Via Middle East Eye, and reporter Peter Oborne (formerly the chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph, until his resignation in 2015), comes the welcome news that Guantánamo prisoner and torture victim Ahmed Rabbani has been approved for release from the prison via a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established in 2013 by President Obama.
Oborne was told about Rabbani’s approval for release by his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve. “Even if it is nearly two decades late, it is fabulous that Ahmed has been cleared for release,” Stafford Smith said.
A Pakistani national of Rohingya origin, Rabbani , who is now 52 years old, was seized with his brother Abdul Rahim in Karachi in September 2002, and, after two months in Pakistani custody, spent 18 months in CIA “black sites” in Afghanistan, including the notorious prison identified by the CIA as ‘COBALT,’ but also known as the Salt Pit, or, as the prisoners described it, “the dark prison.” There he was hung naked from an iron shackle, with his feet barely touching the ground, and, like the other men held there, subjected to loud music designed to prevent them from sleeping.
The US authorities thought that he was a significant individual in Al-Qaeda, Hassan Ghul, but the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA’s torture program, whose executive summary was released in 2014, established that he was a case of mistaken identity. This ought to have been obvious to the US authorities, because the real Hassan Ghul was held at ‘COBALT’ at the same time as him, but it is one of many examples of chronic failures of intelligence in the “war on terror” declared by George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As Peter Oborne also noted, Rabbani was also one of a number of “black site” prisoners who were subjected to torture “without the approval of CIA headquarters.”
The Rabbani brothers were moved to Guantánamo in September 2004, where they have been held ever since without charge or trial. In May, a Periodic Review Board approved Abdul Rahim for release, and it is reassuring that Ahmed has now also been approved for release, even if, as Clive Stafford Smith cautioned, “We must not get ahead of ourselves as being cleared for release in Guantánamo does not automatically mean you go home.”
As Stafford Smith further explained, “One of my clients hums ‘Hotel California’ at me — ‘You can check out [anytime you want], but you can never leave’” — adding that “four men [three, actually] are still there though they were cleared over ten years ago. But at least we are now going to be arguing about when he should go home, rather than whether [he should].”
For Ahmed Rabbani’s family, the news has brought hope after nearly two decades of misery. His 18-year old son Jawad, who was born six months after his father’s abduction, “described the impact of his father’s detention on his upbringing”, as Peter Oborne put it. He told Middle East Eye that, “while he had never physically met his father, he was elated to hear of his release.” As he described it, “I feel so happy because I will meet and have experiences with him. Now, at last, I will have someone I can rely on and give me guidance.”
Release the “forever prisoners”
With Ahmed Rabbani’s PRB success, eleven of the 39 men still held at Guantánamo have been approved for release — the three in 2009, mentioned above, one in 2016, one in 2020, and six this year — and it is imperative that the Biden administration acts swiftly to release them, or, if they cannot be safely repatriated, to find third countries prepared to resettle them, before the very notion of being approved for release from Guantánamo becomes thoroughly discredited.
It is also hugely important that the Biden administration recognizes that the 16 other men still subject to review by the Periodic Review Boards — men never charged or tried, like Rabbani, and aptly described as “forever prisoners” — must either be charged or released.
Ongoing court cases suggest that, rather dispiritingly, the Biden administration has no desire to accept a legal route to the release of any of these men — by refusing to mount a challenge to their habeas corpus petitions, for example — but if this is the case then the PRBs must approved their release instead, and the administration must then release them.
To some right-wing critics, releasing any of these men remains unacceptable. Ahmed Rabbani was not Hassan Ghul, but, even though the fog of torture makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction, he may have played some sort of role as a facilitator for Al-Qaeda, sorting out accommodation and arranging travel for operatives in Karachi. However, in June, another facilitator, Sharqawi al-Hajj (whose nickname was “Riyadh the Facilitator”) was also approved for release, and in the cases of both these men, and of others still held, there are three compelling and unassailable reasons for resisting right-wing criticism.
The first is that, in November 2008, a man named Salim Hamdan, who had worked as a driver for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, was freed after a military commission trial that summer. A military jury gave him a sentence of five and a half years, and the military judge then decided that it should include time already served. This was a ruling that, as I wrote at the time, ought to have spelled “The End of Guantánamo”, because most of the men still held had been less significant than Hamdan.
That never happened, of course, but after nearly 20 years of Guantánamo’s existence, the second reason for not questioning Rabbani’s approval for release is because it is now clear that, even if any of the low-level facilitators approved for release (like Sharqawi al-Hajj, and, theoretically, Ahmed Rabbani) had been charged with crimes, their sentences would, in all likelihood, have already been served.
And the third reason, of course, as I will keep returning to until it is properly taken on board by the administration, is that there is simply no justification for holding anyone at Guantánamo without charge or trial for nearly 20 years. The Biden administration has recognized this in its PRB decisions to date, but it also needs to recognize that every one of the 16 “forever prisoners” must also be released unless they are to be charged.
These 16 still include a handful of foot soldiers who are held not for what they did before their capture, but because they have resisted their long and unjust imprisonment through hunger strikes and through organizing resistance, but, crucially, they also include men like Abu Zubaydah, for whom the post-9/11 torture program was invented on the mistaken basis that he was involved with Al-Qaeda rather than being the facilitator for a rival training camp.
The military commission system — in which ten men are facing trials, and two have already been through the process — has been widely and justifiably criticized as a broken facsimile of justice, but there is no good reason why the men charged cannot be transferred for trials in federal courts, if the administration finally recognizes how dysfunctional they are.
Men held forever without charge or trial, however, are held in what is, fundamentally, a lawless state, arbitrarily detained by an executive branch and a Congress that seem to regard them, unforgivably, as their own personal prisoners. It is time for this crushing and unforgivable injustice to be brought to an end.