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11 January 2022

“You know it shouldn’t exist”: Guantánamo at 20

The 39 men still held there are out of reach of the US court system.

By Ben van der Merwe

The US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq might have ended, but the war on terror lingers on closer to home. 

Five hundred miles off the coast of Florida, the Guantánamo Bay detention facility today (11 January) marks its 20th anniversary. Because the facility lies outside the jurisdiction of US courts, the government has used it as a base for torture and the indefinite detention of suspects without charge or trial. 

A total of 780 men and boys have passed through the camp over the past two decades, according to the New York Times, some staying for as long as 19 years. Nine have died in custody.

Today, 39 men remain in the camp, all of whom have spent at least 14 years within its walls. More than two-thirds (27) have never been charged with any crime, and only two have been convicted. Both of these convictions were secured in military courts; Amnesty International said they “did not meet fair trial standards”.

Mansoor Adayfi was 19 when he first arrived in Guantánamo. He had lived most of his life in a small village in rural Yemen, without running water or electricity. “When women in my village had problems giving birth, they would die,” he told the New Statesman

“It hurt me to see this – these were my relatives, and I loved them. So, I had a dream to bring a change to my own people.”

A gifted student, Adayfi moved to Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, to finish secondary school and soon turned his attention to computer science. Unable to afford university, he took up jobs as a security guard for foreign embassies and saved his money, while also enrolling in a free part-time course at an educational institute.

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“The head of the institute would sometimes give out letters of recommendation for scholarships in Gulf countries,” Adayfi recalled. 

“I really insisted on this every time I met him. Eventually he said, ‘OK, you’re going to go to Afghanistan as a research assistant. After that, you will get your letter of recommendation’.

“This was the happiest news ever in my life: the ticket to my dreams, to get married, to be someone important, to help the people in my village. So I went to Afghanistan.”

Events would soon overtake Adayfi’s dreams. The US invaded four months after his arrival, and soon began distributing leaflets promising that anyone who handed in an “Arab terrorist” would receive “enough to feed your family for life”.

Days before Adayfi was due to return to Yemen, his car was ambushed on a highway in northern Afghanistan. “I was kidnapped by one of the warlords, sold from one warlord to another, and eventually sold to the CIA as an al-Qaeda general,” he said.

“The CIA took me to a black site, kicked my ass and kept me there for almost three months. The Americans at that time were angry and didn’t know what they were looking for. They said I was an Egyptian general, a 9/11 insider, an al-Qaeda commander – it was chaotic.”

[See also: The graveyard of empires: Why American power failed in Afghanistan]

Adayfi was eventually taken to Guantánamo. A stubborn teenager, his insubordination quickly earned him a reputation among the guards.

He laughed: “People in Yemen, we just talk! Blah, blah, blah! And that’s what we used to do in Guantánamo, the same thing. I was trying to be who I am. The guards, they took that as me being some sort of leader.”

Adayfi soon grew into the role, leading hunger strikes and protests over prison conditions. He told the New Statesman: “They said we cannot pray, we cannot shake hands, we cannot talk, we cannot sleep. Of course, I started resisting instinctively. As a tribe, we live our code of transparency, honour, dignity, hospitality and respect. This is the way my mother and father raised me.

“We resisted peacefully. We held a hunger strike. But in return we got beatings. We were stripped naked. They put their fingers in our asses – this is f*****g rape, what do you expect me to say? To say thank you? I’d rather die.

“My one neighbour was 13 years old. What do you want me to do when I see him beaten, when I see him mistreated? I would rather take the pain. The pain of seeing someone mistreated, tortured and abused is worse than the physical pain.”

In 2010, Yemeni intelligence services informed the US of Adayfi’s work in diplomatic security and verified his alibi. In 2016, after 14 years in American custody, he was released without charge.

Adayfi said: “People ask me how I spent my twenties. I tell them I don’t know what that means – it doesn’t exist in my mind. I know what the number 20 is, but I don’t know how it is to live your twenties.”

He was relocated to Serbia upon his release, a country with which he had no prior connection. Other Yemeni detainees have been relocated to Georgia, Ghana, Montenegro and Kazakhstan.  

Today, Adayfi campaigns for the closure of Guantánamo with the British advocacy group Cage, where he works as the coordinator of its Guantánamo project. His memoir, Don’t Forget Us Here, was published last September by Hachette Books. 

He has also written about his experience for the New York Times, and last January co-wrote an open letter in the New York Review of Books alongside six other former inmates, calling on the newly inaugurated US president, Joe Biden, to close Guantánamo once and for all.

Adayfi told the New Statesman: “Even the worst terrorists should have basic human rights. It’s not about them, it’s about us – about who we are. When we start crossing those boundaries, we cannot blame others for doing the same. 

“Look at what China is doing to the Uyghurs now. It’s worse than Guantánamo, but they’re taking their cues from Guantánamo. The US has good values, but Guantánamo is a symbol of lawlessness that gives legitimacy to tyrants. Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE – they all have their own Guantánamos. They say, ‘If our boss, our master, can do it, why can’t we?’ It’s scary.”

[See also: An extraordinary diary from Guantanamo Bay reveals the failure of American democracy]

Eight of Adayfi’s years in detention were during the presidency of Barack Obama who, on his second day in office, had ordered Guantánamo to close within a year. Adayfi blames his failure on congressional Republicans, but also Obama’s “cowardice”.

Obama himself blamed his failure to close the camp on an obstructive Congress, but senior officials pointed the finger at the Pentagon and insufficient White House backing. One official blamed a lack of planning as to where former inmates would be resettled, alleging that the office of the then-vice-president Joe Biden resisted the resettlement of 17 Uyghur detainees in the US.

Now, Adayfi’s hopes, and those of the 39 detainees still trapped in Guantánamo, rest on Biden himself, who as president has also pledged to close the facility.

“We are trying to hold Mr Biden to his promise on Guantánamo,” Adayfi said. “So far, only one detainee has been released and no one has been appointed for the closure of Guantánamo or to negotiate the transfer of prisoners.

“We are fighting for the American justice system. That justice system is being abused, it’s being misused.”

On Saturday 8 January, Adayfi and six other former detainees shared their experiences at an online event organised by Cage. 

Among the speakers was former detainee Shaker Aamer, the last British resident to have been held at Guantánamo Bay. 

Aamer addressed Joe Biden directly: “I call upon your humanity, I call upon the human being inside you to take a side and close down Guantánamo. You know deep inside you that that place shouldn’t exist.”

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