Saudi Engineer Ghassan Al-Sharbi Released From Guantánamo – OpEd
Good news from Guantánamo: Ghassan Al-Sharbi, a Saudi prisoner held for nearly 21 years, has been repatriated. 48 years old, he was just 28 when he arrived at the prison on June 19, 2002.
Al-Sharbi was seized on March 28, 2002, during a number of house raids in Faisalabad, Pakistan, which also led to the capture of Abu Zubaydah, for whom the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was first developed, in the mistaken — one might even, more appropriately, say deluded — belief that he was a high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda.
Al-Sharbi’s classified military file, released by WikiLeaks in 2011, suggests that he was seized in a guesthouse known as the Aldafa guesthouse, which analysts alleged to be “one of two guesthouses that was ran [sic] by Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad,” although Al-Sharbi stated that a man named Ahmed “was in charge of the day-to-day operations of the house, not Abu Zubaydah as is sometimes reported.”
Held in Pakistan after his capture, Al-Sharbi was eventually transferred to Bagram, the US’s main prison in Afghanistan, where he was recalled in “The Interrogators,” a memoir written by a former interrogator, using the pseudonym Chris Mackey, with the journalist Greg Miller. When the interrogators discovered that he “spoke flawless English, with barely the trace an accent,” and that he had attended high school in the US, and had then studied aeronautical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona for two years, from 1998 to 2000, they thought he might be “a major catch,” in particular because some the 9/11 hijackers had enrolled in flight programs elsewhere in Arizona.
Al-Sharbi, however, was uncooperative. Mackey described him as “dismissive and aloof,” with “the manner of someone with city hall connections waiting for the new cops on the beat to realize the magnitude of their mistake in detaining him,” and although he attracted the attention of the military and the intelligence services higher up the chain of command, Mackey was unable to “break” him, . His parting words, before he left for Guantánamo were, apparently, that, “after a while the truth would blur for him,” and “he would say whatever we wanted to hear just to have the solitude that would come from the end of our questioning.”
On arrival at Guantánamo, Al-Sharbi assumed a significant role within the prison population, in part, no doubt, because of his attitude, but also because of his fluency in English. In the summer of 2005, as the prison was rocked by huge and persistent hunger strikes, he was one of six men allowed by the authorities to form a Prisoners’ Council, which sought to implement Geneva Convention rights for the prisoners.
Although the Council was swiftly shut down by those higher up the chain of command, Col. Mike Bumgarner, the warden of the prison, who had played a major role in setting it up, turned on one of its members, the British resident Shaker Aamer, moving him to total isolation in Camp Echo, but “developed a rapport” with Al-Sharbi, as Tim Golden explained in an article for the New York Times in 2006, adding that Al-Sharbi “was described by people who know him as an intelligent, almost ethereal man from a wealthy Saudi family.” Bumgarner told Golden that “he found Al-Sharbi a useful interlocutor and met with him repeatedly,” whereas, after August 2005, “he never spoke with Aamer again.”
Charged in the military commissions
Away from the politics of the prison’s operations, Al-Sharbi, who also established himself as a persistent hunger striker, continued to be of interest to prosecutors in the military commission trial system, not through anything he himself offered to interrogators, but because, it seems, in a CIA “black site,” Abu Zubaydah, subjected to torture, had identified him and two other men seized the Faisalabad raids — Jabran Al-Qahtani, another Saudi, and Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian — as being part of a cell making IEDs (improvised explosive devices) for use against Coalition forces.
The three men were charged in November 2005, and, when a pre-trial hearing was held in April 2006, Al-Sharbi, who had insisted on representing himself, delighted the authorities by telling the judge, “I came here to tell you I did what I did and I’m willing to pay the price,” adding, “Even if I spend hundreds of years in jail, that would be a matter of honor to me,” and “I fought the United States, I’m going to make it short and easy for you guys: I’m proud of what I did.”
Was Al-Sharbi telling the truth? The authorities certainly thought so, but I have always suspected that it was nothing more than provocative (and, actually, self-defeating) bravado, stemming perhaps from a desire to be noticed, or, perhaps, as Chris Mackey had observed, because he saw it as the best way of being left alone, and not being dragged out of his call for relentless interrogations at all times of the day or night.
Whatever the case, the authorities’ sense of triumph was short-lived. Just two month later, the Supreme Court, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, struck down the military commissions as unconstitutional, violating the rules of the Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The commissions were subsequently — and ill-advisedly — revived by Congress, and in May 2008 Al-Sharbi, Al-Qahtani and Barhoumi were again charged, although the charges were subsequently dropped, after Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, a military commission prosecutor, resigned and went public with his complaints that, in one of his cases, that of a young Afghan, Mohamed Jawad, prosecutors had been hiding potentially exculpatory evidence from the defense team.
Vandeveld was also a prosecutor in the cases of Al-Sharbi, Al-Qahtani and Barhoumi (and two other men, Noor Uthman Muhammed and the British resident Binyam Mohamed),and in all these cases the authorities evidently feared that, unless they dropped the charges, Vandeveld’s allegations of a toxic, broken system would also spread to these other cases, undermining them too like an inconvenient virus of truth.
Absurdly, Al-Sharbi, Al-Qahtani and Barhoumi were charged again in the dying moments of Bush’s presidency, although those charges were not subsequently revived, when, ill-advisedly yet again, the Obama administration brought the commissions back from the dead for a second time.
In the meantime, Al-Sharbi continued to be obstructive. When his father initiated a habeas corpus petition on his behalf, he requested that it be dismissed when it came before the District Court in March 2009. His fate was now in the hands of the Guantánamo Review Task Force, a high-level review process established by President Obama, when he took office, to review the cases of the 240 men inherited from George W. Bush.
After a year of deliberations, the task force issued its report in January 2010, recommending that 156 of the men should be freed, 36 should be prosecuted, and 48, alarmingly, should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial, because they were considered “too dangerous to release,” even though the board members also acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.
Yet again, Al-Sharbi was recommended for prosecution, but over the next few years the viability and legality of the commissions was rocked yet again, this time as appeals court judges struck down some of the few successful prosecutions secured in the troubled trial system, on the basis that they involved war crimes (providing material support for terrorism, for example) that were not real war crimes but had, shamefully, been invented as such by Congress.
The Periodic Review Boards
As a new review process, the Periodic Review Boards, was established for the 48 men who the task force had regarded as “too dangerous to release,” almost two-thirds of those recommended for prosecution were quietly shunted into this new system instead, a kind of parole-type system, which, in November 2013, began reviewing the cases of 64 men, including Al-Sharbi.
Still uncooperative, Al-Sharbi (by now identified by the US authorities as Abdullah Al-Sharbi) continued his resistance by refusing to engage with the PRB process when his first hearing took place in June 2016, “guaranteeing,” as I later explained, “that the board members would approve his ongoing imprisonment.” As I added, “Under Donald Trump, he again refused to engage with his second PRB hearing, although by that point non-compliance was routine amongst the prisoners, who had correctly concluded that, under Trump, the entire process had become a sham.”
In December 2021, however, Al-Sharbi finally agreed to take part in his third PRB. As I explained, “His Personal Representative (a military official assigned to represent prisoners in their PRBs) noted that he “was adamant about being present for this important opportunity,” and also noted that, over the long years of his imprisonment — when, for many years, he was a persistent hunger striker — his health has “deteriorated, making it difficult for him to move and painful to travel for meetings and phone calls.” However, in the last year he “has started working with the medical staff at the Camp in an effort to improve his mobility and overall health.”
As the Personal Representative also noted, Al-Sharbi “worked through the pain to attend our first meeting,” even though “the physical discomfort he was in was in was evident,” adding, “I have been impressed over the last few months seeing the great effort he made to attend all the meetings I scheduled to prepare for this board.”
Al-Sharbi had also agreed to be represented by a federal public defender in New York, Sabrina P. Shroff, and had been working with her on a revived habeas corpus case for a year before his PRB hearing. Shroff told the board members in a submission that Al-Sharbi “did not pose a threat to the national security of the United States,” as the New York Timesdescribed it, and stated, “He has no animus. [He] has frequently said that he has to look forward and the best way to look forward is with clear eyes, and an open and pure heart.”
Shroff also stated that she was “so confident of his goodness” that she would “welcome him in my home,” and gave him her address in New York City, although cynical, fearmongering provisions inserted by Republicans every year into the annual National Defense Authorization Act prohibit any Guantánamo prisoner from setting foot on the US mainland for any reason.
Al-Sharbi’s own statements were not made publicly available, but in their “Final Determination,” on February 4 last year, the board members clearly concluded that his cooperation justified approving him for release. They noted his “lack of leadership or facilitator position in al-Qaeda or the Taliban” and “the efficacy of rehabilitation programs and measures they can take to mitigate any future threat,” as well as his “improved record of compliance in detention,” his “engagement in the PRB process to include attending all meetings set by the Personal Representative,” and his “engagement with medical staff to improve his physical and mental health issues.” They also recommended “[i]mplementation of [a] comprehensive set of security measures including monitoring, travel restrictions and continued information sharing.”
Rather shamefully, it took another 397 days for Al-Sharbi to be released, although the delay was partly explained in a Pentagon press release, which noted that, “On September 21, 2022, Secretary of Defense Austin notified Congress of his intent to repatriate Ghassan Al Sharbi to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” — because all releases from Guantánamo also require, as a result of Republican interference, that Congress be given 30 days’ notification before any release is undertaken.
The Pentagon added that, “in consultation with our partners in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we completed the requirements for responsible transfer,” adding, “The United States appreciates the willingness of the Kingdom of Saudi of Arabia, and other partners to support ongoing US efforts toward a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing the Guantánamo Bay facility.”
There are now just 31 men still held at Guantánamo, although 17 of these men, like Ghassan Al-Sharbi, have also been approved for release, and most have been waiting for far longer than him to finally be freed — between 436 days and 831 days in the cases of ten of these men, and, disgracefully, 4,793 days in the cases of three others.
Although the Biden administration must be congratulated for having released four men in the last five weeks, senior officials, up to and including President Biden and the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, urgently need to step up their efforts to free the rest of these men, most of whom, unlike Al-Sharbi, cannot be repatriated (again, because of Republican bans, this time on repatriating Guantánamo prisoners to certain countries, including Yemen), and must be resettled in third countries.
For now, however, we should all take a moment to celebrate the release of another prisoner who has finally managed to escape the multi-layered, institutionally over-cautious and largely dysfunctional bureaucracy that conspired to hold him for over 20 years without managing to find a reliable basis on which to prosecute him, but which also proved extremely reluctant to recognize that, without a case against him, he should be freed.
I’d like to leave the last words to former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi, and to Lorraine Barlett, a former military defense attorney who represented him in those long gone days when he was charged in the military commissions.
Adayfi described Al-Sharbi as “a quiet person, well-educated and well-mannered,” adding that he “taught the prisoners English,” and was always translating for them in any dealings with the camp administration, with the guards and with the medical staff, and also noting that he was one of the prisoners most subjected to force-feeding, having been consistently on a hunger strike from 2005. Mansoor didn’t know when his hunger strike ended, because, he said, “even when I left Guantánamo he was still on force-feeding, and I don’t know if he ever stopped.”
Lorraine Barlett wrote, “I am so very thankful and happy for him,” adding, “My heartfelt wish is that he knows how hard I tried but was thwarted at every turn. I would love to meet him someday to tell him how I prayed for this day — that he would survive to see it. I wholly denounce the system that kept him and others imprisoned for years.”
She added, “I wrote him so many times and never knew if he received my letters. I have had no contact with him for over ten years, but I wish him the best and hope somehow he can rebuild his life and find peace.”