Life, and death, in Guantanamo

My client, Ahmed Rabbani, has been cleared to leave the infamous facility in Cuba months ago – but he is still stuck there.

The hand of a Guantanamo detainee is seen holding onto a fence
In this photo reviewed by a US Department of Defense official, a Guantanamo detainee holds onto a fence inside the Camp 6 high-security detention facility at Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, April 27, 2010. [Michelle Shephard/Reuters]

Last night I had a call with my client Ahmed Rabbani, one of the 39 detainees still held in Guantanamo Bay. Like almost half of the men held at the infamous US military facility, Ahmed has been cleared for release some months ago, but he is still stuck there. As one of his fellow inmates once said, Guantanamo is much like the Hotel California described in the famous Eagles song,  you can “check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.

Still, I had hoped that Ahmed would be home in Pakistan before the end of the holiday season. There was nothing stopping it: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has put his personal seal of approval on his return. But this did not happen. So I had to call him to deliver some urgent, and unwelcome, news.

I had to tell Ahmed that his mother-in-law is on her deathbed in a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. That the doctors believe she only has four or five days of life left. Four days, of course, is plenty of time for a jet plane to carry Ahmed from Guantanamo to Karachi – but only if the US military allows him to go. It is unlikely that they will act in time, and Ahmed is aware of this. So I actually gave Ahmed the sad news that he will likely never see his mother-in-law again.

There was silence on the other end of the line when I finished speaking. “I have lost a large number of my relatives during my 20 years here,” Ahmed eventually said. “Two of them, in particular, were very close to me, and I was very sad and depressed when they died. One was a relative who died five years ago, who treated me like her own son. The other was my father. It is horribly sad that now my mother-in-law is in this position. If she passes away, that will leave me as the most senior member of the family, with all the responsibility. Yet I am stuck in here.”

“This is a very sad situation.” Ahmed continued, quietly. “While I am listening to this, I am actually crying. My wife has suffered alone for 20 years without me and this is really the last straw for her. For me, my mother-in-law is much more than just my wife’s mother, she loves me and I love her very much. Sometimes she acted as if she loved me more than her own children. It would have been an honour for me to spend her last days with her and do everything I could for her.”

“I wish at least I could kiss her feet before she dies,” he concluded.

I did not know how to respond. It is likely that my country will deny him this last dignity.

Ahmed has been on hunger strike almost continuously since 2013, and despite being force-fed twice a day, lost half of his weight, doing irreparable damage to his body. Over the fifteen years I represented him, he also came close to losing his will to live and tried ending his life several times. So I worried that the news I delivered may once again plunge him into a self-destructive episode of depression, and I asked him about his health.

“I was eating and getting a little better after I heard I was cleared [for release],” he said. “But now I have some heart problems. Whenever I breathe in deeply, I get a pain in my chest.

“It is a stress issue,” he continued. “There is a big stress when you have been cleared but you cannot be released. Before I learned that I could go home, one day here was equal to 10 days of a real life, dragging by endlessly. Now each day is like a month. We are waiting. We know we are going to be released one day, so there is hope. Yet we look forward to it, and nothing happens. Our country is willing to accept us, America has said go, and yet here we stay, while my mother-in-law dies. The waiting with hope is worse than no hope at all.”

During the call, we also briefly discussed January 11, 2022 – the 20th anniversary of the Guantanamo prison.

“For us,” Ahmed said, “it’s an anniversary of suffering. I wish it was the anniversary of my death, it would have been better. I have stayed alive simply because I want to see my family, otherwise I would have gone home in a coffin long ago. I am now in my 50s and there is not much between me and death. Perhaps we have to kill ourselves before they take notice.”

Ahmed wonders whether his case has become a political football between the US and Pakistan. “What does Biden want from me? Why is he keeping me here? I have no answer.”

He says he can see only one way out of his predicament. “I only have one solution, only one thing I can do where I am in control of my own destiny: I think that I will go on a peaceful hunger strike.”

“I am willing to do it until I die this time, if only to help the others to get out. I will start it immediately. Right after this call I will go into solitary confinement. I will refuse everything until I die, and go home in a box. Until I die. It is not hard for me to die.”

I believe, after almost two decades of suffering, it really would not be hard for Ahmed to die. But it also would not be hard for the Biden administration to stop wasting time and let him go home in time to see his beloved mother-in-love one last time.

My country stole decades from this man’s life, the least it can do is to show him some compassion, this one time.

Just before the publication of this article Ahmed Rabbani’s mother-in-law passed away. His lawyer has not been able to pass him a message, so he remains unaware.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.