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Guantanamo prisoners and the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances

August 30, 2023 at 12:00 pm

A group of human rights organizations organized joint protest vigils Wednesday in several states across the US calling for the release of detainees at the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba who are eligible for transfer in Washington D.C., United States on April 5, 2023 [Celal Güneş/Anadolu Agency]

Despite the fact that the US routinely and openly violates the human rights of its own citizens as well as communities across the globe, Washington rarely has any qualms about condemning the violations committed by other countries. Such condemnations are almost always hypocritical, and often do more to shine light on America’s own abuses and lack of accountability. 

As regular as clockwork every year, the US issues statements to commemorate various human rights days highlighting particular abuses. Last year, for example, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement on the occasion of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances in which he said that, “The United States renews its commitment to addressing enforced disappearance and calls on governments around the world to put an end to this practice, hold those responsible to account, reveal the whereabouts or fate of loved ones who have been disappeared, and respect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons.”

This year, the US government will almost certainly release yet another statement to commemorate the same day, 30 August, while again ignoring its own crimes. Although disappearances have less typically been associated with the US, they have long been used in the so-called War on Terror, often disguised by euphemisms and denials. After two decades-plus of this war, it is imperative to shed light on the unresolved issue of Guantanamo prisoners’ disappearances and the Central Intelligence Agency’s disturbing “extraordinary” rendition, detention and interrogation programme that operated in the early days of the war.

READ: UN body condemns US, others for treatment of Guantanamo inmate

The CIA was given a licence to kidnap and detain people in countries across the globe which were willing to host “black sites”. The programme operated from 2002 to 2009, with at least 119 individuals enduring CIA violence. Some of them never returned home; others were sent to Guantanamo Bay. Although the US government has continued to use the term “render” as in render to justice, in practice, many of those subjected to this violence have effectively disappeared, leaving their families in an abyss of uncertainty, while the US government refuses to reckon with this legacy.

On this year’s International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, the US should reflect on its own violence, so that there can finally be some semblance of accountability. This should include an acknowledgement of its wrongdoing; reparations for the harm done to the victims; and mechanisms put in place to prevent such violence from recurring.

Enforced disappearances are a particularly brutal form of state violence. Not only do the victims fear never being found, but the families of the victims also live in perpetual uncertainty with constant denials from governments about the fate of their loved ones. The pain of not knowing whether a family member is alive or deceased, free or imprisoned, makes closure impossible.

Post-9/11, the War on Terror waged by the US has transformed many parts of the world into war zones, cemeteries and prisons. Lives have been lost or shrouded in obscurity; entire families have been erased. Afghan citizen Gul Rahman is just one name among the countless individuals whose fate became tragically entwined with the secret operations of the CIA, vanishing into black sites never to emerge alive. Rahman was tortured, handcuffed to the ground and placed in a freezing cell. He died of hypothermia. His family was never told formally about his death, and despite fighting to have his body returned for a proper burial, the US has denied all such requests.

Detention by the CIA was not the only way that War on Terror prisoners have been effectively disappeared. When the first Muslim men were taken to Guantanamo in January 2002, only the nationalities of prisoners were disclosed, not because the US didn’t actually know the identities of many of the men, but because they were so dehumanised that the US government didn’t prioritise sharing the names with the International Committee of the Red Cross or any other agency or institution, especially those that would hold Washington to account. It wasn’t until 2004 that the names of the men detained were finally revealed, although many had incomplete names documented, leaving their families in prolonged ignorance of their whereabouts. Names were only disclosed by monitoring websites such as Alasra and Britain’s CagePrisoners, later known simply as CAGE.

READ: In search of Saeed: From Guantanamo to an Algerian prison

Guantanamo became synonymous with secrecy, human rights abuses and the plight of countless detainees. Many were held there for years, unaccounted for, like ghosts in the system. Families were left in a perpetual state of uncertainty, not knowing whether their loved ones were dead or alive. Nine prisoners did die in the detention facility — a harrowing and violent conclusion to their detention —years after many of the men last saw their families.

I spent six agonising years at Guantanamo before my family knew anything of my whereabouts. Another family only came to know about their son in 2016; a lawyer contacted the family and let them know.

The injustices extended beyond the walls of Guantanamo. In many cases, after being transferred the detainees vanished for months, disappearing into solitary confinement in their home countries in Saudi Arabia or in third-party nations like the United Arab Emirates. There was a violent ebb and flow of being lost and found. War on Terror prisoners were forced to endure the constant possibility of being forcibly disappeared again and again.

Ghassan Al-Sharbi’s case represents a more recent chapter in this ongoing tragedy. After being forcibly repatriated to Saudi Arabia, he vanished. Despite attempts to locate him, his whereabouts remain unknown. The lack of response from both the Saudi government and the State Department exemplifies the prevailing indifference to the plight of former detainees.

Another former prisoner, Asim Alkhalaqi, was released to Kazakhstan in 2015, but died tragically four months later due to mistreatment and medical negligence. The Kazakh government failed to inform his family of his death, denying them the chance to retrieve his body or hold a proper burial. He was thus a symbolic forced disappearance, and was buried in an unknown grave in an unknown cemetery.

The stories of Gul Rahman, Asim Alkhalaqi, Ghassan Al-Sharbi and countless others stand as painful reminders of the enduring impact of CIA rendition, Guantanamo Bay and the “War on Terror”. While the black sites and detention camps have garnered international criticism, their legacy continues to cast a long shadow over the lives of those affected. Families have been denied closure, and the cycle of suffering perpetuates even after release. The world must remember these names, demand accountability, and work towards a future where such gross violations of human rights are truly a thing of the past. Until then, the US-led War on Terror will endure as a haunting testament to the cost of nation states sacrificing justice for security.

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On this International Day, let us demand an end to enforced disappearances and the practices that perpetuate them. Let us hold nations accountable for their actions and demand transparency. 

In solidarity with victims and their families, we must reaffirm our collective determination to create a world where no one vanishes, justice prevails and human dignity is inviolable. By doing so, we honour the disappeared, restore justice and ensure that no one is condemned to obscurity or denied their humanity.

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