Close Guantánamo In the news Ahmed Rabbani

The sudden silencing of Guantanamo’s artists

A few weeks ago, Khalid Qasim got some news he’d been waiting 20 years for. He had been cleared for release from the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Qasim has been in Guantanamo nearly half his life, aged 23 to 43. Like almost all the men sent there, he has never been charged with a crime.

His release order does not mean freedom, yet. It is merely the starting gun on a long process of resettlement that, going by previous resettlements, could take years. Where he will be sent, neither he nor his lawyers know.

While he waits, Qasim will paint. During his long detention, Qasim has created scores of intricate paintings and other artworks, from seascapes, to scenes of fire, to a series of lone candles that commemorate the men who died in Guantanamo.

“The easiest way to explain it is that it’s a way of telling others about what I feel,” Qasim said, via his lawyer. “It’s a feeling I have. It’s a part of me. I’m putting Guantanamo on canvas.”

“This is my life,” Qasim said, of his art. “It was my life here.”

But when Qasim is transferred out of Guantanamo, in months or years, he will not, as things stand, be allowed to take his art. It will remain the property of the US government, which may store or destroy it.

Keeping his art in Guantanamo would be “the same as keeping me here”, Qasim said.

“The art I made is me,” he said. “If they keep my art here, my soul will stay here.”

This was not always the case. Until the end of 2017, Guantanamo detainees were allowed to take their art with them when they were released, or give it to their lawyers to take out. Then in late 2017, under the Trump administration, it became clear that art was no longer being allowed out. Like lots of things in the world of Guantanamo, there was no official notification to the lawyers, no memo. Artwork was all of a sudden simply bounced back from the vetting team to the detainees.

Then the vetters at Guantanamo began marking the descriptions of the art in the lawyers’ notes as classified. “Now they are not even allowed to bring the art to the meetings,” said Mark Maher, who represents Khalid Qasim. “It’s very frustrating for the men.”

In response, four lawyers penned a letter to military officials asking for the ban to be overturned – pointing out that convicted US state and federal prisoners were permitted to make, send out, exhibit and sell their art. The lawyers got no reply.

“If they have a reason I would love to hear it,” said Maher. “I don’t know what the justification could be for not allowing this art out into the world. We have requested that the men be allowed to leave with it, and the response we’ve had has been silence.”

Inside Guantanamo, the ban has had a discouraging effect on the artists, said Ahmed Rabbani, a 20-year detainee and painter who is awaiting transfer. “Before the rule changed, I would make one piece a week, sometimes more than one a week,” Rabbani said. “Now when I create a new piece, I get disappointed and discouraged. If I can’t take it with me, why make it?”

Rabbani is a skilled painter who has painted vivid scenes of tea settings with no people present – scenes he can populate in his imagination with his absent friends and family. Sometimes there are empty plates, references maybe to his hunger strike protests against torture. And, of course, he has painted the sea.

Read the full story on BBC News.