In the Guardian’s Comment is free yesterday, Cortney Busch of Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity whose lawyers represent 15 of the remaining 173 prisoners in Guantánamo, encouraged Guardian readers to write to prisoners who might be losing hope because of the failure of the Obama administration to close the prison as promised — and as I described in my recent articles, Guantánamo Forever? and The Political Prisoners of Guantánamo.
Writing to the prisoners is an excellent idea, and one that I last helped promote last June, when some Facebook friends and activists took it upon themselves to encourage people to write to all the remaining prisoners in Guantánamo. I’m also pleased to have helped to encourage people to write to prisoners through my involvement in the creation of a short film of former prisoner Omar Deghayes showing cards and letters he received while in Guantánamo, and speaking about what they meant to him and to the other prisoners, which was filmed as part of the making of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” and is included in the promotion for Amnesty International’s letter-writing campaign.
I’m pleased, therefore, to cross-post Cortney’s article below — and am also pleased that she specifically mentioned Younous Chekkouri, described as “one of the most peaceful and cooperative” prisoners, whose calmness and intelligence struck me when I was researching my book The Guantánamo Files five years ago, and trawling through the publicly available documents released (after a lawsuit) by the Pentagon.
I was delighted to hear that Younous “comes to each attorney meeting with a stack of pictures of roses to distribute to [Cortney’s] Reprieve colleagues as tokens of thanks,” and also to discover that he is a Sufi — something that, in all these years, I had never discovered. However, I also fear that, despite his formidable inner peace, and his valid explanations for being in Afghanistan (available here), Younous is regarded as one of the 48 prisoners that the Obama administration intends to hold indefinitely without charge or trial.
Pen pals can give hope to Guantánamo prisoners
Cortney Busch, The Guardian, January 18, 2011
The latest US legislation is causing dozens held at Guantánamo Bay to lose hope — but you can make a difference
When Reprieve attorney Cori Crider met her youngest client, 19-year-old Mohammed el Gharani, before his release from Guantánamo Bay in 2009, he made an unexpected request. He asked if she knew how he could get hold of some books, ideally on history or politics, to help him prepare himself for the outside world.
Mohammed had been sold to the US for a bounty when he was just 14, and spent his school years in Guantánamo’s military prison. He was worried that he would appear ignorant when he emerged. Reprieve put out a call and was quickly inundated with donated books, which Mohammed received with delight. But what encouraged him most were the hundreds of notes scrawled inside the covers — messages of humanity and kindness that Guantánamo prisoners rarely, if ever, receive.
Today Mohammed is a free man, and working hard at setting up his own laundrette in Chad. But many of his fellow detainees remain imprisoned — and have just been dealt a fresh and crushing blow. The National Defense Authorization Act 2011, recently signed into US law, bans the use of military funds to bring Guantánamo prisoners before US civilian courts — and makes releasing the 89 men who are already cleared to leave much more difficult. President Obama has criticised these provisions, promising to repeal them or to mitigate their effects. But for the moment the mood among Guantánamo’s prisoners is distinctly gloomy. This is why Reprieve is now asking people to take the unusual step of writing them letters of support.
A Guantánamo pen pal may seem a daunting prospect, but from my trips to the island prison over the past year I can personally recommend Younous Chekkouri, widely regarded as one of the most peaceful and cooperative detainees. He bears no ill will towards Americans and comes to each attorney meeting with a stack of pictures of roses to distribute to my Reprieve colleagues as tokens of thanks. Far from being a violent jihadi, Younous is a Sufi — a strikingly benign strand of Islam that values love and peace above all.
So how did such a person end up in Guantánamo? Much like Mohammed el Gharani, Younous was “sold” to the Americans. When the US declared war on Afghanistan in 2001, Younous and his wife fled Kabul for Pakistan, only to find that men of Arabic descent had become precious commodities. American forces were offering bounties of $5,000 (£3,125) per head to anyone who handed over a “terrorist”. The fliers offering the money promised schools, doctors, housing and unimaginable wealth for the reader and the community. Hundreds of people were rounded up, arrested en masse and sold to the US, and Younous found himself caught up in one of these sweeps and ultimately transferred to Guantánamo Bay.
Almost nine years later, Younous, like dozens of other men still held at Guantánamo, has never been charged with a crime or given the chance to clear his name. In fact, his challenge to his detention has only just reached the courtroom. As a member of Younous’s legal team, I know we have a good case that should soon, by rights, set him free. But I also know that Younous, like the other 172 men left in Guantánamo, is now beginning to despair of ever being released.
For many of these men, the last eight or nine years have been spent hundreds of miles from family and friends, without compassion and very little hope. Yet these are perhaps their darkest days yet. Please consider writing one of them a letter. As with the messages scrawled in Mohammed’s books, even the smallest word of encouragement lets them know they are not forgotten.
For details on how to write to one of Guantánamo’s “forgotten” prisoners, please visit this page on Reprieve’s website.
Note: Reprieve’s initiative contains the names and brief stories of some of the 173 men still held, and the following instructions for those planning to write:
Please address all letters to:
P.O. Box 160
Washington, D.C. 20053
United States of America
Include a return address on the envelope.
Further information about prisoners to whom readers might want to write is available on the page I compiled last June for a similar project, Write to the Forgotten Prisoners in Guantánamo, and more detailed information about the men still held can be found in my nine-part series profiling the men still held, available via the following page: Introducing the Definitive List of the Remaining Prisoners in Guantánamo.
And finally, the short video below is of Mohammed El-Gharani thanking supporters for the many books that they sent him after Reprieve launched a campaign to help him:
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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.