Last month, I was invited to visit Kuwait to try and help raise awareness of the need for the Kuwaiti people to push for their government to demand the release from Guantánamo of the last two Kuwaitis — out of 12 in total — to be held in Guantánamo. These two men are Fayiz al-Kandari and Fawzi al-Odah, and, like dozens of the 171 men still at Guantánamo, they are held, possibly with the intention that they will be held for the rest of their lives, not because there is any evidence that either of them ever raised arms against US forces or were involved in any way with any acts of international terrorism, but because of institutional cowardice within the Obama administration, and because of fearmongering in Congress, in the mainstream media and in a particular court of appeals in Washington D.C.
That court is the D.C. Circuit Court, where a number of prominent judges have whittled away at the habeas corpus rights that the Supreme Court granted the Guantánamo prisoners in June 2008 (and which led to the release of 26 prisoners between December 2008 and January 2011), gutting habeas corpus of all meaning for the Guantánamo prisoners, by demanding that the government’s supposed evidence be given the presumption of accuracy, even though it has been well established (in the 38 cases won by the prisoners, for example), that the supposed evidence is an unreliable mix of statements and confessions made by the prisoners themselves, or by their fellow prisoners, in circumstances where torture, coercion and even bribery were widely used by the interrogators, and of post-capture reports, compiled by US personnel in situations whereby the prisoners were actually seized by Afghan or Pakistani forces, at a time when generous bounty payments were being offered for anyone who could be dressed up as an al-Qaeda or Taliban suspect.
I wrote about my visit to Kuwait here and here, and posted videos of the Kuwaiti TV show that I took part in with Tom Wilner, my colleague in the new “Close Guantánamo” campaign and the US civilian lawyer for the two Kuwaitis, and I have since followed up with profiles of the two men on the “Close Guantánamo” website (written by Tom, his colleague Neil Koslowe and myself). My visit was organized by Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, the military defense attorney for Fayiz, who was put forward for a trial by military commission in November 2008, just before George W. Bush left office, and who, absurdly, remains a candidate for a trial by military commission, even though nothing that could objectively be called evidence exists in his case. I also met other members of Lt. Col. Wingard’s team, Adel AbdulHadi and Sanabil Jafar of the Al-Oula Law Firm, which represents Fayiz in Kuwait, Khalid al-Odah, the father of Fawzi al-Odah, and the head of the long-established Kuwaiti Freedom Project, and the former prisoner Fouad al-Rabiah, with whom I had lunch.
I also met another journalist, Jenifer Fenton, who has become fascinated by the Kuwaitis’ story in the last year or so, and has been undertaking the kind of research and investigations that, in general, have been sorely lacking in the mainstream media. Now a freelancer, Jen worked for many years for CNN, which is where she was working when I first came across her work last summer (see Can Kuwait Break the Guantánamo Deadlock? and Life After Guantánamo: Kuwaitis Discuss Their Tortured Confessions), and recently she has been following up the story for Al-Jazeera (see On the 10th Anniversary of the Opening of Guantánamo, Kuwaiti Mothers Appeal for Release of Their Sons).
Meeting Jen, and discussing the Kuwaitis’ cases was an important step forward in my understanding of what needs to be done to help the campaign to secure the release of Fayiz al-Kandari and Fawzi al-Odah, and, more generally, to continue to discredit the durable lies that still cling to Guantánamo — that it holds “the worst of the worst” terrorists, who pose an unprecedented existential threat to the United States. In fact, only 36 of the 171 men still held were recommended for trial by President Obama’s interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which reviewed all the prisoners’ cases in 2009. 89 others were cleared for release, although they are still held, largely because of Congressional obstruction and Obama’s cowardice, and the others, shamefully, were recommended for indefinite detention without charge or trial because they are regarded as too dangerous to release, even though the administration concedes that its supposed evidence is too weak to be used in a courtroom. In reality, this category of prisoners largely includes men like Fayiz and Fawzi, and, it is clear, would also have included some of the former Kuwaiti prisoners, had they not been lucky enough to be freed under George W. Bush, in his second term, when Guantánamo was much more obviously regarded as a scandal and a disgrace than it is today.
In keeping the injustices of Guantánamo alive, I am grateful to Jen for meeting up with former prisoners to gain their insight into their experiences, and for writing the following article, which was published by Al-Jazeera. In it, she draws on interviews she conducted with Abdullah Kamel (aka Abdullah Kamel al-Kandari), who once played for Kuwait’s national volleyball team, and is a cousin of Fayiz al-Kandari; Abdulaziz al-Shammeri, a former religious instructor who is studying for a PhD; Fouad al-Rabiah, who returned to his job at Kuwait Airlines after his release, and who also plans to study for a PhD; and Adel al-Zamel, who had been working for a Saudi charity at the time of his capture ten years ago. She also mentions the tragic case of the former prisoner Abdullah al-Ajmi,who was released in 2005, but who blew himself up in Iraq in 2008, and asks the other ex-prisoners for their thoughts about al-Ajmi, whose death is used by certain parties in the US as a prime example of why prisoners should not be released from Guantánamo. Crucially, she notes, “all believe al-Ajmi had not been a terrorist before he was sent to Guantánamo and that his treatment by Americans made him crazy.”
Life after Guantánamo Bay
By Jenifer Fenton, Al-Jazeera, March 22, 2012
The Kuwaiti Parliament has condemned the continued detention of two Kuwaiti citizens in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, calling their imprisonment a “gross abuse of … human rights and violation of international laws”.
The Parliamentary statement, issued on Wednesday, comes as two Kuwaitis, Fawzi al-Odah and Fayiz al-Kandari remain in the US prison. They are the last of 12 Kuwaitis yet to be released from the controversial facility.
There has been some speculation that the prisoners’ time in Guantánamo may have radicalized them. Four men who spent years in Guantánamo dispute that accusation.
“When I walk into the home, once I sit down everyone is coming round,” Adel al-Zamel said.
Al-Zamel spent more than three and half years in Guantánamo Bay, where he said he was tortured, told he would be rendered to Jordan, threatened with a dog, beaten, stripped naked, sexually harassed, kept in isolation and subjected to extreme temperatures. “Everything you can think of,” al-Zamel said. The US alleged he was associated with al-Qaeda and that he had prior knowledge of the September 11, 2001 attacks — allegations he has denied.
He was working in Afghanistan in 2001 as the head of Kabul’s al-Wafa Humanitarian Works Organisation, a Saudi-backed charity, which the US said demonstrated an “intent and willingness to support terrorist organisations.” He maintains that his work there was solely charitable, and he stopped working for al-Wafa in August 2001 because he had financial disagreements with the organization’s director in Afghanistan.
He then moved his family and the family of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, who would become al-Qaeda’s spokesperson following the 9/11 attacks, to Pakistan. Al-Zamel knew Abu Ghaith only as an eloquent speaker. He said he did not know Abu Ghaith, who was also from Kuwait, was associated with al-Qaeda until after the 9/11 attacks. When al-Zamel returned to Afghanistan, the Americans started their bombing campaign and he was injured by an air missile. Doctors working locally and al-Zamel’s friends helped treat his injuries as he left the country and headed to Pakistan, where he would be “captured.”
When he was sent to Guantánamo, al-Zamel was wanted in Kuwait on criminal assault charges related to an incident where a female college student had been attacked. Al-Zamel said he had not beaten the woman, but one of the men he was with did after the group had seen her acting in what they said was an inappropriate way with another man. Al-Zamel had been convicted and sentenced in absentia to one year in prison for his role in the incident. He served out his sentence when he returned to Kuwait from Guantánamo.
Life after Gitmo
Since his release from Guantánamo and from Kuwaiti jail, al-Zamel has lived a trouble-free life, he said. As any proud father would, he showed off recent images of his many children and two grandchildren. He does not have to work because of the stipend money he receives from the Kuwaiti government, which is the norm, to care for his many children.
The US alleged that 12 Kuwaitis held in Guantánamo were associated with or were members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. All 12 denied the charges, saying they were on charitable missions and all said they were sold to American forces for bounty. The treatment the 12 men were subjected to is similar to what al-Zamel experienced, according to statements they or their lawyers have made.
Joseph Todd Breasseale, a spokesperson for the US Defence Department, said his group “does not tolerate the mistreatment of detainees and will continue to ensure proper training and accountability measures” at Guantánamo Bay.
Abdullah Kamel, who once played on the Kuwait national volleyball team, now plays volleyball with some of his children. The US said he was a member of al-Qaeda who traveled to Afghanistan for training and jihad. He has six children; his third eldest, Fatimah, was born while he was in prison in Guantánamo.
What do his children know about the years he spent in jail? “I don’t like to tell them about the torture,” he said. He tried also not to think of them when he was away. If he had thought of them, “I will be crazy … so you try to read the Quran more and memorise the Quran,” he said. He has returned to his job where he worked prior to his time in Guantánamo.
Abdulaziz al-Shammeri, who the US said was a possible member of al-Qaeda, married his brother’s wife after his brother had been tortured and killed by Saddam Hussein’s troops in the 1990s. Al-Shammeri was raising his brother’s son and his own two children, who were two and six, when he was jailed in Guantánamo.
He worked as a Quran instructor from 1994 until he left for Afghanistan. Before he was sent to Guantánamo, he had been planning to get a master’s degree in Egypt, and is now pursuing his PhD. “We are normal people,” he said. He believes that the Americans tried to “show the world that we are extremists, that we have no families to care about us, that we are really just very bad people”.
Fouad al-Rabiah was also assessed to be an al-Qaeda member. In 2009, after he spent almost eight years in prison, a US District Court granted al-Rabiah’s petition for habeas corpus. In her opinion Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said the evidence presented by the government was “surprisingly bare,” and interrogators used “abusive techniques.” Al-Rabiah has returned to his job at Kuwait Airlines, where he has worked for decades, and also plans to get his PhD. These four thank Allah that they came back from Guantánamo with their sanity.
Another Kuwaiti prisoner was not so fortunate.
Abdullah al-Ajmi returned to Kuwait in 2005, after more than three years in detention. He was tried and acquitted of any terror-related crimes following his return, but in 2008, he blew himself up in a deadly suicide attack in Mosul, Iraq.
Al-Ajmi was one of the former Guantánamo Bay prisoners cited in a recent report by Republican lawmakers, which stated some 27 per cent of former detainees “were confirmed or suspected as previously or presently reengaged in terrorist or insurgent activities”. The percentage of Guantánamo recidivists is contested, and the percent cited in the US report is generally thought to be high by several academics and experts, some of whom put the range of actual recidivists at only four per cent.
Al-Ajmi’s actions in Iraq are to be condemned, said the former prisoners, but they all believe al-Ajmi had not been a terrorist before he was sent to Guantánamo and that his treatment by Americans made him crazy. Kamel and al-Shammeri were imprisoned with al-Ajmi in Kohat prison in Pakistan before being transferred to US custody. Al-Ajmi was normal then, they said, but Kamel relates that “in Guantánamo he had been tortured too much and he said that [he would] get revenge … in front of me he would tell [US forces] when I get out, I will make double bomb. I will kill you … and they release him.”
Thomas Wilner, an attorney who has represented al-Ajmi, said he was young and naive when he was sent to Guantánamo. By the time he was released he was one of “the biggest behavioral” problems in the prison. According to Wilner, “he had gone crazy.”
Al-Zamel, who shared a cell with al-Ajmi when they were repatriated to Kuwait and held while being investigated, said, “al-Ajmi, he was like really nuts”. He was always plotting, for no reason, to attack the guards in the Kuwaiti jail.
The final two
Since al-Ajmi was released, Kuwait has built a rehabilitation center inside a prison where the last two Kuwaiti prisoners, al-Odah and al-Kandari, would be sent if they were released. Their medical and psychological needs would be assessed and treated, and family visitations would be allowed, according to prison officials.
Before the two were released into Kuwaiti society, a committee which includes persons from Kuwait’s health and interior ministries, and the department of education would have to unanimously agree that they were fit to leave the center.
Kamel and al-Shammeri reflect about the two Kuwaitis and others who are still held in US detention.
“We are coming along with our lives and continuing on and thinking of these people who are still there for 10 years,” al-Shammeri said. If you compare our suffering with theirs, ours is nothing, he adds.