James Ewing/Courtesy of Park Avenue Armory

Finally heard: Former Guantánamo detainee ‘beamed’ into art installation

Mohammed el Gharani was a teen when he was locked up in Gitmo; he will tell his story in an installation in New York

Mohammed el Gharani's passport photo, showing him at the age of 14, when he was detained in Pakistan.
Courtesy of Reprieve

Mohammed el Gharani was around 11 years old and living with his parents in Saudi Arabia, helping them herd goats, when he was alleged to have aided Abu QatadaAl-Filistini with terrorism plots.

At the age of 14, while attending school in Pakistan — being a Chadian citizen, he was denied an education in Saudi Arabia, where he was born — Gharani was arrested during a raid on a mosque, an incident U.K.-based rights group Reprieve has described as an “abduction.” The teenager was first sent to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, where he was allegedly kept naked and abused for days before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay.

There, he stayed for seven years, among the youngest prisoners in the U.S. "war on terrorism." Accused of fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan's Tora Bora region and subjected to interrogations and torture, Gharani tried to kill himself twice. There were never any formal charges against him, nor did he ever stand trial.

For eight years, the world didn’t hear Gharani’s voice, but with the help of artist Laurie Anderson and Reprieve, his story will be told for three days at an installation at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory Oct. 2 through 4.

There, a statue of Gharani will have his image beamed onto it; he will be in an undisclosed West African country (he fears being harassed if his background is revealed in his community) — and periodically, he will speak of his experiences at Guantánamo, from which he was released in 2009 when U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon determined that evidence against him lacked credibility.

One of his attorneys, Reprieve's Clive Stafford (who identified Gharani as a minor in Guantánamo) told Al Jazeera America that this event is the first of its kind.

"Everyone who was in Guantánamo is banned from being in America. He is the first to be in America, albeit virtually," Stafford said. This is the case even though "a very conservative Washington Judge absolutely exonerated him and said they never had a basis to hold him in the fist place."

But Gharani will still be heard.

"I have chosen to be here virtually because I am not allowed to come to this country and I have some things to say," reads a quote from Gharani on the cover of the installation's program.

‘I'm like, What did I do? You called Al Jazeera! you called Sami elHaj. Yes I did. If I get a phone now, I will call again. Because whatever you're doing, people will know.’

Mohammed el Gharani

Former Guantanamo Bay detainee

Describing how the project she calls Habeas Corpus came together, in a piece in The New Yorker, Anderson wrote, "The more I learned, the more I realized that prosecuting 'the war on terror' was all about stories. How you describe your experience … The U.S. government had declared the detainees 'nonpersons,' and so they were not eligible for apologies or reparations. The Geneva Conventions did not apply to them. They could be held indefinitely and tortured, but only because the torture was relabeled 'enhanced interrogation' and because Guantánamo was not the U.S. There were also no suicides, only 'manipulative self-injurious behavior.'"

So jumbled was Gharani's story that even the official account of who the teenager was — virtually everything about him and the allegations against him presented in his U.S. Department of Defense file — is wrong, starting with his date of birth. 

U.S. authorities list his birth year as 1981, making him an adult at the time of his arrest. 

"We got a copy of his birth certificate from Saudi Arabia in 30 minutes, and they hadn't bothered in six years to do that, and that proved that he was 14 at the time," Stafford said.

Gharani had succeeded on occasion to get snippets of his story out, telling Al Jazeera English via telephone in 2009 that he was being beaten on an almost daily basis and tear gassed when he refused to leave his cell. 

That phone call, made to Sami elHaj, the head of Human Rights at Al Jazeera Network (who was also detained in Guantánamo for almost seven years) came with some backlash for Gharani.

Here's part of what Gharani has recorded for the installation: "They said, 'The colonel wants to see you.' I went there, and he was very angry, and he's telling me, 'Do you know what you did? I've been working 20 years in the military — no one's called and insulted me.' And he's shouting. And I'm like, 'What did I do?' 'You called Al Jazeera! You called Sami elHaj.' 'Yes, I did. If I get a phone now, I will call again. Because whatever you're doing, people will know.'"

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