As the world was gripped this week by the storming of U.S. diplomatic compounds in the Middle East, another troubling event that coincided with the September 11 anniversary unfolded largely unnoticed at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
There, a prisoner found dead in his cell over the weekend was identified Tuesday as Adnan Latif, a Yemeni who had been cleared for transfer five years earlier. Latif’s death should serve as a wake-up call for the United States to change its tarnished response to 9/11 by closing Guantanamo, even as it grapples with the horrifying attacks on its missions in Libya, Egypt and Yemen.
Latif, 32, had reportedly been suicidal for most of the decade he spent at Guantanamo. Year after year, the U.S. government maintained he had trained and fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but never formally charged him with any crime. U.S. officials said he was found unresponsive in his cell on Saturday and did not respond to emergency treatment.
Latif is the ninth detainee to die at Guantanamo. The U.S. military says five of those prisoners committed suicide; the others, it says, died of natural causes. Of the 167 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, only six face active charges, according to Human Rights Watch.
“You are still looking for justice and seeking hearings,” Latif wrote to his lawyer in 2010 in one of a torrent of letters and poems he penned during his detention, much of it spent in isolation or a psychiatric ward. “I am being pushed toward death.”
As far back as 2004, according to NBC, the Defense Department conceded it had no knowledge of Latif’s training in any terrorist activities and recommended his transfer from Guantanamo. The Bush administration even authorized Latif's transfer in 2007.
But that information only came to light in 2010 in an opinion by a federal judge who ruled that the government had failed to demonstrate that Latif was part of al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and ordered Latif's immediate release. U.S. District Court Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. concluded that Latif had made a “plausible” claim that he left Yemen to seek free medical treatment.
Kennedy's order should have marked the final chapter in the sordid tale of Latif's indefinite detention without charge. But rather than do the right thing by sending Latif home or to a third country, the U.S. government successfully appealed Kennedy’s ruling. A Washington, DC appeals court in 2011 not only overturned Kennedy’s decision, it also severely undercut Guantanamo detainees’ ability to challenge their detention. Henceforth, the court ruled, lower courts must presume that evidence against detainees is accurate barring clear evidence to the contrary – even if it was obtained in chaotic battlefield settings. In June, the Supreme Court decided not to consider an appeal.
In the meantime, the Obama administration froze all transfers from Guantanamo to Yemen after a Nigerian trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen tried to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit in 2009. Then Congress passed legislation making it more difficult to transfer Guantanamo detainees to at-risk countries such as Yemen.
Latif reportedly suffered seizures and a dislocated shoulder during his years at Guantanamo. He was repeatedly force-fed through his nose during his frequent hunger strikes, which at one point reduced his weight to less than 90 pounds. David Remes, his lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that in 2009, Latif tried to slit his wrists in front of him, using a strip of broken veneer from a prison interview table. The following year, Remes said, he found Latif with abrasions around his neck from an attempt to strangle himself with the waistband of his underwear. At the time of his death, U.S. officials said he was in a disciplinary cell for having thrown a “cocktail” of bodily fluids at his guards.
It reportedly took Latif more than two years even to get a military review hearing at Guantanamo. According to Human Rights Watch, when he protested that the name on his form was not correct, the head of the panel merely replied, “Well, that's the name we have.”
Latif, who was picked up at the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the military review board that he went to both countries in search of a free operation promised by an Islamic charity for head injuries he had suffered in a car accident. He said he was too poor to afford the surgery at home. The board rejected his plea to search for medical records that would support his story. The medical records, later obtained by Latif's lawyers and sent to Human Rights Watch, described acute head injuries and recommended that he seek an additional operation.
As events this week in the Middle East remind us yet again, the Obama administration is right to remain vigilant against security threats. In Latif’s homeland of Yemen, the 11th anniversary of 9/11 was marked by a bombing in the heart of the capital, Sanaa, which killed at least a dozen people and narrowly missed the Yemeni defense minister, who has supported the U.S. counterterrorism program in Yemen. On Thursday, the turmoil that began on September 11 in Benghazi and Cairo spread to Sanaa as well, where scores of men bearing Islamic flags and chanting “Death to America” breached the wall of the U.S. Embassy, a compound that al-Qaeda had attacked in 2008.
But these attacks should not become a fresh excuse for President Obama to continue abandoning his inauguration pledge of nearly four years ago to close Guantanamo. The detainees still held there without charge had nothing to do with the events in Benghazi, Cairo and Sanaa. And holding them for crimes the administration fears they might commit violates U.S. legal obligations and generates animosity from populations abroad who might be potential allies in efforts to end global terrorism.
Instead of continuing to keep the ugly problem that is Guantanamo swept under the rug, the administration should end its practice of indefinite detention without charge and release and repatriate the Guantanamo detainees it lacks evidence to prosecute, monitoring them if necessary.
The temptation to compromise American values, including the right to due process, runs high during crises such as the one the U.S. faced this week. But doing so is a disservice to the memory of the nearly 3,000 victims of 9/11 and to the tens of thousands of other victims of violent militancy around the world, including those who died Monday in Yemen and Tuesday in Benghazi . It also is a disservice to the memory of Adnan Latif, who never had a chance to make his case.
Letta Tayler is a senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch.