Artistic and legal objects: Abu Zubaydah’s drawings depicting detention at Guantanamo

By Juliette Remond-Tiedrez 

Warning: this post contains sensitive drawings which some people may find disturbing.

What is art? Is Abu Zubaydah’s drawings of the torture methods used against him “art”?

As explained in an article published in the newspaper The New York Times on December 4, 2019, Abu Zubaydah is a Saudi national who was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 by the USA suspected of being an Al Qaeda member. He spent 4 years in the CIA secret prisons before being transferred to Guantanamo bay in 2006, where he is still being held today. Allegedly, he is the first person to have been subjected to the CIA’s torture interrogation programme. This programme was created by two CIA psychologists and approved by no one else then the USA President at the time, George W. Bush.

Last December, his lawyer Mark Denbeaux released a report entitled “How America Tortures”. In this report, Denbeaux points out that “Americans may find it difficult to acknowledge that top officials […] orchestrated and poorly oversaw a terrific torture programme”. He therefore suggests telling the American people, and anyone reading this report about the crimes committed by the CIA in Guantanamo, and hopefully to raise awareness. A series of Zubaydah’s drawings portraying the torture techniques he was subjected to are included in the report. They were first published in 2018, on Propublica.


Referring to my earlier question: are these torture drawings art?

For the Cambridge dictionary, yes. Art is defined as “painting, drawing, sculpture, etc.” As for the literal meaning, Abu Zubaydah’s are therefore art. The Guantanamo penitentiary administration and the USA military seem to disagree. Indeed, even if the Guantanamo prisons offer “art” classes to captives, students are not allowed to artistically represent their life at the Guantanamo bay. Detainees can only draw and paint still life or do Arabic calligraphy. In addition, detainees used to be able to send their art works, such as drawings, paintings or even small boat constructions, to their relatives. The penitentiary administration would inspect it to make sure there would be no secret messages, but if that wasn’t the case, the artworks would be shipped to the inmates’ family members. However, since 2017 the USA military has decided that art pieces made by the detainees were no longer considered to be their property. Due to this decision, Zubaydah’s lawyer released his client’s drawings as “’legal material” rather than art, making the publication of those sketches possible.

As to whether Abu Zubaydah’s drawings are called “legal materials” or “art”, there is, in my opinion, no doubt his sketches are actual art. Granted, they are dark, depressing and terrifying pieces, but art nevertheless and consider Zubaydah to be quite gifted. Take for example the image below in which he represents one of the torture techniques: walling. As one can see in the drawing thanks to the red lines, walling is to bang the detainee’s head on the wall several times a day. No details are speared as the artist shows his scars on his left thigh, on his skull and on his chest, shows the suffering (his eyes are closed and his mouth seems to be screaming in pain), the nudity and the shackles which seem very uncomfortable as they oblige him to always have his hands stretched in front of his body.

Another example is the waterboarding drawing in which we can feel the pain of the inmate and learn a lot about the actual waterboarding technique. Indeed, the way Zubaydah portrays his right foot, right hand and head as shaking because of the pain and the blood coming out of his left leg makes the viewer feel actual chills when closely looking at the drawing. In addition, the terrible sketch shows us how the board would be lowered at the head’s level so that it would be closer to the ground than the rest of the body. This is done to make sure the water doesn’t actually go in the victim’s airways but still imitates the sensation of drowning.

Beyond theoretical considerations concerning the nature of Zubaydah’s drawings, they show an underlying story about torture techniques being used by the CIA in Guantanamo bay.

Recently, an American military commission investigating the role of five persons accused of having participated in the 9/11 terror attack heard the testimonies of the two psychologistswho had been in charged of designed the torture programme. The pre-trial however, revolves around 9/11 rather than Guantanamo or CIA black sites. The torture suffered by Abu Zubaydah and other inmates has therefore not been punished yet, and it seems important to continue raising awareness about those inhumane methods.



Children’s Drawings of the Genocide Against the Tutsi

By Juliette Remond-Tiedrez

Warning: this post contains sensitive photographs which some people may find disturbing.  

The Shoah Memorial in Paris is hosting, from the 4th of April to the 17th of November, a commemorative exhibition of the genocide against the Tutsi, 25 years after it happened (as a small reminder, from April to mid-July 1994, almost a million ethnic Tutsi were massacred in Rwanda). I decided to go there. I misread the exhibit’s poster and thought that there was also a memorial for the Tutsi victims in addition to the memorial for the victims of the Holocaust. It turned out to be an exhibition only, but an instructive one.

As an international criminal law student, I am quite familiar with this, sadly famous, genocide and I was therefore expecting the exhibition to be emotionally heavy but even so, it hit me harder than expected.

The commemoration is called “the genocide through the eyes of the child”. The organiser of the commemoration decided to exhibit the children’s drawings and stories. The first thing that really impacted me in this exhibition was the harshness and the violence in the children’s drawings. In the below drawing, by a 14 year old, one can clearly distinguish the blood drawn in red, as compared to the rest of the drawing which is black. The people being stabbed, people’s legs being cut, are visible to point out. 

The notes made by the boy are even harder as they frankly explain what he experienced,  This is what happened to be during my teenage years in 1994 (up right); Here the interahamwe (a Hutu paramilitary organisation) cut my arm (center); This one is a military man from Habyarimana (down right)”

As Creating Rights had already been working on this subject (see for example Zérane Girardeau’s project Déflagrations) I had already seen children’s drawings and had already been shocked by the cruelty displayed in them. However, at the exhibition it felt different because there were a few people with me, reading the same stories, examining the same drawings. Some would sigh as they were confronted with the harshness of the testimonies. I have to say that when I arrived, I was quite in a good mood, but after reading only one story I directly felt touched and immersed in the terrible events that happened 25 years ago in Rwanda.

The second thing that impacted me was that the organiser did not only focus on the genocide itself but also on its consequences. This was, I think, very clever because, as it is a commemoration, 25 years after the events occurred, it is also interesting to examine what happened to the victims after the massacre. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the situation did not improve. A victim even said, “life after the genocide was like a second genocide for the survivors and a third genocide for the orphans”. The exhibition gives the examples of women who, after being raped, eventually died of AIDS, half of the survivors who did not have a house; orphans who couldn’t go to orphanages because they were too crowded and who had troubles at school. A young girl testifies “people would say that survivor children were the stupid ones, but I would say we were intelligent because studying with all the problems that we have and manage to have the grades that we had, was a great sign of bravery”.

The interahamwe came. They killed my neighbours and burned the house. I hid in a sorghum field.”


ASEAN Youth Competition on Arts and Human Rights

The Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations organizes a Youth Competition on Arts and Human Rights. The aim is to raise awareness about human rights and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) adopted in November 2012 among its youth.

Young nationals (between the ages of 18 and 25) of the ten ASEAN Members States can submit their drawings and a short narrative explaining the human rights values depicted in their artworks to the national Designated Office in their country of residence before Friday 30 May 2014. The winners of the two rounds (national and regional) will receive a cash prize.

For more information on the competition and the application procedure, visit the website of the AHRD here.