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Opening Gitmo to the World

By Robert Koehler | CounterPunch | July 28, 2017

To read Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantanamo is to run your mind along the contours of hell.

The next step, if you’re an American, is to embrace it. Claim it. This is who we are: We are the proprietors of a cluster of human cages and a Kafkaesque maze of legal insanity. This torture center is still open. Men (“forever prisoners”) are still being held there, their imprisonment purporting to keep us safe.

The book, by Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir — two Algerian men arrested in Bosnia in 2011 and wrongly accused of being terrorists — allows us to imagine ourselves at Guantanamo, this outpost of the Endless War.

“‘Take him outside,’ the interrogator told them. They led me up a flight of eight or nine concrete steps to a long gravel drive. It was pitch black out, and completely quiet. There was no one around. One of the soldiers grabbed my left arm, and another took my right. And then they started running.

“I tried to keep up, but my legs were shackled together. First, my flip-flops fell off, and after a few barefoot strides, my legs fell out from under me. The soldiers didn’t even slow down. They kept a firm grip on my arms while my legs bounced and scraped along the ground, gravel biting into them. When the run finally ended, the soldiers brought me back to the interrogation room, bloody and bedraggled.”

This is one fragment, one story of the seven years these two innocent men endured: these two fathers who were pulled away from their wives and children, yanked from their lives, stuffed into cages, interrogated endlessly and pointlessly, humiliated, force-fed (in Lakhdar’s case) . . . and finally, finally, ordered by a U.S. judge to be freed, when their case, Boumediene v. Bush, was at long last heard in a real court and the lack of evidence against them became appallingly clear.

The book is the story of the courage it takes to survive.

And it’s a story that can only be told because of the work of the Boston legal firm WilmerHale, which spent more than 17,000 pro bono hours litigating the case, “work that would have cost paying clients more than $35 million.”

Lakhdar and Mustafa were freed in 2008 and began rebuilding their lives. They eventually decided they wanted to tell their story — to an American audience. Daniel Norland, who was a lawyer at WilmerHale when the case was making its way through the court process (but was not part of the litigation team) and his sister, Kathleen List, who speaks fluent Arabic, conducted more than 100 hours of interviews with the two men, which were shaped into Witnesses of the Unseen.

In October 2011, the two men, who were living and working in Sarajevo, were among six Algerians who wound up being arrested by Bosnian authorities and charged with plotting to blow up the American embassy in Sarajevo. They were held for three months, then released. There was no evidence to back up the accusation.

But this turns out to be the beginning of their story, not the end of it. The men were released not back to their own lives but to an authority more powerful than the Bosnian judicial system: They were released to the Americans, who had begun rounding up Muslims . . . uh, terrorists. Evidence, or lack thereof, didn’t matter. These men were shipped to a new military prison, built at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba — an offshore prison, in other words, unencumbered by the U.S. Constitution. The detainees there allegedly had zero rights. That was the whole point.

Much of what Lakhdar and Mustafa describe is the efficiency of the U.S. military in dehumanizing its prisoners. The beatings and physical pain inflicted by guards, interrogators and even medical personnel were only part of it. The men also endured sexual humiliation, endless mocking of their religion — “I heard . . . that a soldier went into someone’s cell and flushed his Qur’an down the toilet” — and the cruel, teasing “misplacement” or censorship of letters from the prisoners’ loved ones.

Several years into his imprisonment, Lakhdar went on a hunger strike, which meant he was subjected to force-feeding, which the U.N. Human Rights Commission has called a form of torture:

“The soldier brought out an apparatus with a long yellow tube and started measuring out the length of tube he needed. He stopped when he got to a marking somewhere between 45 and 50 inches. That was the amount of tube he was going to insert through my nostril. . . .

“It’s almost impossible to explain what a feeding tube feels like to someone who hasn’t experienced it. I felt like I was choking, and being strangled, and yet somehow still able to breathe, all at the same time.

“The soldier taped the tube in place. I could see the Ensure trickling through the tube, one droplet at a time. It felt cold as it reached my stomach. I later learned that a full feeding normally takes fifteen to twenty minutes, but that first time they went exceptionally slowly. I sat in the clinic, chained to the chair, a tube protruding down my throat, for the rest of the afternoon and all through the night.”

It took no less than a Supreme Court ruling to start ending this nightmare.

In early 2007, a U.S. Circuit Court judge had refused to hear Boumediene v. Bush on the grounds that Guantanamo prisoners had no Constitutional rights. But the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal, and in June 2008 ruled that Guantanamo counted as part of the U.S. and, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, the government couldn’t “switch the Constitution on and off at will.”

Thus the case went back to the Circuit Court and a real hearing got underway, leading to one of the most appalling revelations in the book: “Our lawyers had told us, in the days leading up to our trial, about a recent bizarre development in our case: the government had dropped its allegation that we had plotted to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo. Just like in Bosnia seven years before, authorities were eager to toss around bomb-plot allegations right up until a court required them to provide evidence.

“Instead, our lawyers told us, the government now said that the reason it considered us ‘enemy combatants’ was that it had evidence — classified evidence that I wasn’t allowed to see — that we had made a plan to fly to Afghanistan and join Al Qaeda’s fight against American forces there. This was the first time I had ever heard this allegation. No one — no police officer, no Bosnian official, no American interrogator — had ever asked me a single question about it.

“And it was a ludicrous allegation. . . .”

And the judge ruled in their favor and they eventually were set free, to reclaim their lives, to see their children for the first time in seven years — and to give their story to the world.

But as long as Gitmo remains open and the Endless War continues — and no one is held accountable — there is no ending to this story, just an open wound.

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

July 28, 2017 - Posted by | Book Review, Subjugation - Torture, Timeless or most popular | , ,

6 Comments »

  1. Disgusting. “Purporting to keep us safe”. More likely to ‘keep Americans ignorant of the truth’. Does anyone know whether the 15(or so) ‘Arab Terrorists’ from the 9/11 fraud are still in Gitmo? Or, were they secretly flown back to Saudi Arabia, like the ‘five dancing Israelis’ were sent back to Israel?

    Both the 15 Arabs and the 5 dancing Israelis were never tried in an American Court of Law, so either they weren’t guilty of any crime, or they WERE guilty of a crime that the USA didn’t want the American people to witness, probably because a lot of high ranking Americans would have been found guilty as well.
    The stench of “9/11” is still heavy in the air, after 16 years of mendacious obfuscation.

    Comment by Brian Harry, Australia | July 28, 2017 | Reply

    • The “stench” goes far beyond 9/11…the MIC has its own laws, its own full no cost healthcare system, its own welfare and housing, clothing, free education and many other benefits that the taxpayer never knows about…all to the tune of “keeping us safe” propaganda. MIC personnel can go into a restaurant in full uniform and get their meals for free…special GI loans at a very low interest rates to buy houses, free legal services, free everything. They are so fat on high lives the most expensive malls and car dealers are located outside ALL BASES. All of these things entice, lure, and ultimately harden into the most despicable mercenaries on earth. I have no respect for them at all. America is the stench of the world because of her abominations of arrogance and cold heart toward totally foreign nationals. I just can’t rap my mind around it…and hope very soon it comes crashing down. I don’t even care anymore about the dead soldiers who come back in boxes…I don’t give a damn about them…and I am American.

      Comment by Wallflower | July 28, 2017 | Reply

      • “A fish rots from the head down”……

        The American people, surely must be wondering what has happened to their country, which was once “Free and Democratic” but is now looking totally like a Fascist nation, who have abandoned the people, who are being pushed down into ‘The New Poor’, and made the Corporations and the 0.01% as their ONLY concern.
        Something has to “give”, somewhere down the track, and it could be extremely ugly.

        Comment by Brian Harry, Australia | July 28, 2017 | Reply

        • It’s strange Brian…when I am out and about the American life is pretty much self…Never do I hear a conversation about reality. Movies, cars, or wherever their desires flow…and woe-is-me when the weather isn’t just right. I can’t stand this fake society all wrapped in their own interests that could care less about the Truth. I can assume there are some living in reality…but I surely don’t know them nor meet them. It is a realm that denies all things not rocking their boat, a seemingly numb mindset as to the victory of the propaganda they swallow by gallons not knowing the medicinal influence of it whether it be secular, religious or professional dysfunction(ism) bloated at the seams. The worse being not interested in Truth. I hope this book ‘Witnesses Of the Unseen’ gets far and wide…but with the openly known activities that went on in Abu Ghraib I ask “where is the American outrage that would demand justice?” That’s why I come here.

          Comment by Wallflower | July 28, 2017 | Reply

          • The crimes of 9/11, the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction of 2003, the massive theft/fraud of 2008, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan etc, have gone unexamined, and unpunished, and now American people are being shot in the streets of the USA by their own police.
            Who is responsible for the breakdown of Law and Order in the USA???

            Comment by Brian Harry, Australia | July 28, 2017 | Reply

            • Society as a whole is responsible. Corruption, greed, gluttony, envy, covetousness, pride, indeed lawlessness full blown. Relying on weapons for ‘everything’. Falling into the devils playground because of reversal of evil and good by all means bring about chaos. Not all policemen are wrong and not all civilians are right; however, when the morals of a nation have been lowered so far as to love evil via movies, music, games, propaganda, war, torture, murder and death…as this nation has become by yielding to ignorance and hardness…FREEDOM is the ultimate answer. When freedom isn’t harnessed through all things good without the cloak of evil…then it has brought about abominations worthy of destruction. A deceitful reality Americans bellow waving their flag whilst their very selves are contributing to the madness. As I pick up their trash they flippantly throw out their car windows not caring about this beautiful land, as I protest the obscene agricultural destruction of this beautiful land, and as I stay oppressed by my neighbors loud obnoxious noise…I don’t care what happens to these so called Americans. Their selfishness does not know peace nor do they want it. Democracy (here) is evil because it is based on self interests and combined with capitalism paints the monster we now witness as the United States of Hypocrisy.

              Comment by Wallflower | July 28, 2017 | Reply


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