Anyone paying close attention to the prison at Guantánamo Bay will know that its continued existence, nearly 17 years after it first opened, is largely down to the success of some wildly inaccurate claims that were made about it when its malevolent business first began — claims that it held “the worst of the worst” terrorists, who were all captured on the battlefield.
In fact, as my research, and that of other researchers has shown, very few of the 779 men held by the US military at Guantánamo since the prison opened on January 11, 2002 can realistically be described as having had any meaningful involvement with al-Qaeda or the Taliban; perhaps just 3 percent, and certainly less than 5 percent. No one was captured on the battlefield, and the majority were either foot soldiers for the Taliban in an inter-Muslim civil war that predated 9/11, or civilians swept up in ill-advised dragnets. Many, if not most of those who ended up at Guantánamo were sold to the US by their Afghan and Pakistani allies for bounty payments, which averaged $5,000 a head, a huge amount of money in that part of the world.
Just 40 men are still held at Guantánamo, after George W. Bush released 532 men, and Barack Obama released 196. Nine men died, one was transferred to the US, to face a trial in which he was successfully prosecuted, and one more was reluctantly released by Donald Trump, or, rather, was transferred back to Saudi Arabia for ongoing imprisonment, as part of a plea deal negotiated in his military commission trial proceedings in 2014.
Driven by his own racism, and by what appears to be his complete absorption of the false narrative about the prison holding “the worst of the worst,” Donald Trump, sadly, has no desire to release anyone from Guantánamo under any circumstances, and unfortunately the prison is such a fundamentally lawless place that, if the president doesn’t want to release them, there is no other mechanism by which they can be freed.
During the Obama presidency, when Barack Obama faced cynical resistance from the Republican Party to the release of prisoners, he set up a parole-type review process, the Periodic Review Boards, to assess whether prisoners could convincingly express contrition for their supposed crimes (regardless of whether or not they actually took place), and could also demonstrate a coherent plan for a peaceful post-Guantánamo existence.
That process, which involved senior officials from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, led to recommendations that 38 prisoners should be released (36 of whom were freed before Obama left office), while 26 others had their ongoing imprisonment approved (of the 40 men still held, nine others are facing trials, while five were approved for release under Obama, but were still held when he left the White House).
When Donald Trump took office, some of those advising him sought to have the PRB process shut down, but it is still in existence, although it is noticeable that not a single prisoner has been approved for release since Trump moved into the White House, and it is, unfortunately, impossible not to conclude that this is because the process has, essentially, been made toothless because of Trump’s publicly stated opposition to the notion of releasing anyone from Guantánamo under any circumstances.
I last wrote about the PRBs five months ago, when one of the 26 men still subjected to review by the PRBs has been waiting 16 months — since February 2017 — for the outcome of his latest review to be announced. Five months later, there has still been no decision, strengthening the conclusion reached by Wells Dixon of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights in June. Speaking to Jessica Schulberg of the Huffington Post, Dixon said that it was “unlikely that the PRB has failed to reach a consensus after 16 months of deliberating.” He speculated that the prisoner was “approved for transfer by the board,” but there ha[d] then been an objection, and the principals committee ha[d] not met to resolve that objection — or ha[d] met but ha[d] not resolved it.”
This would make sense, because, to anyone not blinded by a Trump-like blanket antipathy towards all the prisoners, the man in question, Omar al-Rammah (aka Zakaria al-Baidany), a Yemeni, does not pose a threat to the US, and never did.
Prisoners frozen out by the PRBs: Omar al-Rammah and Moath al-Alwi
Al-Rammah (ISN 1017) was seized in Georgia, in 2002, and, at the time of his previous PRB, in July 2016, I noted how “the US authorities admitted that they had no information establishing that he was anything more than a low-level facilitator working with Muslim freedom fighters in Chechnya.” However, although it was noted that he has been “moderately compliant” at Guantánamo, it was also noted that he “has refused to cooperate with US personnel and probably retains an extremist mindset.” Heartbreakingly, it was also noted that he has not been able to contact his family since his initial capture in April 2002, with his civilian attorney, Beth Jacob, explaining that his “last conversation with his mother was in 2002 from Georgia, when she told him to come home.”
It is on these grounds — of a suggestion that he might have “an extremist mindset” — that, it seems likely, someone reviewing al-Rammah’s case refused to approve his release, while others involved were prepared to let him go. Then again, it could have been because, as the military summary of evidence against him stated, he “has little formal education and has not articulated any plans or hopes for his life after release, suggesting that he lacks the social and vocational skills to support himself without comprehensive assistance,” a situation exacerbated by the fact that he has been unable to contact his family.
Unfortunately, al-Rammah seems to have been essentially forgotten, and his next opportunity to seek his release in person — via a video link from Guantánamo to a secure military facility on the US mainland — will be in 2020, as full reviews take place every three years.
Since I last wrote about the PRBs, another prisoner seems to have been left in limbo by the process — Moath al-Alwi (aka Muaz al-Alawi), another Yemeni, whose latest PRB was in March (see the submissions here by his attorney Beth Jacob and by his personal representative, assigned to him by the military).
A talented artist, who spent all his time minding his own business and making model ships from discarded materials until the military, cruelly, prevented him from doing so, al-Alwi (ISN 028) historically fought back against the authorities at Guantánamo though hunger strikes, but was generally regarded as “compliant” by the authorities. Moreover, it has never been suggested that he had any involvement with terrorism, having only ever been a foot soldier for the Taliban. As with al-Rammah, it seems reasonable to assume that, although some of those involved in the PRB process have recommended him for release, someone else has decided that he should still be held, and, as a result, al-Alwi is caught between decisions, and will be fundamentally forgotten about until, in his case, 2021, when his next full review takes place.
As the reviews page for the PRBs reveals, five other men have had full reviews, and had their requests to be released, turned down since my last article about the PRBs in June.
The military’s reasoning, unfortunately, for the most part reflects long-established opinions about the men in question, with, in some cases, it seems, little room for any kind of progress in the years to come.
Abd Al-Salam Al-Hilah
First up was Abd Al-Salam Al-Hilah (ISN 1463), whose case was reviewed on June 19. A well-known figure in Yemen, al-Hilah was a businessman, who also worked for the Yemeni government, until he was kidnapped in Egypt and flown to Guantánamo after being held and tortured in various CIA “black sites.”
For his PRB, his lawyer explained that he wants only to be reunited with his family, and also included statements attesting to his good character and his lack of religious extremism from various high-profile Yemeni government contacts. His lawyer ended up stating, “Abdul Salam lived openly. He was prosperous, had a family, thriving businesses, an influential public position as a leader of his tribe, and the prospect of a promising political career. He was moderately religious but not an extremist. Photographs of him taken before he was thrown into prison show a man in a business suit, with close-cropped hair and a short beard. He was ambitious for political and business success. He was proud of his position as head of his family and head of his tribe. He loved his country. The accusations against him make no sense.”
Nevertheless, on July 19, his request to have his release approved was turned down, with the board members claiming that his ongoing imprisonment remains necessary because of his “extensive and prolonged facilitation of extremist travel, to include for Al-Qaeda members.” The board also claimed that he “continues to refuse to acknowledge or accept responsibility for his actions, instead claiming that all of his activities were solely at the behest of the Yemeni Government,” and also claimed that “very little changed from [his] initial hearing with respect to how [he] participated in the PRB and the lack of reliable information presented regarding [his] future threat or any change in mindset”; in other words, a stalemate between how al-Hilah presents himself, and how the US authorities see him.
On July 24, Mohammed al-Qahtani (ISN 63), who was alleged to have been the intended 20th hijacker for the 9/11 attacks, and who is the only person whose torture was openly acknowledged by a high-ranking US official, had his latest PRB, at which his lawyers, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York, and Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights, appealed to the board to approve his release based on his severe mental health problems. As they noted, “Mohammed al-Qahtani was last before this Board for a full hearing in June 2016. That hearing was the first occasion for the outside world to learn that he suffered from schizophrenia, and that he had suffered from that condition for years before he found himself at Guantánamo.”
The revelations of al-Qahtani’s long-standing schizophrenia failed to impress the board in 2016, although in April this year his lawyers sought to persuade Judge Rosemary Collyer, of the District Court in Washington, D.C., to act on his behalf, as I explained in an article at the time, entitled, Lawyers for Guantánamo Torture Victim Mohammed Al-Qahtani Urge Court to Enable Mental Health Assessment and Possible Repatriation to Saudi Arabia.
Judge Collyer has not yet ruled on the submission, but his review board had no hesitation in approving his ongoing imprisonment on August 23, rather shamefully noting their “inability to assess [his] current mindset due to his continued refusal to respond to questions from the Board regarding his reasons for traveling to Afghanistan and ensuing activities,” and then suggesting that this “lack of information prevented the Board from understanding how and to what extent his psychiatric condition contributed to his decisions during that time,” instead of recognizing that his mental health problems might be the basis for his inability to explain himself.
Instead of accepting this fully, the board members recommended al-Qahtani to “continue to engage with the treating Guantánamo Bay mental health officials,” also commending him for his “recognition of his mental health diagnoses,” and encouraging him “to be more forthcoming with the Board in future reviews and to cooperate with mental health officials.”
Next up was Haroon al-Afghani (ISN 3148), aka Haroon Gul, whose case was reviewed on August 9. As I explained in an article in March, Trapped in Guantánamo: Haroon Gul, a Case of Mistaken Identity Silenced By Donald Trump, al-Afghani, one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo in 2007, who didn’t have any legal representation until 2016, when Shelby Sullivan-Bennis of Reprieve began to represent him, trying to persuade the authorities that “the bright-eyed, chatty young man” she met was a case of mistaken identity.
For his latest PRB, Sullivan-Bennis submitted a letter in which she stated, “I am proud to say that Haroon has used his decade in US custody as wisely as one could: he learns. You have seen multiple hundred-page business proposals ranging from a honey bee farm to a bakery; now Haroon has focused his attention and time on the worthy topic of the education system in Afghanistan. Haroon is fully capable of supporting himself post-release, with five languages and a keen sense of entrepreneurship under his belt; it goes without saying that Reprieve will be behind him every step of the way, making his transition easier, as we have for so many before him through our UN-funded Life after Guantánamo project. His family remains ready and available to assist him, in the unlikely event that he requires their support, as their statements make clear. Haroon is inarguably one of the most politically informed and socially liberal men in Guantánamo today and I see no indication that his behavior or statements over the last decade contradict that assertion. If this review is intended to be a true evaluation of the threat he poses today, as opposed to [a] forum for confession to all of the allegations that the government believes to be true, I see no reason that this hearing would not result in a positive determination.”
Unfortunately, on September 10, the board members approved al-Afghani’s ongoing imprisonment, essentially ignoring Sullivan-Bennis’s hopes by mentioning his alleged “long-term membership and leadership position in Hezb-e-lslami (HIG), extensive time spent fighting Coalition forces and prior associations with al Qaida,” and also mentioning “[c]ontinued questions regarding [his] current mindset and ideology as it relates to HIG, leaving the Board with concerns regarding his susceptibility to recruitment.” The only concession the board members made was to state that they “appreciate[d] [his] increased willingness to answer questions and encourage[d] [him] to be more forthright with the Board in future submissions and reviews regarding his role within HIG and al Qaida.”
Ismael Ali Faraj Ali Bakush
Next up was Ismael Ali Faraj Ali Bakush (ISN 708), aka Ismail al-Bakush, a Libyan whose review took place on August 21. Unfortunately, Bakush has refused to meet with his personal representative, and also refused legal representation until recently. He is now represented by Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, but she was unable to prepare a statement in time for the PRB.
Bakush himself refused to attend, and so the claims against him — that he “was a Libyan Islamic Fighter Group explosive expert, who trained al-Qa’ida members and probably provided operational support to key al-Qa’ida figures,” and who is also regarded as having “played a greater role in al-Qa’ida operations than he admits” — went unanswered, and on September 20 the board members duly approved his ongoing imprisonment, citing what they alleged to be his “long history of working with the LIFG and al-Qaeda and the fact that he played a significant role in al-Qaeda operations including his role as an explosives expert and trainer,” and his “refusal to engage with his personal representative or to appear and respond to questions from the Board,” which “prevent[ed] the Board from assessing his intentions for the future and whether he has had a change in mindset.”
The last of the men to have their ongoing imprisonment approved in the last five months is the Pakistani businessman Saifullah Paracha (ISN 1094), whose case was reviewed on September 25. Paracha was subsequently praised by former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi in an article that, at my request, he wrote especially for Close Guantánamo, entitled Saifullah Paracha: The Kind Father, Brother, and Friend for All at Guantánamo, which explained how be befriended and supported everyone he met at Guantánamo, including US guards and officials, and how he is universally admired. Nevertheless, Paracha, who was kidnapped and imprisoned in CIA “black sites” before being transferred to Guantánamo, and who was a successful businessman, is regarded by the US as having worked with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, even though he has always denied the allegations. In the PRBs, however, admitting guilt is essential as part of the act of contrition that is necessary to be approved for release, and so Paracha’s reviews end up going round in circles, despite, on this occasion, a powerful submission from Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who stated:
Mr. Paracha has endured the last 15-plus years in custody with what can only be described as interminable grace. In the government’s own declassified documents, he is described as one of the, if not the most peaceful of detainees, amassing fewer infractions since capture than there are detainees left in this prison.
Described by GTMO staff as “respectful,” and “polite,” he has made a name for himself as both the prison professor and its indefatigable uncle. He has spent his time, these late years ofhis life, teaching other men how to read, how to speak English, and how to start and run businesses of their own.
More declassified government reports provide support for the assertion that Mr. Paracha holds no extremist views, as he has not espoused a single one in all the years of his captivity.
As far back as thirty years ago, he chose to send all of his children to private Christian schools, eventually encouraging them to move to and be educated in the United States. Years before that, Mr. Paracha petitioned for multiple family members to immigrate to the U.S., where they remain today, each with their own vibrant family. And with the support that family and of Reprieve, if released, Mr. Paracha could quite easily live out the remainder of his years with his loved ones.
No one thinks that Mr. Paracha has “violent extremist” views or wishes for harm to befall America or its people; Mr. Paracha’s own nephew, [name redacted], stood literal feet from the Twin Towers as they fell, his marketing job having been just around the corner.
But all of this information is known and has been for years. What’s different today is that a middle-aged man has become an elderly one, and naturally, with the years of that transition comes increased internal reflection as his time to do so slips by.
It is not outrageous to consider that Mr. Paracha could die in this prison without ever seeing his family again. It is the reality of that sentence that commands the kind of deep analysis of a life lived that I know Mr. Paracha has been performing. I won’t attempt to speak for him, but he is prepared to do so himself today, and I ask only that you listen, keeping at the forefront of your mind the life he has lived these last 15 years.
Nevertheless, the board members again showed no desire to listen, approving his ongoing imprisonment by referring to his alleged “past involvement in terrorist activities including contact and activities with Usama Bin Laden, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, and other senior Al Qaeda members, facilitating financial transaction and travel, and developing media for Al-Qaeda,” and claiming that his “statements regarding his mindset and potential for reengagement are not credible in light of his continued minimization of his interactions with Al Qaeda. the change in justification for engaging with Al Qaeda, failure to exhibit any remorse for the actions he does acknowledge. and dishonesty in his responses to Board questions.”
Guled Hassan Duran
Just last week, another review took place, in the case of Guleed Hassan Ahmed (ISN 10023), a Somalian prisoner whose correct name is Guled Hassan Duran, although no decision has yet been taken, of course. In a press release, his lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights explained how he “has been detained in Guantánamo since 2006, and before that was held in secret CIA detention, where he was denied medical care for serious injuries in order to pressure him to cooperate.”
CCR also explained that he “was captured in 2004 while traveling to Sudan for surgery after being seriously injured by gunfire in a fight with gang members trying to steal his motorcycle,” and criticized his PRB hearing in 2016 as having been “grossly unfair,” because “he was not given adequate time to prepare for the hearing and appeared before the PRB without counsel.”
This time around, he refused to appear on the advice of his lawyers, because of an ongoing habeas corpus case in the District Court in Washington, D.C., in which his lawyers are arguing that his imprisonment “is not sanctioned under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) as informed by the laws of war because he was captured outside of the geographical scope of the government’s detention authority,” and because, “whatever the government’s initial justification for detaining Guled may have been in 2006, that justification has since unraveled.”
For further information, see this letter submitted for Duran’s PRB by his lawyers.
Forthcoming is a PRB for former CIA “black site” prisoner Sanad Ali Yislam Al Kazimi (ISN 1453), on December 4, and, if you want further information about the PRBs, you can also look at the PRBs’ file review page — and, of course, the PRB page on the Close Guantánamo website.
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