The Obama administration has fallen into the trap of demonising innocent Guantánamo detainees as dangerous terrorists
(Omar Deghayes lost the sight of one eye because of abuse he suffered while held at Bagram airbase and other locations before being detained at Guantánamo; he was finally released in 2007. In 2010, acknowledging his innocence, the British government announced that he and other former detainees would be paid substantial compensation for their wrongful arrest and mistreatment. Photograph: Lucie Goodayle for the Guardian)
During the Bush administration’s “war on terror”, it was important to dehumanise the men held at Guantánamo, to give life to the myth that the prison held “the worst of the worst” terrorists, picked up on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
This was not true, as reports over the years have demonstrated. A former military interrogator in Afghanistan, writing under the pseudonym Chris Mackey, explained in his book The Interrogators that there was no screening process in place, and that every Arab who came into US custody, by whatever method, had to be transferred to Guantánamo.
Moreover, in 2006, an analysis of the Pentagon’s own allegations against 517 prisoners (compiled after 200 men and boys had already been released), and conducted by researchers at the Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey, found that 86% were captured by the Northern Alliance or Pakistani forces, 55% were not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the US or its allies, and only 8% were alleged to have had any kind of affiliation with al-Qaida.
In addition, around half the prisoners were not captured in Afghanistan, but were either seized in Pakistan, or crossing the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan. And although many of the men were foot soldiers for the Taliban, who had been involved in the longstanding civil war against the Northern Alliance, which had begun many years before the 9/11 attacks, others were missionaries, humanitarian aid workers or economic migrants. In all, only 33 of the remaining 174 prisoners have been recommended for trial by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo review task force, which reviewed all the cases in 2009.
As the prison at Guantánamo prepares to start its 10th year of operations (on 11 January), and as I begin a week of events in New York and Washington, DC to raise awareness of the remaining prisoners, these men are still, for the most part, as dehumanised as they were under President Bush.
Part of the attempt to raise awareness involves showing the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo”, which I co-directed with filmmaker Polly Nash, and which features compelling and emotional testimony from former Guantánamo prisoners Omar Deghayes and Moazzam Begg, both seized in 2002 from the homes where they were living in Pakistan, many hundreds of miles from the battlefields of Afghanistan, and sent to Guantánamo.
Last year, I travelled around the UK with Omar Deghayes, showing the film to audiences of students and activists who were grateful for the opportunity to meet Omar, after listening to his harrowing descriptions of how he was mistreated, and how the British security services colluded in his abuse. But when I travel to the US, I am not allowed to visit with Omar, or with Moazzam, or with any other cleared prisoner. Audiences in the United States are also moved by Omar’s testimony, when they have the opportunity to see it, but it would have a much greater impact if they were able to meet a former prisoner in person.
Sadly, the Obama administration is largely to blame for this state of affairs. In early 2009, White House Counsel Greg Craig was close to finalising a plan to rehouse a handful of cleared prisoners who could not be repatriated safely. These men were the Uighurs, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, seized by mistake, who had won their habeas corpus petition in a US court in October 2008, and their presence in the US would have done more to destroy the Bush administration’s enduring lies than any other gesture.
However, when Republicans got wind of it, and reacted with unjustifiable outrage, Obama quashed the plan, making it difficult for the US to find third countries prepared to take cleared prisoners who could not be repatriated, and contributing to the paralysis in which Obama finds himself today. The president now oversees a prison in which, despite the fact that over half the remaining prisoners have been cleared for release by his task force, cynical lawmakers, and the president’s own failure of will, have made it increasingly difficult for him to release anyone.
Anonymity – the dehumanisation of these men – helps to maintain the illusion that their ongoing detention is somehow justifiable, but if their stories, and the circumstances of their capture, were more widely known, the Bush administration’s enduring mythology might be thoroughly punctured. More substantial steps would be demanded – and then follow – to secure their release. Bringing the stories of Omar Deghayes and Moazzam Begg to the American public can, hopefully, play a part in this still necessary process.