A voice from Guantanamo

Fayiz Al Kandari is one of two Kuwaitis still held in the controversial prison and he says he is innocent.

A lawsuit has accused Kuwait of conspiring with the US to torture prisoners [EPA]

Fayiz Al Kandari is one of two Kuwaitis still held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  In 2001, before the attacks of September 11, he said he left Kuwait to travel to Afghanistan to help with the reconstruction of two wells and to repair a mosque. His family said he made the trip because his mother had cancer at the time, and Al Kandari hoped his good deeds would bring blessings from Allah. He was 24-years-old at the time.  

Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Al Kandari said he was imprisoned by the Northern Alliance who then probably sold him to US forces in Afghanistan. He was held in Kandahar and Bagram US military bases before he was sent to Guantanamo. He says he has been tortured at all three locations.  

Sometime early in his detention, in a Red Cross letter, Al Kandari told his family that he had been interrogated, but that the American investigators had found nothing against him. “If the construction of a mosque…or the digging of a well is the sin that makes me a detainee, then I willingly accept my detention.” Al Kandari thought he would soon be free. He was wrong. Al Kandari, it is believed, has been marked for indefinite detention.  

In 2008, military commission charges were issued against Al Kandari. He was accused of giving material support to terrorism and conspiracy to materially support terrorism. The issuance of those charges triggered the assignment of military counsel. Lt. Col. Barry Wingard was the Judge Advocate Lawyer assigned to defend Al Kandari. 

Charges against Al Kandari have now been dropped, but Wingard continues to represent and visit Al Kandari in Guantanamo. The other remaining Kuwaiti prisoner Fawzi Al Odah, who also said he went to Afghanistan for charitable reasons, has never been charged with a crime and therefore was not assigned a military lawyer.  However, US officials have allowed Wingard to visit Al Odah in the past, but he is no longer permitted to do so. 

Neither Kuwaiti prisoner has had a trial to determine if they are guilty, and none is scheduled. They have filed habeas corpus petitions challenging their detention, but these petitions have been denied. 

I gave Wingard questions to ask Al Kandari during his most recent trip to Guantanamo. I limited my questions for Al Kandari because Wingard is not allowed to bring any written material to his meetings with Al Kandari. 

This is what Al Kandari had to say as he prepares to enter his 11th year in detention.  

How do you pass the time in Guantanamo Bay? 

Al Kandari: “I pray, I read the Qur’an, I work out two hours every day, and I socialize with other prisoners. Because of the insignificant medical care in Guantanamo Bay, I cannot afford being ill. I am already plagued with serious medical conditions such as permanent damage in my cervical spine. Therefore, I regularly practice physical exercise to boost my immune system and to prevent the onset of any disease. The International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] has done a poor job in effectively helping the prisoners. For example, the ICRC provides each prisoner with a phone call to their parents once every six to eight weeks instead of once every four weeks.”  

According to Al Kandari, his damaged spine is a result of abuse by prison guards known as the Immediate Reaction Force. In the past, a Department of Defense spokesperson has said that the DoD mandates that all prison operations meet high humane standards. Further laws, policies, procedures and training have been updated to ensure for the respect of the prisoners. Both Al Kandari and Al Odah have complained about the lack of proper medical attention they receive in Guantanamo. “The whole population is getting older and they receive only basic treatment for conditions they experienced when being mistreated,” Wingard said. Khaled Al Odah said his son has some health concerns. Fawzi Al Odah appears to have gastrointestinal problems and he is rather skinny. The younger Al Odah also now needs glasses, which he did not wear before.   

What is your relationship like with the guards and other prisoners? 

Al Kandari: “I have a good rapport with all the guards based on mutual respect. Because I am fluent in English, it is very easy for me to interact with them. The other prisoners are my brothers in soul. We have a solid bond that unifies us. We pray together, we read the Qur’an together, and we have our meals together.” 

Al Kandari and Al Odah are imprisoned in Camp 6, a communal prison where cooperative captives are held. They spent much of 2011 on a hunger strike and were held in Camp 5, a high security prison camp where inmates “deemed to be the highest threat to themselves, other detainees or guards” are held. 

Are you innocent? Have you seen the evidence against you? 

Al Kandari: “I am unequivocally innocent. In the last ten years, I have yet to see any evidence against me. Ten years [I have been] in an animal cage without being charged and without standing any trial.” 

What is it like watching almost everyone else be released? 

Al Kandari:“I feel so happy for all the brothers who were released from Guantanamo Bay. It also gives me a great hope that my turn will be soon God willing. I am very optimistic that I will soon be released, God willing. My faith in God has never been so unshakable.” 

Fawzi al Odah’s family continues their struggle to free their son, who continues to be held in indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba [Credit: Al Odah family] 

If released, what is the first thing you would do? 

Al Kandari: “[I would] celebrate my return to Kuwait and then look for a young woman to marry. I look forward to the day of my homeland return where I will get reunited with my loved ones, especially my parents and siblings. I asked my [Kuwaiti] attorney Adel Abdel Hadi to file a lawsuit on my behalf against the Government of Kuwait. He did it last summer. I am planning to pursue this lawsuit until the end. It is a matter of principle. In my opinion, a government that cannot protect its citizens deserves no respect from any individual. The Government of Kuwait has done very little to assist in my case.” 

The lawsuit filed by Abdel Hadi accuses the Kuwait government of conspiring with the United States to torture the prisoners and for wasting Kuwaiti funds that should have been used to secure the release of Al Kandari and other Kuwaiti prisoners. 

What are your thoughts on the 2012 US Presidential election?  

Al Kandari: “I told Wingard on July 9, that I strongly believe President Barack Obama will be reelected in November. I turned out to be right. I think all Arab and Islamic countries were happy that President Obama was reelected.” 

The Al Kandari and Al Odah families have said they feel extremely let down by President Obama because he has failed to close Guantanamo as he had earlier promised. Four years ago, the US government also asked Kuwait to build a rehabilitation center where the Kuwaiti prisoners repatriated from Guantanamo could be held. Kuwait built one, but it remains empty. If Al Kandari and al Odah were to be released from the US prison, they would be held in this rehabilitation where their families could visit them and where the could receive proper medical care.?

What do you think about Kuwait today? 

Al Kandari: “My brothers in Guantanamo Bay and I speak ill of the Government of Kuwait. We strongly feel it is lame by not protecting and upholding the rights of its citizens. In addition, the United States shows lack of respect to Kuwait officials, although there are thousands of US soldiers deployed in Kuwait. While the drivers of the political tension in Kuwait have much in common with the other Arab uprisings, particularly the impatient and mobilized youth, it is important to keep local conditions well in mind. Many Kuwaitis support the regime against the opposition, and there is a long history of public politics to fall back upon. Crucially, this is not currently a mobilization for the overthrow of the regime. Most protesters want to see a constitutional monarchy and political reforms, not revolution. But the lessons of other cases suggest that the Kuwaiti regime’s current course of action poses a real risk of radicalizing its opposition and setting in motion unpredictable popular forces.” 

Al Kandari is aware of the political situation in Kuwait, because he and other inmates received screened and redacted newspapers that are usually a few days old, according to Wingard.  

“Before it gets too late to de-escalate, the Kuwait Emir needs to offer meaningful political concessions, including standing down on its deeply controversial plans for a December election, relaxing its attempt to shut down public dissent, and allowing a greater parliamentary role in the selection of cabinet ministers.” 

In January 2005 during a hearing, Al Kandari made it clear that we would not apologize for traveling to Afghanistan. He did not commit a crime or do anything wrong for which he should be remorseful, he said.  “[I will not apologize] even if you said, ‘You will not leave Guantanamo until you apologize and you will beg us to release you.’ In truth, I tell you I would like to stay as a detainee with my respect and dignity and walk out of here with all my apologies and feel good about myself. Why should I apologize? What did I do wrong? What I did in Afghanistan was my duty. I believe this. I am very proud to have done what I went there to do. The scale of justice that you [the Americans] use, it does not reflect justice.”

Source: Al Jazeera