The Guantanamo detainee case Kiyemba v. Obama is a potentially landmark separation-of-powers case headed for the US Supreme Court in March 2010, with major policy issues and the futures of 13 detainees at stake. In this multi-part story, I will try to dig into the background and questions raised by the case.
PART I: Jamal Kiyemba’s long journey home
Jamal Kiyemba doesn’t have anything to do with the case coming before the Supreme Court in 2010. He is a free man; he lives in Uganda, and as well as anyone might expect after what he went though, he is apparently leading a normal life there. But his full-circle journey, one that spanned four continents, is necessary prologue to the legal battle that wages on today under his name.
Kiyemba wasn’t your typical enemy combatant. Raised in a Roman Catholic family just outside of Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, Kiyemba studied at Catholic schools until his late teens. In 1988, as future president and habeas petition respondent Barack Obama was visiting his father’s hometown in Kenya, Kiyemba was probably studying at St. Mary’s College in Kisubi in the country next door. The following year, Kiyemba’s father died in a car accident, and a few years after that Kiyemba joined the rest of his family in London. He continued his studies at Catholic schools, ultimately attending university as a pharmacy student. But along with the opportunity that London offered, he also discovered other temptations that face college students. “I loved partying, going out with girls and drinking,” he told the Ugandan paper Sunday Vision in a 2006 interview, “dividing my time between working and studying became increasingly difficult.” Like so many of us did as young students, Kiyemba took a year off from university to find his way.
What he found was Islam. Over the objections of his family, Kiyemba converted to Islam in 1999, renouncing his former lifestyle, religion, and education. He sought out a place where he could be with other Muslims and where he believed it would be “easier to stay faithful to [his] religion.” That place was supposed to be Afghanistan, but after the 9/11 attacks, Kiyemba opted instead for the relative safety of Pakistan, where he joined the Taliban, believing it would help him find solidarity with other Muslims. His plan was to locate a place to settle until the war was over; Afghanistan remained his ultimate goal. Safety was not to be found, however, and later in 2001 Pakistani officials, motivated perhaps by a $5000-per-person reward offered for any suspected Taliban member, captured Kiyemba and handed him over to US authorities. Within a year, Kiyemba was shackled and jailed at Guantanamo Bay where he would remain for the next four years.
According to his 2006 statements, Kiyemba was repeatedly tortured at Guantanamo, witnessed the torture of others, and underwent hours of interrogation every day under grueling conditions. In 2005, he was part of a hunger strike protesting the conditions at Guantanamo. He says he eventually confessed to terrorist activities as a result of the torture and threats by the military guards.
Kiyemba was ultimately released following a Department of Defense Administrative Review Board hearing in early 2006. The US had intended to return him to his country of residence, England, but he was denied entry there and he returned to Uganda in April 2006.
In 2005, as Jamal Kiyemba sat shackled in his cell at Guantanamo, uncertain of whether he would be imprisoned for another day or for the rest of his life, his lawyer filed a petition for habeas corpus challenging his detention as unlawful. The petition itself was only one among many filed on behalf of detainees at the military camp and in that context it is unimportant; Kiyemba was released pursuant to the 2006 ARB hearing and his legal standing evaporated. Because of some procedural detail of the American legal system, however, Jamal Kiyemba’s name remains in the headlines of the highly public legal battle that began as Kiyemba v. Bush and which sits now on the desks of the nine justices of the Supreme Court of the United States under its new name: Kiyemba v. Obama.
Part II: “New borders,” will look at the thirteen Chinese Uighur men who remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay and who carry on the Kiyemba legacy. With no viable options for deportation or repatriation, they await a US government separation-of-powers showdown that will determine their fate.
Jamal Kiyemba, biographical details and interviews:
- Allio, Emily. “Uganda frees Al qaeda suspect.” The New Vision (Uganda) 18 Apr. 2006: 1. 30 Oct. 2009. http://www.newvision.co.ug/D/8/12/493664.
- “Jamal Abdullah Kiyemba.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 7 Aug 2009, 10:32 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 30 Oct. 2009. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamal_Abdullah_Kiyemba.
- “How I ended up in Guantanamo.” Sunday Vision (Uganda) 2 Apr. 2006: SR. 30 Oct. 2009. http://www.sundayvision.co.ug/detail.php?mainNewsCategoryId=7&newsCategoryId=132&newsId=490641.
- Lewis, Jason. “I confessed to escape Guantanamo torture.” The Daily Mail 19 Feb. 2006. 30 Oct. 2009. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-377623/I-confessed-escape-Guantanamo-torture.html.
- Jamal Kiyemba’s Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus: Kiyemba et al v. Bush et al., Case # 1:05-cv-01509-RMU in the U.S. District Court of Washington, DC. 30 Oct. 2009. http://www.pegc.us/archive/Kiyemba/docket.txt.