- The US government manipulates and controls life and death for current and former Guantanamo prisoners.
- The US government provides little support or compensation to prisoners post-release.
- Post-release, many Guantanamo prisoners face another form of detention.
- Dr. Maha Hilal is an expert in institutionalized Islamophobia in the war on terror.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
On December 30, 2014 five Guantanamo prisoners were released to Kazakhstan. You might imagine that ringing in the new year far away from Guantanamo Bay Prison – and in a country that would become their home – would be cause for celebration. But for the just-released Tunisian prisoner Lutfi bin Ali – who had been subjected to torture by the US government and held without charge for 12 years, despite first being cleared for released in 2004 – there was no cause for relief. Recalling his arrival in Kazakhstan, he remarked, “it was minus 30 [degrees] outside and I was still in Guantanamo flip-flops, because none of the shoes they had were big enough. I was expecting a Muslim country and it wasn’t what I expected.”
That was just the beginning of Lutfi bin Ali’s ordeal in Kazakhstan. He was placed under the care of the local chapter of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Kazak Red Crescent Society which was responsible for providing healthcare, food stipends, language classes, and transport. Like other former prisoners, he was kept in the dark about the terms of his resettlement agreement between the United States and therefore was unaware of what they meant for him in practical terms. While in Kazakhstan, he was isolated, made to feel unwelcome, and was provided with very little support in obtaining services such as medical treatment. “At least in Guantanamo there were people to talk to. Here I have nobody,” Lutfi told the Guardian in 2016.
New life, new prison
A 2015 Vice documentary on Lutfi bin Ali’s life post-Guantanamo shed light on some of the other struggles Lutfi faced, such as the stigma of always being seen as a terrorist and being constantly surveilled. The surveillance was so intense that when the Vice journalist and Ghalib Mahmoud, then assistant for Lutfi bin Ali’s attorney Mark Denbeaux, visited him to record the documentary, the Red Crescent Society Director “randomly” came to do a check on him and to reprimand his visitors. The police followed immediately after.
Both had copies of Lutfi bin Ali’s apartment keys. Lutfi bin Ali described his precarious existence in a Vice article earlier in 2015, saying that, “The police used to come almost every day to the apartment. They would open the door and enter and check the place for a minute or two, then they would leave,” and that “it’s as if it’s Guantanamo [part] 2, to be honest.”
Disregarding the grim reality that former detainees such as Lufti bin Ali faced upon resettlement, including statelessness, the Obama administration promoted the release of five prisoners as proof of their commitment to pursuing justice by ending the era of indefinite detention at Guantanamo, with an official telling Agence-Presse, “we are determined to responsibly reduce the detainee population and you can expect additional transfers over the coming weeks.”
What Lutfi bin Ali’s story demonstrates, however, is that the government’s goal was not to responsibly reduce the detainee population, but to responsibly dispose of these inconvenient men. In other words, the US government was interested in ensuring that prisoners could be erased in their new lives just as easily as they were in Guantanamo – with their voices silenced so that the crimes of the empire would only haunt the men targeted. For Lutfi bin Ali, this meant that his medical needs were belittled and ignored.
Lutfi bin Ali died on March 9th, 2021 from complications due to heart disease. His pre-existing heart conditions were known by the US government and their ramifications were acknowledged, for example, in a 2004 memorandum written by then Brigadier General, US Army Commanding Jay W. Hood, just one year after he was detained in the first place.
The memo noted that Lutfi had a mechanical heart valve, atrial fibrillation, kidney stones, latent tuberculosis, depression, and high blood pressure. The memo also concluded that “based on the detainee’s health status, intelligence value and risk level, JTF GTMO recommends this detainee be released or transferred to the control of another country for continued detention.” Lutfi remained detained for an additional ten years despite the fact that he was never charged with a crime.
In Kazakhstan, Lutfi bin Ali’s continued pleas for medical care were unsuccessful, and he was eventually transferred to Mauritania, a country on the west coast of Africa. However, Mauritania proved inadequate to the task of dealing with his heart disease – never mind the fact that there was no one who could pay for the care he needed. At this point, Lufti bin Ali pleaded with the ICRC and the Tunisian government to allow him to get medical care in Tunisia, where he could also see his family. This effort proved fatal, as Lutfi ended up dying in Mauritania without ever returning to his home country or seeing his family.
The US’ indifference to life or death
While the US government often deflects prisoners’ concerns post-detention onto the host country or their home country, other prisoners’ stories have revealed just how involved the United States is in their every move. For example, Mohamedou Slahi, a former prisoner from Mauritania, has needed medical treatment since being released. He applied for a visa to Germany, where his wife and child live, in order to get medical treatment and was initially granted one. Shortly thereafter, however, the Ministry of the Interior and security authorities expressed concerns and ultimately denied his application.
This decision was not simply an accident, but instead seems to have stemmed from emails from US officials warning other countries about Mohamedou. One email, for example, stated in regards to Mohamedou, that “The USA still considers this person to be one of the bad guys,” and “We heard that he could seek medical treatment in Europe, do what you want with the information.” This example makes it easy to believe that it was US intervention that prevented Lutfi bin Ali’s pleas from being answered.
Lutfi bin Ali’s death was not inevitable, but it was predictable, because it is demonstrative of the way the US government manipulates and controls the lives and deaths of the men held at Guantanamo Bay Prison. Hunger strikes by prisoners in past years, to which the government has responded with brutal force feeding, provide a particularly stark emblematic example of how this control manifests in real terms. One way of exerting control while trying to invisibilize it, was to turn the preservation of prisoners’ lives into a moral question.
For example, in 2006 then Department of Defense Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs William Winkenwerder, while addressing ongoing hunger strikes, said “There is a moral question. Do you allow a person to commit suicide? Or do you take steps to protect their health and preserve their life?” The use of morality was not actually about preserving prisoners’ lives however, it was instead about obscuring state violence and perpetuating an image of the United States as righteous. It was also about absolving itself of responsibility regardless of what ultimately happened to the prisoners. Finally, the expression of this faux moral conundrum erased the fact that the decision on whether prisoners would live or die, was actually driven by a political calculus of the consequences to the United States government either way.
Similarly, the Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay’s statement in response to ongoing hunger strikes that their “policy is to protect, preserve, and promote life,” the government has instead routinely subjected prisoners “to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of [the] living dead.” Formalizing their existence as the living dead was sufficient for the government to avoid a public relations crisis if they died by suicide and to maintain the facade that their detainment served a critical role in protecting the United States’ national security.
Lutfi bin Ali was buried in Mauritania, and there was little news coverage of his death. The Guantanamo Docket on the New York Times lists the date of his death, but not the cause. Although he died from heart disease, Lutfi bin Ali also died because the US government didn’t care to preserve his life. Thus, Lutfi went from living on the edge of death to a permanent death of not just his body and spirit, but also the possibility that he would ever receive justice. His death is a reminder of how many lives have been stolen by Guantanamo Bay prison and never given back.
When Lutfi was initially resettled in Kazakhstan along with four other former Guantanamo prisoners, a Senior Obama administration official said that they were now “free men.” What Lufti bin Ali’s death ultimately revealed, however, was that “freedom” came with chains – chains from which only death could free him.
Dr. Maha Hilal is an expert in institutionalized Islamophobia in the war on terror. She is currently the co-Director of Justice for Muslims Collective where she focuses on political education addressing institutionalized Islamophobia.
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