Witnesses of the Unseen – Seven Years In Guantanamo

Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir (Redwood Press – 2017)

This book caught my attention at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore for a couple of reasons.

Witnesses 1I’m currently studying International Humanitarian Law. President George W. Bush asserted that his presidential powers authorized him to hold prisoners in Guantanamo as “enemy combatants” and the Geneva Conventions did not apply to them. They could be held for years without a trial or any due process. In 2009, President Obama decided these prisoners would no longer be considered “enemy combatants” and international law would apply.  This book pulls back the curtain of obscurity with a first person account of life before, during and after Guantanamo.

The second reason I picked up the book (May 2017) were the 1500+ Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails on a hunger strike to demand their basic civil rights. They’re on my mind every day. I thought this book might help me understand the conditions of those Palestinian prisoners.  When I picked up the book, I didn’t know how similar the plight of the prisoners in Guantanamo and Israel really are.

This first person memoir involves two men from Bosnia who were arrested in October 2001 and accused of participating in a terrorist plot. Although the Bosnian court ruled that they should be released after a three-month investigation came up with no evidence to support the accusation, they were turned over to American soldiers and whisked off to Guantanamo Bay.

The chapters are divided between the two men’s narratives as told to an Arabic speaker during interviews after their release.

At first I was wary, reminding myself that their story would be necessarily biased. I also thought I wouldn’t find the book engaging because interviews are rarely an interesting format. Wrong on both counts!

Very quickly, the reader is drawn into the lives of each man, and the translator/interviewer disappears from the pages. This is their story, and they have shared it with an honesty that is a testament to their humanity and their faith as Muslims.

Eventually, they got their day in court …. all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court … that ruled they had a habeas corpus right to challenge their detention.  (Follow-up news: The bad news is that while federal district courts granted 56 percent of the habeas petitions filed by Guantanamo detainees after the Supreme Court permitted the petitions in 2008, a 2012 report found the courts have rejected all but one since July 2010.)

Witnesses of the Unseen makes me burn with anger. Americans believe we’re a nation of laws, but then we turn a blind eye to the atrocities of a world (Guantanamo) where due process and laws are nonexistent?!  Undoubtedly, Israelis are just as blind about their facilities holding Palestinian prisoners today.

In October 2004, Mustafa was taken from his cell in Guantanamo to a hearing room where three military officers looked down on him from a raised platform. They were the “jury” to hear his case.

Recorder [reading Allegation 3.a.4]: While living in Bosnia, the Detainee associated with a known Al Qaida operative.

Mustafa: Give me his name.

Tribunal President: I do not know.

Mustafa: How can I respond to this?

Tribunal President: Did you know of anybody that was a member of Al-Qaida?

Mustafa: No, no.

Tribunal President: I’m sorry, what was your response?

Mustafa: No.

Tribunal President: No?

Mustafa: No. This is something the interrogators told me a long while ago. I asked the interrogators to tell me who this person was. Then I could tell you if I might have known this person, but not if the person is a terrorist. Maybe I knew the person as a friend. Maybe it was a person that worked with me. Maybe it was a person that was on my team. But I do not know if this person is Bosnian, Indian, or whatever. If you tell me the name, then I can respond and defend myself against this accusation.

Tribunal President: We are asking you the questions and we need you to respond.  (from pg. 13 of the transcript)


Tribunal President: Mustafa, does that conclude your statement?

Mustafa: This is it, but I was hoping you had evidence that you can give me. If I was in your place — and I apologize in advance for these words — but if a supervisor came to me and showed me accusations like these, I would take these accusations and I would hit him in the face with them. Sorry about that. [Everyone in the Tribunal room laughs.]

Tribunal President: We had to laugh, but it is okay.

Mustafa: Why? Because these are accusations that I can’t even answer. I am not able to answer them. You tell me I am from Al Qaida, but I am not. … I don’t have any proof to give you except to ask you to catch Bin Laden and ask him. … What should be done is you should give me evidence regarding these accusations because I am not able to give you any evidence. I can just tell you no, and that is it. (from pg. 14-15 of the transcript).

Coincidentally, another freed Guantanamo prisoner shared his thoughts about torture at Oxford Union in April 2017.  His wise words should be heard by everyone concerned about the rule of law.