The debate over the fate of the men detained at Guantanamo Bay has taken an unfortunate turn. At last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, freshman Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Tech groups take aim at Texas Republican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services Debt ceiling fight pits corporate America against Republicans MORE (R-Ark.) captured the headlines when he declared that, as far he was concerned, every last prisoner could “rot in hell.” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump pushes back on book claims, says he spent 'virtually no time' discussing election with Lee, Graham The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden meets with lawmakers amid domestic agenda panic The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles MORE (R-S.C.) said he was invoking “common sense” when he added that “if you’re still in Guantanamo Bay after all these years, you’re probably a high risk.” Just last week, Cotton appeared on cable news, referred to all Guantanamo detainees as “savages,” and claimed that “there’s no one there who is not a hardened terrorist.”
Such rhetoric about the detainees as a group overlooks the fact that 54 of the prison’s 122 inmates have been unanimously cleared for release by six government agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- and many of the others are considered “dangerous” only because of intelligence reports based at least in part on false statements. Moreover, most Guantanamo detainees are still there not because they are “high risk,” but because they are from Yemen, where our government has been exceedingly reluctant to return them.
These remarks from Cotton and Graham show what is all too frequently missing from the Guantanamo debate: the concept that the men imprisoned there are, well, men -- human beings with individual stories, lives, and families. Only by thinking of “Guantanamo detainees” as a single mass -- rather than men with individual names, faces, and facts -- would someone consign to hell all 122 souls confined in Guantanamo Bay or sweepingly declare them all to be “high risk” simply because they have been stuck for years in these Kafkaesque circumstances.
As a modest start, we invite Cotton and Graham to meet Mukhtar al Warafi.
Mukhtar has been confined in Guantanamo since 2002. He has never been accused of fighting Americans or plotting a terrorist attack. The government has alleged that he volunteered to serve the Taliban as an entry-level medic -- hardly the stuff of Zero Dark Thirty. So what makes him a “hardened terrorist?”
Mukhtar was born in Yemen in 1983. After high school he worked as an assistant in his brother’s medical clinic. In August 2001, while still a teenager, he traveled to Afghanistan, which was then in the midst of a civil war. Mukhtar provided medical services to sick and wounded Afghans, including Taliban fighters, in clinics near the front lines of the conflict that were run by a physician from Saudi Arabia. Far from participating in combat -- much less fighting American troops -- Mukhtar spent his time treating wounds, drawing blood, and watching for symptoms of malaria. Does this man sound like a “savage?”
When the United States’ bombing campaign began after the 9/11 attacks, Mukhtar moved to a different hospital further from the battlefield. When the Taliban fell, Mukhtar and many others were promised safe passage to Kandahar, but were captured by the Northern Alliance instead and confined in a fortress prison. There, Mukhtar was shot and the Saudi physician he worked for was killed during an uprising initiated by other captives. He and others took shelter in the basement of the fortress for eight days until the Red Cross intervened. Does he really deserve to “rot in hell?”
Mukhtar has just begun his fourteenth year of detention at Guantanamo. To date, the government has not presented any evidence that he fought for the Taliban or that he was involved in any terrorist attacks. The federal judge who heard Mukhtar’s case noted that he was, at most, “a low-level member or associate of the Taliban” who had “spent no more than a few weeks at the front line,” and that there was “no evidence that he planned, participated in, or knew of any terrorist plots.” So where’s the “high risk?”
In fact, there is none, and the government essentially concedes as much. Mukhtar has been approved to leave Guantanamo for years, which means that the nation’s military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities have unanimously concluded that he can be safely transferred without posing a threat to the United States. Nevertheless, he remains imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.
If the government is right, Mukhtar was a low-level medic treating Taliban sick and wounded during the Afghan civil war, mostly before the U.S. invaded. If the government is wrong, he was just a teenager in the wrong place at the worst possible time. Either way, he is no threat to the United States. No one who looks at the evidence objectively could conclude that Mukhtar has earned the life sentence that Sens. Graham and Cotton would impose.
And Mukhtar’s story is hardly unique. More than 50 detainees approved for transfer, as well as others wrongly deemed “dangerous,” continue to “rot” in Guantanamo day after interminable day. Some may think this injustice reflects “common sense.” It does not.
Mukhtar al Warafi is living proof.
Foster and Parker are lawyers who represent Mukhtar al Warafi and fourteen other Yemeni men detained at Guantanamo Bay.