Freedom or Death at Guantánamo

8:45 am in Uncategorized by Center for Constitutional Rights

by Omar Farah, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Adnan Latif and Mohammed al-Hamiri arrived at Guantánamo through strikingly similar twists of fate.  Adnan Latif is the most recent of nine men – four since President Obama took office – to die in U.S. custody at Guantánamo.

Mohammed al-Hamiri is a Yemeni prisoner I have represented and visited since 2008 who remains trapped at Guantánamo, housed at the prison’s medical clinic, fighting to stave off despair.  Like all Guantánamo prisoners, he grapples daily with the haunting thought that he many never leave the island prison alive.

January 11 marked 11 years since the first of these men arrived at Guantánamo, and this week marks four years since the president’s signing an executive order mandating the closure of Guantanamo within the year.  As we observe these anniversaries, I question what, if anything, the Obama administration learned from Adnan’s senseless death. For better or for worse, the answer will say a lot about what lies ahead for Mohammed.

Both Adnan and Mohammed suffered severe injuries as boys that left them with cranial fractures.  There is a noticeable scar under Mohammed’s hairline, and he suffers from chronic headaches caused by the reconstructive metal plates in his skull.  Mohammed’s first round of treatment at the Saudi-German Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia is well documented.  The necessary follow-up treatment was financially prohibitive, so, like Adnan, Mohammed traveled to Pakistan in search of cheap medical care.

Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Mohammed was arrested in Pakistan by local police.  In that respect, his story and Adnan’s are typical.  Since the prison first opened, the government has cynically perpetuated the myth that Guantánamo prisoners were “captured on the battlefield.” Nothing could be further from the truth: the troubling reality is that in the months after September 11, the U.S. military ran a slipshod bounty system that offered handsome compensation to Afghan and Pakistani locals for turning over anyone who seemed out of place.  That is how Adnan ended up at Guantánamo, and the circumstances surrounding Mohammed’s arrest point to the same explanation.

Hooded and shackled, Mohammed was then rendered to Guantánamo in 2002.  He was just 19 or 20 years old.  Since then, he has endured more than a decade of arbitrary, indefinite detention, with no end in sight.  He has never been charged with a crime.  He never will be.  In 2009, he, like Adnan, was approved for release by unanimous consent of an Inter-Agency Task Force that President Obama convened.  The Task Force included representatives from every military, law enforcement, and national security agency with a stake in detainee affairs.  But within months, the President instituted a moratorium on transfers to Yemen, effectively rescinding Mohammed’s clearance in favor of a policy of crude collective punishment – one that bases the detention of Guantánamo’s Yemeni prisoners on citizenship alone.

The results are at once shameful and predictable:  it has been 30 months since a Yemeni has been repatriated or resettled.   Of the 166 prisoners who remain at Guantánamo, roughly 90 are from Yemen.  Fifty-six Yemenis are already cleared for transfer – 57 before Adnan died.

Death is rapidly becoming the only way out of Guantánamo.  That is the inevitable byproduct of the administration’s inaction.  It is a chilling fact that is not lost on Mohammed, who was housed in a cell near Adnan, his dear friend and countryman.  It was there, in the harsh, isolative conditions of Camp V, that Mohammed came face-to-face with the grim toll indefinite detention takes on the men at Guantánamo.  That is where his path and Adnan’s parted.  It is no wonder that Mohammed is – in his words – at a “breaking point.”

But Mohammed’s continued torment is unnecessary: President Obama has the power to free him with the stroke of a pen.  He should do so immediately, or history will not judge him kindly.  The cost of delay has never been so high or potentially irrevocable.   The president now confronts a grave moral question:  had he foreseen Adnan’s death, would he have done anything differently? For Mohammed’s sake, and for the others languishing at Guantánamo, I hope the answer is yes.