US Crimes Against Humanity


How can the US preach the world while it is torturing the innocent?

‘The forever prisoner’: Abu Zubaydah’s drawings expose the US’s depraved torture policy

Exclusive: For 21 years, the detainee has been in US custody without charge, tortured and sexually humiliated, with no prospect for release

Warning: the images and descriptions of torture in this article are extremely graphic

Ed Pilkington in New York

@edpilkingtonThu 11 May 2023 11.00 BSTLast modified on Thu 11 May 2023 13.30 BST

A detainee held in the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay who was used as a human guinea pig in the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program has produced the most comprehensive and detailed account yet seen of the brutal techniques to which he was subjected.

Abu Zubaydah has created a series of 40 drawings that chronicle the torture he endured in a number of CIA dark sites between 2002 and 2006 and at Guantánamo Bay. In the absence of a full official accounting of the torture program, which the CIA and the FBI have labored for years to keep secret, the images give a unique and searing insight into a grisly period in US history.

The drawings, which Zubaydah has annotated with his own words, depict gruesome acts of violence, sexual and religious humiliation, and prolonged psychological terror committed against him and other detainees. They were sketched from memory in his Guantánamo cell and sent to one of his lawyers, Prof Mark Denbeaux.

Together with his students at the Center for Policy and Research at Seton Hall University law school, Denbeaux compiled Zubaydah’s images and words into a new report. The Guardian is posting the report, American Torturers: FBI and CIA Abuses at Dark Sites and Guantánamo, for the first time along with a set of never-before-seen sketches.

“Abu Zubaydah is the poster child for America’s torture program,” Denbeaux said. “He was the first person to be tortured, having been approved by the Department of Justice based on facts that the CIA knew to be false. His drawings are the ultimate repudiation of the failure and abuses of torture.”

Drawing of a man tied to a chair with technicians inserting a tube into his nose in order to force-feed him.

Illustration: Courtesy Abu Zubaydah original document

The new report comes at a critical moment for Zubaydah, who is being held in Guantánamo under Kafkaesque terms. He is known as a “forever prisoner”, because he has neither been charged with a crime nor offered any prospect of release.

Last week a UN body called for him to be set free immediately, finding that his ongoing detention may be a crime against humanity. The detainee’s international legal representative, Helen Duffy, said that the judgment of the UN working group on arbitrary detention chimed with Zubaydah’s visual account of his torture.

“The drawings are a powerful depiction of what happened to him, and are remarkable given that he has not been able to communicate directly with the outside world,” she said.

Denbeaux added that the combination of the UN’s intervention and the new drawings provided a glimmer of hope that Zubaydah’s legal quandary would be addressed. “The only thing that’s ever kept him incarcerated has been silence and darkness, and now sunlight is shining on this forever prisoner,” Denbeaux said.

Zubaydah’s sketches provide a unique visual record of the US government’s use of torture in the wake of 9/11. Videotapes of Zubaydah being tortured were filmed by the CIA but then destroyed in violation of a court order, while a 6,700-page torture report by the Senate intelligence committee remains secret almost a decade after it was completed.

Though the full Senate report has never been made public, its conclusion is known: that the abuse of Zubaydah and other detainees failed to elicit any new intelligence. In other words, torture does not work.

Zubaydah, 52, was captured in Pakistan in March 2002 and renditioned to several CIA dark sites in Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere. He was the first victim of what was to become the widespread use of torture by the US against terror suspects.

He was transferred to Guantánamo in 2006, where he has been held ever since.

The US initially claimed he was a top al-Qaida operative but was forced to concede he was not even a member of the terror group. “Everybody agrees, they tortured the wrong guy; they went ahead anyway so they could get permission to torture other people,” Denbeaux said.

Zubaydah’s depictions are so accurately rendered that the Seton Hall team has redacted the faces of the CIA and FBI agents to protect their identities. They reveal the extent to which the US government violated international laws and even its own guidelines on what it euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

Among the images the Guardian is publishing for the first time is one showing masked agents physically threatening Zubaydah with anal rape. The detainee also reconstructs the extremely violent technique used against him known as “walling”.

In another image, Zubaydah draws himself chained in the nude in front of a female interrogator. A further drawing shows guards threatening to desecrate the Qur’an – techniques which were never officially approved by the justice department.

“Sexual assault was never approved, nudity was never approved, humiliation by having women present was never approved, and nor was subjecting someone to prolonged torture to the point of exhaustion or worse,” Denbeaux said. In his account, Zubaydah calls the prolonged use of multiple torture techniques “the Vortex”.

Zubaydah was subjected to simulated drowning, or waterboarding, 83 times. The detainee records different variations of the technique, including one in which he was placed in a coffin-sized box that was then filled with water up to his nose.

He remained “terrified of drowning all day”, he writes.

Zubaydah’s annotations, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity, describe the abuses that Zubaydah suffered personally as the first victim of the American torture program. But Denbeaux said his client had produced the material in order to highlight not just his own suffering but also that of the many others subjected to the same techniques.

According to a 2014 summary of the Senate report, at least 119 individuals were victimized under the program.


Drawing of a prisoner being tortured.

Zubaydah: Sometimes they would use a towel wrapped with duct tape which they place around the prisoner’s neck and they hit him against the cement or the timber wall. They would suddenly enter the prisoner’s cell and start to hit him against the wall without any towel or even gloves and they deliberately hit him strongly on the back of his head and back many times and continue for a long time until he passes out. Then they awake him with cold water and continue the beating even if he does not pass out, they will start to slap his face while they were asking him questions and verbally cursing him with obscene language and continue to beat him strongly on his head, back and buttocks until he collapses on the ground.


Drawing of a prisoner being locked into a coffin-like box which is then filled with water.

Zubaydah: Waterboarding is not only using a water and a board. In this type they put him in a wooden coffin for a long time, until he urinates on himself. His hands are behind his back, or he’s restrained in front. If he was restrained from the front, he will stay like this for days. They leave him drowned in his waste.

If it was behind his back … they converse with him from a small hatch on the top of the coffin, asking him things that as soon as he denies or swears that he doesn’t know it, another person starts strongly pouring very cold water from another small hatch. Because the coffin is made of wood the water would leak, but slowly.

During this time the investigator asks him and threatens him, then leaves him, until the water reaches his nose, mouth, and then he starts to move strongly with distress, coughing [to stop] drowning. Then, the investigator will come over again and the other person stops pouring water. The water will leak from the box, but the cycle is repeated, and he’ll stay terrified of drowning all day.

The Vortex

Drawing of a prisoner with arms and legs shackled to the ceiling and the floor being tortured with water, loud music and a scorpion

Zubaydah: This drawing shows the Vortex – the vortex of conciseness, pain, stress, hunger and cold where they place the detainee in 24 hours a day of intense torture, which continues for long weeks or months … They use a specific torture method, in this case hitting with a stick in very cold weather, so the pain will be doubled, and they focus on hitting till the prisoner almost passes out, or even passes out for real. They wake him up roughly, then they start focusing on another torture method for an hour … Then, the next hour they use a third method and so on until they finish all their methods. Then they start again with the first method for a second time, third time, and so on, for the whole day and for the whole torture duration, as long as it takes.

Female interrogator

Drawing of a naked prisoner being tortured in a chair in front of a female interrogator.

Zubaydah: I am sitting on the chair for continuous long weeks, and I am completely naked. Very hungry. I feel frozen from the very cold weather. I almost get hallucinations because of the psychological nerves and body pressure … In addition to the sleep deprivation I feel that I’m really hallucinating. And then a woman immediately came in wearing very light clothing (like it was summer). She sat next to me and there were two men wearing very thick clothes (suitable for the north pole) … !! I didn’t move at all, not even to cover my genitals as it should be following the courtesy and religious beliefs, because really in the beginning I thought I was hallucinating. But when they talked to me … I covered my genitalia completely. I shouted to them: “At least give me something to cover my genitalia in front of that female … Don’t you feel ashamed of yourselves?” They only gave me a bucket of very cold water. And they poured it over my head. I couldn’t speak for a period of time due to the severe shivering in my mouth and lips, and all over my body. She stayed sitting, looking and staring, waiting for me to answer her first question. She was waiting a half hour without any answers, then she left and she was shaking with coldness and anger.

Threatening with rape

Drawing of a prisoner surrounded by guards threatening to sodomize him.

Zubaydah: This drawing shows threatening the detainee with rape … They used to drop the prisoner on the ground, and hold him in a way as if actually someone will sodomize him, and they start using dirty sexual words describing the beauty, size or softness of his behind. Then they start the disgrace, using their hands or some sticks in the sensitive areas around the anus. Wherever the detainee resists, the other guards would place him back in the proper way to do sodomy … They used to say loudly, “We will put this big stick or a bigger one in your anus to perforate it” … You can picture the feelings the prisoner suffers, such as fear, pain and embarrassment.

Threat to desecrate the Qur’an

Drawing of a guard yelling at a prisoner in a chair and threatening to desecrate the Qur’an.

Zubaydah: I think the dialogue/comment inside the drawing is enough.

Threats with a power drill

Drawing of a guard threatening a prisoner with a drill.

Zubaydah: I was hearing the sound of the power drill moving very powerfully and violently, and no other sound could cover it up … They were opening the door of my cell (which I stay locked behind 24 hours a day) only when the interrogators/torturers entered. They opened the “cell” door of the person that they will torture with the power drill, so I could hear the drill and the shouting, begging and crying in horror of the brother who is receiving the torture. When they turned off the power drill after several hours, I could hear the tortured brother still shouting, begging and crying, then I hear the person who is doing the torture shouting and threatening that he will drill the tool into the head and/or foot, and/or rear end, and/or stomach of the brother who is exposed to torture …

Did they drill the brother’s head?!! Did they drill his stomach or his foot or his rear end?!! Using the power drill?!! All these questions kept going through my mind for days and months until another day when they come back and use the same method: threat with power drill. The same sounds of horror come back, and craziness sounds come back to my head with new questions: is he the same brother?!! Didn’t he die? Didn’t they kill him? Or this is another brother different than the first one? Who is the second one? And who will be the third one? Will it be me?


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