Muhammad Rahim has been confined to the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison for the last 12 years without charge. But now his lawyer and a rights body fear the Afghan is facing a potentially serious health risk.
A medical examination carried out by Guantanamo’s Joint Task Force (JTF) in 2017 and on subsequent unknown dates have uncovered several “nodules” in his lung, liver, kidney and rib, raising fears of cancer.
Since a biopsy is yet to be done and, as per a medical provider at the detention centre, Rahim needs an MRI test as well, it remains unknown whether the lumps are malignant.
The Guantanamo authorities agreed to facilitate the MRI examination, but the offer was reneged later.
Rahim’s military lawyer, Major James Valentine, has unsuccessfully pushed for the release of his medical file, but the US regards the information as classified.
Some detainees at the Guantanamo facility suspected of alleged crimes such as Rahim get a military lawyer to defend their cases since the tribunal there was originally governed by the 2006 Military Commissions Act, a Bush administration law which set different rules to try “terror suspects” from those which operate in regular civilian or military courts. No charges were filed against Rahim and Haroon.
Major Valentine believes the decision is rooted in the possibility that releasing the documents would reveal further details about torture used against Rahim.
Now in his 50s, Rahim is the second last Afghan to be held in the infamous detention centre in Cuba where detainees have been routinely subjected to torture and interrogations.
A legal petition filed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) which works to protect and promote human rights, alleging the US government violated Rahim’s right to the “preservation of his health” was filed last May by Major Valentine.
“The refusal to provide medical care is in violation of all customary standards of international human rights standards,” the petition said.
Rahim’s brother, Abdul Basit, who himself was imprisoned from 2005 to 2010 at the Bagram detention site – known as “Afghanistan’s Guantanamo” – said Rahim needs special medical attention which he cannot get at Guantanamo.
“When it comes to healthcare [in these prisons], there is nothing. In Rahim’s case, it’s very serious as there is a potential that he may have cancer,” Basit, who has now been granted political asylum in the UK, said.
“I endured five years in Bagram, I know how they treat detainees,” he said speaking in the Pashto language.
Prove his innocence
Rahim has been trapped in legal limbo, declared a “high-value detainee” by US state officials as no charges have been pressed against him so far.
“Muhammad Rahim’s legal status is truly unfortunate. I often describe Guantanamo as an upside-down and backward world, where the guilty have more rights than the innocent,” said his former military lawyer, Lt Commander Kevin Bogucki, who has now retired.
“Since he is not guilty of any war crime, the United States will never take him to trial. And, if he never goes to trial, he will never have an opportunity to prove his innocence,” he told in an interview to CAGE, a UK-based grassroots campaign group.
Rival Afghan leaders meeting in the Qatari capital, Doha, for peace talks have discussed the cases of Rahim and another Afghan detainee, Asadullah Haroon.
Tribal elders from the Chaparhar district in Afghanistan, the IACHR and Lt Commander Bogucki have called for his release.
The Taliban’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, reportedly requested US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to release the remaining Afghan detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
The US toppled the Taliban from power in 2001 when it invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the deadly September 11 attacks on its soil. Hundreds of Afghans were detained, many of them were sent to secret Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) prisons and later to Guantanamo prison.
On June 25, 2007, Rahim’s wife and children told Basit, an unidentified group of men forced Rahim off a bus he was travelling with them near the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore. He was handcuffed, blindfolded and bundled into a four-wheeler, vanishing without a trace, they said.
The US Department of Defense confirmed his arrest eight months later in a press release issued on March 14, 2008, stating he was held in the CIA custody for at least six months before being transferred to Guantanamo.
He was placed in “Camp 7”, Guantanamo’s most clandestine jail for prisoners previously interrogated by the secret service.
Accused of being a member of armed group al-Qaeda with links to its the then leader Osama bin Laden, Rahim was eventually moved from CIA custody to Guantanamo in 2008.
Basit said his brother’s confinement devastated their family, particularly their ailing mother and Rahim’s wife and children.
“When something that huge happens to you in childhood, it has a huge impact on you,” said Basit, adding that his two children, Ibrahim (26) and Ismail (25), spent most of their formative childhood years without their father.
“The younger ones know him only from the photographs they have seen of him,” he added.
“In the entire world, no one’s effort, no one’s love compares to what you would find in your own father’s hand.”
Rahim was born in Chaparhar district in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. Like many Afghans fleeing civil war, his family fled to Pakistan when he was just 12.
At the age of 16, he joined the Mujahideen, armed Afghan fighters who launched a rebellion against the Soviet occupying army in 1979.
The Mujahideen rebels were supported by an international coalition including the US, Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia. They were armed and funded under Operation Cyclone by the CIA from 1979 to 1989.
After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Rahim returned to civilian life in Pakistan where he worked as a teacher at a refugee camp in Peshawar, and later as a trader.
At the Guantanamo facility, Rahim was subjected to “extensive use” of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, stress positions and sleep deprivation.
He was questioned about threats to the US and the locations of top al-Qaeda leaders, but failed to provide any intelligence, according to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report.
The report said the sleep deprivation sessions lasted up to 180 hours over a month during which he was “usually shackled in a standing position, wearing a diaper and a pair of shorts”, and subjected to “dietary manipulation, facial grasp, facial slap, abdominal slap, and the attention grab”.
Other interrogation techniques used in the past include playing music 24 hours a day, keeping prisoners shackled while standing and rectal force-feeding, which Rahim was also subjected to.
Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith said former detainees told him that healthcare professionals were also “involved in their abuse”.
“When my clients go to see a physician in Guantanamo, there’s no physician-patient privilege. There’s a couple of guards sitting there in the doctor’s room as you’re discussing deeply embarrassing, intimate details of your medical condition.
“On top of that, you’ve got not just physical illness. There’s not a prisoner in Guantanamo who doesn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder [an anxiety disorder where sufferers relive traumatic events through flashbacks and may experience insomnia], because they’ve all been through such a nightmare,” Stafford-Smith said.
Stafford-Smith, who has so far represented 88 clients from Guantanamo, including Haroon, said the main priority now was to push for the release of men like Rahim and Haroon.
“One day, Guantanamo will be a museum to American folly,” Stafford-Smith told Al Jazeera.
The human collateral damage
It has been more than 18 years since the notorious prison located on Cuba’s southeast coast, reportedly costing the American taxpayer over $6bn per year, since it began imprisoning men who were dubiously linked to “terrorism”.
Of the 780 men that have passed through its walls, 745 have been cleared or released, and only two have ever been convicted in the Military Commissions System, according to The New York Times.
In his 2008 run for the White House, Barack Obama promised to close the prison.
But 12 years on, Guantanamo continues to imprison the human collateral damage from the so-called “war on terror” as Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, decided to keep the prison open.
Despite being trapped in political limbo for more than 12 years, Rahim has preserved a sense of humour in the most impossible circumstances as his letters to his lawyers shared with Al Jazeera revealed.
The letters, shared in 2014, disclosed Rahim’s witty, wry commentary on American popular culture, from LeBron James, Trump, to his confusion around why Caitlyn Jenner, a transwoman, supported the Republican Party.
Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee and outreach director for CAGE, the UK-based group that has advocated for due process and an end to the injustices of the “war on terror”, said that the two Afghan detainees should be released.
“It is crucial that the last two Afghans kept in Guantanamo without charge, Muhammad Rahim and Asadullah Haroon are released, so that like other Afghan prisoners before, they can contribute and become part of the peacebuilding process,” he said referring to thousands of prisoners released from Afghan jails as part of the peace process.