The Guantánamo wound that will stay open
On 7 December, US military officials released six men who had been held in the US penal colony in Guantánamo. They were handed over to the government of Uruguay. One hundred and thirty-six prisoners remain in this legally mysterious zone, although the US government has long cleared fifty-five of them for release. The six released this month – four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian – had been on the cleared list put together in 2009 by President Barack Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force. Among them was Abu Wael Dhiab, also known as Jihad Dhiab.
Two days after their release - yesterday - the US Senate released a 500 page summary of an over 6,000 page report on torture which verified what was already well-known –
|If it weren’t for Uruguay, I would still be in that black hole in Cuba.
- Omar Mahmoud Faraj
that the US government used torture against prisoners, many of whom had no or only very tangential relations with al-Qaeda. The details in the report are remarkable. Of the 119 known detainees, the CIA knew that “at least 26 were wrongfully held”. Among the twenty-six was an “intellectually challenged man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage”.
“Due to poor CIA record keeping,” the Senate report notes, “all full accounting of how many specific CIA detainees were held and how they were specifically treated while in custody may never be known.” Routine techniques of torture included water-boarding, rectal hydration, ice water baths, threats to family and throwing detainees against walls.
Dhiab, who was among those tortured, is now in Montevideo. He spoke to a colleague of his lawyer, Reprieve’s Alka Pradhan. Pradhan told me that Dhiab’s health “has been increasingly frail over the past few months thanks to his hunger strike and brutal treatment by the Guantánamo staff.” Recovery is before him. His family is en route to be with him, although one of his sons died while his family fled Syria last year.
How these six men got to Uruguay is a testament to the outgoing president of that small country. José Mujica, president since 2010, had been a left-wing guerrilla in the Tupamaros organisation. Arrested several times, Mujica used his wits to escape. He did, however, spend thirteen years in terrible conditions – isolated and tortured. Mujica does not like to talk about his own, terrible experiences. Torture and unjust imprisonment drew Mujica to the Guantánamo prisoners who had been cleared for release but could not go anywhere.
Despite mixed feelings in the Uruguayan population about bringing in the Guantánamo prisoners, Mujica persisted and won the trust of his people. One of the prisoners, the Syrian detainee Omar Mahmoud Faraj, called Uruguay’s gesture a “noble act of solidarity”.
Dhiab had been cleared for release in 2009. His entire time in the prison – since 2002 – had been an atrocity. Born in Lebanon, Dhiab moved to Syria as a young child. In the late 1990s, Dhiab could not find work in Syria, so moved – with his wife and children – to Pakistan and then Afghanistan to start a food business (trading in honey and other such products). Running from the US bombs, Dhiab and family moved to Lahore. The Pakistani police arrested him and (likely) sold him to the Americans on – of all days, April Fools’ Day, 2012. Frustrated by his seemingly endless incarceration, Dhiab participated in the major hunger strike of 2005, and subsequently stopped eating seven years ago (he, therefore, was part of the 2013 hunger strikes at the prison). Force-fed (against international law, and a US court decision), Dhiab is a pale shadow of his former self.
The deal with Uruguay, says Pradhan, was settled in February 2014. The US government sat on the release orders for months. The US Department of Defence, Pradhan told me, “really does not want detainees transferred out of GTMO,” or Guantánamo.
It would have been sensible for the government to have managed Dhiab’s health in the months leading up to his release. But that is indeed what the Guantánamo authorities did not do. “Because of our litigation challenging the force-feeding methods at GTMO,” Pradhan notes, the US government “found ways to make life more difficult for Dhiab, including taking away his wheelchair (he has had severe back problems for years), forcing him to crawl around his cell and sending six men to forcibly drag him out to force-feedings. It is a miracle that he has come out with body and spirit largely intact.”
Obama’s foreign policy pledges have been largely threadbare. Among them had been the promise to shut down the prison at Guantánamo and undo the legal thicket grown by the Bush administration. Pradhan says of the detainees, “the US knows very well that many of these men should never have been in Guantánamo in the first place.” Transit for the majority who had been on the cleared list was complicated by the instability in their home countries of Syria and Yemen.
But while the US was reticent to release anyone, it is stuck with a serious problem – what to do with people such as the Saudi national Abu Zubaydah, who had been tortured in the CIA “black sites” over four and a half years? There was no way to move Abu Zubaydah into the “normal” US judicial system, since most of the evidence against him had been gleaned by torture. There was also little chance that he could be sent off to Saudi Arabia – despite the fact that in 2009 the US admitted that it was likely that Abu Zubaydah was not an al-Qaeda member.
Reprieve’s Pradhan says that Obama’s Guantánamo Task Force concluded that at least 59 detainees would be in the prison forever – making it impossible to close. It is the use of torture against these men, rather than any danger that they might pose, which is going to condemn them to a life in prison – either Guantánamo or else in a US maximum security prison.
Dhiab is away from the fray. He is in Uruguay. El País published a letter to Uruguay’s Mujica from Dhiab’s prisoner-in-arms Omar Mahmoud Faraj. “If it weren’t for Uruguay,” wrote Faraj, “I would still be in that black hole in Cuba.” Mujica said that Uruguay would not hold the six men, and that they are free to leave the country whenever they wish. Faraj wrote that he wants to learn Spanish and make a new life in this South American country.