The Problem Prisoners

Ten of the most controversial detainees still held at Guantánamo.

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
First image: AFP/Getty Images; All other images: Wikimedia Commons
First image: AFP/Getty Images; All other images: Wikimedia Commons
First image: AFP/Getty Images; All other images: Wikimedia Commons



Ten years after it was established, 171 detainees are still being held at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Despite promises at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, the facility seems unlikely to be shut down anytime soon. While the very existence of the camp is controversial, some cases have drawn particular attention.


Nationality: Algeria     

This former professional soccer player fled to Britain in 1999 after receiving death threats from Islamist militants in his home country. He was traveling in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2001 and was turned over to U.S. forces by opportunistic villagers who claimed he was a member of al Qaeda.

After six years of imprisonment, he was cleared for release in 2007 by George W. Bush’s administration but has remained at the facility for four years, fighting against repatriation to Algeria, where he fears both imprisonment by the government — which tried him in absentia and sentenced him to 20 years in prison for belonging to an overseas terrorist group — and attacks by militant groups. Ahmed Bin Saleh Bel Bacha’s former country of residence, Britain, has rejected his request for asylum. The town of Amherst, Massachusetts, has offered him asylum, but federal law prevents Guantánamo detainees from being resettled in the United States.


Nationality: Saudi Arabia (British resident)

The last remaining British resident in Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer’s fluency in both English and Arabic has made him something of an unofficial spokesman for the prisoners, including leading a hunger strike to improve conditions at the camp. A former translator for London law firms, Aamer is reportedly an expert on Guantánamo’s rules and regulations.

Aamer was arrested in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2002 while working for a Saudi charity. His lawyers allege that he was badly beaten after his arrest by CIA agents in the presence of members of Britain’s MI5. Aamer has never been charged with a crime.

Aamer was cleared for release in 2007 and British Foreign Secretary William Hague has raised the case in discussions with Washington, but U.S. authorities have delayed his release. He will complete his 10th year at Guantánamo on Feb. 14.


Nationality: Afghanistan

In 2006, the CIA officially emptied its secret prisons, transferring 14 detainees, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to Guantánamo. But, CIA officials say, nearly a year after this deadline, the agency still held Muhammad Rahim Al Afghani for at least six months and subjected him to the same harsh “enhanced” interrogation techniques it publicly said it had abandoned.

Afghani, described by the CIA as a “tough, seasoned jihadist,” reportedly fought with al Qaeda for nearly two decades and served for a time as Osama bin Laden’s translator before his capture in 2007. While in CIA custody, Afghani was kept awake for nearly six days by interrogators who chained him to the wall and floor of his cell. He was made to wear a diaper so he could be continuously chained without bathroom breaks.

He was transferred to Guantánamo in 2008.


Nationality: Canada

This 25-year-old former child soldier has spent seven years in Guantánamo since his 2002 capture by U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The Toronto-born Omar Khadr claims to have been pressured into fighting against U.S. forces by his al Qaeda-linked family. 

Khadr was due to be the first detainee tried under the Obama administration’s newly redesigned military-commissions system last year, an awkward prospect given that juveniles are almost never tried for war crimes. Instead, Khadr pleaded guilty in October 2010 to throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier, accepting a deal that will allow him to serve out his eight-year sentence in Canada.

Despite the deal, which was agreed to by both the U.S. and Canadian governments, Khadr remains at Gitmo, waiting for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to “certify” that Canada is a safe place as a destination for detainees. Khadr’s lawyers have accused the administration of intentional foot-dragging.

Khadr alleges that he was threatened with gang rape by interrogators while in custody, but a military judge has ruled that his treatment did not constitute torture. 


Nationality: Tajikistan

A refugee from Tajikistan’s civil war, Omar Abdulayev was arrested in 2001 in Pakistan by the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence and turned over to the United States on suspicion of affiliation with al Qaeda and the Central Asian militant group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. (Abdulayev claims he was just a construction worker who failed to pay a bribe.) U.S. authorities allege that he was radicalized at a Pakistani madrassa.

After a review of detainees by the Justice Department in 2009, the Obama administration decided it would no longer defend Abdulayev’s detention and asked U.S. diplomats to arrange his repatriation to Tajikistan. The 33-year-old prisoner is fighting repatriation, however, fearing reprisals in his homeland. He claims to have been visited during his detention by Tajik intelligence agents who wanted him to spy on Islamic militants in the former Soviet republic and threatened him with retribution when he refused to cooperate.  


Nationality: Yemen

Abdu Ali al Haji Sharqawi was captured near Karachi, Pakistan, in 2002 and then transferred to a prison in Jordan where he claims to have been tortured for several weeks. “They beat me up in a way that does not know mercy,” Sharqawi wrote, referring to his Jordanian captors, “and they’re still beating me. They threatened me with electricity, with snakes and dogs.… [They said] we’ll make you see death.”

Sharqawi was then transferred to one of the CIA’s so-called dark sites in Afghanistan and then to the prison at Bagram air base. He was finally flown to Guantánamo in 2004.

A U.S. federal judge ruled in June 2011 that statements made by Sharqawi while in custody in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo were inadmissible, as he was still suffering from the psychological effects of the torture received in Jordan.


Nationality: China

All the 22 ethnic Uighur Chinese prisoners detained at Guantánamo since 2002 have been cleared for release — and 17 have resettled in places including Palau, Bermuda, and Albania. The Uighurs, who were living in Afghanistan when war broke out, were originally alleged to have been affiliated with the militant East Turkestan Islamic Movement.

The five remaining Uighurs, Abdul Razak, Yusef Abbas, Hajiakbar Abdulghupur, Saidullah Khalik, and Ahmed Mohamed, have asked for residency in the United States and rejected resettlement offers from other countries. (The Uighurs cannot be returned to China for fear of imprisonment or torture on their arrival.)

A federal appeals court in Washington has ordered the Uighurs to either accept the U.S. government’s offer to resettle them abroad or remain in Guantánamo, overturning an earlier ruling that they be released in the United States. After initially scheduling a hearing for their petition, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear their case in 2010.


Nationality: Mauritania

Mohamedou Ould Slahi acknowledges swearing allegiance to al Qaeda and receiving training in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, but says he cut ties with the group in 1994, before it began targeting the United States. According to the 9/11 Commission report, he met with two of the future 9/11 hijackers in Germany in 1999.

Slahi claims to have turned himself into Mauritanian authorities after 9/11 and that he was interrogated in Jordan for several months before being sent to Afghanistan and then on to Guantánamo. Slahi claims to have been subjected to extreme temperatures, beaten, and sexually humiliated during his interrogation — recordings of these CIA interrogations are mysteriously missing, and a military prosecutor refused to handle his case because of the torture allegations. 

A federal judge ordered Slahi’s release in 2010, finding that the government could not prove he had continued to support al Qaeda beyond 1994. An appeal of that ruling by the Obama administration was upheld by a circuit court, and Slahi’s case is still pending.

As one of the most significant informants held at Guantánamo, Slahi has been kept in relative comfort compared with other prisoners. Some military officials argue that he should have been released into a witness protection program, as he is now likely a target for other jihadists. 


Nationality: Afghanistan

Unlike most of those tried under the military justice system at Guantánamo, Mohammed Kamin was charged only with providing material support for terrorism, based on allegations that he received weapons training at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Providing material support is not generally defined as a war crime, however, making his prosecution under the military commissions system particularly controversial.

Kamin boycotted his trial at Guantánamo, though he was at one point physically dragged into court. After that he reportedly placed earplugs in his ears and pulled a blanket over his head when told of court proceedings. Charges against him were dismissed in 2009, but he is still being held.


Nationality: Kuwait

The eldest son of a wealthy Kuwaiti family, Fayiz al-Kandari traveled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 on what he said was a charitable trip. He was captured by the Northern Alliance and given over to U.S. forces that October. (He claims U.S. leaflets were being dropped across the region reading, “You turn in your Arabs and we will give you money.”)

Authorities accuse him of traveling to Afghanistan to provide material support to al Qaeda. According to Defense Department documents, “an individual stated that the detainee was very close to Osama bin Laden.” Kandari’s attorneys dismiss this as hearsay.

Ten years later, Kandari is still being held at Guantánamo, though he has not been charged and his lawyers say no evidence has been presented against him. Kandari’s habeas corpus petition has been denied. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit has also refused to hear Kandari’s case. Kandari’s claims to have been subjected to harsh interrogation, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, sexual humiliation, and extreme temperatures, according to his military attorney.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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