Now that my first ever visit to Kuwait has come to an end — in which I was involved in events and discussions designed to raise the profile in Kuwait, and internationally, of the two remaining Kuwaitis in Guantánamo, Fayiz al-Kandari and Fawzi al-Odah— I feel as though I have been away from my home in London for weeks, and not just for five days, as the time was so busy.
I recorded an interview for the Al-Rai TV station along with the attorney Tom Wilner, which was aired along with a subtitled version of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” the documentary film that I co-directed with Polly Nash, and I also traveled out to Kuwait’s main prison, to visit the rehabilitation center which was established for the four remaining prisoners in 2009, but which, after two of these four were freed that year, has been lying empty ever since, its staff and facilities awaiting the return of Fayiz and Fawzi, who, like the majority of the 171 prisoners stili in Guantánamo, 89 of whom have been cleared for release, remain trapped because of the cynical twists and turns of American politics — in the Obama administration, in Congress and in the courts.
I was also driven through the desert, on the highway to Iraq, to visit the grand and spacious farm of a prominent sheikh, in order to discuss the cases of Fayiz and Fawzi, and I also attended two dewaniyas (social events described by Wikipedia as being “the core of Kuwait’s social, business and political life, the places where topics of interest are discussed, associates introduced, alliances formed, and similar networking activities undertaken”), with lawyers and with the family of Fayiz. In addition, I met up with the former prisoner Fouad al-Rabiah and with Khalid al-Odah, Fawzi’s father, and briefly met another former prisoner, Adel al-Zamel.
I also had intense discussions with my hosts, Col. Barry Wingard and his team (representing Fayiz), as well as with Tom (representing both men) and with the journalist Jenifer Fenton, who has been covering the Kuwaiti prisoners’ stories since last summer, and is undertaking some wonderful research. On a lighter note, I also found time to visit one of the country’s great landmarks, the famous Kuwait Towers.
I will be writing in detail about some specific aspects of this trip in the days and weeks to come, but for now I just wanted briefly to recap on these exciting five days, in which I was treated with great warmth and hospitality throughout, and was provided with many insights into Kuwaiti society, as well as great opportunities to publicize the plight of Fayiz and Fawzi, and to my great delight, some new and very promising ways to hopefully secure their release, involving strategies for discrediting what passes for evidence on the part of the US government, but which, to anyone who has studied it closely, is largely a tissue of lies, produced through the torture. coercion or bribery of the prisoners themselves, or of their fellow prisoners.
On Tuesday, after a sleepless overnight flight, a traffic-choked ride to the Marriott Hotel, and an opulent breakfast with Barry and the team, I caught up on my lost sleep, and woke up for a journey across town to a dewaniya at the house of Adel AbdulHadi, the founder and Managing Partner of Al-Oula Law, who is Fayiz’s lawyer in Kuwait. See a recent article here by Mr. AbdulHadi, which is a powerful call for more commitment from the Kuwaiti government, and also please sign the petition asking the US government to release Fayiz. This is hosted on the law firm’s website, and it has, to date, received over 20,000 signatures, mostly from within Kuwait, which is a phenomenal achievement.
At the dewaniya, a wonderful array of delicious food was presented to us, and I met many fascinating people, including Mr. AbdulHadi’s brothers. Almost everyone I met was well-traveled and very knowledgeable, with an excellent command of English, either through visiting or through studying or living in the US or the UK, who understood why the US had reacted with such sweeping anger after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but who all regarded the continued detention of Fayiz and Fawzi, over ten years later, as thoroughly unjustifiable.
Also represented were younger activists, whom I was also delighted to meet, and who have been exerting pressure on the government through protests over the last year — culminating in an extraordinary fracas in the Kuwaiti Parliament, an unprecedented protest outside the US embassy, and the replacement of the Prime Minister. One group who I am very much hoping to work with is the IAGC, the International Anti-Guantánamo Bay Committee, which has been campaigning vigorously within Kuwait for the release of Fayiz and Fawzi. I also met the head of another organisation, Kuwait Student Power, who wanted to liaise with me regarding coordinated student protests in Kuwait, the US and the UK, which I thought was an excellent idea.
On Wednesday, before the recording of the interview that Tom Wilner and I undertook to accompany the first ever broadcast (on Friday) of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” which has only just been translated into Arabic, we — myself, Jen, and Lt. Col. Wingard’s colleagues, Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Bogucki and Sgt. Chad Darby — had the opportunity to undertake a brief burst of tourism, and visited the Kuwait Towers, a great landmark, with a viewing platform which revolves slowly and provides a wonderful view over the Gulf and across the whole of Kuwait City, with its collection of creative skyscrapers which, at night, are lit up with shifting patterns of lights like giant toys. In the viewing platform, photos of the damage inflicted on the towers by Saddam Hussein’s forces 21 years ago provide a constant reminder of the close bonds between the two countries that were so thoroughly cemented at this time.
In the afternoon, I met up with Tom, Mr. Adel and Ashraf, Tom and Barry’s long-term interpreter, at Al-Oula Law’s offices, where I was also pleased to meet Sanabil Jafar, the Director of the International Department, who provided invaluable assistance with the Arabic translation of “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” and liaised extensively with myself and Polly Nash in the weeks before the visit.
At Al-Rai’s studios, the recording of the interview with Tom and myself was initially a little challenging, because of the technical issues involved in translating live from one language to another, even for a pre-recorded interview, but the end result was very powerful. Tom and I had proposed questions, which had then been reworked at Al-Rai, but the end result was exactly as we had wished — a chance to explain why, shamefully, Guantánamo is still open, despite President Obama’s promise to close it, why Fayiz and Fawzi are still held, how they are surviving their long ordeal, and, most crucially, why the Kuwaiti people need to keep exerting pressure on their government to do more to secure their return.
We were able to explain how it is insulting for such a close ally of the US as Kuwait to be treated so badly when it comes to securing the return of Fayiz and Fawzi, how, sadly, Guantánamo has become normalized under President Obama, and the remaining 171 prisoners are now, effectively, subjected to arbitrary and indefinite detention, and how no one will be released without great effort on the part of those who, like the Kuwaiti people, have prisoners still held.
We were also able to explain how the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, just last month, provides a spur for renewed calls for the prison’s closure — and for calling for an end to the continued detention of men like Fayiz and Fawzi, against whom nothing in the way of evidence has actually been presented. We also had the opportunity to explain how another new possibility for bringing this dark chapter of US-Kuwaiti relations to an end has been presented in recent legislation passed in the US (the National Defense Authorization Act), in which the President and his administration now have the opportunity to bypass restrictions on the release of prisoners that were imposed by Congress and have prevented the release of any prisoner from Guantánamo since January 2011.
That evening, at the end of a long day, we attended another dewaniya, this one at the house of Fayiz al-Kandari’s family, where I met Fayiz’s father, and numerous relatives, many of whom summoned up the spirit of Fayiz through their marked resemblance to him. Fayiz’s father, a softly-spoken and polite man, was evidently deeply disturbed by the ongoing loss of his son, as, by all reports, is his mother, but Tom, Barry and myself did our utmost to point out all the positive developments, and why there is still hope.
In between the discussions, we were treated to the most phenomenal feast of marinaded, yoghurt-coated lamb cubes on skewers, cooked on huge barbecues, and there were jokes and there was laughter amidst the sorrow, which, as well as endearing me to the family, also revealed the huge support network — in the form of a giant extended family — that would be available to Fayiz on his release, and that would also be available to Fawzi, through his own family.
On Thursday, our entire visiting party traveled to the main prison, located outside Kuwait City, where, in a compound within the prison, an entire block was refurbished back in 2009, and the grounds landscaped, to create a rehabilitation center for the last four Kuwaiti prisoners, with medical and psychiatric personnel, and facilities for socializing and greeting visitors. The staff graciously agreed to guide us around the establishment, which I intend to review in a separate and forthcoming article, but what needs establishing primarily is that, although the center, modeled on a largely successful program established in Saudi Arabia, might well be able to combine detention with reintegration, the security angle is, to be blunt, only of interest to the US, as what Fayiz and Fawzi may need, when they are finally released, will be medical and psychological support in a supportive environment, but not detention as a result of distorted American fears regarding the perceived danger of released prisoners.
As I mentioned above, however, I plan to write more on this in the near future. For now, after the return from the rehabilitation center on Thursday afternoon, I had a wonderful meeting with Fouad al-Rabiah, a former Guantánamo prisoner whose story I was drawn to while researching my book The Guantánamo Files, and whose release in December 2009 followed an extraordinary victory in a US courtroom three months earlier.
A businessman, and an executive wth Kuwait Airways, Mr. al-Rabiah had a history of taking vacations to be involved in humanitarian work abroad, although his visit to Afghanistan in October 2001 led to eight years in US custody, in which a familiar pattern at Guantánamo — pressurizing prisoners, by various means, to produce false allegations about themselves or others — led, in his case, to an invented scenario involving a relationship with Osama bin Laden and with al-Qaeda in the Tora Bora mountains (the scene of a showdown between al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, and the US and their Afghan allies), which, on examination by the judge, turned out to be a story he had been trained to repeat, and was not the truth at all.
This was alarming enough, but what also became clear is that, in the summer of 2002, he was identified by a Arabic expert from the CIA as someone who had clearly been seized by mistake. The expert visited Guantánamo to interview a cross-section of the prisoners, to assess how many did not fit the hyperbole of “the worst of the worst,” but his findings — that there had been systemic failures of intelligence across the board — were suppressed by Bush and Cheney’s senior lawyers, Alberto Gonzales and David Addington.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. al-Rabiah is still seeking justice for the manner in which he was so scornfully treated by the Bush administration, whose most senior lawyers blocked the crucial knowledge of his wrongful detention, and he also has an interest in telling his extraordinary story, which, to my mind, is certainly one of particular interest, as it provides so many insights into the horrors of the regime of torture and lies that the Bush administration established at Guantánamo, and I hope that we will be able to find a way to take this project forward.
That evening, we had all planned to watch the screening of “Outside the Law” and the studio discussion with Tom and myself, which had already been extensively promoted, but it was postponed until Friday, to make way for an urgent interview with a parliamentarian. We therefore had an opportunity to relax — although what happened is that Jen and I became deeply involved in discussions about, and research into the stories of all the Kuwaitis, with some powerful implications that will become apparent in the not too distant future.
On Friday, through the auspices of Fayez al-Dousari, a Senior Partner at Al-Oula Law, all of the lawyers, and Ashraf and myself, were invited to visit the farm of Sheikh Ali al-Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, Fayez’s father-in-law, and a significant figure in Kuwait. To get to the farm — a large complex of land and buildings not too far from the Iraq border, which was commandeered by Saddam’s army and completely destroyed in 1991 — Tom and I were taken by Fayez on a memorable drive in his Range Rover through the desert, on the highway most readily identified by Westerners as the “highway of death,” where Saddam’s forces were brutally massacred by US forces as they retreated from Kuwait at the end of the first Gulf War, 21 years ago today.
The physical reminders of those days are gone, replaced by the proliferation of farms, and of tents here, there and everywhere used by other families to recapture their roots — along with camels, giant pylons striding across the land, feeding electricity into Kuwait City, and, on occasion, the flames and the black clouds of the refineries that have created the massive wealth of the Gulf countries.
After the journey, the farm — with greenery, greenhouses, artificial lakes with swans, geese and ducks, and acres of trees and crops — was very clearly a huge effort to reclaim and maintain from the hunger of the omnivorous desert, and was an impressive achievement, which we appreciated in a convoy of golf buggies. The rest of the complex was also impressive, with its helipads, aviaries, villas, an aircraft hanger-sized reception room, and a tower built over the farm’s impressive water tanks, from which the full extent of the estate was visible.
After meeting the sheikh, being shown around the various buildings, and then being taken to the main lounge, where Tom regaled our host with some excellent anecdotes, we were ushered into the dining room for the most spectacular lunch I have ever seen — or been invited to partake of — in my entire life. It was, of course, all delightful, and afterwards, as we made our way to a covered outdoor area for dessert and tea, we had the opportunity to present Fayiz and Fawzi’s case to the sheikh, and to hope that he would mention the many themes outlined above to the emir, and to those close to him, to stress that, after ten years, the continued detention of Fayiz and Fawzi is not only intolerable, but their release is possible if the government is prepared to exert pressure on Washington.
After this truly extraordinary outing, Tom and I returned to the hotel, as he was preparing to fly back to the US, and had a last meeting scheduled with Khalid al-Odah, Fawzi’s father. As the head of the [add organization], who has been campaigning for ten years for the release of all the prisoners, Khalid’s efforts are, of course, well known to me, and it was a great pleasure to finally meet him, first with Jen, and then with Tom as well, and I was moved by his quiet and softly-spoken dignity.
Later, after Tom had set off for the airport, and Khalid had left, the rest of us got together, over pizza, to watch the Alrai show, which was 70 minutes in total. Although the whole film was not shown, the sections that were — essentially the first half of the film, split into segments and punctuated by the interview with myself and Tom — worked very well indeed, and I am glad to report that it will be shown again on Al-Rai. I’m also delighted to report that it has been made available online, in five parts, by Adel AbdulHadi on Al-Oula’s YouTube channel, and I’ll be posting the videos here very soon. I also hope that other opportunities for screenings of the film will follow throughout the Gulf and the Arabic-speaking world, now that a version of the film, subtitled in Arabic, is available.
With the broadcast over, and Kuwait in the grip of celebrations — of independence, and of the liberation from Saddam Hussein, on National Day (February 25) — it was disappointing that Saturday was a washout, as I had hoped to visit the souq, and I know that the Kuwaiti people had been looking forward to celebrating in the streets. Nevertheless, Jen and I had further opportunities to discuss our work, and our shared enthusiasms, before she left in the afternoon, after she had interviewed Adel al-Zamel, another former prisoner who I also met briefly, and I also had the opportunity to spend some time discussing plans with Col. Wingard.
In the evening, the US team took me out for a final meal at a Lebanese restaurant, and, on our return to the hotel, through the wind and the rain, we said our farewells — not, I hope for the last time — and I tried and largely failed to get a good night’s sleep, as I had to be up at 5.30 for my return flight to London.
My thanks to everyone responsible for my trip, which was a wonderful experience, as it enabled me to gain the kind of insight into Kuwaiti society, Kuwaiti politics, and the families of Fayiz and Fawzi that cannot be gained through the kind of Internet-based research that I generally undertake — although that is not, of course, meant to belittle the kind of work that not only myself, but others do by rigorously examining publicly available evidence that most of the mainstream media avoids.
It also led to me, for the first time, making contacts in the Middle East that will hopefully lead to effective and rewarding collaborations, and, it turned out, also led to some exciting new approaches opening up through meeting Jen, and both of us spending time with Tom, that would not have happened otherwise. We all still face a huge uphill struggle for justice and fairness to prevail, and for Fayiz al-Kandari and Fawzi al-Odah to be released, but the future is a little brighter after the last five days.