Despite sweeping into office promising to close Guantánamo, President Obama now oversees a prison that may well stay open forever, from which the only exit route is in a coffin.
The last living prisoner to be released from Guantánamo was Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed, an Algerian who was repatriated against his will in January. Since then, an Afghan prisoner, Awal Gul, died in February after taking exercise, and on Wednesday the US military announced that another Afghan prisoner, Inayatullah, who was 37 years old, “died of an apparent suicide,” early on the morning of May 18.
A US Southern Command news release explained, “While conducting routine checks, the guards found the detainee unresponsive and not breathing. The guards immediately initiated CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] and also summoned medical personnel to the scene. After extensive lifesaving measures had been exhausted, the detainee was pronounced dead by a physician.”
Later, a Guantánamo spokesperson, Army Lt. Col. Tanya Bradsher, said that Inayatullah was discovered “hanging from his neck by what appear[ed] to be bed linen” in one of the prison’s recreation yards — a scenario that surely raises the question of how, in a prison where the detainees are closely monitored all the time, he was allowed to spend enough time unmonitored in a recreation yard to be able to kill himself.
Unlike the majority of the remaining 171 prisoners at Guantánamo, Inayatullah had not spent nearly ten years of his life in the prison. The penultimate detainee to arrive at Guantánamo, he was flown in from Afghanistan in September 2007, but no information about him had been released after a press release was issued by the Pentagon announcing his arrival.
It is not known if he had ever been subjected to a Combatant Status Review Tribunal — the review process used by President Bush to assess whether prisoners had been correctly designated, on capture, as “enemy combatants” who could be held indefinitely — but it was noticeable that, in the recent release by WikiLeaks of classified military documents relating to the Guantánamo prisoners, Inayatullah’s was one of 14 files that were missing from the documents that were initially handed over to WikiLeaks, suggesting that he had not, in fact, been subjected to any type of process that claimed to legitimize his presence at Guantánamo.
In describing Inayatullah after his death, the US military recycled information from its initial press release announcing his arrival at the prison three years and eight months ago, claiming that he was “an admitted planner for Al-Qaeda terrorist operations, and attested to facilitating the movement of foreign fighters, significantly contributing to transnational terrorism across multiple borders.” It was also claimed that he “met with local operatives, developed travel routes and coordinated documentation, accommodation and vehicles for smuggling Al-Qaeda belligerents through Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq.”
Noticeably, however, what was missing was another claim, also aired in the military’s September 2007 press release, that he had “admitted that he was the Al-Qaeda Emir of Zahedan, Iran,” and that he had been transferred to Guantánamo “[d]ue to the continuing threat [he] represents and his high placement in Al-Qaeda.”
This was perhaps because that hyperbole had been punctured. Of the six prisoners who arrived in Guantánamo between March 2007 and March 2008, just two — whose files were also missing from the documents made available to Wikileaks — are regarded as “high-value detainees.”
These two are Nashwan Abd Al-Razzaq Abd Al-Baqi, more commonly known as Abd Al-Hadi Al-Iraqi, and Muhammad Rahim, an Afghan, and they join the 14 “high-value detainees” sent to Guantánamo from secret CIA prisons in September 2006, who include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, as the only “high-value detainees” at Guantánamo — a grand total of 16 out of the remaining 171 prisoners.
It is too late for Inayatullah or Awal Gul to receive anything that resembles justice, as it is for the six other men who have died at Guantánamo in the last five years — the three disputed suicides in June 2006, the fourth alleged suicide in May 2007, the death by cancer of an unacknowledged Afghan hero in December 2007, and the fifth alleged suicide in June 2009.
More depressingly, it is unlikely that the evident truth about Obama’s Guantánamo — that the only way out is by dying — will shift public option either at home or abroad. Although the President is not entirely to blame for his failure to close the prison, as he has been confronted by unprincipled Republican opposition on a colossal scale, and also by cowardice in his own party, it ought to be unacceptable that his early promise has turned to such paralysis.
My hope is that there will eventually be a mobilisation of high-level international criticism about Guantánamo, as there was under President Bush, with international bodies and world leaders realizing that Guantánamo has become, once more, a place of indefinite arbitrary detention, and moreover, one that will remain open forever without concerted effort to close it.
Until that time, decent people must be wondering who, at Guantánamo, will be next to die, and reflecting that, whatever Inayatullah’s alleged crimes, it was inappropriate that, because of President Obama’s embrace of his predecessor’s detention policies, he died neither as a convicted criminal serving a prison sentence for activities related to terrorism, nor as a prisoner of war protected by the Geneva Conventions.
The Obama administration cunningly dropped the use of the term “enemy combatant” in its legal dealings regarding the prisoners, but that is essentially what they remain, and if Inayatullah’s death were to be marked by words, he could, in all fairness, be described as follows:
Inayatullah — enemy combatant: held and died without charge or trial, to America’s undying shame.