In a recent article, “75 Guantánamo Prisoners Cleared For Release; 31 Could Leave Today,” I examined the implications of an announcement that 75 of the remaining 223 prisoners in Guantánamo have been cleared for release. This came by way of a list posted in the prison, identifying the prisoners by nationality, and a statement by a military spokesman, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brook DeWalt, who explained, “It was an opportunity to just provide better communication. There’s a lot of information out there and you get a lot of things from a lot of different angles. It helps put it in a more succinct context for them [the prisoners].”
The list is based on the deliberations of an interagency Task Force, established by President Obama on his second day in office, to determine who should be released, and who should continue to be held, and in my article I looked at the cases of 31 of the prisoners (26 Yemenis, three Saudis and two Kuwaitis, one of whom has since been released), pointing out that, in theory, there was no reason for them not be released immediately.
However, I also pointed out that members of Obama’s own administration had told the New York Times that the government was afraid of releasing the Yemenis (even though they had been cleared for release), because Guantánamo itself might have radicalized [them], exposing [them] to militants and embittering [them] against the United States,” and I should also have added, as former military defense attorney Maj. David Frakt pointed out to me in an email, that the men’s release is also dependent on the whims of Congress, where lawmakers “passed a law this summer that requires the administration to give Congress 15 days notice before releasing anyone from Guantánamo.”
Nevertheless, although Congressional obstruction may well be an additional complication (which I discussed in another article last week, “Lawyer Blasts ‘Congressional Depravity’ On Guantánamo”), it remains apparent that the route out of Guantánamo for these 30 men ought to be easier than it is for the other 44 prisoners cleared for release, as these are men who cannot be repatriated either because of fears that they will face torture or other ill-treatment (including arbitrary detention and show trials) on their return, or because (in the cases of two Palestinians) they are, effectively, stateless refugees.
Who are the 44 prisoners?
Of these 44 prisoners, 15 had their release ordered by judges in US District Courts, as a result of the habeas corpus petitions that were authorized by the Supreme Court in an extraordinarily important ruling in June 2008. 13 of these men are Uighurs — Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, whose release was ordered by Judge Ricardo Urbina a year ago, and whose plight I have written about extensively (particularly here and here) — and the others are an Algerian, Sabir Lahmar, whose release was ordered last November, and Abdul Rahim al-Ginco, a young Syrian, tortured and imprisoned by al-Qaeda and the Taliban, whose release was ordered in June this year.
The other 29 are as follows: nine Tunisians, six more Algerians, three more Syrians, two Egyptians, two Uzbeks, two Palestinians, an Azerbaijani and a Tajik. Although their names have not been provided, the identities of the majority of these men can be deduced by a process of elimination (there are, for example, only two Egyptians, two Uzbeks, and one Azerbaijani in Guantánamo), and, in addition, the decision to release the Tajik prisoner, Umar Abdulayev, is known about because it was announced in July.
As I explained at the time, this decision was distressing to Abdulayev and his lawyers for two reasons: firstly, because when government lawyers announced that they would “no longer defend his detention,” they also announced that they “want[ed] US diplomats to arrange to repatriate him,” even though Abdulayev is terrified of returning to Tajikistan, because he was threatened by Tajik agents who visited him in Guantánamo; and secondly, because the Task Force’s decision also led the Justice Department to ask a judge to drop Abdulayev’s habeas petition, prompting his lawyers to point out that the Task Force’s decision was “not a determination that [Abdulayev’s] detention was or was not lawful,” and that it therefore “does nothing towards removing the stigma of being held in Guantánamo or being accused of being a terrorist by the United States.”
This is actually a widespread problem for those cleared for release who fear repatriation, not only because recent rulings by the Court of Appeals have removed a number of judicial safety nets established by judges to prevent the enforced repatriation of a number of prisoners in Guantánamo (for whom the “stigma” of “being accused of being a terrorist by the United States” is of grave importance), but also because, in a wider sense, the Obama administration is unwilling to state openly that any prisoner was seized by mistake (as one of the prisoners’ lawyers recently explained to me, no lawyer would advise admitting responsibility, as it would open the floodgate to compensation claims). As a result, the administration is doing nothing to facilitate the work of Daniel Fried, the senior diplomat employed in March 2009 as the Special Envoy to Guantánamo, whose unenviable task it is to persuade other countries to accept released prisoners from Guantánamo.
Even putting aside for a moment the difficulties caused by the refusal of the Court of Appeals and Congress to accept cleared prisoners into the United States (which fuels a reluctance to help in European countries, as Fried acknowledged in a recent interview with the BBC), there are disturbing signs that this reticence on the part of the administration to state openly and categorically that colossal mistakes were made by the Bush administration is also undermining the very decisions made by Obama’s own Task Force.
Recently, for example, when Swiss officials visited Guantánamo to investigate the cases of four men cleared for release, in an attempt to work out if they would be prepared to accept any of these men, they returned, not with an honest appraisal, but with weighted conclusions that could only have been presented to them by the US military, who had, in effect, opened up their files and shown them material which purported to be evidence, but which, in other prisoners’ habeas petitions, has been demonstrated, time and again, to be nothing more than false allegations made by other prisoners (under duress or as a result of bribery) or by the prisoners themselves, multiple levels of unacceptable hearsay, and “mosaics” of intelligence that do not stand up to independent scrutiny.
According to reports in the Swiss media, the government representatives concluded that, of the four men they investigated, two Uighurs were “low-risk,” even though they are no risk at all, having persuaded the Bush administration to drop its claims that they were “enemy combatants,” and having been cleared by military review boards under the Bush administration, by a US District Court, and by the Obama administration’s Task Force, and two other men, an Uzbek and a Palestinian — also cleared by Bush-era military review boards and by Obama’s Task Force — were considered “medium-risk” and “high-risk.”
What has the Task Force been doing for eight months?
Beyond these absurd discrepancies, which do nothing to help Obama’s cause, the other conclusion I draw from an analysis of the Task Force’s figures is that, after eight months of reviewing the prisoners’ cases, it has made very little progress, despite detailed consultations with lawyers and other experts, despite detailed searches for information relating to the men, which was scattered throughout numerous departments and agencies in a disturbingly incoherent manner, and despite the establishment of a database bringing all the available information together in one place.
Although exact numbers are impossible to work out, it is clear that, of the 29 men cleared by the Task Force, all but nine (at most) were actually approved for transfer, between 2006 and 2008, by Administrative Review Boards at Guantánamo. When Obama came to power, eight Tunisians, five Algerians, four Uzbeks, three Palestinians, an Egyptian, a Libyan, and Umar Abdulayev, the Tajik, had all been approved for transfer. Some tweaking has taken place — a Palestinian has been removed from the list, and the Azerbaijani, Poolad Tsiradzho, has been added, plus an Algerian, an Egyptian, two Libyans and three Syrians — and, in addition, it is possible that the Task Force has shifted position on a few of those approved for transfer under Bush.
However, when added to the 14 or so Yemenis discussed in the last article, this figure of 25 or so prisoners is hardly a triumph for the Task Force, and indicates, yet again, that when it comes to Guantánamo, the President’s bold start in January, when he issued his executive order regarding the closure of the prison, has been steadily eroded by confusion, extreme caution and indecision.
If this damned icon of the dark years of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their close advisors is ever to close, it is time for Barack Obama, Eric Holder and Robert Gates to regroup and to accept that confusion plays only into the hands of those haunted by the ghost of Dick Cheney, and that clarity is required. Moreover, despite lawyers’ fears of new waves of litigation, this clarity has to involve the nation’s leaders acknowledging why the District Courts have ruled, in 79 percent of the habeas petitions before them, that the men in question are neither terrorists nor soldiers and should be released.
The truth is out there — and I am only one of many writers who have been explaining it for the last four years — but I will spell it out again: the majority of the prisoners were seized for bounty payments by US allies, were never screened according to the Geneva Conventions to determine whether or not they were combatants of any kind, and are held not because of anything resembling evidence, but through a shamefully poor attempt to build up a case against them in the isolation of Guantánamo, through a combination of torture, coercion and bribery, and the use of raw intelligence masquerading as facts.
Everyone in Guantánamo deserves better than this: both the few dozen men who are genuinely accused of involvement with al-Qaeda, the 9/11 attacks and other acts of international terrorism, who should face trials for their alleged crimes, and the majority of the prison’s population, whose release is still being prevented, or made horrendously complicated, by both the Executive and the lawmakers in Congress — some innocent men, and others who were soldiers in a now almost forgotten civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, whose ongoing detention is based not on any notions of justice, but on the lingering legacy of the Bush administration’s mistaken decision to equate al-Qaeda with the Taliban.
Note: For more information on the prisoners cleared for release, see my article, “Guantánamo’s refugees,” and also see the following profiles on the Reprieve website: Ahmed Belbacha (Algeria), Nabil Hadjarab (Algeria), Said Farhi (Algeria), Adel Fattough Ali El-Gazzar (Egypt), Sherif El-Mashad (Egypt), Ayman al-Shurafa (Palestine), Adel Hakeemy (Tunisia), Hedi Hammamy (Tunisia) and Saleh Sassi (Tunisia).
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009, details about my film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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Wow. The world (the “free” world anyway) owes you quite a debt, Andy: no one else I know of is cross-referencing the numbers, to show, to wit, that the “75 clearances” after eight or nine freaking months is almost nothing represent a shockingly small amount of “new work,” given that so many have already been cleared by the Bush Administration, by American federal judges (30 from them!) or both.
And, as noted, the Obama Administration continues to insist on taking an aggressive position in Court that interrogated prisoners that even the Government doesn’t believe should be accepted as Gospel as reliable accusers of others… even though it tries to sell foreign governments on admitting the very same men that it disingenuously accuses of terrorism!
Despite the fact that virtually everyone who has studied these things from General Hood to Col. Wilkerson has concluded that there were never ever more than two or three dozen actual terrorists or “dangerous people” at GTMO… the Obama Administration seems hellbent on legitimating the actions of its despised Bush Adminstration.
And so, the focus is going to be not so much on the Bush Administration for its folly of putting American diplomacy in this position (exacerbated by the despicable Harry Reid and Congress leading the charge to make sure “the problem” can’t be solved by the one way within American control, to wit, resettlement into the United States)… the focus is going to be on who to blame for Obama’s inability to meet the first promise he made re: closing GTMO in one year. I’m betting that at the end of the day, the “villain” is not going to be Cheney or Addington or Bush or Yoo… the “villain” isn’t even going to be KSM or OBL… the “villain” that I predict will ultimately be singled out by the Obama Administration will be White House Counsel Greg Craig, for his “insistence” on the closing of Guantanamo within a year because in the end it was just so darned hard (especially with a President unwilling to take the political risk of acting as if he believed his own rhetoric.)
Thanks, TD. Glad you appreciated the analysis of how the Task Force has actually spent most of its eight months paralyzed! As was revealed in the comment to the New York Times by officials who talked about the fear of releasing prisoners to Yemen, the Obama administration is, effectively, trapped in the same place that the interrogators in Afghanistan spoke about nearly eight years ago — not wanting to risk releasing someone who appeared to be innocent, but who might not have been.
Bring on the police state, eh? Let’s apply this to ordinary prisons, and never release anyone ever, just in case …
Dear Mr. Worthington,
I know this will sound silly, but could Abdulayev come to my house with a green card? Maybe some of these men could not enter the US as citizens, but as laborers with green cards. I sure could use some help with my lawn and my brothers are musicians and could use some back-up.
Wow- you are an amazing human rights agent. Don’t stop!
As more people are laid off or just have time to research, read, relate to others and see what is going on in the world, they know 9-11 was not done by those accused and therefore the Guantanamo prisoners have been held innocently and the US citizens are finally acknowledging it.
I’ve written letters to my representatives and put them on notice that I’m watching how they vote in the senate & congress. I think only 6 should stay next term. I’m also ordering another of your books to donate to my local book store. Thanks
Thanks for the supportive words – and for the invitation to Mr. Abdulayev. There is an organization pressing for ex-prisoners to be resettled in the US — No More Guantanamos — which you may want to check out: http://www.nogitmos.org/
(I was very pleased to be asked to serve on the Advisory Board).
[…] messages” provided by the US government, pointing out, as I explained in a recent article, “Finding New Homes For 44 Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners”: Recently, for example, when Swiss officials visited Guantánamo to investigate the cases of […]
[…] also explained how there are many dozens of men from other countries, including Algeria, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan, who are in a similar predicament, and […]
[…] of these — from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan — cannot be repatriated. European countries have so far accepted a handful of cleared prisoners, but a major stumbling […]
[…] men are either cleared prisoners (around 90 in total), who, for the most part, cannot be repatriated, and others (around 75, apparently), who, disturbingly, are regarded as too dangerous to release, […]
[…] interagency Task Force, which has been reviewing the prisoners’ cases all year, and which announced last month that seven of the remaining nine Algerians at Guantánamo had been cleared for […]
[…] seven still remain at Guantánamo, nearly 14 months after Judge Urbina ordered their release, and dozens of other cleared prisoners face indefinite detention at the US government’s pleasure, because other countries — unenthused […]
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