As we approach the 12th anniversary of the opening of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (on January 11, 2014), it remains profoundly unacceptable that, of the remaining 164 prisoners, 84 were cleared for release nearly four years ago, in January 2010, by a high-level, inter-agency task force appointed by President Obama shortly after he took office in 2009.
These men are still held because of legislative obstacles raised by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act, which are designed to prevent prisoners from being released, and because President Obama has been unwilling to spend political capital challenging Congress or bypassing lawmakers using a waiver in the NDAA.
In the cases of two-thirds of the cleared prisoners, an additional complication, until recently, was that they are Yemeni citizens, and after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a NIgerian recruited in Yemen, tried and failed to blow up a bomb on a plane bound for Detroit in December 2009, President Obama imposed a ban on releasing Yemenis from Guantánamo, which he only lifted in May this year, in a major speech on national security issues.
The president lifted his ban in response to intense criticism domestically and internationally, which had been prompted by the prisoners embarking upon a prison-wide hunger strike to remind the world of their plight. As well as lifting his ban on releasing Yemeni prisoners, he also promised to resume releasing cleared prisoners. However, despite this promise, just two prisoners have been released since his speech — two Algerians released in August.
While 56 Yemenis await a decision about their future (with some high-level discussions taking place regarding the possible establishment of a rehabilitation center in Yemen), many of the 28 others could be released tomorrow — Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, for example, the five remaining Tunisians, four Afghans, and Ibrahim Idris, a severely ill Sudanese prisoner. In October, Idris had the distinction of being the first Guantánamo prisoner not to have his habeas corpus petition challenged by the government, and yet he is still held.
For a handful of other cleared prisoners, third countries are required to offer them a new home, as they cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will be persecuted by their home governments (as is the case with the three remaining Uighurs, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province), or because they cannot go home.
The case of Mohammed Taha Mattan
This is the case for Mohammed Taha Mattan (aka Tahamuttan), a Palestinian national who needs a new country to offer him a home because, like the handful of other Palestinians who were held at Guantánamo (and who have all been released in third countries), he cannot be repatriated without the cooperation of the Israeli government, which has no interest in doing so.
Mohammed was recommended for release in October 2007, as was revealed in one of the formerly classified military documents (the Detainee Assessment Briefs) that were released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and was recommended for release again by President Obama’s task force in January 2010. In September 2010, he was close to being released, and given a new home in Germany, but although three prisoners had been considered for repatriation, only two were accepted – a Syrian, and another Palestinian, Ayman al-Shurafa. Mattan was the prisoner who was turned down, and, sadly, his resettlement was only refused for domestic political reasons.
Back in June, in an article I couldn’t manage to cover at the time, because I was devoting most of my energies to reporting on the hunger strike at Guantánamo, Lauren Carasik, the Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University School of Law (and one of four attorneys working on his case), wrote about his story for Al-Jazeera.
Carasik began by describing Mattan as “a compelling, peaceful and singularly gracious man,” who, nevertheless, is “caught up in a vortex of politics beyond his control.” She noted that June 19 marked the 11th anniversary of his arrival at Guantánamo, almost three months after his capture, with 15 other young men, in a raid on a university guesthouse in Faisalabad, Pakistan.
Although Mattan is a tall man, Carasik noted that he “has always exuded a preternatural tranquility,” and that “his gentle and dignified spirit has somehow survived the years of brutal physical and emotional torture, isolation, humiliation and despair,” in which he has “missed the milestones we all take for granted, from the marriage of his siblings to the birth of nephews and nieces.”
In fact, Mattan was “in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” even though he had only traveled to Pakistan in “pursuit of a peaceful and erudite life.”
Explaining how Mattan ended up in Pakistan, Carasik noted that he was born in Burqa, a village in the West Bank, in January 1979, and was the second oldest of 15 children. Described as being “a dutiful and intellectually curious child,” he apparently “passed his time reading, studying and assisting his parents with raising his 13 younger sisters and brothers.” As he grew older, he joined Jamaat al-Tablighi, the global missionary organisation, which has millions of members worldwide, but although he wanted to continue his education after graduating from high school in 1997, the situation in the West Bank was too unsettled. He managed to find work in construction, “hoping,” as Lauren Carasik put it, “to provide some meager economic support to his struggling family.”
In 2000, when the second intifada began, and life became even harder, Mattan, who was 21 years old, decided that the only way forward was to leave home. As Carasik described it, “Encouraged by his fellow Tablighis, Mattan planned to study, pray and fulfill the mission required by his faith.”
In September 2001, he traveled to Pakistan, and specifically to the Tablighi center in Raiwind, where he undertook missionary work. He stayed there for four months, and then traveled west, in the direction of Afghanistan. At a mosque in Quetta, he met a man who warned him not to travel to Afghanistan because the authorities would “suspect him of involvement in the fighting there.”
He then decided to return to Raiwind, but on the way, while worrying about how little money he had left, he met a man who told him about the student guesthouse in Faisalabad, where he said, there were other Arab students “who might be able to advise him about how he could pursue his studies.” However, soon after his arrival, on March 28, 2002, the Pakistani security services raided the house, seizing all the young men who were there, and then handing them over to the US military, who took them first to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and then to Guantánamo.
Lauren Carasik closed her article by stating, “Mattan’s dreams of books, learning and a family of his own have faded against a harsh reality that bears no resemblance to the life he set out to find 12 years ago.” She added, “If the US acts now, perhaps Mattan can resurrect some normalcy, reunite with his loved ones, start a family, and find hope and solace in the rhythms of life and the laughter of children he has not heard in 11 long years. The US can never restore to Mattan his youth, return his lost years, or make him whole for all he has suffered, but it can and must stop compounding this egregious mistake and move him out of Guantánamo without further delay.”
An appeal to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
Last month, as Mohammed Taha Mattan continued to languish at Guantánamo, Gordon Woodward of the law firm Harrison, Schnader, Segal and Lewis LLP, who is lead counsel in the team representing him, wrote an article for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service in which he provided an update on his story. Poignantly, he noted that the US justice system “was created to ensure that the rights of the accused are protected; through the guaranteed right of access to counsel, the guarantee of a fair and speedy trial and, perhaps most important, the placement of the burden on the accuser to prove his case.” In Mohammed Taha Mattan’s case, however, as he explained, the US “is violating those foundational principles in the name of the war on terror, ensnaring an innocent man in its vast reach.”
Woodward added that, because he has been “[u]nable to obtain relief by any legal process in the United States,” Mattan “has turned to the United Nations, filing a petition with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.” That petition was submitted by Mattan’s lawyers in July, and alleges that his arbitrary and indefinite detention “violates principles of international law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
Woodward noted that the UN Working Group had recently issued an opinion in another Guantánamo case, stating, as he put it, that a prisoner’s detention contravened international law, and requesting that the US “effectuate his release and provide appropriate reparations for his wrongful detention.”
I had missed that opinion, in the case of Obaidullah, an Afghan prisoner whose innocence has been established by his lawyers (although President Obama’s task force recommended him for prosecution). The opinion was issued on July 2, and was discussed by Ranjana Natarajan, Clinical Professor of Law, and Director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, on the website of the International Justice Resource Center.
It remains to be seen if Mohammed Taha Mattan’s submission to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will also be successful, but I can find no reason to suppose that it will not be. The shame, for the US, is that the Obama administration has ignored the opinion regarding Obaidullah, and will presumably do so again, in the event of another unfavorable opinion. As Ranjana Natarajan stated, “In conformity with its working methods, the Working Group transmitted Mr. Obaidullah’s complaint to the US government and sought a response. The US government failed to respond for four months, after which time the Working Group issued its opinion.”
As Gordon Woodward stated towards the end of his article, “The fact that an innocent man continues to sit in a cell after 11 years — in the absence of charges, a speedy and fair trial and virtually any other due-process protections — is a violation of our nation’s core values.”
That is indeed true, but it is uncertain what it will take for President Obama to act. With a shred of optimism, Woodward concluded his article by stating, “The injustice occurring at Guantánamo Bay undermines how the world views our moral foundation. For our nation’s interests and in the interest of the remaining detainees, who over the last 11 years have all but lost hope, it must end now. If the United States is unwilling to ensure that justice is served, perhaps the international community can.”
Obaidullah’s case suggests that the international community is paying attention, and perhaps in Mohammed Taha Mattan’s case the Obama administration can be shamed into action. In May, President Obama promised to appoint two envoys — in the State Department and the Pentagon — to deal with the resettlement of prisoners. Those men — Cliff Sloan and Paul Lewis — have now been appointed, and last week they paid a visit to Guantánamo together. I hope they are paying attention to Mattan’s case — and that of Obaidullah — and I hope that they are recommending Obaidullah for release, and are looking into finding a third country to take Mohammed Taha Mattan, and to do so as swiftly as possible.
The time for justice for this young man, who, like many other prisoners, has lost over a third of his life in Guantánamo, is now. Not in the future, but now.