On March 20, 2014, Ali Ahmad Muhammad al-Razihi stared into a video camera at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp, his home for the past thirteen years, and was relayed to Virginia, where United States officials listened to his testimony—a plea for transfer to his hometown of Ta’izz, Yemen.
Al-Razihi’s representatives, speaking in the only part of the proceedings that wasn’t classified by the US government, addressed delegates from the US Office of National Intelligence and the Departments of State, Justice, Defense and Homeland Security. With the use of a PowerPoint slideshow, they outlined al-Razihi’s main objectives if he were to be released: to return to his hometown, finalize a marriage that was arranged for him during imprisonment, and expand his family’s fruit and vegetable business—different hopes from those that may be expected from a suspected former bodyguard of Osama Bin Laden.
“He’s ready to live out the rest of his days as a peaceful man, a family man, an entrepreneur, and no longer should be considered a continued significant threat to the United States of America,” his representatives told the delegates.
Al-Razihi is one of the first Guantánamo detainees to face the Periodic Review Board, a body whose purpose is to reassess which prisoners in Guantánamo Bay represent a significant enough threat to US national security to warrant extreme detention. President Barack Obama implemented the process in 2011, around the same time as WikiLeaks published 765 CIA files that released information about Guantánamo prisoners. The leaks confirmed that al-Razihi was among forty-six “forever prisoners” who have been indefinitely held for over a decade without charge or trial in Guantánamo. The number used to be forty-eight, but two inmates died in prison: one heart attack and one suicide.
Thursday, June 26, 2014 marked the seventeenth anniversary of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, advocating for the “total eradication of torture” worldwide. The day is also meant to support the United Nations Convention against Torture, which Canada ratified in 1987 and the United States in 1994.
The WikiLeaks release of its “Gitmo Files” significantly increased awareness of these indefinite detentions—condemnable under the Geneva Conventions and other protections of the rights of the persons—and the moral dilemmas that they pose. But Obama had long before campaigned on and advocated for the closure of Guantánamo Bay. In a speech delivered in May 2009, the American president emphasized the importance of the Periodic Review Boards—which were officially implemented only two years later and then delayed until 2014—in “carefully evaluating and justifying” any prolonged detention for the sake of American safety.
He didn’t mention that unjust detention is the least of the accusations against the American detainee camp. Guantánamo Bay has been repeatedly criticized for its use of torture since it hosted its first detainees in 2002. A 2006 report by the Center for Constitutional Rights documented claims by Guantánamo prisoners of psychological, physical, sexual and cultural abuse. This abuse was also exposed in the 2009 release of memos previously advising the CIA on the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the questioning of Al-Qaeda affiliates. The CCR report opens with a quote from US military intelligence officers: “You are in a place where there is no law—we are the law.”
Obama later signed executive orders starting the release of all Guantánamo prisoners and banning the CIA’s notorious interrogation methods. But last year the prison saw a hunger strike that, at its peak last July, encompassed 106 of its 166 remaining prisoners, several of them force-fed by the US military. Media outlets questioned whether such force-feedings should be considered torture; the right to go on hunger strike has, after all, been well recognized by the international community.
Last December, the military declared that it would no longer disclose information about the Guantánamo hunger strikes.
The justification of torture as a means to ensure truth and safety is not a new one. But it seems that society may have already forgotten what it learned exactly 250 years ago—that torture leads to neither truth nor safety. In his famous 1764 book Of Crimes and Punishments, originally in Italian, Cesare Beccaria outlined the arguments against torture that led to a Europe-wide recession of its use for legal means. In a short chapter on torture, the philosopher and politician explained that its use was not only inhumane, but also counter-productive; it compelled the victim to lie in order to find release from pain. Numerous innocent people, Beccaria said, had confessed their fake guilt to the courts for such reasons. “How amazing that mankind has always neglected to draw [this] natural conclusion!” he wrote.
Following Beccaria’s publication, there came a banning of torture in criminal procedures across Europe, and the US ratified the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution in 1791, prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishments.” The twentieth century, however, saw a reversal toward torture once more, this time with a perhaps more compelling justification than simply criminal justice: national security.
During the first and second world wars, mass violence arrived in the forms of chemical weapons, concentration camps and human experimentation. Utilitarianism brought a new kind of rationalization for torture: the persecution of the evil few was worth the safety of the many.
Today, though laws and conventions against torture have been signed and ratified, there is still great disconnect between what countries say about torture and how they act.
In April, al-Razihi was cleared for transfer to Yemen. The details of his release, however, are vague, and it is unclear when the Guantánamo prisoner will be able to join his father and arranged bride-to-be (under government monitoring, of course). Among the forty-six under “law of war detention” (it is unclear which war the government is referring to), he is the second to have had his release approved. Others have seen their indefinite detention renewed, for the sake of American safety, and the majority is still waiting for case reviews. Nevertheless, this step toward freedom for al-Razihi, relatively speaking, is a symbolic one for the history of Guantánamo Bay.
And yet, al-Razihi’s case, whether a matter of national US security or not, has not made much progress toward the discovery of truth since his capture in Afghanistan in 2001—a time before the Guantánamo torture allegations, the release of the Abu Ghraib torture photos or even the allegations of Canadian torture in Afghani army bases. His CIA files show a personal statement that differs greatly from the US government’s account of his activities, much of which is based on interviews with other detainees that were also conducted from within Guantánamo. Al-Razihi never once admitted to serving as a bodyguard for Bin Laden.