Transcript: Interview with Andy Worthington at the ICUJP luncheon in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014

Partial transcript of WhatTheFolly.com’s interview with Andy Worthington, an independent investigative journalist, on Guantanamo at the luncheon organized by Interfaith Communities United For Justice and Peace (ICUJP) and World Can’t Wait in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 2014.

Jenny Jiang:
I want to talk a little bit more in-depth about the handling of the hunger strikes because that was one of the big reasons why President Obama was pressured politically to address Guantanamo.

Andy Worthington:
Yeah.

Jenny Jiang:
But the military’s handling of the hunger strikes and its policy to treat it as rather than as a form of protest but as something much more sinister…

Andy Worthington:
You’re right.

Jenny Jiang:
If you can talk a little bit about that…

Andy Worthington:
Well, I suppose it makes me think that their main priority is to preserve order. And so, you know, it’s a struggle between the authorities and the prisoners, and the prisoners were taking away the military’s ability to control everything at Guantanamo. And so, that to me frames the particular way in which they were very harsh on the prisoners and would then start framing it themselves in terms of war, I mean, as they tend to do, I think.

You know, beyond that, of course, is the administration’s intention not to let a prisoner die, not because of the kindness of their hearts but because they didn’t want the PR disaster of a starving prisoner dying. So that’s why they’re fighting against the obviously overwhelming opinion of the medical authorities that you’re not allowed to force-feed competent prisoners.

Jenny Jiang:
…Can you describe a little bit for folks who are not familiar with Camp V Echo? What has it been used for?

Andy Worthington:
Camp V Echo, I believe, it’s existence became public a few years ago, and it’s an isolation part of a block that already seems to generally involve isolation. Camp V and Camp VI are the two most recent blocks for the general population.

You know, there’s the Camp VII for the high-value detainees.

And Camp VI contains this communal aspects. Camp V doesn’t. It’s built – it’s modeled on a maximum security prison in the U.S. mainland…But it is already an isolating cell. So it’s these solid concrete cells, the metal doors. The men held in there are only ever able to shout to one another through the cell doors. They’ve traditionally been using it for many years now as a place to isolate the most troublesome – what they regard as the most troublesome prisoners, which would be some hunger strikers and some people who, like Shaker Aamer, are very good when given the opportunity to mingle telling their fellow prisoners – reminding their fellow prisoners of the injustice that they’re going through and why they should not put up with it. So that’s why it’s particularly notorious amongst the prisoners, I think, because it’s very, very isolating.

Jenny Jiang:
Do you know how long can they hold someone in that solitary confinement condition? Is there a time limit in Guantanamo? Or can someone theoretically be held in those isolation chambers indefinitely?

Andy Worthington:
Well, you know, I haven’t studied that in any thorough detail to know. I mean, it might be possible to research it and find out what people have said. In the years past – I mean this would I suspect in the Bush administration but I don’t really see why it should have changed – the recommendation, which always came down from the CIA, was that people shouldn’t be isolated for more than 30 days. The prisoners always said and wrote that that was exceeded.

Murat Kurnaz, if you haven’t read his book  called “Five Years”, is really worth reading. He writes about how they would be put in for like 40 or 50 days in isolation. And he writes about this as well that it was in cells where there was very little air – deliberately, I think – so virtually you couldn’t do anything for this whole 50 day period. You couldn’t move much because you would, you know, suffocate. I mean, horrible. And other prisoners have described that to me so I think that that’s real.

So I think those forms of isolation take place much longer than that.

Shaker Aamer has spoken about being held, you know, in unbroken periods lasting months and months and months.

Jenny Jiang:
I asked that because, you know, you mentioned certain examples of physical torture. But prolonged solitary confinement is regarded as a form of torture by most mainstream mental health professionals…For example, in California, there are prisoners who have been held in solitary confinement for years – even decades – at a time.

Andy Worthington:
Yeah, absolutely.

The only difference between Guantanamo and the U.S. prisons is that thing about people having had a trial, and that on its own can be truly horrible for some of the men held there.

I am so appalled whenever I hear about what’s happening here – men held in these facilities, in the SHUs [security housing units] where they’re held for decades…And it’s just – it’s so, so horrible. I mean, it really is just, you know, disgusting.

Jenny Jiang:
Those couple dozen detainees who cannot be tried and also cannot be released.

Andy Worthington:
The 46, which is actually – you know that they – the task force recommended 36 for trial but since then the circuit court threw out two of the convictions in the military commissions. So they now realize they can’t prosecute 36. So the number of prisoners facing the periodic review boards is 71. So essentially there were 46 designated for indefinite detention but the real number is now 71.

Jenny Jiang:
The most recent NDAA (passed in December 2013) dropped the provision that would have allowed their transfer for incarceration even at a super max prison like the one in Colorado where we’ve held terrorists.

Andy Worthington:
After trials.

Jenny Jiang:
After trials. So they’re not going to be tried even in the military commission. Then does that mean that we just have to wait until they all die before Guantanamo can be closed?

Andy Worthington:
Well, no, because they’re all going to go through this periodic review process. Now, unfortunately, that’s been taking place very slowly. And you or I or anyone who spends a little bit of time looking at these stories would know that there are people that they really don’t want to release and don’t want to try. I don’t know what they’re going to do with them. But we have to really get through all of the other stuff.

Jenny Jiang:
Right.

Andy Worthington:
I mean, if you know about the story of Abu Zubaydah, you know that this is a man they’ve severely damaged through what they’ve done to him. He’s not the only difficult case, I think, where I don’t know what they’re going to do.

Jenny Jiang:
One of the most glaring part of the latest NDAA is what was dropped. Yes, now the restrictions have been eased. There can be transfers to other countries. However, that still leaves about half the detainees in Guantanamo.

First, how effective do you think that NDAA provision will be in this coming year in terms of getting these folks actually transferred? Secondly, is there any hope for Guantanamo to be closed if there’s still a ban on allowing detainees to enter the U.S. for trial or detention?

Andy Worthington:
You know, I hope this year that we – all of us working on it – manage to get everything in place together to get the cleared prisoners released.

Jenny Jiang:
That’s the number one priority.

Andy Worthington:
Yeah. There’s no reason not to. Although the obstacles that will be thrown out with Yemen, you know, will be “No, no, no you can’t. Yemen’s not safe.” It’s like, look, get over it, you know?

Jenny Jiang:
Well, there is legitimate concern from lawmakers that Yemen isn’t safe because that’s where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has the greatest presence.

Andy Worthington:
I do realize but, you know, they’re being further enraged by the continued imprisonment. 26 of those 56 Yemenis were cleared in January 2010 for immediate release as far as the task force knew until the President imposed his ban. 30 others the task force put in a category of condition detention, which they invented, and then they said if the security situation improves – they didn’t say how that would be identified or who would be released. So at the very minimum, release those 26.

…As far as I know of, the Yemenis are happy to go home…I think they want a rehabilitation center. If they’re adamant about that, then let’s see it happen. There’s no reason it can’t happen with a certain amount of coordination between the U.S. and Yemen.

I just think there can be no excuse for not releasing them. That’s how I would choose to express it.

And then the people that are left, well, yes, they – so, ongoing this year is the periodic review board. So that could end up clearing more men for release, and then clear them, release them. We’ve got 79 or less that we’re going to be left with. I think absolutely, he [President Obama] has to move them.

Jenny Jiang:
Some way, some how.

Andy Worthington:
Yeah, whether it’s through – however it happens. That’s why I think there needs to be a focus this year on identifying supportive lawmakers on finding ways to lobby the administration to say, “Don’t drop this one.” You know, there was real progress legislatively at the end of last year. So we want next year’s NDAA to preserve the same transfer provisions. What do we also want? We also want those transfer conditions to the U.S. to be successful this time around. There’s no reason to suppose that any of the people who are pushing for it this year will change their minds. And frankly, if they do, then what do we accuse them of? We accuse them of unprincipled backsliding, I think.

…We have to see how it goes. Because the slightly longer picture is that then if Congress becomes hostile again, then President Obama – we have to put the pressure on him to say, “Okay, listen, you know you can’t go without resolving this because you would get a big black mark against you forever and it’s in your legacy.”

Jenny Jiang:
And also just the fact that by the end of this year, our combat troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Andy Worthington:
Right.

Jenny Jiang:
So technically, in a lot of ways, the actual wars, combats have ended.

Andy Worthington:
Exactly, and there are going to be challenges on that as well, which I think is also helping to play into the hands of people who I hope behind-the-scenes – influential lawmakers, people in the administration – as they discuss it will be going “There is more reason for us to keep pushing forward on this in 2014 than there was in 2013.” It has to keep going in that direction.

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