The revelations of widespread torture of detainees at the illegal US naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, rattled the American conscience during the Bush Jr. administration. Two decades later, detainments at Guantanamo continue, but the public has largely moved on. Yet for many former detainees of Guantanamo, release from their former prison has just opened a new chapter of horrors. A recent report from Elise Swain of The Intercept reveals that instead of being sent home, many former Guantanamo detainees were deported to a third country such as Kazakhstan, the UAE, and others. Despite being released from Guantanamo, these former detainees continue to experience arbitrary detention under the Kazakh and Emirati governments while being prevented from reuniting with their families. Elise Swain joins Rattling the Bars to explain these new revelations.
Elise Swain is photo editor of The Intercept.
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Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
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Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m your host, Mansa Musa. The US military prison at Guantanamo Bay continues to be a stain on our humanity and what we call our civilization. A state-sanctioned black ops site where human rights functionally don’t exist, where torture is routine, Amnesty International called Guantanamo Bay, the Gulag of our time.
Now imagine if you had somehow survived the horrors of Guantanamo Bay as a political prisoner, only to find yourself dumped on the side of a road in a country you don’t know, with no identification papers, no passport, no money, no way to contact or see your family, no legal existence. In a recent report for The Intercept, where the photo editor journalist Elise Swain wrote, “Life behind Guantanamo Bay for some men is just another Guantanamo Bay. Those who cannot be repatriated are instead sent to a third country, like Kazakhstan, where former detainees have been met with more arbitrary detention.” To talk about this, we are joined today by Elise Swain. Welcome to Rattling the Bars, Elise.
Elise Swain: Thank you so much for having me.
Mansa Musa: So let’s start by making sure listeners know what’s happening to these prisoners at Guantanamo Bay being released into foreign countries.
Elise Swain: Right, so we have a situation at Guantanamo Bay for the last 20 years where 779 men came in and were either released, or the few remaining: 30, are still there today. And so, what happened with a lot of these men, hundreds of them were Yemeni: men from Yemen, and the political situation in Yemen had deteriorated. The government was nonexistent. The country was in a civil war.
When the US government couldn’t prosecute and had no evidence to charge and continue to detain these prisoners of law, the unconstitutionally held men, they had to release them. And so what ended up happening was, they were not able to return to places like Yemen because that was deemed too unstable and the US was worried about the security of the US and if these men were to reengage with terrorism and extremism.
What they ended up doing was creating these third-country resettlement deals and that is what I’m interested in my reporting that I’ve been doing lately for The Intercept. We’re talking specifically about countries where this has gone very wrong. There are many successful resettlement stories, where men have been able to essentially live normal lives; work, travel, get married, and obtain their documents. But what I’m interested in talking about today is the issues that we’re seeing play out in places like Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, where these men are lacking fundamental, basic human rights.
Mansa Musa: Right.
Elise Swain: So let’s get into all of that.
Mansa Musa: You spent a lot of time reporting on the story of Sabri al-Qurashi. Tell us about Sabri and what’s it been like to talk to him directly.
Elise Swain: Sabri’s become a friend. Sabri’s an amazing person. I’m really lucky to call him a friend at this point. He’s one of the kindest, most caring, considerate, funny people that I’ve spoken to. His native language is Arabic. He was dumped in Kazakhstan nine years ago where they speak Kazakh and Russian, so he’s had to learn English and now Russian, and he’s caught between these three different languages. But as we spent months speaking, his English did get better and we did some reporting from Arabic to English and I was able to really understand and tell his story for the first time. Because a lot of these men, as I said there were 770 of them, a lot of these stories never got told.
Sabri spent 12 years at Guantanamo. He was not one of the black site prisoners. He was deemed low intelligence value because he was picked up in Pakistan, where he was working with merchandise. He was there for a perfume factory, buying wholesale things, trying to make money, trying to be a rich man and make his family proud. And he was young, and he happened to be there at this time when 9/11 had happened and they were dumping leaflets, offering bounty money up to $5,000, and warlords across Pakistan and in Afghanistan were selling people to the US government for money. This happened with up to 86% of the men that were at Guantanamo Bay.
And so, unable to return to Yemen after Guantanamo, Sabri was pretty enthusiastic and was looking forward to being offered a life in Kazakhstan. It’s a Muslim country. He was told that he would be living under some restrictions for the first two years but essentially he was going there as a free man; he would have all the same rights as Kazakh citizens. He was told he would be treated as a member of society. And for the last eight years, he has found himself without the most basic needs being met. He said to me, truly, my life now is as bad as it was when I was in Guantanamo, and in many aspects even worse. At least there, I knew I was in prison and that I would at least get out one day. So now he’s essentially living in an open-air prison where he’s being told that he’s free and he’s living in what I would consider the complete opposite of freedom.
His movements are monitored. People are actively discouraged from talking to him and being friends with him. They become monitored. He’s kept mostly in isolation because of this, because of the stigma of being branded a terrorist in Kazakhstan. He does not have an ID, he does not have asylum. He’s stateless living in this country. He is unable to receive money or mail. He can’t drive, he cannot travel, and the International Committee of the Red Cross is the one that pays for him to have an apartment and live there. He’s getting no support from the actual Kazakh government.
Mansa Musa: What does Sabri’s situation say about what other former Guantanamo Bay detainees are going through and why are they going to countries like Kazakhstan?
Elise Swain: These resettlement deals are run out of an office at the State Department. So we have a diplomatic branch of the government taking over and trying to clean up the mess made post-9/11 with Guantanamo Bay and the mess of the CIA and all of the torture that occurred there. So essentially now, with an office within the State Department first created under Obama, to transfer these men out of Guantanamo during the days when the Obama administration they wanted to close Guantanamo. That was a priority. Of course, then Trump came in and disbanded this office at the State Department, stopped any transfers out of Guantanamo Bay, and made men who were cleared for release sit there and wait for four more years until they were able to leave.
People like Sabri and Mohammed, the two remaining today in Kazakhstan, are ending up in places like that because they’re essentially pawns in a geopolitical game. What the State Department is doing is using diplomacy to try to police these men in countries that are unwilling hosts. So no one wants to be responsible for men that the US has said were the worst of the worst: terrorists, extremists, people who killed innocent civilian life and did war crimes. Of course, we have a very, very small percentage of men remaining in Guantanamo today they were able to bring evidence against that they were involved in a war crime against the US. Most of these men were un-chargeable but did the time for it anyway.
So no one wants to be responsible for them but some countries are accepting them in these deals with the State Department because it strengthens their relationship with the US; there’s a quid pro quo here, maybe it gets benefits for them in some ways later on the road, or they’re being paid to take them in. I have heard that, not in all cases, but in some cases, we are literally paying countries to take these men off of our hands. So it shows real neglect of the US to have any thoughtful policy in place for what to do with these men once they were able to be released. What has happened here with this resettlement situation, or even for the men that go back home to their native countries, there is no exoneration for them. They’re not leaving Guantanamo with a pat on the back and the handshake saying, we’re so sorry for what we did to you. Here are reparations. Here’s compensation. Here’s rehabilitation for what you went through for the arbitrary detention that amounts to torture.
For some of the men, they did go through the black site interrogation program. For the other men, there was military-run torture. We had two different parts of the government torturing. Interrogations that went beyond any reasonable what they call stress positions, enhanced interrogation. No, it’s torture. What the CIA did and what the US government did at Guantanamo and beyond was torture. And there has been no meaningful accountability for what was done to those men and there has been no prosecution for those who committed it.
And so for now, these men to be released from Guantanamo to be tied up in more decades of bureaucratic nonsense, where they’re left with no rights and the State Department says about the situation in Kazakhstan, listen, it’s not a priority right now. His life isn’t in danger, so he’s going to continue to live at the margins of society. And that’s what we have now. It is a diplomatic quagmire where these men have been tied up for decades in legal messes that the US itself created by handing them over to another country and not meaningfully following up, having no meaningful follow-up with the diplomacy deal that was done. What happens after the two years? The US couldn’t care less.
So unless these men advocate for themselves, unless they talk to the media, unless they write a book or go on social media and become activists, these men are remaining nameless victims of the war on terror, and they are living on the margins of society, and they are impoverished, willfully so, because they are not allowed to work, and they have not been exonerated, and they are broken.
Mansa Musa: You cited in your article about the UN investigation into Guantanamo Bay, and you basically said that it didn’t really reveal nothing that was not already known, and that in reality, it was a bit too late to help people like Sabri. And more importantly, unpack, in your investigation, did they conclude that reparations should be given to men like Sabri?
Elise Swain: This report from the Special Repertoire on Human Rights for the United Nations was significant in many ways. This was the first independent investigator from the UN to be able to have full access and full cooperation from the US to go into the actual prison. She was able to interview the men that were still held there. She talked to men who have been released. I know for a fact she spoke with Sabri and with Mansoor Adayfi and others who have been released for this investigation.
So really, this is a critical understanding and so much of this we’ve been missing because the media has not been allowed to do their jobs. We are not allowed to speak to these men. They are held incommunicado and they always will be because they were victims of CIA torture. And so, the more that they can control that narrative, the more that they can turn, the US public, make sure that we continue to turn a blind eye to the horrifying international human rights abuses that were committed in our name, the better. What this report to me meant was a reaffirmation that the core of the problem here is this arbitrariness. There’s this inexplicable, indefinite detention that is never-ending and because of lack of public interest, because of the media turning its spotlight onto the situation, we have allowed a situation where, as the UN Special Repertoire writes, life beyond Guantanamo for some men is another Guantanamo.
And it’s all of these reasons that I’ve mentioned that this is the case. If there was public interest, if the narrative had changed, oh my God, look at what we’ve done, these men were all largely not involved in 9/11 or in the USS Cole bombing. No, these men were not involved in active violent plots against the US. They were living their lives. Some of them, yes, of course, they were training with Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but that’s part of the culture and we had no understanding of why they were really there. That wasn’t the crime. The crime was war crimes against the US. But the United States never admitted faults, never said all of these men were innocent in the way that our own criminal justice system would define innocence.
So what happens is that we now have a neglectful media that is not covering this in the same way and we have this report published 20 years too late.
Mansa Musa: Right, right. Yeah, exactly.
Elise Swain: What do we do about it now? All of this is already in progress. All of the bureaucratic issues and the CIA torture, it’s already happened. There’s no changing it unless we completely change the public narrative around how these issues are viewed and what our understanding of justice is. What is the US definition of innocence for these men? If we continue to call them terrorists over and over and over again, this is what living after Guantanamo means. It is another Guantanamo.
So what she points out specifically in this report that was of interest to me was highlighting Kazakhstan and the United Arab Emirates, where these abuses on detainees, she found to be egregious. Now, that’s a powerful word for a UN paper to use. I don’t think you can get much more serious than having an egregious concern.
And so she wrote, “In Kazakhstan, former detainees effectively remain under house arrest and are unable to live a normal and dignified life due to the secondary security measures put in place post transfer.” Now again, what do we do about this situation? The State Department is saying, well, it’s up to Kazakhstan to decide what the security measures are. Kazakhstan is responsible for them. And the Special Repertoire disagrees, essentially, with that.
She says, “There is a legal and moral obligation for the US to use all of its diplomatic and legal resources to facilitate re-transferring these men with meaningful assurance and support to the other countries.” What this means is that she is saying these men need to be taken out of Kazakhstan, out of the United Arab Emirates, because they are being essentially tortured, and held in arbitrary detention yet again, and it is morally imperative that the US steps in and is involved.
And in my reporting, I found that essentially the US government completely disagrees with this. From a legal standpoint, they say, no, no, we had a deal. The deal is over. Kazakhstan is in legal control of these men and we want nothing to do with it. Diplomatically, this would be the moral obligation part.
Mansa Musa: I got you.
Elise Swain: Morally, they also say, no, that’s not for us to decide the morality of what has happened with these men. I was told in a quote from the State Department, once security assurances have expired, and pending any specific renegotiation of assurances, it falls largely to the discretion of the host country to determine what security membership they continue to implement. They’re saying our hands are tied, we have no interest. This is oh, sure, on a personal level I can say this is terrible that this happened, but it’s really not for us here at the State Department to deal with.
And she says, no, absolutely there is a legal and moral obligation. And so, that’s critical. I really haven’t seen such a powerful call to action from the US. This slammed the US government. The UN really, really took us to task here for what has been done to these men at Guantanamo currently, and mostly in the countries where they have been arbitrarily detained.
She also found that this report was significant in finding a much larger study that had been done for the first time, that she looked into so many different cases of where these detainees have been sent. What I’m saying is that this is the first time that someone has looked into the enormity of the situation and interviewed so many former detainees that have been put out in the world because really there hasn’t, no one’s really keeping track of that.
And so, she found that the men released from Guantanamo in resettlement deals, in fact, had not been given proper legal status by their host countries in 30% of documented cases. And that’s only documented cases. She wasn’t able to interview all 700 people who were there. And sorry, not all 700, of course, are in resettlement host countries. However, hundreds are, and 30% is quite high; 30% is unacceptable.
Mansa Musa: And the problem with this whole report, in terms of how the problem for the US is this: okay, you created the problem. You rounded people up under the pretense that they represent a threat to the security of the US. You round them up, you take them to Guantanamo Bay. Then after you held them for up to 20 years or better, or less, then you say, oh, you’re no longer a threat. You’re no longer a problem. You’re no longer a security threat to the US but yet you don’t have the humanity, or you don’t feel the more obligation to say, oh, because of what we did to you now we’re going to send you back to your country and compensate you.
No. The way we’re going to do it, we’re going to pass the buck. We’re going to come to an agreement with the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan and say that you take them off our hands, they’re your responsibility. We’ll pay you but in terms of us having anything to do with them, we are no longer obligated and we’re not going to do anything with them.
But as we close out, I want to make one observation: When 9/11 happened, I was serving time in the Maryland prison system. I did 48 years prior to being released, but during that time, I was in the supermax when 9/11 happened. And I was on the walk and I was looking out my cell. I saw when the Twin Towers went down. I went to a person’s cell and I said, you know what? The Twin Towers went down. I said, the US is going to find somebody to blame and when they find somebody to blame, they going to make sure that they do everything humanly possible to eradicate them as a people or eradicate them as human beings. And this is what they have done to Sabri.
Going forward, what do you want our listeners to know and what should be the takeaway from this whole thing? How do you think the American people should respond to what’s going on with men like Sabri and others that are waiting, or others that are already in these situations?
Elise Swain: What needs to change in the thinking about Guantanamo is what we were speaking about before and something you mentioned here. Why were these men not given reparations? Why were these men not rehabilitated or given compensation? Because we do not want to acknowledge that they are victims of torture and that we were wrong.
There is a confirmation bias with these men that is persistent and is so uniformly understood as the truth. And what I mean by confirmation bias is that we cannot begin to admit that we got the wrong people, that these men were not responsible for 9/11. So Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the accused for 9/11 are still at Guantanamo Bay. The trial has not even happened. We’ve been stuck in pretrial hearings. People in the US don’t know about this. They don’t know that there is a broken commission system where the military is the judge in these cases.
Guantanamo has been a story in the news for 23 years now and it’s a story that people think that they know and they’re tired of. The overwhelming narrative is, yeah, that’s where we sent the terrorists after 9/11. We got them. That’s where all the bad guys went. And in reality, the unbelievable fuck-up that was Guantanamo is really not understood. Mark Fallon, who was one of the heads of the Naval Criminal Investigation Services makes a great point of this in his book, Unjustifiable Means. Many leading people in the military have been able to say, we made a lot of mistakes. These men were not supposed to be there. They were nobodies. It was not Osama bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay. But that’s very rare. That’s rare for people in the government to admit, we got this so terribly wrong.
For Obama to have done what he did, where he did not prosecute torture. He said, let’s look forward, not backward. We lost a pivotal moment there in understanding what was done post-9/11. They swept the torture under the rug. They allowed this legal nightmare of over-classification and lack of justice for both the victims, the family members, the victims of 9/11 and other incidents, and the American public.
There’s been no justice done for us, for the victims of 9/11. There’s been no justice for the maybe one million innocent Iraqis who were slaughtered in the aftermath of 9/11, having had nothing to do with it. There’s been no justice for the bombing of Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, the drone strikes in those countries, in Pakistan as well, and on and on and on. We have unleashed Pandora’s box–
Mansa Musa: Of terrorism.
Elise Swain: –Of terrorism on other countries that did not deserve the Islamophobic attacks and brutalization and murder outright of their people.
Mansa Musa: Elise, as we close out, tell our audience how they can get in touch with you or how they can review some of your writings or stay abreast as you report these things. Because as you said, the public is being desensitized by Guantanamo Bay because that’s the narrative that the fascists are pushing now.:Terrorists live there. If you got an attitude about that, then you support terrorism, so you should be happy that we got the terrorists isolated and taken care of, to stop another 9/11. How can our people, our viewers, and listeners, stay abreast of what’s going on?
Elise Swain: I just got back, actually, from Guantanamo Bay. I was there on a reporting trip, and I will have some stories coming out soon at TheIntercept.com. I have a staff page there. If you simply Google Elise Swain, The Intercept, you can see all of the reporting and writing that I’ve done right there on my staff page. I am on Twitter, I am on Instagram, and I would say check back in at the Intercept because I have some great stories coming up.
Mansa Musa: Okay, there you have it. Elise Swain, rattling the bars.
When we say close Guantanamo Bay, we always think about what we’re going to do with the people that are there, and that gives us consternation about closing. Because this is a narrative that’s being perpetuated by the government, the fascists: If we close it, then we have to do something with the terrorists, and therefore that’s why it’s not being closed.
No. When we say close Guantanamo Bay, we’re saying close it because, as Elise Swain put out, these are innocent people that are being held there that were rounded up, the same way they rounded up people and put them in Japanese internment camps, the same way they rounded people up and put them in Auschwitz and Bacuag and DACA, the same way they rounded up people in Africa and brought them over as slaves. This is a human tragedy. The human tragedy of Guantanamo Bay is that they’re terrorizing people, and they’re turning, as we saw, the terrorism on them. Then they send them to countries where they don’t have any rights and don’t have a way of re-socializing themselves.
We ask that you continue to support the Real News and Rattling the Bars because it’s the only way you going to get Elise Swain that’s going to tell you about Guantanamo Bay and give you the real news behind it. Because guess what? We are actually the real news. Thank you, Elise. We appreciate it and continue your good work.
Elise Swain: Thank you so much. Solidarity, my friend.