On July 10, the Pentagon announced that Fayiz Ahmad Yahia Suleiman (ISN 153), a 41-year old Yemeni who arrived at the prison in its first week of operations, on January 17, 2002 and was approved for release from Guantánamo six and a half years ago, had finally been freed, and given a new home in Italy. Two prisoners, both Tunisians, were previously transferred to Italy, in 2009, where they were briefly imprisoned before returning to Tunisia during the optimistic early days of the Arab Spring.
Suleiman — who, it should be stressed, will be a free man in Italy — was approved for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009, and that issued its final report in January 2010. He is the last Yemeni out of 126 men approved for release by the task force to be freed.
In addition, eleven Yemenis are left out of 30 approved for release by the task force but then placed in a sub-category of “conditional detention” — conditional on a perceived improvement in the security situation in Yemen. No indication was given as to how this would be decided, but what happened instead was that the entire US establishment agreed not to repatriate any Yemenis, and so the “conditional detention” group languished until the Obama administration began finding countries that would offer new homes to them, a process that only began last November and that, with Suleiman’s release, has led to 19 men being given new homes — in the UAE, Ghana, Oman, Montenegro and Saudi Arabia.
At the time of Suleiman’s release, three other men, from other countries, were still awaiting release based on the task force’s recommendations, and today, July 11, the Pentagon announced that one of the three — Muhammadi Davliatov, the last Tajik in the prison, who had been known in Guantánamo as Umar Abdulayev — had also also been freed, sent to start a new life in Serbia.
A second man was also sent to Serbia — Mansoor al-Zahari (aka Mansur Ahmad Saad al-Dayfi), a Yemeni who had been recommended for release last October by another review process, the Periodic Review Boards. This process was established in 2013 to review the cases of all the remaining prisoners not already approved for release or facing trials (with just ten men being in this latter category), and 26 men have so far been recommended for release by the PRBs. Al-Zahari is the eleventh to be freed.
The story of Fayiz Suleiman
When I undertook preliminary research into the Guantánamo prisoners in 2006-07, I found little in the documentation released by the Pentagon as a result of FOIA lawsuits that provided much information about Fayiz Suleiman.
In an article in September 2010, I stated the following:
According to a summary of evidence at Guantánamo, Suleiman “identified himself as a trained imam in Jeddah,” and stated that various sheikhs “would frequent his facility to solicit money for other countries and to address jihad.” He added that the majority of the sheikhs’ talks “focused on Chechnya.” Although he was accused by unknown sources of training to make poisons at Kandahar airport and of being in Tora Bora, he maintained that “he had no military service and he had no desire to serve in such a capacity,” stated that he was “never trained on the use of weapons,” and “denied any connection with al-Qaeda or the Taliban.”
When WikiLeaks released classified military files on the prisoners in 2011, Suleiman emerged as, probably, a low-level Taliban foot soldier, although his file was thin. He was apparently seized crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and had been escorted to the border by a relative of an Afghan who had extended hospitality to him in Kabul. It was noted that he “was arrested by Pakistani police shortly after he crossed the border,” and that then “[t]he police took him with a group of five other Arabs to the prison at Kohat, PK where they remained for approximately two weeks,” before being transferred to Kandahar and then Guantánamo. Unusually, no reason was given for his transfer to Guantánamo, suggesting that cursory interrogation in US custody in Afghanistan had yielded nothing that suggested he was of any significance whatsoever.
A claim that he was in Tora Bora, the site of a showdown between Al-Qaeda and Afghan ground troops working with the US, and that he met Osama bin Laden there, was made by Guantánamo’s most unreliable informant, Yasim Basardah, who also made an implausible claim that he “was trained to make poisons at the Kandahar Airport,” and that he told him “he could make a toxin from rotting meat that would poison people,” but that he, Basardah, “was not allowed to look at detainee’s notebook to see how that was done.”
In the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg reported that Suleiman had never seen an attorney during his 14 years of detention, according to one of his lawyers of record, Jon Sands, an Arizona federal public defender. Sands explained, however, that “Suleiman recently asked to meet,” and that he had been “making plans to travel to the base to see him in August.” He added that he “did not believe Suleiman had any family ties in Italy,” but stated that it was “a good place for anyone. It’s a good place for him, and we hope he can find some peace after his detention at Guantánamo.”
He also said, “It’s better than many other locations, and maybe it’s part of the G-exit strategy” — a reference to President Obama’s ongoing efforts to close Guantánamo before he leaves office.
The story of Muhammadi Davliatov
The second man to be released, Muhammadi Davliatov (ISN 257), is 37 years old and was the last Tajik in Guantánamo, where he was known as Umar Abdulayev.
As I explained in an article in July 2009, Davliatov’s own account of his life and how he had ended up in US custody was included in a court submission for his habeas corpus hearing back in June 2009, in which he explained that “he fled the civil war in Tajikistan with his family in 1992, when he was 13 years old.” He also said that “they lived in northern Afghanistan with other Tajik refugees, and added that, in 1994, his father was shot and killed on the Tajik-Afghan border, while attempting to ‘investigate the situation’ in Tajikistan, having heard ‘pleas on the radio from the Tajik government, urging Tajik refugees to return home.’”
I also wrote:
For the next seven years, the rest of the family remained in Afghanistan, “relying upon aid from international refugee organizations,” but in early 2001, his mother took the whole family — Abdulayev and his two younger sisters and two younger brothers — to Pakistan, “in order to escape the escalating violence and unrest in Afghanistan.” They lived in “a government-sponsored refugee camp named Camp Babu,” near Peshawar, which “comprised mostly of families, and was principally for Afghan refugees.”
It was here, on November 25, 2001, that Abdulayev was seized by Pakistani police and handed over to Pakistani intelligence officials. In a gut-wrenching statement, Abdulayev said, “I never saw my family again, and to this day, I have not heard from them or been able to contact them.”
He also explained that he had been forced to copy “specific passages about weapons and explosives from books that the intelligence officials gave to me,” and said that, after about a month, he was told that he would be returned to his mother, but was taken instead to Kohat jail. From there he was flown, with 25 to 30 other men, to the US prison at Kandahar airport, where his ordeal in American custody began, and he was flown to Guantánamo in early February 2002.
At the time, Justice Department lawyers responded to Davliatov’s account by telling the judge looking at his habeas petition, Judge Reggie Walton, that they would “no longer defend his detention,” and that they wanted US diplomats “to arrange to repatriate him.”
There were two problems with this decision: firstly, it failed to allow Davliatov to have an opportunity to clear his name; and secondly, it indicated that the US was prepared to repatriate him, even though some of the eleven Tajiks previously repatriated from Guantánamo had been treated appallingly, and Davliatov had no desire to return home. In court filings, as Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald explained, Abdulayev stated that he was visited at Guantánamo by Tajik intelligence agents who made him “a sinister offer: Spy on Muslim radicals in the former Soviet Republic in exchange for his release.” When he refused, he said, “the agents threatened retribution.”
Back in July 2009, one of his lawyers, Matthew O’Hara, explained, “he’s told us he’d rather stay another seven years in Guantánamo than go back to Tajikistan.” Ironically, it is now almost exactly seven years to the day since that comment, and Davliatov has only just been freed.
Explaining what has happened in the last seven years, his lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights stated, in a press release, that he had had to “obtain a court injunction against his transfer to Tajikistan,” and that the Obama administration had “obtained a stay of his legal case based on repeated representations to the court that his detention was no longer at issue and he would be released expeditiously.” However, as CCR added, the government “did not transfer him.”
Instead, Davliatov “was left to rot at Guantánamo.” His lawyers stated that, “[h]aving hindered his original legal challenge, the Obama administration made no meaningful efforts to transfer him for several years,” and, as a result, in November 2015, the Center for Constitutional Rights, together with Matthew J. O’Hara, Davliatov’s lead counsel at Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP and Andy Smith at Reed Smith LLP – who have represented him since 2007 – “filed a new habeas corpus challenge to his ongoing indefinite detention,” in which Davliatov “asked the court to order his release on the ground that his continuing detention was arbitrary and no longer served any ostensible purpose.”
CCR noted that it “had filed a similar challenge on behalf of Algerian detainee Djamel Ameziane in 2013,” and as with Ameziane’s case, “renewed litigation finally prompted the administration to act, albeit, according to his counsel, not out of compassion for Davliatov but, once again, to avoid an adverse court ruling in his case.”
Responding to news of his release, CCR Senior Staff Attorney J. Wells Dixon said, “We are happy that Mr. Davliatov’s Guantánamo nightmare is finally over, and we wish him well as he begins the slow process of rebuilding his life. But the lengths to which the Obama administration went to avoid a court ruling in this case are shameful. Davliatov never should have been brought to Guantánamo, and by the government’s own admission he should have been released six years ago. The administration’s actions are inconsistent with its stated desire to close Guantánamo.”
Matthew J. O’Hara said, “This case represents one of the rare instances in which the United States was not able to return a Guantánamo prisoner to his native country over his objection when he feared for his life there. A preliminary injunction prevented Muhammadi’s involuntary return to Tajikistan in the fall of 2008. By the time the D.C. Circuit later vacated that injunction, Tajikistan was no longer willing to accept Muhammadi. It is a testament to Muhammadi’s strength and determination not to be involuntarily repatriated to Tajikistan that today he is being resettled in Europe as a free man.”
Andy Moss said, “I am elated that Muhammadi will finally be allowed the opportunities he has been arbitrarily denied by our nation since 2002. Like each of the men imprisoned at Guantánamo who have been released, Muhammadi faces formidable personal challenges in rebuilding his life after 14 years as a prisoner without charge, hope, or human dignity. I am grateful to the Serbian people for offering Muhammadi asylum, and I hope everyone will remain patient with and supportive of Muhammadi as he builds a new life for himself and recovers from his long, brutal, and unlawful imprisonment. Knowing him, I believe he will eventually succeed.”
The story of Mansoor al-Zahari
I discussed the story of Mansoor al-Zahari (ISN 441) at the time of his Periodic Review Board in September 2015, when he was 36 years old, and described how he had probably been a low-level foot soldier of the Taliban who, in US custody, had become an enthusiastic fan of American culture, becoming a fan of Taylor Swift, Shakira, Game of Thrones (although he felt there was too much bloodshed), US sitcoms, Christopher Nolan movies and Little House on the Prairie, which “remind[ed] him of his very rural home with few modern conveniences.”
Although angry in his early years at Guantánamo, he had become “a model detainee from the government’s perspective,” according to his lawyer, federal defender Carlos Warner, and it was not surprising when, last October, he was recommended for release. It is now to be hoped — as it is for the other men freed — that Serbia will be a welcoming environment for them, and that their family members will be able to visit them.
With the release of Fayiz Suleiman, Muhammadi Davliatov and Mansoor al-Zahari, 76 men are still held at Guantánamo, and 28 of those men have been approved for release — 13 by the task force, and 15 others through the Periodic Review Boards.
Of the 28 prisoners still held who have been approved for release, the Obama administration has said that it intends to release the majority — 20 more, according to reports in May — by the end of July.
I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.