Omar Shakir, an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights who has worked on Guantanamo Bay prisoners’ cases, made his first trip to the military prison this month. He shared what struck him most about going to Guantanamo to meet with two prisoners, Ghaleb al-Bihani and Zaher Hamdoun.
“I can’t talk about the vast majority of what affected me most because of the way in which everything about Guantanamo continues to be secret,” Shakir stated in a video recorded at Guantanamo and posted by CCR. “But I think an image might suffice.”
Shakir described how the men’s faces lit up as they talked about things most humans take for granted, like fresh air, travel, family, and friends.
Worst of all, Shakir said he could not get the image of the men in shackles out of his head.
Prisoners remain “shackled, even though the vast majority of them have not been charged with a crime and have in many cases been told they’re cleared for release,” Shakir explained.
The visit to Guantanamo inexplicably coincided with the release of the first prisoner since June. Younis Abdurrahman Chekkouri, a Moroccan, was sent to Morocco after being held in detention for thirteen years. He was not immediately released, and his lawyers were concerned that he might remain in custody of Moroccan authorities for weeks before being finally freed.
Chekkouri was cleared for release in 2010, but like most men at Guantanamo, he spent the past four years not knowing when he would be sent back to his home country.
Shakir reflected, “I can’t imagine spending over a decade in a cell not only not knowing when you might leave that cell but also knowing that you have no control over your fate, and that your fate is in the hands of political figures that not only don’t know anything about you but, in fact, have assumed things that have no basis in reality.”
“If only those politicians and people saw the men I met, they would be free tomorrow,” he concluded.
Ghaleb al-Bihani, like a number of prisoners who remain in detention, is a Yemeni citizen. He was born in Saudi Arabia and arrived at Guantanamo in early 2002. He was cleared for release in 2014 by the Periodic Review Board, a creation of President Barack Obama.
He suffers from diabetes and has spent time in the hospital multiple times for “treatment of complications of diabetes,” according to CCR.
Bihani would like to leave Guantanamo one day and start a family. He would like to be in a country where he could take care of his health and pursue an education. But Bihani does not know when he will be released and is one of 52 men cleared for release, who remain in detention.
As his attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei, wrote for The Guardian last month, Zaher Hamdoun is a 36-year-old Yemeni man who has been detained in Guantanamo without charge since he was 22 years-old.
“He is in a nebulous middle category of people the Obama administration has determined it is not going to charge but doesn’t know if it is ever going to release,” Kebriaei explained. “Though the president in 2011 ordered periodic administrative reviews of men in this group to ensure that any continuing detentions were ‘carefully justified,’ the reviews didn’t start until a mass hunger strike broke out in 2013 and forced MO back onto the administration’s agenda. Still today, the majority of men haven’t been reviewed, including Hamdoun.”
Hamdoun is one of over 40 men waiting to have their cases reviewed.
For fourteen years, Hamdoun has endured indefinite detention.
“I have become a body without a soul,” Hamdoun shared in a letter to his attorney. “I breathe, eat and drink, but I don’t belong to the world of living creatures. I rather belong to another world, a world that is buried in a grave called Guantanamo. I fall asleep and then wake up to realize that my soul and my thoughts belong to that world I watch on television, or read about in books. That is all I can say about the ordeal I’ve been enduring.”
In fact, Hamdoun cannot say too much more. As Kebriaei acknowledged in the posted video, anything Hamdoun or any other prisoner tells their attorneys about their experiences at Guantanamo is “presumptively classified.”
The government controls their memories, including memories of torture, and has the final say on whether the public gets to know about them. Attorneys can ask the government to release detainees’ memories, but the government may choose to censor their experiences so the world only gets a sanitized version of what they are going through.
No matter how much the Obama administration contends it is working to close Guantanamo, the military deliberately keeps the prisoners and facility as hidden and invisible as possible. Shakir said there are maps of the base in McDonald’s and Subway which do not show the large camps that continue to hold men detained for over a decade.
The surreality of Guantanamo is that “everyday experiences” are entirely “divorced from the reality of what has happened and continues to happen in that facility.” Of course, this helps to keep business as usual tenable as politicians, who know nothing about the men, debate ignorantly about what to do with Guantanamo.
Shakir added, “They’re in a place that every single day strips them of their humanity.
“They interact with people across the system, who don’t look at them as people that have the same hopes and dreams and desires and feelings, but as nameless, faceless ISN numbers.”
The Obama administration has a list of six facilities in the continental United States, which may soon be used to house Guantnamo detainees.
President George W. Bush captured over a hundred innocent men and kept them detained, where they endured torture entirely out of the public consciousness. And now, President Barack Obama, who has allowed tortuous force-feeding to be used against hunger strikers, will entrench a system of indefinite detention by transferring a number of the men to prisons in the U.S., where they can be once again forgotten.
Watch Attorneys Pardiss Kebriaei and Omar Shakir report from Guantanamo Bay: