On Monday, just hours after the first war crimes hearing for four months was convened at Guantánamo, and just hours before the Pentagon announced that a sixth prisoner had died, apparently by committing suicide, the small group of reporters — “less than a dozen,” according to Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star — who had made the trip to watch a military judge commend the Canadian prisoner Omar Khadr for being “well-spoken” and “professional,” while criticizing his lawyers for their infighting, witnessed what Shephard called “a rare unscripted moment on the base,” when two prisoners staged “an impromptu protest.”
The prisoners — two of the 17 Uighur prisoners at Guantánamo (Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province) — are still held at the prison, despite having convinced the Bush administration (through a humiliating court defeat) to drop its claims that they were “enemy combatants,” and despite the fact that District Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered their release into the United States last October. Judge Urbina based his ruling on several important facts — that the men could not be returned to China because they faced the risk of torture (or worse), that no other country had been found that was prepared to risk the wrath of China by offering them a home, and that holding innocent men at Guantánamo was unconstitutional — but a notoriously reactionary appeals court overturned his ruling in February, and last week the Obama administration sought to prevent the Supreme Court from reviewing their case by agreeing with the appeals court judges.
This was in spite of the fact that, on various occasions since January, the administration has also suggested that it was prepared to move at least some of the men to the United States, if for no other reason that one of solid pragmatism, in that doing so would almost certainly encourage European countries to accept some of the other prisoners at Guantánamo who cannot be repatriated (because they too are from regimes with bleak human rights records, including Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan).
As the Obama administration dithers, the Uighurs — and one Algerian, Sabir Lahmar, who was cleared for release by a judge in November, but has similar fears to the Uighurs — are held in Camp Iguana, a separate part of the prison from the other 221 prisoners, where they are allowed privileges denied to the other inmates, including the crayons and sketch pads they used on Monday to bypass the Pentagon’s prohibition on allowing journalists to speak to prisoners.
In an unconscious echo of the famous film of Bob Dylan holding up and discarding cards featuring words from his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the Uighurs held up a pad featuring messages written in crayon, and for a few minutes, as Shephard described it, “silently turned the pages quickly, as journalists shot video, photos and scribbled down their messages.”
Three of these messages are shown below:
“We need to freedom”
“What is the difference of the Democracy and Communist”
“Now we are being oppressed in America for the second time”
As Shephard described it, other messages read, “We are being held in prison but we have been announced innocent acorrding to the virdict in caurt,” and “America is Double Hetler [Hitler] in unjustice.” She added, “Reporters were ushered away from the fenced-in area shortly after the Uighurs had their written protest. One of the captives yelled as the gate was locked behind the group: ‘Is Obama Communist or a Democrat? We have the same operation in China.’”
Shephard also pointed out that the reporters were ”forbidden from sending photos or video footage of the signs until Guantánamo officials received clearance from the White House,” because the Pentagon’s rules “stipulate that images of detainees must be pre-screened and cannot identify the captives due to regulations in the Geneva Conventions prohibiting the exploitation of prisoners of war” (a rule which, I feel compelled to add, is rather hypocritical, given that, just a month after the prison opened, President Bush issued an executive order establishing that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners seized in the “War on Terror,” and that serious doubts about the prisoners’ treatment remain to this day, despite a review conducted in Obama’s first month in office, which found that the prison was run humanely and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions).
Shephard also explained that clearance from the White House “didn’t come until about 14 hours later,” and added that the reporters were also kept in the dark about the suicide, only being informed, by email, as their flight landed in Maryland.
Responding to news of the protest, Sabin Willett, one of the Uighurs’ lawyers, added further details, explaining that his clients took advantage of the fact that reporters had been invited to “come and shoot pictures of their quarters” by staging the protest. “The English is a little clumsy,” he wrote, “but then again, it’s probably better than your Uighur.” He also described as a “fiction” the notion that “it doesn’t invade their privacy to be photographed like zoo animals so long as faces are not shown,” adding that attempts to persuade the military to be more genuinely open — by allowing “proper interviews” with the prisoners, for example — have been pursued for years “to no avail.”
Pointing out further details, Willett wrote, “The fellow in the blue T-shirt is one of our favorite clients, the surpassingly gentle Abdulnasser, whose English, picked up in GTMO, is rather remarkable,” and added that, according to press reports, the trigger for the Obama administration’s refusal to follow through on its plans to release some of the men into the US was “when Newt Gingrich declared that they had conspired with al-Qaeda and wanted to promote Sharia law.” He went on to explain, “They first heard of al-Qaeda in Guantánamo, and mainly what they’d like to promote is getting a girlfriend.” Nevertheless, as a result of this smear campaign, “The President backed down, and the political branches are now operating under the delusion that we can be the broom while Europe will volunteer to be the dustpan.”
He added, “That will never happen. Instead, we may very well see the Democrats preside over the creation of the true American Gulag,” and concluded by stating, “Abdulnasser was cleared by the courts and the military of being an enemy. No one has ever accused him of a crime, and yet he began his eighth year in the Guantánamo prison last month.”
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.
Bob Dylan: Subterranean Homesick Blues
This is a segment from D. A. Pennebaker’s film, Dont Look Back (a documentary on Bob Dylan’s tour of England in 1965). In the film, Dylan holds up cue cards for the audience with words from the song on them. While staring at the camera, he flips the cards as the song plays. Interestingly, there are intentional errors throughout the video. For instance, the song’s lyrics say “eleven dollar bills,” but the poster says “20 dollars”. The video takes place in an alley behind The Savoy Hotel in London where poet Allen Ginsberg makes a cameo appearance.
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