s official riot police. Yesterday the F.C.E team beat him when they came into and out of his cell. He is 80 pounds with one broken arm. He cannot walk, just crawl from his bed to the faucet or toilet once he needs to use it! How can someone with this condition fight 8 armoured guards?” Emad, himself a Yemeni who has been on hunger strike since 2007 and cleared for release from the prison since 2007, has never been charged with a crime. He said in another letter: “As I write now, [a detainee] is vomiting on the torture chair, having been brought there by the Forced Cell Extraction (FCE) team. The nurse and corpsman have refused to stop the feed, or to slow the acceleration of the liquids.”
Not Another Broken Promise! Not Another Day in Guantanamo! On May 23rd of last year, President Obama again promised to close the detention facility at Guantánamo. His pledge came in response to the mass hunger strike by men protesting their indefinite detention and to the renewed, global condemnation of the prison. One year later, far too little has changed: few detained men have left the prison and hunger strikes and forced feeding continue. Join us in over 25 cities across the US and around the world to urge President Obama and Congress to end indefinite detention and close the detention facility at Guantánamo. So far, demonstrations, fasts, and vigils are planned in Chicago, Raleigh, New York City, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Buffalo, and Boston. Join Witness Against Torture June 27-30, 2014 as we gather together in Washington, DC to commemorate Torture Awareness Month. Our time together will include public witness with members of the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), community building, and planning for future events.