Now that the all-consuming and insanely expensive presidential election is over for another four years, Barack Obama’s in-tray still contains Guantánamo, where, of the 166 men still held, 86 were cleared for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force. Consisting of officials from the relevant government departments and the intelligence agencies, the Task Force analyzed the cases of all the remaining prisoners in 2009 and recommended them for trial, continued detention, or release.
The men have now been held for at least three years since the Task Force reached its conclusions, and many were previously cleared for release by military review boards under the Bush administration — in many cases in 2006 or 2007, and in others, in 2004.
Although the public’s interest in the long-term injustices of George W. Bush’s horrendous experimental prison has dwindled, some people still remember that when Obama first came to office in January 2009 he promised to close the prison within a year, but failed to do so. That is a failure that those concerned with justice will not let him forget, not least because it perpetuates the notion, introduced by the Bush administration, that certain people — those labeled as “terrorists” — can be subjected to indefinite detention.
However, as profoundly disappointing as that is, it is, I believe, overshadowed by the ongoing detention — with no end in sight — of men who have been approved to leave by the government’s own officials for at least three years, and in some cases for eight years.
Congress has provided the president with some cover, imposing onerous restrictions on releasing prisoners. The D.C. Circuit Court has also played a part, gutting habeas corpus of all meaning for the remaining prisoners by commanding lower-court judges to presume that the government’s supposed evidence is accurate. That position is absurd to anyone who has examined the mixture of tortured confessions and hearsay that masquerades as evidence, as revealed in particular in the files relating to the prisoners that were released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.
However, as the president of the United States, Obama cannot truly claim that his promise to close Guantánamo was too difficult to keep and should be forgotten. Leadership was required, of a kind lamentably lacking when, in May 2009, he refused to support efforts to give new homes in the United States to cleared prisoners who could not be safely repatriated (the Uighurs, oppressed Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province); and when, in January 2010, he imposed a moratorium on releasing any cleared Yemeni prisoners, after hysteria greeted the news that the failed plane bomber on Christmas Day 2009, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen.
Two-thirds of the men cleared for release but still held are Yemenis. In one particular case, the administration’s refusal to release any of them led to the death of one of them, a man named Adnan Latif, despite his having been repeatedly cleared for release.
That was on September 8. I told his story in an article at the time entitled “Obama, the Courts, and Congress Are All Responsible for the Latest Death at Guantánamo.” In it I ran through the distressing story of a mentally troubled man who had always stated that he had traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001 to seek treatment for a head wound sustained as a result of a car crash in Yemen many years before. As a result of his mental-health issues, he had tried to commit suicide in Guantánamo on numerous occasions.
Not only had he been cleared for release under Bush and Obama, but Adnan Latif’s habeas corpus petition had been granted, until the D.C. Circuit Court intervened. The final injustice came in June, just three months before his death, when his appeal to the Supreme Court was turned down.
At the time, no explanation had been given by the U.S. military or by the Obama administration for the death of Adnan Latif, although it was clear, as one of his lawyers, David Remes, explained, that “it was Guantánamo that killed him.”
In recent weeks, however, it has become apparent that, not content with holding a cleared prisoner until he died, the U.S. government continues to treat him with scorn, even after his death.
Jason Leopold began his a detailed report for Truthout last month with a vivid reminder that Adnan Latif was a father and that his death hit his 14-year-old son particularly hard. His family was told by Yemen’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Yemen Embassy in Washington, D.C., had been told that his remains “would be sent home within two weeks after his death.” However, a Yemeni official, speaking anonymously, said that the Yemen government “refused to accept Adnan’s body until they receive a full accounting of the cause of his death.” The official added that Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, “was briefed about Adnan’s death and decided against accepting the remains.”
“We have asked for a copy of the autopsy report and it has not been provided to us,” the official said.
That was on October 18. In response to questions from Truthout, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said only that the United States was “collaborating closely with the Republic of Yemen government on this case.” He added, “We respect their wishes that we maintain the remains until a time when they are prepared to receive them. Mr. Latif’s remains are being handled with the utmost care and respect by medical professionals and are being maintained in an appropriate facility designed to best facilitate preservation.”
He also explained, “His remains are no longer at JTF-Guantánamo Bay,” adding that they are “currently being held in a secure undisclosed facility.” Truthout established that the unnamed facility is Ramstein Air Base in Germany, but as Adnan Latif’s father, Farhan, explained, without the body the family “cannot mourn his death.” He said, “We will not mourn our son under Islamic law until we receive his body. As you can imagine, this is a nightmare for us.”
The latest news still provides no satisfactory resolution two months after Adnan Latif’s death. As Jason Leopold explained in another article, the Yemen Embassy in Washington, D.C., received a copy of Adnan Latif’s autopsy report on November 10. Even so, a Yemeni official told Leopold that he didn’t know “whether Latif’s remains would be accepted by the Yemeni government based on the autopsy report alone” — or whether they would want to see the results of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service report, which might take a year at least.
In another update, on November 14, Leopold explained that the Department of Defense “now intends to publicly disclose the cause of [Adnan Latif’s] death,” although Colonel Breasseale stated, “We do not have an announced timeline but anticipate a COD [cause of death] announcement to be forthcoming.”
In the meantime, Adnan Latif’s body remains in Germany, and, with no official explanation forthcoming, rumors will continue to swirl. This is a deeply unsatisfactory way for Adnan Latif to be treated after his death, and it continues to shine a spotlight on all the other cleared prisoners. They must be wondering whether they too will die at Guantánamo, with the notifications of their proposed release providing a bitter reminder that America, while pretending to have established fair and just review processes for releasing prisoners from Guantánamo, is actually crueler than regimes that simply lock prisoners up and throw away the key, without pretending to offer them any hope.