Fawzi Al-Odah Speaks: First Interview with Kuwaiti Released from Guantánamo in 2014
Via the Arabic language newspaper Al-Rai, the Kuwait Times last week featured the first interview with former Guantánamo prisoner Fawzi al-Odah since his release from the prison in November 2014, which I’m posting below with some minor changes of my own to the English language translation to make it more comprehensible.
Fawzi hasn’t spoken before, because he was in a rehabilitation center in Kuwait for a year after his release, and because no one in Kuwait wanted to do anything that might jeopardize the release of Fayiz al-Kandari, the last Kuwaiti in Guantánamo, who was freed just three weeks ago.
I visited the rehabilitation center during a visit to Kuwait in February 2012, to work towards securing the release of Fawzi and Fayiz, and the photos below are from that visit. At the time the facility, located next to Kuwait’s main prison, was empty, but it had briefly been used for the two prisoners previously released, who returned to Kuwait in 2009. The government had staffed it, and had clearly spent money — and was still spending money — that was only for Fawzi and Fayiz, and yet they remained entangled in the absurd bureaucracy of Guantánamo.
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the story that Fawzi told the Kuwaiti media. In Guantánamo, for example, he always maintained, as I described it in 2007 in my book The Guantánamo Files, that he “took a short vacation and travelled to Afghanistan in August 2001 ‘to teach and to help other people.’ After finding a liaison in the Taliban, which ‘was necessary because that was the government in Afghanistan at that time,’ he was ‘touring the schools and visiting families,’ teaching the Koran and handing out money, until his activities were curtailed after 9/11.” As I explained after his release, “He said he was then advised to leave the country, and given instructions about how to do so, and ended up, with other men, crossing the border into Pakistan, where they were then handed over to the Pakistani authorities.”
Speaking to the Kuwaiti media, he said that he had not visited Afghanistan, but had only undertaken charity work in Pakistan, where he was seized and sold to US forces.
Nevertheless, whether in Afghanistan or Pakistan, no clear case was ever established that he took up arms against US forces, and it was ridiculous that he spent nearly 14 years in Guantánamo, which included him having his habeas corpus petition turned down in August 2009. He was only finally released after successfully negotiating a Periodic Review Board in July 2014, an ongoing process that I have been following closely for the last few years. Incidentally, when Fawzi succeeded in convincing his PRB that he didn’t pose a threat, Fayiz failed to persuade his, and had to wait another year for a second chance, which led, finally, to his recommendation for release in September.
In his interview, Fawzi also spoke about the abuse to which prisoners were subjected the hunger strikes that have punctuated the prison’s history, and the difficulty of not reacting to abusive staff. Asked, “Was there a time when you lost your temper while dealing with a Guantanamo guard?” he replied, “There were many instances. The person who feels injustice will defend himself, and I was beaten hard and punished because of that.”
Not included in the interview, but mentioned in the introduction to it, was a question about what he had requested from his lawyers and his family during visits from his legal team.
“I was asking for vegetarian pizza and sodas from my lawyer, while my mother used to send me some sweets,” he said.
The interview is below:
Q: When did you leave Kuwait?
Fawzi al-Odah: I left Kuwait in August 2001, and before that I worked as a teacher at the Dar Al-Quran (Quran house) run by the Awqaf Ministry. Before that I worked at Zakat House for six months, so I had experience in Quranic activities.
Many Afghans were suffering at that time, and my destination, when I left, was the Pakistani border with Afghanistan, where many refugees live in miserable conditions, with a shortage of medicine, food, education, homes and the most simple of living requirements. I did not enter Afghanistan. I went there with a little money to give to the Afghan refugees. Afghans view Arabs as the children of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH), and consider their arrival to teach them the Quran as something great, raising their morale and brightening life for them.
Q: What happened to you after the September 11 attacks?
Fawzi al-Odah: The Americans forced the Pakistani government and other neighboring governments to arrest any Arab citizen in Pakistan, regardless of the reason for their presence, in exchange for $5,000. The US interrogated those arrested, and the Pakistani government had nothing to do with it. This is a black page in the history of the US, and, 14 years later, America was not able to convict me of anything.
Q: Did you leave Kuwait alone on a personal basis, or was it an establishment work [work for an institution or organization]?
Fawzi al-Odah: It was personal, and a fresh start for me, as I wanted to experience charitable activity.
Q: Did you go alone or with a group? Did you enter Afghanistan?
Fawzi al-Odah: I left on my own, and I never entered Afghanistan. I was on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Q: How were you arrested?
Fawzi al-Odah: I was in a border area called Kouta, and the people there asked me to remain in a house until things calmed down, and it could be arranged for me to return to the Pakistani capital, then Kuwait. But my stay took longer as things worsened, so I went to the Pakistani security people and told them I was a Kuwaiti and was doing charity work, and I wanted to be taken to the Kuwaiti embassy. I was surprised when the Pakistani police took me to a military prison. A month later, the Americans came and interrogated me in the Pakistani prison before taking me to an American base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where I remained for two months before being sent to Guantánamo.
Q: How did the American authorities treat you when you were arrested?
Fawzi al-Odah: The treatment was very bad, just because I was an Arab in that place at that time. I was treated like an enemy, I was beaten badly and exposed to various types of physical and psychological harm.
Q: What do you mean by psychological harm?
Fawzi al-Odah: Insulting sacred and religious things, and insulting me verbally. Also, I was made to believe that I would be freed several times, but then I got punished for no reason.
Q: Did you meet other Kuwaiti detainees at Guantánamo? [note: there were 12 in total]
Fawzi al-Odah: We were in solitary confinement in the first years, and contact was almost impossible. After 2010, we were moved into group prisons [a block with communal facilities], and at that time it was only Fayiz [al-Kandari] and me who were left among the Kuwaitis, so he was the Kuwaiti I met the most.
Q: How did you spend your time in detention?
Fawzi al-Odah: I read the book of Allah (Holy Quran) to understand its verses, and this is what sustained me there.
Q: What about the hunger strikes you [the prisoners] carried out?
Fawzi al-Odah: The first was at Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo [in the first few months of the prison’s existence in 2002], then in 2005 we carried out a major hunger strike, during which I was force-fed for five months, and I lost almost 50 kg. We repeated the strikes in 2010 and 2013, and it was a painful process, as a pipe is inserted from the nose into the stomach.
Q: You seem to be calm. Was there a time when you lost your temper while dealing with a Guantánamo guard?
Fawzi al-Odah: There were many instances. The person who feels injustice will defend himself, and I was beaten hard and punished because of that.
Q: Was there a particular incident in this regard?
Fawzi al-Odah: I entered a cell and found the Holy Quran on the floor, and the guard did that deliberately, and though I was cuffed, I attempted to pick it up, so the soldier pushed me down and sprayed me with pepper spray. There were many similar incidents, but I do not wish to go into them.
Q: What was the difference between the Bush and Obama administrations?
Fawzi al-Odah: There was no major change, other than having groups in cells [communal facilities].
Q: What do you want to tell your lawyer Abdelrahman Al-Haroun?
Fawzi al-Odah: The lawyer Abdelrahman Al-Haroun is like my father. He was the first person to stand by my father, and dedicated his office to serve the detainees free of charge, and although the state offered him fees, he refused.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here).
He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.