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Obama Administration Secretly Fights Release of Gravely Ill Guantanamo Prisoner

President Barack Obama’s administration opposes the release of a Guantanamo Bay prisoner, who has never been charged with a crime, weighs around 75 pounds, and is near death. But the administration does not want the public to know why exactly it opposes freeing this gravely ill man.

Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni prisoner and resident of Saudi Arabia, has been on hunger strike for more than eight years at the military prison. He has been confined in “solitary conditions” for 13 years, despite the fact that Obama’s own review task force—comprised of officials from the top US security agencies—cleared Odah for release in 2009. His body can no longer endure the effects of nasal tube feedings.

In June, his lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights launched a legal push to have Odah released because the US has an “obligation to release seriously wounded and sick prisoners” under the “laws of war,” particularly the Third Geneva Convention.

“Because today’s filing is under seal, we cannot comment on its substance.  However, we are deeply disappointed by this secret filing,” Odah’s lawyer Omar Farah stated. “There is nothing sensitive about this pivotal moment that needs to be withheld from the public.  Mr. Ba Odah’s grave medical condition is not in dispute.

“Given that he has been cleared since 2009, there is no dispute about whether he should be approved for transfer.  All the president has to decide is whether to exercise his discretion not to contest the motion and release Mr. Ba Odah so that he does not die,” Odah added.

His lawyer said he was at Guantanamo and was unsure of what to tell Odah now that the president opposed his release.

Odah suffers from “severe malnutrition,” according to statements submitted by doctors. His current weight is 56 percent of normal body weight for a human being. He faces the great risk of “organ failure, neurological damage, and inevitably, death.”

In solitary confinement, Odah’s medical condition is exacerbated, and doctors believe that could lead to chronic medical illnesses, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and permanent neuropsychological damage.’ Plus, the military has used physicians as weapons to coerce prisoners into breaking their hunger strike, which has led numerous prisoners to reject medical recommendations.


When Farah visited him on April 21, Farah noted Odah was “enduring more suffering at Guantánamo than he has ever known. All the bones in his midsection are visible through his skin, his jawline and teeth protrude, and he says he is losing sensation in his hands and feet and his memory is fading.”

Naureen Shah, who is with Amnesty International USA, condemned the Obama administration’s opposition to Odah’s habeas corpus petition.

“The Pentagon reportedly fears that if Ba Odah is released, other detainees will go on hunger strike. That’s an outrageous reason for depriving anyone of their liberty and it has no basis in international law. The administration must charge Ba Odah or release him,” Shah declared.

Shah additionally stated, “President Obama has long said that his hands are tied by Congress on Guantanamo. But Ba Odah’s release was in his power to ensure. President Obama has effectively decided to continue detaining a desperately ill man that the government has never publicly indicated any intention of charging with a crime.”

The New York Times reported on August 7 the administration was divided over what to do, primarily because Defense Department officials believed releasing Odah will create an incentive for prisoners to not eat too. It appears the Pentagon won a debate, which should not have even taken place.

In January 2012, Rear Admiral David Woods, who was Joint Task Force Guantanamo commander, characterized hunger strikes as “a tool used by [detainees] to stay in the fight.”  Woods declared, “We consider anyone undertaking hunger strikes to be continuing the fight against the US government.”

This position inspired the Pentagon to no longer release data on the number of prisoners on hunger strike. It is also why the Obama administration relied on weak secrecy arguments and opposed the release of videos showing former Guantanamo prisoner Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s force-feedings.

Ultimately, the Obama administration has chosen to care very little about the humanity of prisoners held indefinitely without charge or trial and instead cater to jingoistic concerns that hunger-striking prisoners are engaged in alleged terrorism tactics, which if “rewarded” will undermine the US War on Terrorism.

In that sense, if Odah dies in prison, it will not only be seen as self-inflicted, but various officials in government will also cast it as slightly regrettable collateral damage.

For what it’s worth, according to Odah’s habeas petition, he still “wishes to be reunited with his family in Saudi Arabia or to be freed to any other safe country where he can begin to recover. At the same time, he feels compelled by the injustice he is enduring at Guantanamo to continue his hunger strike, the only peaceful way for him to protest with self-control and with dignity.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."