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Reflections On ‘Guantánamo: 20 Years After’: Online Conference On Nov. 12 And 13 – OpEd

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Many thanks to everyone who attended the international online conference ‘Guantánamo: 20 Years After’ on Friday and Saturday, and who made it such a success, and thanks also to Sara Birch, a law lecturer at the University of Brighton, for having organized it, for having sought my help in organizing it, and for having asked me to be a keynote speaker. Thanks also to the university for agreeing to host it, and to all the staff and students who also worked on it.

The whole event  — which took place via Zoom — was recorded, and we’ll be making videos available over the coming weeks, as well as videos of interviews with the participants that were undertaken by a number of the students in the week before the conference began.

Day One

I opened the conference at 4pm GMT on Friday with my keynote speech, ‘Guantánamo: 20 Years of Lawlessness and Tyranny,’ running through, in particular, the story of how the prison, which was established by the Bush administration to be outside the law, has, in the two decades since, largely defeated efforts to make it conform with international and domestic laws and treaties, despite a number of resounding court victories in the Supreme Court in 2004, 2006 and 2008, and despite a period of two years, from 2008 to 2010, when the prisoners were able to exercise habeas corpus rights, and 32 of them were released following decisions by judges.

Outside the law, as I also explained, there is only tyranny, and for most of the men held at Guantánamo, who have never been charged with a crime and have never been recognized as prisoners of war protected by the Geneva Conventions, their imprisonment has borne all the hallmarks of executive tyranny, endorsed by Congress and the courts, in a manner largely indistinguishable from the practices undertaken by dictatorships.

After my opening speech, we were delighted to welcome, at short notice, former prisoner Shaker Aamer, who had responded to an urgent email I sent him after Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was supposed to speak, was taken ill. Shaker, who was released from Guantánamo six years ago, after 14 years of imprisonment without charge or trial, and after an extraordinary campaign in the UK involving activist groups, concerned citizens, MPs, celebrities and the media, hasn’t spoken publicly for a few years, and it was wonderful to have him with us, sharing his reflections on the importance of resistance in Guantánamo, via hunger strikes and non-compliance, and also reflecting on one of the conference’s key themes: how former prisoners, tainted as “enemy combatants,” despite never having been charged or convicted of any crimes, continue to be subjected to arbitrary harassment, and even imprisonment, and severe — and, again, arbitrary — restrictions on their right to have passports and to be free to travel anywhere, as well as finding it difficult, if not impossible to secure any kind of work or any means of supporting themselves.

After Shaker’s contributions to the proceedings, we had the first five of the conference’s ten academic presentations, an inspiring journey through the activism of Witness Against Torture by Jeremy Varon, Professor of History at The New School in New York City and an organizer with WAT, and one of many WAT members who I have got to know over the years on my annual visits to the US to call for the prison’s closure outside the White House on Jan. 11, the anniversary of the opening of the prison. Jeremy also illustrated his talk with a powerful slideshow of WAT’s creative actions, which have often involved occupying government buildings and staging powerful protests.

Other contributions included William Hudon, Professor of History at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, running through the long and tangled history of the US’s presence in Cuba, and Dr. Deepa Govindarajan Driver, an activist and academic, with a particular focus on the case of Julian Assange, presenting ‘Death by a thousand cuts: Torture and Lawfare to Evade Accountability,’ in which she compared how the law has been specifically subverted in Julian Assange’s case and in the case of Guantánamo prisoner and CIA torture victim Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

The day ended with a powerful panel discussion, ‘Military Commissions and Torture,’ featuring Michel Paradis, Lecturer in Law at Colombia Law School, and the senior civilian attorney for the military commission’s defense teams, Tracy Doig of Freedom from Torture, and the former minister and Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, in which I also spoke about the CIA “black site” program, including the role I had played in exposing it as the lead author of a 2010 UN report into secret detention.

Day Two

Day Two began with another panel discussion, ‘Guantánamo: The Future,’ featuring three lawyers who spoke compellingly about Guantánamo and the law: Shane Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Nancy Hollander, who represented Mohamedou Ould Salahi, and was played by Jodie Foster in ‘The Mauritanian’, Kevin Macdonald’s compelling adaptation of Mohamedou’s acclaimed memoir, Guantánamo Diary, and Jonathan Hafetz of Seton Hall Law School.

The panel discussion was followed by former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi, the author of an extraordinary memoir, Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantánamo, published in August, joining us from Serbia, where he was ‘resettled’ after his release from Guantánamo in 2016, and Mansoor was joined from the US by Antonio Aiello, writer, editor, and storyteller, who collaborated with him on his book.

It turned out that, although Covid had derailed the possibility of holding a conference at the university itself, holding it online meant that an international audience was able to hear directly from former prisoners themselves, who would not otherwise have been able to attend. This was particularly clear in Mansoor’s case, because, despite never having been charged with a crime, having lived in Serbia for five years, and having become an acclaimed published author, he is still prevented from travelling, and also remains vulnerable to harassment by the Serbian authorities.

Having Mansoor with us was another vivid demonstration of that powerful theme of the conference that I noted above: the need for the stigma of having been at Guantánamo to be removed, so that men who, uniquely, still have no fundamental rights as human beings, just as when they were first seized and held at Guantánamo, can finally have the dignity of freedom restored to them.

After Mansoor and Antonio, we had the last five of the conference’s ten academic presentations, including a presentation on Islamophobia and Guantánamo by Maha Hilal, the co-director of the Justice for Muslims Collective, which had a deep resonance for many of the attendees, and Jeffrey Kaye discussing his long-standing research into the suspicious deaths of a number of the nine men who died at Guantánamo between 2006 and 2012, as well as his discovery of a document revealing that some unidentified prisoners died shortly after arriving at the prison in its opening months.

The conference ended with another panel discussion, ‘Activism and Accountability,’ in which Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA’s Director of Security with Human Rights, showed a moving film of the annual protest for the closure of Guantánamo outside the White House on January 11, 2020, and Sara Birch showed a film from 2013 of schoolchildren campaigning for the release of Shaker Aamer — both reinforcing the necessity of activism — and Jeremy Varon and I also spoke.

None of us can say with any certainty that the political inertia that tends to envelop Guantánamo on a permanent basis will lead to significant action any time soon on the part of Joe Biden and his administration (who have so far done very little), but the imminent 20th anniversary of Guantánamo’s opening, on Jan. 11, 2022, must be our immediate focus, and we must do all we can, in particular, to highlight the significance of 99 Senators and members of the House of Representatives telling President Biden, this year, that it is intolerable for the US to continue holding men indefinitely without charge or trial, and that everyone who has not been charged must be released (currently, 27 of the 39 men still held), especially as, since these lawmakers made their demands, the war in Afghanistan has also come to an end.

In conclusion, I returned to the theme of accountability, explaining my intention to set up an organization dedicated to pursuing accountability — with a particular and immediate focus on removing the “enemy combatant” stigma and restoring rights to those released from Guantánamo, and, in the longer term, pursuing accountability for those responsible for establishing and maintaining the prison over 20 unforgivably long years. Do contact me if this is something with which you would like to be involved, and thanks again to everyone who took part in the conference. Your refusal to forget about the ongoing crime scene that is the prison at Guantánamo Bay is greatly appreciated, by activists, lawyers and academics, by former prisoners, and, of course, by the men still held.

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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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