It is, I believe, impossible to argue with the logic of Muaz al-Alawi, a Yemeni prisoner in Guantánamo, who recently told his lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, that, when attempting to make sense of Guantánamo, only one analysis is necessary: “It is all political,” al-Alawi told him. “It is all theater, it is all a game.”
The US has such disdain for the prisoners at Guantánamo that, 12 and a half years on from the prison’s opening, they are still identified by the names given to them at the time of their capture, by personnel unfamiliar with the languages of their home countries — Arabic, for example. As a result, al-Alawi is identified as Moath al-Alwi.
His comments, made to Kassem, an associate professor of law at the City University of New York who directs the Immigrant and Non-Citizen Rights Clinic, which represents prisoners at Guantánamo and elsewhere, were in the context of the manufactured hysteria regarding the release of five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the sole US prisoner of war in Afghanistan, which I have written about here, here and here (and also see my Democracy Now! appearance).
As Kassem wrote, in an opinion piece for the New York Times that I’m cross-posting below, the release of the five Taliban members — some of whom held leadership positions — “fits a larger pattern in which the many dozens of inmates not accused of any crime and, in fact, cleared for release by successive American administrations languish for years on end.”
This is not meant as a criticism of the recent prisoner swap, but as a criticism of the indifference with which the rest of the men held at Guantánamo are regarded. Held mostly without charge or trial for 12 and a half years, they have discovered that being cleared for release means nothing, as 78 of the 149 men still held have been cleared for release — all but three since January 2010, when a high-level task force appointed by President Obama issued its recommendations regarding the disposition of the remaining prisoners.
Al-Alawi, on the other hand, is one of 61 other prisoners recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial by the task force, or for prosecutions that are no longer going ahead, who are slowly having their cases reviewed by Periodic Review Boards. These review boards have so far recommended three men for release, but they have not been freed. All three are Yemenis, and because the US establishment will not move on from its refusal to release Yemenis cleared for release because of fears about the security situation in Yemen, all the PRB decisions have meant is that the three men have been added to the 55 other Yemenis cleared for release in January 2010.
Al-Alawi has also been failed by the courts, having had his habeas corpus petition turned down in January 2009, even though, as Kassem explains, the government’s case consisted “largely of uncorroborated and self-incriminating statements that we argued were extracted under coercive circumstances.”
In February 2013, al-Alawi responded to this seemingly endless injustice by embarking on a hunger strike, as part of the prison-wide hunger strike that took place last year, and was force-fed every day. Moreover, he has continued on a hunger strike, and is still force-fed, and, although reliable figures for the current number of hunger strikers are hard to come by, because the authorities stopped reporting them at the end of last year, the legal team for another force-fed prisoner, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, recently stated that they believe there are currently 34 hunger strikers, and that 18 are being force-fed.
Ramzi Kassem’s article is below, and it is my pleasure to make it available to those of you who may have missed it in the New York Times. Please do share it if you find it useful.
A View From Gitmo
By Ramzi Kassem, New York Times, June 8, 2014
The week’s national debate around the exchange of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Afghans imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay found me at the American base in Cuba for meetings with my clients. Here, too, the swap is the talk of the town — among prisoners, among guards and between the two groups.
Some Guantánamo prison guards voiced anger at the news of how their fellow soldier, Sergeant Bergdahl, had been liberated. In their view, he was a deserter, unworthy of the sustained media interest his release had garnered, especially compared to the dearth of attention paid to the sacrifice of those killed and wounded in the Afghan conflict.
But to the emaciated man sitting across a rickety table from me in an orange jumpsuit, chained to the floor inside a dilapidated shack, that furious reaction was baffling. My client, Moath al-Alwi, wondered aloud “why those people are not simply happy that this American soldier will soon be reunited with his family.” He reflected that the critics have probably “never tasted this sort of ordeal themselves.”
In contrast to the guards, Mr. Alwi and many of his fellow prisoners empathized with Sergeant Bergdahl and his family. After all, they only wanted the same for themselves: to see their loved ones after long years in captivity.
My students and I have been representing Guantánamo inmates for most of the last decade. Mr. Alwi was on one of the first planes to shuttle so-called enemy combatants to the prison in early 2002.
A Yemeni citizen raised in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Alwi traveled to Afghanistan in early 2001 to teach the Quran and live in a society that appeared from afar to honor Islamic ideals. He was 24 when he fled the conflict there, was seized by the authorities in Pakistan and likely sold into American captivity for a bounty.
At a 2008 hearing, having given Mr. Alwi only three weeks to review a lengthy dossier compiled by the United States government over seven years and consisting largely of uncorroborated and self-incriminating statements that we argued were extracted under coercive circumstances, a federal judge ruled his detention justified. A court of appeals found that the judge’s “haste” was “hard to understand,” but upheld the decision.
To protest the injustice of his open-ended imprisonment without fair process, Mr. Alwi has been on hunger strike since February 2013. Every day, Guantánamo personnel strap him in a chair with restraints and force-feed him, in an effort to break his will.
Mr. Alwi never fought against the United States and has not been found guilty of any crime.
The political controversy over whether the prisoner exchange was conducted legally is even less comprehensible to the inmates at Guantánamo than the guards’ anger. To their mind, before debating the finer point of whether the transfer of the five Afghans adhered to the law, the American public should ask if the detention and abuse at Guantánamo Bay of hundreds — without charge, fair process or the protections of the Geneva Conventions — were lawful in the first place.
From where Mr. Alwi sits, the talking point of legality is almost amusingly quaint. Guantánamo remains at its core a lawless place, and this release in seeming contravention of a solitary statute appears par for the course. In the absurd history of the detention camp, it is not uncommon for inmates among the handful who have been convicted by the military commissions to be the ones who are released. Questionable though their legitimacy and fairness may be, the military commissions can at least determine a finite term for internment at Guantánamo, one that the American government has chosen to honor so far.
So the release of the five Afghans, including, by some accounts, known figures in the Taliban, fits a larger pattern in which the many dozens of inmates not accused of any crime and, in fact, cleared for release by successive American administrations languish for years on end. For many, the difference between liberation and limbo has nothing to do with justice or legality, but just the luck of what nationality a prisoner happens to hold. Because no Guantánamo inmate has been repatriated to Yemen in years, Mr. Alwi said that some inmates are considering relinquishing their Yemeni citizenship in the hope that it might facilitate their resettlement elsewhere.
The furor over the Sergeant Bergdahl affair has simply reinforced a commonly held view among the inmates that the prospects for release from Guantánamo are tied far less to court decisions, threat assessments and the determinations of the military review board, and far more to the politics of the moment. “It is all political,” Mr. Alwi said. “It is all theater, it is all a game.”
Guantánamo has indeed become a sideshow of the American political spectacle, a drama in which the vast majority of the camp’s inmates are held hostage to our partisan politics. If the current upheaval around Sergeant Bergdahl’s release proves anything, it is that President Obama is capable of pushing past the congressional histrionics that, until recently, he has pointed to as cover for his failure to shutter the infamous prison.
Ending indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay, in the face of opposition from his political adversaries and reluctance from some officials within his administration, requires fortitude of Mr. Obama. What is needed now is decisive action to resettle and repatriate as many inmates as possible and give fair trials to any that remain. Only by doing so can America end this grim farce.