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The Global Trade in Guantánamo Captives

The US largely did not capture the prisoners it continues to hold at Guantanamo — it bought them.

The belief that the men imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay are the “worst of the worst dangerous terrorists” is still commonly held, due in large part to the mainstream corporate media and politicians. But as early as 2006, Seton Hall University School of Law identified, using US Department of Defense data, that only 5 percent of prisoners were captured by the US military. Of the current 80 remaining detainees, only three were captured by US forces, including Pakistani prisoner Saifullah Paracha, who was kidnapped in Thailand.

The vast majority of prisoners (86 percent) “were arrested by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance and turned over to United States custody” in return for a bounty. Bounties ranged from $3,000 to $25,000 per person. Initially denied by Pakistan, in his 2006 memoir, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf admitted, “We have captured 689 and handed over 369 to the United States. We have earned bounties totaling millions of dollars.” Musharraf called it “prize money.”

Another beneficiary of this nefarious trade was Afghan warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the current vice president of Afghanistan, who was denied entry to the US in April 2016, as he stands accused of war crimes. US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California), who maintains the “bad men” myth, has long been a friend of Dostum.

The US largely did not capture the prisoners it continues to hold at Guantánamo — it bought them.

The fact remains that the US largely did not capture the prisoners it continues to hold at Guantánamo — it bought them. The same media and politicians that feign concern for ISIS’ slaves conveniently forget that the US, too, trades in captives. Many Guantánamo prisoners have also been sexually abused, and practices such as body cavity searches are tantamount to rape.

The Trade in Prisoners Continues

The last prisoners were brought to Guantánamo in 2008, but the trade in prisoners goes on. Of the 22 Chinese Uighur prisoners purchased for a bounty in Afghanistan, six were transferred to the Pacific island of Palau in 2009, for which the island state was paid $93,333 to accept each man, reportedly to cover living costs, and also received $200 million in development aid.

In early May 2016, former Uruguayan President José Mujica stated, “In order to sell several kilos of oranges to the United States, I had to put up with five crazy guys from Guantánamo.” In December 2014, during his presidency, Uruguay accepted six prisoners as refugees. When the men arrived in the country, Mujica insisted “we are not exchanging human beings for oranges” and that the transfer was on humanitarian grounds.

His latest statements have provoked controversy in Uruguay; the US has denied them. Essentially, Mujica has said that the men were sold twice: once in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is how they ended up in Guantánamo; and a second time, in exchange for oranges, to get them out.

Mujica explained the situation as being one where the transfer eased trading relations. It is not the first time he has made such statements. In March 2015, he told French state radio that after 18 years of trying, Uruguay succeeded in selling its oranges to the US because “I had agreed to take in several Guantánamo prisoners.”

The real question is why this issue is being raised now. After having initially defended his decision to accept the men, in April 2016, Mujica described their conduct since arriving in Uruguay as “abysmal,” and as having hurt efforts to resettle others in Latin American countries, ultimately labeling their conduct as selfish. He stated that he wished he had not brought them to the country.

Such statements are hurtful and not helpful to the men who still are struggling to settle in a country where they have not yet mastered the language, and have to overcome the ordeal they suffered for 13 years at Guantánamo. None has managed to find sustainable full-time work, and a deal that was reached with the Uruguayan government, following a lengthy protest outside the US Embassy in April and May 2015, only covers the first two years of their stay, thus they remain in a precarious situation.

These statements and frequent media intrusion into the former prisoners’ private lives only serve to exacerbate the prejudice they already face, and effectively mean that they are still not free; the chains of Guantánamo weigh down their efforts to get on with their lives. They are not alone in this predicament, and it is not surprising that in January 2016, Yemeni prisoner Muhammad Bawazir refused to leave Guantánamo for a third state that had offered to accept him.

Controversial Resettlement Arrangements

Transfers in 2016 have also been subject to allegations of cash payments made to governments to accept prisoners who cannot be returned to their own countries. In January, Ghana resettled two Yemeni prisoners. Debate has since arisen over the safety of accepting former Guantánamo prisoners and possible payments to the country to host them. The US ambassador denied this, “except that we are paying for the lodging and maintenance cost of the two detainees for two years.”

Similar concerns have been raised in Senegal, which, like Uruguay, has claimed to have accepted two men as refugees on humanitarian grounds. It is not just poorer states and cash incentives, however. When the Dutch government decided not to take any prisoners from Guantánamo Bay in 2015 following negotiations, the decision strained relations between the two states.

As part of the plan announced in February to close/transfer Guantánamo by the end of his presidency, the Obama administration is keen to transfer all of the current 28 men cleared for release by the end of the summer. The vast majority will have to be transferred to safe third countries. For the US, however, the interest is really in washing its hands off these men. There is not often sufficient concern as to what will happen to them later, particularly as survivors of torture who have been held almost as slaves or hostages for a decade and a half. Conditions on release can sometimes just present new forms of servitude.

Echoes of the Slave Trade

The contemporary trade in human bodies at Guantánamo Bay has been compared to the slave trade. The links are many. Prior to its closure in 2008, British anti-Guantánamo activists protested outside the Birmingham factory of a company called Hiatt, which produced not only the shackles to transport prisoners to Guantánamo, but the shackles to transport slaves to the Caribbean in the 19th century.

In his best-selling book written from inside Guantánamo, Mauritanian prisoner Mohamedou Ould Slahi states,

I often compared myself with a slave. Slaves were taken forcibly from Africa, and so was I. Slaves were sold a couple of times on their way to their final destination, and so was I. Slaves suddenly were assigned to somebody they didn’t choose, and so was I.

David Bromwich suggests:

Torture and slavery have something in common. They are expressions of a power that admits no restraint on itself. They issue from the instinct for domination …

It has been suggested that while detention at Guantánamo lacks the productivity of the transatlantic slave trade, the prisoners “are the producers of intel,” even though this intelligence may not have much value. Guantánamo’s greatest product, no doubt, through the abuse of the prisoners held there, has been its ability to generate and sustain the lies that have kept it and the so-called “war on terror” going for far too long.

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