US President Barack Obama begins his second term having failed to honor a promise from his first to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, to the bitter regret of prisoner 552, Fayez al-Kandari.
The 34-year-old Kuwaiti, accused by US authorities of being an advisor to slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was one of the first captives to be flown to the US naval base in Cuba and has languished there for 11 years.
It took six years for the US military to charge Al-Kandari with giving “material support to terrorism” and five more to abandon the case. Now he is deemed too dangerous to release but no longer faces prosecution.
When Obama was elected in 2008, he promised to close the prison camp.
But his plan was thwarted when some countries were reluctant to accept the return of their nationals and when US lawmakers banned the military from transferring prisoners to the United States for trial or sending them abroad.
Obama’s decision last week to re-authorize the law imposing this ban was another blow for Al-Kandari and his 165 fellow detainees.
Al-Kandari agreed to talk to AFP via email, the mails passed to our reporter by the military lawyer assigned to represent him, Colonel Barry Wingard, in the first interview of its kind at Guantanamo.
“Each time Colonel Wingard travels to Gitmo to visit me,” Al-Kandari said, “my first question to him is ‘Have you found justice for me today?’ And sadly he has answered every time: ‘Unfortunately, Fayez, I have no justice today’.”
Al-Kandari was seized in Afghanistan in December 2001, three months after the September 11 attacks by hijackers who flew airliners into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, killing 2,977 people.
The Pentagon says Al-Kandari “was an al-Qaeda propagandist who produced and distributed multimedia recruitment material and wrote newspaper articles paying tribute to the September 11, 2001 hijackers.”
The military has thus deemed him “high risk, as he is likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and allies.”
For his part, Al-Kandari insists he was in Afghanistan for charity work and is innocent of all allegations. Since the United States has failed to bring him to trial and Kuwait has not pushed for his release, the matter is unresolved.
In the meantime, he describes his indefinite detention as an “agony” that began with rough treatment in transit, harsh interrogations and abuse — even if the regime has mellowed slightly in recent years.
“In May 2002, I was drugged, my ears were plugged, I was diapered and a sandbag was shoved over my head. I was hustled into a military aircraft, where I was short-shackled to the deck before a rough takeoff,” he told AFP.
“After what it seemed to be an eternity, I landed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, my agony to this day,” he added.
“In the early days, I was interrogated over 300 times,” he said.
“I was shackled to the floor of the interrogation room, sometimes for as long as 36 hours. Ice cold water was thrown on my naked body, and barking dogs were brought into the room,” he said.
In an account that matches those of several other detainees now released, he alleged that during the years of his detention, he has been dragged roughly from his cell and subjected to racial and religious abuse.
Over time, he admits, physical mistreatment has waned, and now: “There is a relative peace in the prison, which is based on mutual respect.”
But he is still angry with US authorities and in particular with Obama over his failure to close the Guantanamo jail, a controversial military detention center on Cuban soil beyond the reach of US justice.
“I feel extremely let down by President Obama,” he said.
“To add insult to injury, for the second straight year, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act that allows for the indefinite military detention of any individual,” he said.
Obama signed the act last week, an annual measure, and one of his last before he is sworn in for a second term on January 20.
The president spoke of his regret that he has not closed Guantanamo even as he signed the act, which Republican lawmakers ensured retained clauses stopping the use of federal funds to transfer prisoners home or to the US mainland.
“I continue to believe that operating the facility weakens our national security by wasting resources, damaging our relationships with key allies, and strengthening our enemies,” Obama said.
“The executive branch must have the flexibility to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers,” he added.
At its busiest moment in 2003, Guantanamo held 680 prisoners and in all 779 detainees have spent time in its high security compounds, condemned by rights groups as a zone beyond the reach of law that stains America’s reputation.
The former chief prosecutor at Guantanamo, former Air Force colonel Morris Davis, has spoken out since his resignation against the interrogation tactics used and the shortcomings of the military commissions process.
He told AFP Obama must share the blame for the detainees’ legal limbo.
“I believe he was sincere when he said he wanted to close Gitmo when he first ran for office in 2008 and I think he would still like to close it now — what I think he lacks is the political will to make it happen,” he said.
“Some of the detainees will mark the 11th anniversary of their arrival at Gitmo on January 11th. I suspect it may not be the last one for many if not most of them,” he said.
Of the 779 inmates only nine were ever convicted or brought to trial, and of the 166 who remain, 55 are considered safe to be released by the US military, but have nowhere to go. But Al-Kandari has not given up hope.
“I am happy for all the former prisoners who were released,” he told AFP. “It gives me hope that my turn will be next. I am optimistic that I will soon be released. My faith in God has never been so unshakable.”