How One Artist Is Giving Voice To An Ex-Guantanamo Bay Prisoner Barred From Entering The U.S.


NEW YORK, NY — Mohammed El Gharani was 14 years old when the United States government accused him of being an al-Qaeda operative and put him in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. He was one of the youngest detainees. For eight years, he was tortured, beaten until he was unconscious, and told by a guard, “nobody can run away from here and you will be here forever.”

With the help of Reprieve, a human rights advocacy group based in the United Kingdom, El Gharani was released in 2009. Although U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon dismissed all of the allegations against him, the United States has never apologized for El Gharani’s detention. And now, because El Gharani was held at Guantanamo Bay, he’s barred from ever entering the United States.

But for three days in early October, El Gharani’s image was inside our country’s borders. His hologram was beamed live into New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, a former military facility-turned-cultural institution, through artist Laurie Anderson’s latest telepresence installation known as “Habeas Corpus.”

The installation was set in a darkened room lit up like a planetarium by a big rotating disco ball, with El Gharani’s live image broadcast and projected onto a three-dimensional sculpture of his body, a cubist-like statue that’s roughly as tall as the Lincoln Memorial. For three days, El Gharani sat motionless from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. in his studio in West Africa.

CREDIT: James Ewing
CREDIT: James Ewing

Every hour when El Gharani took a break, the broadcast shifted to playback and the statue spoke of his time as a prisoner in Guantanamo. He talked about learning English using a bar of soap, not losing hope, and smelling pepper spray that guards used on detainees “every day.”

In one playback session, El Gharani cried when he spoke about Shaker, an inmate and mentor who helped him through the use of small acts of defiance like staying out in the recreation area longer than they were allowed with their shirts off since they hadn’t seen the sun and fresh air for weeks. “You know the sad thing is Shaker is still there. You know Fourteen [sic] I think. Fourteen years,” El Gharani said, sobbing as he cradled his head in his hands.

Audience members were invited to sit on the floor of the massive hangar, at times disoriented by the statue’s perceived motion and by melodic music chords that became increasingly louder and more dissonant. Cellists and violinists also played improvised music performances around audience members, sometimes directly over people lying on the floor.

We didn’t have audio hooked up for them to speak to him, but they mouthed the words, ‘I’m sorry.’

At times, El Gharani would give a polite smile, twiddle his thumbs, or give a slight wave. Other times, he would talk to someone off-camera. The audio feed was cut to prevent El Gharani from hearing the audience, though he could see the audience at all times.

What struck Anderson the most about the installation, though, was that people didn’t sit passively as they listened to El Gharani’s story.

“I was so blown away by this,” Anderson told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “I was a little bit anxious abut the reception of it… I thought that people would be standing there with their cell phones doing selfies with the statue. It was not like that at all. People looked up asking ‘where’s the camera to Africa?’ They could wave to Mohammed and so many people did the same thing — we didn’t have audio hooked up for them to speak to him, but they mouthed the words, ‘I’m sorry.’ It was so amazing.”

Mohammed El Gharani (left) with Laurie Anderson (right) CREDIT: James Ewing
Mohammed El Gharani (left) with Laurie Anderson (right) CREDIT: James Ewing

“I don’t think people have gotten a very good picture of what’s going on over there, so I try to give it another picture and leave it to them to figure out,” Anderson added.

Since it was founded in 2002, Guantanamo Bay has become synonymous with human rights violations and “enhanced” interrogation techniques like waterboarding or keeping people in stress positions. The camp has been affiliated with grim abuse allegations that were deemed illegal by the army and the FBI. As one of his first official decisions when he took office, President Obama promised that he would shut down the detention center within a year. But six years later, Congress has continued to make it difficult for Obama to keep that promise, particularly by passing legislation that makes it harder for the government to transfer detainees from the prison.

According to the latest statistics, there are still 114 detainees at Guantanamo: 53 are eligible to transfer while another 61 are deemed too dangerous to release to another country. The human rights group Amnesty International says that most are held there without charge or trial. In 2013, only six out of 166 detainees had formal charges at the time.

Even so, one recent survey found that nearly half of Americans don’t want to see the camp closed.

A.V., an Army military specialist who served in the military for five years and dealt with military intelligence, acknowledged that he has more appreciation for detainees who have been tortured after visiting “Habeus Corpus.” A.V., who wasn’t comfortable being identified by his full name, told ThinkProgress that the installation should be taken on a national tour so that “people can take a look at it and feel at least in part the discomfort that all of these people in Guantanamo felt.”

We’re doing a great disservice to people in uniform because you’re making them do things that are going to affect them psychologically.

“Having [military personnel] do that to other people — we’re doing a great disservice to people in uniform because you’re making them do things that are going to affect them psychologically,” A.V. said. “If you’re a well-adjusted human being at the beginning of this, you will not be a well-adjusted human being at the end of it. It’s going to brutalize you. The people doing the torturing — just making them do that — is an exercise in making them dehumanize someone else. You don’t naturally do that to another human being.”

The U.S. military has long insisted that harsh interrogation tactics work, claiming that it has led to valuable intelligence. But the Senate report on CIA torture methods determined that was false, as investigators could not find a single case where torture had yielded new, accurate information. Furthermore, high-level officials like John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, General Colin Powell, General David Petraeus, and Vice President Joe Biden have all stated that Guantanamo Bay actually undermines national security. Terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan have used the plight of the Guantanamo prisoners as a useful recruitment tool, the Atlantic reported in 2013.

Although Anderson’s “Habeus Corpus” exhibit may influence the way visitors feel about Guantanamo Bay and the prisoners there, El Gharani himself is still waiting on the U.S. government.

“He’s never going to get what he actually would love, which is an apology. That’s all he wants,” Anderson said.