Christmas at Guantanamo

By Andy Worthington 

Guantanamo

Ten days ago, when I traveled to Sheffield with my friend, the former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes, for a screening of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (which I co-directed with Polly Nash), I asked Omar what Guantánamo was like at Christmas, as I knew that he had spent five Christmases imprisoned in Guantánamo, and I thought it might make an interesting article for Christmas this year.

In fact, there was little to report. The authorities, it seems, made some effort on this great Christian holy day, but the prisoners, for the most part, were in no mood to accept one day of charity when the rest of the year was so devoid of Christian charity.

Instead, I thought I’d take this opportunity to remind readers who may be searching the Internet because they need a break from eating and drinking, or because they want to get away from their families for a while, or because the TV is so relentlessly pointless, or because they don’t celebrate Christmas, about some of the 174 men still held in Guantánamo, for whom concern is particularly appropriate right now, as, between them, the Obama administration and Congress seem to have ensured that the majority of them will be spending many more Christmases at Guantánamo.

My first thoughts were for prisoners I have written about recently — in particular, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, cleared for release in 2007 but still held; Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian, also cleared for release in 2007, who is terrified of being forcibly repatriated; and Fayiz al-Kandari, a Kuwaiti who lost his habeas petition in September, but who appears, by any objective measure, to be an innocent man.

I encourage readers to visit this page for information about how to write to the British and American governments about Shaker Aamer, to visit this page for information about the latest attempts by Ahmed Belbacha’s lawyers to prevent his involuntary repatriation, and to visit this page to sign a petition asking Attorney General Eric Holder to return Fayiz al-Kandari to Kuwait (or just sign the petition here).

However, in thinking about all the prisoners still held, I was also reminded of one particular prisoner whose story I have not written about for many months, but who is in desperate need of help. That man is Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a 34-year old Yemeni prisoner who won his habeas corpus petition on July 21 this year, but is still held, even though it became apparent during his hearing that the Bush administration had cleared him for release from Guantánamo in 2007, and even though one of his lawyers, David Remes, explained after the ruling, “This is a mentally disturbed man who has said from the beginning that he went to Afghanistan seeking medical care because he was too poor to pay for it. Finally, a court has recognized that he’s been telling the truth, and ordered his release.”

Latif is certainly mentally ill, and may have schizophrenia. He has also attempted suicide on numerous occasions, and as Amnesty International explained in a report in 2009, he told his lawyers that “when he is awake he sees ghosts in the darkness, hears frightening voices and suffers from nightmares when he is asleep.” He also told his lawyers that he had “ingested all sorts of materials including garbage bags, urine cups, prayer beads, a water bottle and a screw,” that he had “eaten his own excrement and smeared it on his body” and that he had “used his own excrement to cover the walls of his cell door, the camera on the ceiling of his cell and the air vent in his cell.”

Despite this, he continues to be held because the Obama administration has appealed against his successful habeas petition, as it has in the cases of four other Yemenis who won their habeas petitions: Mohammed al-Adahi, whose successful petition was reversed by the D.C. Circuit Court in July, Saeed Hatim, who won his petition last December, Uthman Mohammed Uthman, who won his petition in February this year, and Hussein Almerfedi, who won his petition in July this year.

Like Latif, these three men are awaiting a ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court (a largely Conservative court dominated by judges who have delivered a number of disturbing rulings supporting Bush-era executive power), and it would be difficult not to conclude that the Obama administration is happy to appeal any successful petition by a Yemeni, because it corresponds with senior officials’ desire not to release any Yemenis from Guantánamo at all.

Although the Guantánamo Review Task Force, convened by President Obama last year to review all the Guantánamo cases, concluded that 59 of the 89 Yemenis still held at Guantanamo should be released, only one (Mohammed Hassan Odaini, who won his habeas petition in May) has been freed in the last year because of a moratorium that President Obama issued in January, preventing the release of any prisoners to Yemen, after it was revealed that last year’s failed Christmas Day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen.

Commenting on the injustice of this moratorium in September this year, with specific reference to the case of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, Letta Taylor of Human Rights Watch wrote:

Latif’s case underscores both the gross human rights violations and strategic risks inherent in such blanket bans. Detaining Latif because of an attempted bombing committed without his knowledge or participation is a form of collective punishment that violates American notions of justice. Holding him on suspicion of a crime he theoretically may commit in the future, particularly with no credible evidence that he committed a crime in the past, is an equally gross betrayal of US constitutional values. US reliance on preventive detention also hands militants a recruitment tool and sets a dangerous precedent for abusive regimes around the world.

While the government ponders its next move, Latif, 34, lives in an isolation cell, except when he is placed in the psychiatric ward or force-fed through his nose during his frequent hunger strikes. His attorney, David Remes, said that when he visited Latif last month, he found him emaciated and seated on the floor in a padded garment known at Guantánamo as a “suicide smock.” He said Latif’s neck was marked with abrasions from attempts to strangle himself the previous night with the waistband of his underwear.

Remes said that when he told Latif that a judge had ordered his release, he was too despondent to take much interest.

The “collective punishment” of the Yemenis — or what I call guilt by nationality –remains the most startling example of the ongoing injustice at Guantánamo, especially now that Congress has just passed this year’s defense authorization act, which specifically includes a provision preventing the President from returning any prisoners to Yemen — or to other countries considered problematical, including Afghanistan and Pakistan — under any circumstances.

I don’t like to be the bearer of such gloomy tidings at what should be a time of Christian celebration, but in just 17 days time it will be the ninth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo. I’ll be in Washington D.C. on that day, supporting Americans protesting against the continued existence of Guantánamo, and, to be honest, I could really do with some help from anyone who can advise me on how to get the message across to the American people — and to their leaders — that if Christ were to turn up tomorrow, he would be deeply disturbed to find Americans who claimed to be his followers finding ever more elaborate ways to hold men who should not be held — and whose ongoing detention is unjustifiable — nearly nine years after they were first imprisoned in an experimental facility that remains an insult to all of his teachings.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon.