Eleven Years On: Being Imprisoned at Guantanamo Worse Than Being Confined by Totalitarian State
Eleven years ago, the United States began to imprison detainees in the Guantanamo Bay prison camps. One hundred and sixty-six prisoners remain imprisoned. One hundred and fifty-seven have not been charged with any crime. Eighty-six of the prisoners have been cleared for release. Yet, all three branches of the United States government, the vast majority of the US media, and most Americans do not seem to find the ongoing injustice at Guantanamo to be all that significant or troubling.
Andy Worthington, an investigative journalist and expert on the prisoners who remain at Guantanamo, spoke at a rally near the White House yesterday. He put the situation for prisoners in these starkly profound terms:
…The difference between the United States and a brutal dictatorship is that when a brutal dictatorship puts somebody in prison and throws away a key and says you’re not having a trial. You’re going to be held without charge or trial for the whole of your life. You’re going to be detained indefinitely for the rest of your life—They just throw away the key. What they don’t do is say, hey we’ve got a review process. We cleared you for release, but, hey, we’re not actually going to release you. That makes the United States worse than the brutal dictatorships that don’t pretend that there’s any form of justice…
As part of President Barack Obama’s executive order to close Guantanamo, a Guantanamo Review Task Force (GRTF) was setup. It was coordinated by the Attorney General. A senior-level Review Panel assembled and examined relevant information to make proper recommendations on what to do with each prisoner at Guantanamo.
The GRTF’s report published on January 22, 2010, indicates the interagency review was done by a Task Force of “60 career professionals, including intelligence analysts, law enforcement agents, and attorneys, drawn from the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of State, Department of Homeland Security, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other agencies within the intelligence community.” They conducted a “rigorous examination” and considered “the threat posed by the detainee, the reliability of the underlying information, and the interests of national security.”
According to a report from Worthington on June 6, 2012, forty prisoners were cleared for release as early as five years ago but were still imprisoned. And all these men have likely experienced the false hope of finally being able to leave prison.
Adnan Latif, a prisoner from Yemen, was one of those prisoners. In an “op-doc” by filmmaker Laura Poitras, she notes the Department of Defense recommended Latif be released in 2006, 2008 and 2009. US District Court Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. ordered his release in 2010 over lack of evidence. But, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the government’s intelligence reports were enough to keep him in detention.
Latif died on September 8, 2012, under suspicious circumstances. The government ruled it was a suicide. He overdosed on psychiatric medication. However, as Jeff Kaye of Truthout asked: how would Latif have managed to hoard and deliberately overdose on pharmaceuticals at a prison facility where detainees are under constant surveillance?
Part of the answer may be gleaned from this letter from Latif:
In a letter sent to his attorneys on May 28, 2010,the Yemeni detainee claimed he was given “contraband” items, such as a spoon and a “big pair of scissors … by the person responsible for Camp 5,” where uncooperative prisoners are sent.
“I am being pushed toward death every moment,” Latif wrote to human rights attorneys David Remes and Marc Falkoff. The communication was written in Arabicand translated into English by a translator Remes has worked with for nearly a decade.
“The way they deal with me proves to me that they want to get rid of me, but in a way that they cannot be accused of causing it,” Latif wrote.
Latif openly expressed his belief that no one would believe his story about the systematic abuse he had endured, and that he expected he would end up dead amid mysterious circumstances.
“It seems that I might have to send you my body parts and flesh to make you believe me and to believe to what degree of misery I have reached,” he wrote in that May 28, 2010 letter to Remes and Falkoff. “I am happy to die just to get away from a non-extinguishable fire and no-end torture. Marc and David: In the end, I am a human being.”
In Poitras’ short, David Remes, who was Latif’s lawyer, reads some notes Latif wanted shared with his family. The notes detail how his health is bad. He’s on a hunger strike. He was in solitary confinement. He described his cell as a solitary box. He added, “If they feel you are about to die, they take you to a solitary cell in Camp One that is designed for torture and you can’t imagine. Some have been on a hunger strike for one year and a half. They force feed them. My wish is to die. We are living in a dying situation.”
“He had heard about psychotropic medicine being put in coffee and that people had been unable to sleep for days and that was one of the reasons he refused [psychotropic medicine],” Remes reads. “When he told us that he wished to die, he made clear it was not his wish but he was doing it because of the misery of the situation and it was the only way that he felt he could escape. He couldn’t escape the prison in one way so he was going to escape another way, through death.”
Through Latif (and other men cleared for release who may be contemplating death as well), one can see the institutionalization and normalization of sheer inhumanity, which President Obama pledged to close but then proceeded to allow Republicans and some in his own staff to obstruct from being accomplished. When that happened, he did not speak to Americans about the number of innocent people America had imprisoned who committed no crimes. He did not fully explain who these people were that had been cleared for release so the hysteria could be squelched. He allowed politicians like Frank Wolf to continue to cry out loud about boogeymen he did not want to see in the United States if Guantanamo was closed.
It cannot be ignored that Latif was Yemeni. When the GRTF report was released, thirty Yemeni prisoners were not cleared for release because of the security situation in Yemen.
Worthington has explained:
…As a result of the hysteria that greeted the news that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian citizen who tried and failed to detonate a bomb in his underwear on a flight into the US on Christmas Day 2009, had been recruited in Yemen, President Obama issued a moratorium on releasing any Yemenis from Guantánamo in January 2010. This is still in place nearly two and a half years later, even though no connection has been made between the Yemenis cleared for release from Guantánamo, and the al-Qaeda offshoot in Yemen — al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — that apparently recruited Abdulmutallab.
Now, the US works closely with the Yemeni government to execute people it believes are terrorists with drone or air strikes. This tactic for combatting terrorism in Yemen, according to Gregory Johnsen, has resulted in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) growing from “200-300 fighters in 2009, when the U.S. bombing campaign began, to more than 1,000 fighters.” Therefore, one could argue the covert drone war in Yemen is responsible for why men being essentially held indefinitely without charge cannot return to their home country.
The nomination of John Brennan for the position of CIA chief does not improve the prospects for Yemenis in Guantanamo. Drone strikes are likely to continue and perhaps intensify this year. Brennan fervently believes in extrajudicial assassinations as a tool to dismember Al Qaeda. Even though there is proof it drone strikes lead to the violent radicalization of communities and villages in Yemen, he thinks this “counterterror” measure, which involves blowing bodies to smithereens without any judicial process, is a good way to “help” the Yemeni people meet their “aspirations.” So, unfortunately, Yemeni prisoners are likely to remain detained in the prison camps and separated from their families for quite some time.