On October 27, it was announced that Abu Zubaydah, the supposed “high-value detainee” for whom the US’s post-9/11 torture program was initiated, had his ongoing imprisonment recommended by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process involving representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Zubaydah’s review took place on August 23 (as I reported here), and the decision was taken on September 22, but, for some reason, it was not made public for five weeks.
The PRBs began in November 2013, and have reviewed the cases of 64 men, who were previously recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the basis that they were allegedly “too dangerous to release” (41 of the 64) or for men initially recommended for trials, until the legitimacy of the military commission trial system was seriously shaken by a court ruling on October 2012, and by subsequent rulings (the remaining 23). To date, 62 decisions have been taken, with 34 men being approved for release, while 28 others have had their ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial upheld. For further information, see my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantánamo website.
In their Final Determination approving Abu Zubaydah’s ongoing imprisonment, the board members, having determined, by consensus, that “continued law of war detention of the detainee remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States,” described how they had “considered [his] past involvement in terrorist activities to include probably serving as one of Usama Bin Ladin’s [sic] most trusted facilitators and his admitted abilities as a long-term facilitator and fundraiser for extremist causes, regardless of his claim that he was not a formal member of al-Qa’ida.”
There’s a use of the word “probably” in that cumbersome sentence that ought to set alarms bells ringing about the truth of the board’s claims — and for good reason. Although Zubaydah, a Saudi-born Palestinian whose real name is Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn, was touted as a significant figure in al-Qaeda at the time of his capture, he was actually the facilitator for a training camp that was not aligned with al-Qaeda, and by 2010 the US government had officially walked back from its claims in a court submission that I wrote about at the time, in my article, Abu Zubaydah: Tortured for Nothing. For further background, also see my 2009 article, Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives.
The board members also “noted [Abu Zubaydah’s] responses to the Board which minimized his relationship with al-Qa’ida and contradicted statements he previously made, such as ‘We and the sheikh (Usama Bin Ladin) are one. We have been working together for almost 10 years, but we were hoping to keep this work secret … hidden. We were forced to make ourselves known because of what took place in Afghanistan and thereafter.’”
This quote comes from a video of an interview with Zubaydah, made by militants, probably after 9/11 and before his capture in March 2002, which, though conceivably true, should perhaps be more accurately regarded as an example of Zubaydah trying to make himself sound more important than he was.
The board members also “considered [Abu Zubaydah’s] susceptibility to recruitment by extremists due to his continued feeling of an obligation to defend and support oppressed Muslims,” and also noted that they “received no information regarding whether there are any potential receiving countries that could sufficiently mitigate his threat,” and that they “look[ed] forward to such information being presented to future reviews.”
I can’t help but find it disappointing that a “continued feeling of an obligation to defend and support oppressed Muslims” is regarded as sufficient reason for someone to continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial — especially as, at the time of his torture in 2002, another reason was given that strikes me as much more compelling from the US government’s point of view; namely, that CIA interrogators specifically sought “reasonable assurances” from their superiors that, if he survived his torture, he would “remain in isolation and incommunicado for the remainder of his life.”
More genuinely problematical is what would happen to Zubaydah if the US authorities ever decided to go against the CIA interrogators’ request and release him, because the Israeli government has never allowed Palestinians at Guantánamo to be repatriated, and Saudi Arabia, presumably, would not guarantee him fair treatment, meaning that a third country would have to be found that would be prepared to offer him a new home — something that his notoriety (as someone tainted by his torture, if nothing else) may well preclude.
That said, his lawyers have no expectations that he will ever be recommended for release. After the decision was announced, Brent Mickum, one of his attorneys, told Jason Leopold of Vice News, “We always expected that it would always come down exactly as it has. We never believed we had a chance.”
Like all the prisoners whose ongoing imprisonment has been approved by the Periodic Review Boards, Abu Zubaydah will be eligible for a file review in six months’ time. This is a purely administrative process, although his lawyers can submit new information if they think it will prove useful. After three years, he will be eligible for another full review, at which he will have another opportunity to make his case to the board members by video-conference, although a full review can take place sooner if the board members receive sufficiently persuasive information to convince them that it would be worthwhile.
Whether it is worthwhile or not, in the cases of “high-value detainees” like Abu Zubaydah, remains to be seen. It is certainly reassuring, for a sense of justice, that six men recommended for prosecution by the last review process seven years ago have ended up being recommended for release by the PRBs, but in the cases of the “high-value detainees” the door is still firmly shut, and it should be asked whether this is because of the dangers these men still pose, or because of an institutional refusal to consider releasing any of them under any circumstances.