The narrative has to change on Guantanamo Bay, and this can be done through the stories of two long-suffering detainees
Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Tariq Ba Odah come from Mauritania and Yemen respectively – two countries that have played a bit-part role in the US “war on terror”.
Both men have not seen their homes or families for almost 15 years, as they have been detained without charge at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.
Mohamedou, the celebrated author of a diary detailing his detention, and Tariq, who has been on an unbroken hunger strike for eight years, exemplify the poison of injustice that Guantanamo has injected into the veins of the Middle East and beyond.
Today, Guantanamo is the one and only aspect of the overwhelming horror of the “war on terror” that the US president has the power to change. The Iraqi state has been dismantled by a Washington proconsul’s ignorance and arrogance, Afghanistan fractured by US contractors’ corruption and incompetence, and Syria taken from its own people by a sectarian war machine created by outsiders.
This terrorist machine has now struck in Bagdad, Beirut, Ankara, Sharm el Sheikh and Paris in rapid succession.
All further Western military initiatives will only deepen the regional crises with their uncounted toll of the hundreds of thousands of unnamed individuals killed or maimed in fields, hospitals, wedding parties and their own homes by drones or other airstrikes. These are mainly depersonalised victims, dehumanised, remote, and quickly forgotten.
But the names, the faces and the stories of Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Tariq Ba Odah are well known across the Middle East and Africa, even if not in the US and Europe. They are held just a short flight from Florida.
They should have been released years ago and paid compensation for their lost years by the governments that tortured them: the US, and Jordan. (Other countries, such as Egypt and Morocco, which were responsible for torturing other innocent Guantanamo prisoners on behalf of the US, should also pay the released men compensation.) Acknowledgment would help drain the Guantanamo poison.
The narrative has to change on Guantanamo, and Slahi and Ba Odeh can do that with their dramatic stories and their smiling humanity. Fourteen years of subjecting innocent men to torture, illegal imprisonment, three deaths of prisoners at the hands of the CIA, blankets of lies and cover-ups have to be acknowledged publicly. The issue is not, as the US media mainly has it, about whether the prisoners should be moved to US prisons, whether Congress has tied the president’s hands, whether the government can overrule a judge on videos of force-feeding being seen by the public.
Apologies for hundreds of ruined lives are too much to hope for, but freedom today and compensation tomorrow is not.
Two years ago, President Obama, a lawyer, spoke at the height of a mass hunger strike in Guantanamo: “Imagine a future – 10 years from now, or 20 years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children? Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”
Obama presumably did not know Tariq and Mohamedou’s names when he made this speech in 2013. And presumably the president does not know now that Tariq weighs just 76 pounds, which is marginally over half his normal body weight, that he has been in solitary confinement for seven years, that he is force-fed twice every day while strapped into a restraint chair, where he often vomits up the liquid food administered by medical personnel, and that he is then taken back in leg irons and handcuffs to his cell alone.
US law professor Joseph Margulies recently wrote that Tariq’s body “is now drawing on essential protein reserves – essentially cannibalising itself to survive, slowly consuming his organs. His skin sinks into his skeleton. Tariq says his vision is failing. He is precariously weak. He cannot walk confidently on his own power. His memory is fading. He is often confused, almost always exhausted, and constantly in pain.”
Doctors say he needs urgent and sophisticated care, which he cannot get at Guantanamo. His lawyers at the Centre for Constitutional Rights have repeatedly sought his release on medical grounds and been refused.
Protesters hold a banner outside the White House with Tariq Ba Odah's face (Witness Against Torture)
Tariq told his lawyers he would sooner die than endure injustice without protest. He wrote: “A captive does not possess any realistic means to send his messages to the world other than to strike ... Freedom should be much more precious for the human being than all the desires on Earth. And we should never give it up regardless of how expensive the price may be.”
Obama presumably does not know Ould Slahi’s name either and has not read his bestselling memoir. Lead counsel for Ould Slahi, Nancy Hollander, told Middle East Eye: “Mohamedou has had his youth stolen from him. He should never have been imprisoned in the first place and now 14 years later, he has lost hope.”
Hollander summarised the torture odyssey of a man never charged with any crime.
“He was rendered to Jordan for several months of torture, then to Afghanistan and finally to Guantanamo in August of 2002. There, with the specific instructions of the Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, he was tortured again. He was beaten, kept in cold rooms in stress positions, sexually abused, interrogated for 18 hours at a stretch and not permitted to sleep more than two hours at a time for 70 days until he began hallucinating, told he would be buried alive and finally told that his mother had been arrested and was going to be sent to Guantanamo.
"And this is just the short version. In 2010 a federal judge ordered him immediately released because the government did not have evidence to hold him. The Obama administration appealed and the higher court demanded another hearing - a hearing he has never had. In 2011, President Obama wrote an Executive Order that promised him and others a new hearing within a year, yet he has not had that hearing either.”
Mohamedou Ould Slahi (ICRC)
Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor in Guantanamo, has said: "There is absolutely no evidence that Mohamedou ever engaged in any hostile act against the United States."
In 2005, Mohamedou began writing about his experiences in English (his fourth language). His Guantanamo Diary is available in 19 languages so far. It took almost seven years for his lawyers to get the book cleared through Guantanamo. His counsel described how “throughout it all Mohamedou has retained his dignity and his humour. He writes of those who tortured him and those who befriended him. He writes of the dedications in the books guards gave him and says he hopes to sit down with all the people he has met for a cup of tea because ‘we have learned so much from each other.'"
The freeing of these two men to their homes, and not to a random country selected by the US, may help free 48 prisoners in Guantanamo who were cleared long ago.
It is less clear how their release would help 59 other Guantanamo prisoners who sit in a limbo of indefinite detention.
The poison of Guantanamo spreads further and deeper across the Middle East and Africa every day this injustice continues.