Rabbani Brothers Freed From Guantánamo And Sent Home To Pakistan – OpEd
On Thursday, the US authorities confirmed that two Pakistani brothers in Guantánamo — Ahmed Rabbani, 53, and his elder brother Abdul Rahim, 55 — had been freed from Guantánamo and sent home to Pakistan.
Both men had been held by the US for over 20 years. Seized in their home city of Karachi in September 2002, they had been held and tortured in CIA “black sites” for 545 days before being sent to Guantánamo in September 2004, where they had been held ever since without charge or trial.
As Carol Rosenberg noted for the New York Times, which has just published the story of their release, a day after it was broken on social media by former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi, the US authorities claimed that it was holding the brothers “for helping to operate safe houses where suspected operatives of Al Qaeda holed up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”
That narrative, however, was rather fatally undermined in December 2014, when the unclassified summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report into the CIA torture program was released, which revealed that Ahmed Rabbani was a case of mistaken identity, confused with an Al-Qaeda operative named Hassan Ghul, who was seized in early 2004 in Iraq, held in CIA “black sites” for two years, then transferred to Pakistani custody. Freed in 2007, he was reportedly killed in a drone strike in October 2012.
Held without charge or trial
For five years the brothers were held without any effort made by the US authorities to ascertain, objectively, if there was any truth to their claims that they had been involved in any way with Al-Qaeda. When Barack Obama became president, in January 2009, he established a high-level review body to assess the cases of the 240 prisoners he had inherited from George W. Bush, and when that body, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, issued its recommendations in January 2010, the brothers were recommended for prosecution along with 34 others.
However, as the military commission trial system broke down (with some its pitiful handful of convictions overturned on the basis that “providing material support for terrorism” had been invented as a war crime by Congress), the majority of the men recommended for prosecution were, instead, made eligible for another review process, the Periodic Review Boards. These were initially established to assess the cases of 48 men regarded by the task force as “too dangerous to release,” even though the task forces’s members acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, but by the time they began their deliberations, in November 2013, just 41 men remained in that category, and 23 men recommended for prosecution had been added.
The Rabbanis had their cases reviewed in July 2016 (Abdul Rahim) and September 2016 (Ahmed), but both had their ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial upheld, and it was not until May 2021 that Abdul Rahim was recommended for release by a subsequent PRB under President Biden, with a similar decision in Ahmed’s case following in October 2021.
The US must free the 18 other men approved for release
Reassuring though it is that both men have finally been freed, it is both inexplicable and unacceptable that it took so long. As I explained in a recent article following the release of Majid Khan, another Pakistani, who was resettled in Belize, 337 days after his terrorism-related sentence came to an end, the Biden administration pulled out all the stops in securing his release, which was required by law, but was noticeably dragging its heels when it came to releasing the 20 other men, never even charged with a crime, who had been approved for release via the Periodic Review Boards.
This is because the PRBs are a purely administrative process, and have no legal weight, but in practical terms what was signified with Khan’s release was that, as I described it, “it is easier to resettle from Guantánamo someone convicted of terrorism but demonstrably remorseful [as Khan was] than it is to resettle someone never charged with a crime at all.”
As of February 10, when I published my article, the 20 men approved for release but still held had been held for between 140 and 4,767 days since review processes determined that they should no longer be held, with Abdul Rahim Rabbani having waited 638 days, and Ahmed Rabbani having waited 491 days (by the time of their release, 651 days and 504 days).
What this means, of course, is that the Biden administration urgently needs to secure the release of these 18 other men before anyone in the US government congratulates themselves on the release of Ahmed and Abdul Rahim Rabbani. The hard work, to put it bluntly, still lies ahead.
Celebrating the Rabbanis’ release
Despite this, the release of the Rabbanis is a cause for celebration for the brothers themselves, for their families, and for those who worked so hard to secure their release — in particular Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve, who now runs an organization called 3DC, whose mission is “to open doors to the next generation of justice advocates to better their own communities and wider society.”
As Ahmed’s attorney, Clive has been tireless in promoting his case, securing numerous op-eds in which Ahmed discussed the hunger strike that he had embarked on in 2013, reflected on the world outside Guantánamo, and lamented the life he had lost with his son Jawad, who was born after his capture. Now 20, he first spoke to his father by Skype, when he was seven or eight years old, in a call facilitated by members of the International Red Cross, as he recalled when talking to Alice Speri for The Intercept back in 2021. “He told me he’s in jail, and I asked him, ‘Why? Bad guys are supposed to be in jail,’” Jawad recalled, adding, “He laughed and didn’t answer me.”
He has continued to talk to his father regularly, although, as Alice Speri explained, “It often takes a while to break the ice on their calls,” which “start with small talk and awkward silences.” As Jawad described it, “By the time you start enjoying the conversation, the time is up.” Recalling his childhood, Jawad added, “I didn’t have much of a childhood that I could remember, any memories to be nostalgic about. I never think about my childhood, I don’t have anything to look back to.”
Ahmed was also one of eight current and former Guantánamo prisoners whose art was featured in an exhibition at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York in 2017, which prompted an authoritarian clampdown from the Pentagon, under Donald Trump, and which led to an outrageous ban on any prisoners giving artwork to their lawyers or leaving the prison with their work, which has only just been overturned, following pressure exerted by two UN Rapporteurs. It is very much to be hoped that Ahmed has been allowed to leave Guantánamo with what Carol Rosenberg described as “the more than 100 paintings he had amassed in his years of detention.”
Much less is known about Abdul Rahim Rabbani, although his attorney, Agnieszka Fryszman, who has represented him since 2006, told a Periodic Review Board panel that “he has kept himself busy with simple pursuits. He sweeps and cleans his block, for example, and stays away from conflict.”
Speaking after the men’s release was announced, Clive Stafford Smith told the Times that Ahmed was “very damaged” from the long years of his hunger strike, and “has a hard time holding food down,” although he added that “he is getting better on that front.” As he also explained, “The irony is that today, and all through his hunger strike, when they were in communal living, he would cook for the other men.” Cooking has always been a passion of Ahmed’s, and as Stafford Smith also explained, Ahmed “wants to run a restaurant after he is reunited with his family.”
A fundraising appeal
Unlike Majid Khan, however, whose resettlement costs were funded by the US government, Ahmed and Abdul Rahim Rabbani will have been left to their own devices when the US cargo plane carrying them from Guantánamo landed in Pakistan, and, as a result, if anyone can help them out, 3DC launched a fundraiser prior to their release, hoping to raise money to support their reintegration into society.
As 3DC explained, “Only three things are certain in life: Death, Taxes, and that when someone is released from 20 years of wrongful and torturous detention in Guantánamo Bay, the US will send him home with not so much as an apology.”
They added, “We have to find them a place to live with their families. It is not expensive compared to UK rates, but far beyond anything they can afford after losing 20 years of their lives. We need to raise £15,000 which will cover the deposit, 12 months rent as well as other expenses during their first year of returning home.”
Over £10,000 has so far been raised, so if you can help 3DC reach their £15,000 target, please do.
And after you’ve done that, please help myself and other campaigners to keep putting pressure on the Biden administration to move swiftly to release the 18 other men approved for release but still held.