Trapped at Guantanamo: Rehumanizing the Face of Injustice

by Josie Setzler


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On a frigid January afternoon in DC, human rights advocates rallied in front of the White House to mark yet another year of the U.S. prison at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba. There, 40 men remain captive, most of them having never been given a trial. The assembled crowd was smaller than it was a decade ago, when hopes to close the prison ran high. With the Trump administration now having shut down pathways to release these men, activists struggled for ways to hang on to that hope.


Seventeen years ago, on Jan. 11, 2002, the U.S. military flew the first captives, hooded and strapped to the floor of a transport plane, to Guantánamo, thousands of miles away from the theater of war in Afghanistan. The Bush administration opted to move all Arab men swept up in the early months of the War on Terror to the offshore prison, where the administration hoped to interrogate them beyond the reach of the U.S. Constitution and other legal protections. Many of the men endured torture methods that were dubbed “enhanced interrogation” and approved in the Bush administration’s infamous “Torture Memos” in 2002.


Of the 779 men who have passed through Guantánamo’s cells, only eight have ever been tried and convicted. Among the 40 men who remain, five were cleared for release years ago by government agencies at the highest levels. The government claims that 26 men are “too dangerous to transfer,” yet it maintains that it has insufficient evidence to put them on trial. Seven of the men are stuck in interminable pre-trial proceedings in a military commission established to bypass the U.S. federal court system with its inconvenient restrictions against evidence obtained by torture or hearsay.


How did these men end up at Guantánamo? Only 5% of the detainees were captured by U.S. forces. 86% were arrested far from the battlefield by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance and turned over to U.S. forces at a time when the U.S. offered large bounties. Leaflets dropped over the impoverished mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan carried a message offering villagers “enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.” After turning people in, bounty hunters often disappeared, leaving little opportunity for authorities to verify their stories.


These shaky grounds for detention cried out for examination, yet in the first years, the detainees had no access to legal representation in the courts. Later, Supreme Court victories gave the men access to attorneys and habeas corpus rights in U.S. federal courts. The men began winning their habeas cases until the D.C. Circuit Court largely shut down this avenue when the court lowered the bar for government evidence. In effect, the court accepted as reliable almost any evidence provided by the government, no matter how flimsy.


A woman passing by the White House rally became distraught at the sight of protesters who dramatized the detainees by wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods. She asked how they could defend these “terrorists.” A British tourist reminded her that detainees cannot legitimately be called terrorists if they haven’t been tried and convicted of acts of terror. She became even more distressed. She maintained that there must be some reason they are still at Guantanamo.


Indeed, why is a country that prides itself on its democracy holding men outside the rule of law? Perhaps it is all too easy for the rule of law to succumb to prejudice and fear when black hoods and prison garb hide human dignity, while war narratives collapse individual prisoners into a collective labeled dark, foreign, and dangerous. Yet the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, developed by the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II, reminds us, “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” If we are to protect the rule of law, we must hold fast to the humanity of each person who comes under government’s power.


Growing Islamophobia in this country has contributed to the longevity of this prison, which holds only Muslim men. Muslims have become associated with allegations of terror in the public discourse. Congress responds to perceived constituent fears by prohibiting the transfer of detainees to American soil for any reason. It has also made it extremely difficult to release these men to other countries. While the allegations against the men have never been proven, the fact that these men remain imprisoned reinforces their guilt in the minds of many Americans and stokes further bigotry against Muslims.


Former Guantánamo detainee Mohamedou Slahi, author of Guantánamo Diary, released a statement on the prison’s anniversary. He addressed the xenophobia that erodes protections for the accused:

It was never, and it still isn’t, popular to stand up for human rights if the accused is considered an ‘other,’ and much less if the accusation is terrorism-related. However, I would say that precisely for that reason, government violence should not be given free reign just because of the nature of the accusation and the background of the accused. Lynching was condemned and eventually abandoned for a reason.

In the face of such long-standing injustice with no resolution in sight, how do we maintain a sense of hope? Members of Witness Against Torture, who helped organize the rally, seek to foster hope by bringing the humanity of these men into public awareness. They began this task in 2005 when 25 members walked from Santiago de Cuba to the base at Guantánamo Bay to visit the imprisoned as both a corporal work of mercy and a protest against the men’s torture. They were denied entry, but their vigil and fast at the gates of the base attracted widespread media attention. Perhaps even more importantly, the detainees themselves became aware of their visit. Detainee Fayez al Kandari told his attorney Tom Wilner that he was grateful for the visit. Surely most Americans “must not know who we really are or what is really happening down here,” he said.


Ever since that trip, Witness Against Torture members have been going to Washington year after year for the January anniversary of the prison’s opening. There the activists lift up the names, faces, and stories of the men at Guantánamo in street theater, public events, and direct action. This year’s events included a congressional briefing on Guantánamo, organized by Amnesty International. The briefing opened with Mohamedou Slahi speaking by video link from his native Mauritania, where he has lived since his release from Guantánamo in 2016. At his side was his former prison guard, Steve Wood, whom Slahi befriended during his long imprisonment, insisting that he could not succumb to hatred of his captors. He ignores the risks of speaking out, he said, because he wants the same freedoms that Americans take for granted.


Slahi continues to bear the mark of Guantánamo. Mauritania, citing U.S. pressure, recently denied him a passport to travel abroad for medical treatment. Guantánamo is a concept, not just a place, he said, its effects difficult to escape.


Later in the briefing, Pardiss Kebriaei, senior attorney with Center for Constitutional Rights, told the audience that the long years of imprisonment have caused accelerated physical decline in the men, adding perhaps 15 years to those in their 40’s and 50’s. Her client, 44-year-old Sharqawi Al Hajj, who was tortured in CIA prisons and has spent 14 years in Guantánamo, now weighs only 108 pounds and suffers chronic pain. While the public is allowed to see only his military mugshot taken 17 years ago, Kebriaei said his face now shows the decay. She added that one of the detainees is brought to the proceedings in a hospital bed. Because attorneys are the only ones who are allowed in to see the men, Kebriaei feels an urgent responsibility to report their condition to the public. She asserted that two major issues threaten the physical and psychological health of the men: they need both access to good medical care and family contact.


The men at Guantánamo have not waited passively for their advocates in the United States to speak for them. Over the long years of their confinement, they have lifted their voices in whatever ways they can find.


When their desire to have their cases heard has been frustrated at every turn, many of them have chosen to go on hunger strike. Refusing to eat is the last means available to them to assert their own dignity as a human person. Authorities force-feed them to keep them alive rather than examine the grounds for their protest. After the men are strapped down, a feeding tube is thrust up the nose and into the stomach. It is an excruciatingly painful procedure that the international community condemns as cruel, inhumane, and degrading. The World Medical Association holds that forcible feeding of mentally competent hunger strikers is never ethically acceptable. In 2013, nearly two-thirds of the detainees joined the hunger strike, capturing the attention of the world and sparking many solidarity fasts. In the face of this public scrutiny, the U.S. military stopped releasing information about hunger-strikers. Attorneys report that some detainees continue to hunger strike in order to assert their own personal agency, a fundamental part of their humanity.


In the early days when little information could escape from the prison, detainees wrote poems on the Styrofoam cups in which they were served tea. They furtively passed these cups to their attorneys, who submitted the lines of verse to Pentagon scrutiny. Eventually, 22 poems were collected in a volume entitled, Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak. Their moving words continue to be read aloud in venues around the country.


Late in the Bush administration, prison officials began making art classes available to the detainees. Attorneys brought some of the men’s artwork back to the U.S. In 2017 the work of eight current and former detainees was displayed in an exhibit entitled “Ode to the Sea” at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City. In response to the exhibit, the Pentagon decided to claim ownership of all artwork created by the detainees and no longer allows the artwork to leave the prison.


Erin Thompson, one of the exhibit’s curators, remarked that this government response was “just another way to crush the humanity out of detainees.”


Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, an attorney for Reprieve representing several detainees, said of the men, “Showing the world what Guantánamo really is, and who they are, what their thoughts and dreams are, and that they are men and not monsters — that was the purpose of having the world see their art.”


At the White House rally Sullivan-Bennis spoke about the significance of the art exhibit to her clients. “Not being forgotten is their pre-eminent concern,” she told the crowd. She quoted one of her clients who said, “I want to be known not as an anonymous human rounded up illegally, paid a bounty for, brutally tortured and never given a trial, but to be known for who I am.” Sullivan-Bennis knows them as men who are “creative, humble, bright, loyal, kept from their families for decades, and who frankly have made families amongst themselves.”


When a prisoner’s freedom is so severely restricted, finding a way to assert his personal agency is a vital source of hope for him. We in turn can find our own sense of agency by acting in concert with the prisoners to lift up their human dignity in the public arena and in front of the seats of power.


To close the congressional briefing, Daphne Eviatar of Amnesty International USA, laid out three actions Congress can take, even in the face of intransigence from the executive branch:


  1. Hold a congressional hearing about releasing those detainees who have been cleared.

  2. Lift restrictions on transfer to the U.S. for trial and for medical care.

  3. Do not fund transfers of any new detainees to Guantánamo.


Political turmoil these past two years distracts attention away from issues like closing Guantánamo. Yet the Guantánamo prison remains a dangerous blight on the rule of law and its protections for the accused. The Trump administration periodically hints it will send more captives to Guantánamo. As long as the prison remains open, the threat that people can be secreted away without charge or trial for the rest of their lives remains an ever-present reality. It matters not whether its closing is ‘probable’; it is crucial that we continue to speak out to close Guantánamo, find justice for its prisoners, and seek accountability for the crimes perpetrated there. Our best efforts will start with “rehumanizing” the face of this injustice and lifting up the dignity of all the men who have passed through its cells.




This article originally appeared in Volume 7 Issue 2 of Life Matters Journal.


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