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Obama, the Courts, and Congress Are All Responsible for the Latest Death at Guantánamo

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I felt sick when I heard that the man who died at Guantánamo this past weekend was Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a Yemeni. I had been aware of his case for six years and had followed it closely. He had been cleared for release under George W. Bush (in December 2006) and under Barack Obama (as a result of the Guantánamo Review Task Force’s deliberations in 2009). His habeas corpus petition had been granted, but, disgracefully, he had not been freed.

Instead of being released, Adnan Latif was failed by all three branches of the U.S. government. Obama was content to allow him to rot in Guantánamo, having announced a moratorium on releasing any Yemenis from Guantánamo after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian recruited in Yemen, tried and failed to blow up a plane in December 2009. That ban, which had been put in place largely because of pressure from Congress, was still in place when Latif died.

Also to blame are the D.C. Circuit Court and the Supreme Court. Latif’s habeas corpus petition had been granted in July 2010, but then the D.C. Circuit Court moved the goalposts, ordering the lower-court judges to give the government’s supposed evidence — however obviously inadequate — the presumption of accuracy. Latif’s case came before the D.C. Circuit Court in October 2011. Two of the three judges — Janice Rogers Brown and Karen LeCraft Henderson — reversed his successful habeas petition. Only Judge David Tatel dissented, noting that there was no reason for his colleagues to assume that the government’s intelligence report about Latif, made at the time of his capture, was accurate, as it had been “produced in the fog of war, by a clandestine method that we know almost nothing about.” In addition, Tatel noted that it was “hard to see what is left of the Supreme Court’s command,” in 2008’s Boumediene v. Bush ruling granting the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights, that the habeas-review process be “meaningful.”

Despite that, when the Supreme Court had the opportunity to take back control of the Guantánamo prisoners’ habeas petitions in June this year, through a number of appeals, including one by Latif, they refused.

Adnan Latif first came to my attention when I was researching the prisoners’ stories for my book The Guantánamo Files in 2006. There was evidently something not right about him, which, it seemed clear, was attributable to the fact that he had suffered a serious head wound in a car crash in Yemen in 1994. That, in turn, had been the reason that he had traveled to Pakistan and then to Afghanistan prior to his capture in December 2001 — for affordable medical treatment, as he explained. The precarious state of his mental health had been obvious to me when I read the transcript of his tribunal at Guantánamo in 2004.

In the tribunal, as I explained in an online chapter of my book in 2008, he “appeared bewildered, refuting what he believed was an allegation that he came from a place called al-Qaeda by saying, ‘I am from Orday City in Yemen, not a city in al-Qaeda. My city is very far away from the city of al-Qaeda.’”

Although it was clear that Latif was not well, the authorities initially regarded him as someone trained to deceive interrogators. At his tribunal hearing, his “personal representative” (a military officer assigned in place of a lawyer) noted that he “[rambles] for long periods and does not answer questions” and had “clearly been taught to ramble as a resistance technique.”

In fact, Latif’s rambling was the result of his mental-health problems. In December 2006, the authorities recognized that he was not worth holding. Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, the commander of the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo, recommended him for transfer out of the prison in a document that was classified and not made publicly available until April 2011, when it was released by the campaigning group WikiLeaks.

However, Latif was not released, and his ordeal did not come to an end. In August 2008, one of his attorneys, Mark Falkoff, filed an “Emergency Motion to Compel Access to Medical Records of Petitioner Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif and for Other Miscellaneous Relief” (PDF), in which he pointed out that his client was showing signs of schizophrenia. He had also lost a considerable amount of weight — from 145 to 107 pounds — for unexplained reasons, as he was not, at the time, on a hunger strike (although at one point earlier in his imprisonment his weight had dropped to just under 90 pounds). Falkoff had, however, been told by Latif that he had been prevented from having a blanket and a mattress in his cell, even though he was in a very poor state, and he described his client as being “near death.”

Another of Latif’s attorneys, David Remes, explained that his client had tried to commit suicide on several occasions, and, on a visit in May 2009, had tried to do so while Remes was present. He “chipped off a piece of the stiff veneer on the underside of our conference table and used it to saw into a vein in his left wrist,” Remes said. “As he sawed, he drained his blood into a plastic container and, shortly before it was time for me to leave, he hurled the blood at me from the container.”

Amnesty International, which took up his case, also noted that he had been “held in solitary confinement in the psychiatric ward at Guantánamo since at least November 2008” and that he told his lawyers that “when he is awake he sees ghosts in the darkness, hears frightening voices, and suffers from nightmares when he is asleep.” He suffered from “a number of physical health problems, including a fractured cheekbone, a shattered eardrum, blindness in one eye, a dislocated shoulder blade, and a possibly dislocated knee,” as well as “constant throat and stomach pain which [made] it difficult for him to eat.” When he responded to his neglect by embarking on hunger strikes, the authorities strapped him in a restraint chair and force-fed him up to three times a day through a tube pushed up his nose into his stomach.

In May 2010, just before he won the habeas petition that was subsequently dismissed by the D.C. Circuit Court, Latif was held in isolation in Camp 5, reserved for hunger strikers and those viewed as having influence over the prisoners. In March 2010 he told his attorneys that he was still subjected to ill treatment and felt suicidal. As Amnesty International explained in a second appeal, in the letter to his attorneys he stated that he was regularly subjected to violent assaults by the Immediate Response Force (IRF), a group of guards who punish even the most minor transgressions with disproportionate violence.

“IRF teams enter my cell on [a] regular basis,” he wrote. “They throw me and drag me on the floor. [Two] days before writing this letter [the IRF team] strangled me and pressed hard behind my ears…. I lost consciousness for more than an hour.” He added that the circumstances in which he was living “makes death more desirable than living…. I find no taste for life, sleep, or rest.”

We may never find out exactly what happened to Adnan Latif. On September 8, he was “found unresponsive in his cell” in Camp 5 “and could not be revived,” as the authorities explained in a statement. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service will conduct an inquiry, but it may be inconclusive. To my mind, he was worn out by Guantánamo — so worn out that he died of despair and exhaustion — and those who are to blame are Barack Obama, his advisors, and Judges Janice Rogers Brown and Karen LeCraft Henderson.

Speaking to the New York Times, David Remes described Latif as a “talented poet and deeply devout” man who was “mentally fragile and was at times sedated, placed on suicide watch and sent to the prison’s psychological ward.” He added, “Every hope held out to him was dashed. He felt that his spirit was dying, that he couldn’t continue to bear his conditions.” In the Washington Post he said, “Latif’s death is a tragedy and could have been avoided. This is a man who never should have been brought to Guantánamo. He was fragile physically and psychologically and cried out for treatment.”

In another powerful statement, Remes wrote, “The military has not stated a cause of death. However Adnan died, it was Guantánamo that killed him. His death is a reminder of the human cost of the government’s Guantánamo detention policy and underscores the urgency of releasing detainees the government does not intend to prosecute.”

It is indeed a pressing concern. Its urgency was emphasized by Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who, as the Associated Press explained, said that “the sense of despair among prisoners overall seems to have worsened since the Supreme Court announced in June that it would not review the way courts were handling the men’s individual challenges to their confinement.”

“The mood is very dark,” Dixon told the AP. “There are a lot of guys who are having a really hard time…. Many of them have lost any hope that they are ever going to be released regardless of their status.”

I hope that Adnan Latif’s death will not have been in vain and that it will lead to renewed pressure on Obama to release the prisoners at Guantánamo who, like Latif, were told — some as long ago as 2004 — that they would be leaving Guantánamo, but who are still held. Otherwise there will be more deaths, more disgrace, and more of the very real sense that the men at Guantánamo are, as George W. Bush intended nearly eight years ago, a subspecies of human being without any rights whatsoever.

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    Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and serves as policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.