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The 2026 FIFA World Cup in the US will sportwash the horrors of Guantanamo 

January 11, 2023 at 9:50 am

Protesters demanded the closure of the detention centre at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on its 16th anniversary on 11 December 2017 [Safvan Allahverdi/Anadolu Agency]

The Western media spewed forth barrel loads of pompous invective recently about why Qatar should never have been chosen to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Bewildered Qataris found themselves being demonised by TV commentators and journalists alike in a tirade of what one news source described as “white outrage, colonialism and a game of capitalist greed.”

Instead of watching an uninterrupted festival celebrating football’s finest, the BBC even refused to broadcast the opening ceremony in a show of unprecedented censorship. Instead, viewers were treated to a politicised attack on Qatar.

However, while the press barons are still clinging to the moral high ground that is new territory to many of them, they might want to acknowledge that when “the greatest show on earth” moves west in 2026 the tournament will be hosted with Canada and Mexico by the country which 21 years ago this week opened the world’s most notorious prison, a legal blackhole we’ve come to know as Guantanamo Bay. With the US taking the lead role in the next World Cup, it will be the worst example of sportwashing that we will ever have witnessed.

In case anyone has forgotten, let me remind you that since 10 January, 2002, as part of the so-called War on Terror, nearly 800 Muslim men have been held illegally in the prison which has been called a gulag by human rights groups. Will Amnesty International be as vocal in 2026? It will be interesting to see; as will the reaction of the whiter than white media which attacked Qatar.

READ: US releases oldest Guantanamo detainee after almost 20 years

Many of the innocent 779 men held in Guantanamo over the years were held and then released with neither charge nor trial. While incarcerated, they were tortured and had their human rights violated, including waterboarding, mock executions and violent sexual degradation. It is little wonder that a few admitted crimes that they did not actually commit.

The human rights allegations thrown at Qatar pale into insignificance compared to what unfolded in this tiny part of Cuba occupied by the US. What’s more, 35 Muslim men are still being held in Guantanamo, illegally in the eyes of international law.

This reality of the US “justice” system, which still includes capital punishment, remember, and a grossly disproportionate number of prisoners from the Black community, must be flagged up from now, and not just in the few weeks or months before the world’s football focus switches to the next FIFA World Cup. Journalists have demonstrated how concerned they are about human rights in Qatar. They have no excuse for not making an even bigger noise about Guantanamo and other human rights abuses committed on a daily basis by the US. FIFA should be questioned from now about awarding the tournament to the US given its appalling record of abuses from the genocide of the Native Americans, through slavery and apartheid in all but in name, to the carpet bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq. To this we can add Washington’s unquestioning support for Israel’s apartheid regime — akin to a crime against humanity — and war crimes.

US Army Military Police drag a detainee to his cell January 11, 2001 in Camp X-Ray at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba [Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy/Getty Images]

US Army Military Police drag a detainee to his cell January 11, 2001 in Camp X-Ray at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba [Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Navy/Getty Images]

Will the BBC pull the plug on the opening ceremony in 2026? The US has already grabbed the lion’s share of the tournament and will host 60 matches, including every match from the quarter-finals onwards; neighbouring Canada and Mexico will each host just 10 matches. It will be, in fact, America’s World Cup. Personally, I doubt that Guantanamo will even be mentioned by TV analysts and commentators, including the former footballers who were only too happy to denounce Qatar even while enjoying the lavish facilities provided by their hosts.

Perhaps the England footballers — if they qualify — will wear orange armbands to signify the orange jumpsuits worn by prisoners at Guantanamo, and hold a minute’s silence for the men still being held there. In fact, they could start by doing it in their next match, against Italy in March; get the protest ball rolling early, so to speak.

Some US Presidents, including Barak Obama in his first Presidential campaign, have mooted the idea of closing Guantánamo. He was backed in this by his main political opponent, the late Republican nominee John McCain, a former prisoner of war in North Vietnam. “In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib [in Iraq] and the detention cells of Guantanamo,” said Obama, “we have compromised our most precious values.” Sadly, he didn’t fulfil his election promise, but the campaign is underway for US President Joe Biden to do so.

Former US Vice President Dick Cheney, a fanatical neo-con, dismissed accusations that the camp was, in the words of one Red Cross report, a place of “humiliating acts”. He said of the prisoners, “They’re living in the tropics. They’re well-fed. They’ve got everything they could possibly want. There isn’t any other nation in the world that would treat people who were determined to kill Americans the way we’re treating these people.”

I saw for myself that Cheney’s weasel words were a sham when I was given an exclusive tour of the world’s most notorious prison more than ten years ago for a documentary I made with filmmaker David Miller.

READ: US transfers Afghan Guantanamo Bay detainee after court ruling

Guantanamo costs US taxpayers $445 million a year and has little to do with justice. Indeed, it is deliberately “offshore” in a foreign country so the US legal system is a grey area which may or may not apply. It is a stark reminder that the US government is willing to hold people captive, perhaps for life, without a trial. As long as the prison camp remains open the US should not be allowed anywhere near prestigious events such as the FIFA World Cup, let alone host any.

It’s worth noting that 20 of the 35 residents still held in Guantanamo have apparently been cleared for release, but… it hasn’t happened. They remain separated from their families and friends.

Recently, some from war zones like Yemen have been released to third countries, thousands of miles from home, plunged into communities fearful of their presence, Arabic language and culture. Thanks to heavy restrictions on their movement, although they’ve never been found guilty of any crime, the former prisoners are effectively being held in limbo, never quite free, and under surveillance.

The 21st anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo is not a cause for celebration. It is an ongoing disgrace to an international community which claims to uphold and promote human rights, including the US and every other Western democracy. If FIFA learnt anything from the Qatar World Cup, it should be that holding the 2026 tournament in the US is a serious own goal even before a ball is kicked. It’s not too late to make a change. Let’s do it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.