Obama Releases Names of Cleared Guantánamo Prisoners; Now It’s Time to Set Them Free

29.9.12

On Friday, as part of a court case, the Justice Department released the names of 55 of the 86 prisoners cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2009 by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, which consisted of officials from key government departments and the intelligence agencies. The Task Force’s final report was issued in January 2010.

Until now, the government has always refused to release the names, hindering efforts by the prisoners’ lawyers — and other interested parties — to publicize their plight.

The rationale for this was explained by Ambassador Daniel Fried, the State Department’s Special Envoy for the Closure of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility, in June 2009, when he stated that “indiscriminate public disclosure of the decisions resulting from reviews by Guantánamo Review Task Force will impair the US Government’s ability effectively to repatriate and resettle Guantánamo detainees” under the executive order establishing a review of the prisoners’ cases, which was issued on President Obama’s second day in office in January 2009, at the same time that he promised to close Guantánamo within a year.

Ambassador Fried also explained that having the government solely in charge of the negotiations for resettlement was the best way forward, because, if prisoners’ lawyers became involved, “it could confuse, undermine, or jeopardize our diplomatic efforts with those countries and could put at risk our ability to move as many people to safe and responsible locations as might otherwise be the case.”

In the filing last Friday, officials explained why they had now changed their minds:

In the over two years since the Task Force completed its status reviews, circumstances have changed such that the decisions by the Task Force approving detainees for transfer no longer warrant protection. The efforts of the United States to resettle Guantánamo detainees have largely been successful — they have resulted in 40 detainees being resettled in third countries because of treatment or other concerns in their countries of origin since 2009. In addition, 28 detainees have been repatriated to their countries of origin since 2009. Consequently, the diplomatic and national security harms identified in the Fried Declaration are no longer as acute. In Respondents’ view, there is no longer a need to withhold from the public the status of detainees who have been approved for transfer.

Advocates for an end to the ongoing injustice at Guantánamo responded positively to the news. Zachary Katznelson, senior staff attorney on the national security project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the release of the names, said, “Today’s release is a partial victory for transparency, and it should also be a spur to action.” He added, “These men have now spent three years in prison since our military and intelligence agencies all agreed they should be released.”

It is indeed time that these men were released, as many of them were initially cleared for release five or six years ago, by military review boards under the Bush administration.

In June this year, I produced a report, “Guantánamo Scandal: The 40 Prisoners Still Held But Cleared for Release At Least Five Years Ago,” in which I identified 40 prisoners cleared for release under President Bush, but never freed, and 28 of those men turned up on the list released by the Justice Department. Most of the 28 were cleared for release in 2006 or 2007, but the list also included one man — Saleh al-Zabe (or al-Thabbi), a Yemeni — who was cleared for release on September 3, 2004.

The others who were cleared under President Bush — and again by President Obama’s Task Force — include 12 more Yemenis, the last five Tunisians in Guantánamo, three Algerians, a Saudi, Mohammed Tahamuttan (the last Palestinian), Umar Abdulayev (the last Tajik), the last three Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province), and Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison.

Of the 27 prisoners not originally cleared under President Bush, 13 are Yemenis, four are Syrians, four are Afghans, and one each are from Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.

For the most numerous of these men, the Yemenis, the problem is that, just before the Task Force issued its final report, in January 2010, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, recruited in Yemen by an offshoot of al-Qaeda, tried and failed to blow up a plane bound for Detroit with a bomb in his underwear. As a result of that foiled plot, President Obama responded to a wave of hysteria by announcing a moratorium on releasing any cleared Yemenis from Guantánamo. This remains in place two years and eight months later, even though it is a monstrous injustice to continue holding men cleared for release and to pander to populist fearmongering by insinuating that the very fact of being Yemeni is tantamount to being a terrorist — or, at the very least, a terrorist sympathizer.

The Task Force had cleared 29 Yemenis for release, and had placed a further 30 in a category they dreamt up without consulting Congress, which they termed “conditional detention,” declaring that those in this category could be released if there was an improvement in the security situation in Yemen. After the failed bomb plot, however, the other 29 Yemenis also had their release halted, and only one has since been freed. It is certain, therefore, that all the Yemenis who were supposed to be freed when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a plane with his useless bomb are on this list, and it is, moreover, probable that the 31 names of cleared prisoners not included by the government feature the 30 Yemenis consigned to “conditional detention” by the Task Force.

Mentioning the fate of the cleared Yemenis — and the indecency of holding cleared men on the basis of the guilt supposedly attached to their nationality — has been taboo in the mainstream American media since President Obama issued his moratorium in January 2010, although the death of another cleared Yemeni at Guantánamo on September 8 at least prompted the Los Angeles Times to publish an editorial questioning the moratorium.

The man in question, Adnan Latif, had mental health problems, and had been cleared for release under President Bush and also by Obama’s Task Force. He had also won his habeas corpus petition, but this decision had been overturned by the appeals court in Washington D.C., which has gutted habeas corpus of all meaning for the Guantánamo prisoners. Failed by all three branches of government, he died at Guantánamo nearly six years after a military review board first recommended him for release.

Noticeably, although the Task Force had cleared him, no attempt was made to liaise with the Justice Department, which, logically, should not have challenged his habeas corpus petition, and should not have appealed when he won. Sadly, however, that approach was not pursued, and Latif was not the only victim. Under Obama, a total of nine of the 55 cleared prisoners on the list released last Friday had their habeas petitions challenged. Seven subsequently had their petitions denied, and in two other cases, when the prisoners won, the Justice Department appealed, and won on appeal.

In the Los Angeles Times, the editors, addressing what they called “America’s detainee problem,” noted that “the administration needs to make more of an effort to arrange the repatriation or resettlement of individuals no longer considered a threat,” adding, “That would probably mean lifting the blanket ban on transfers to Yemen.”

That carefully worded suggestion is far from a ringing endorsement of the need to get rid of the moratorium, but it is some sort of progress, and will hopefully have been noted in the corridors of power. To avoid the deaths of any more cleared men, and to do something to rescue his appalling record on the treatment of “war on terror” prisoners inherited from the Bush administration, Barack Obama needs to release all the Yemenis without further delay, and also to do the same with the 29 others.

Shaker Aamer, the Saudi-born British resident whose wife and four children await his return in south London, could be sent home tomorrow, as could the five Tunisians, who could not be freed before the fall of President Ben Ali in January 2011, as they had all been sentenced in absentia in show trials and faced abuse on their return. Some of the others can also probably be freed in their home countries, but if it is unsafe for them to be returned home, because they face the risk of torture or other ill treatment, they can join the other prisoners who need new homes, and who, if no willing and appropriate countries can be found, should be rehoused in the US — the Algerians, Umar Abdulayev, Mohammed Tahamuttan, the Syrians and the three Uighurs, who are the last of 22 Uighurs in total, the rest of whom were resettled in various countries between May 2006 and April 2012.

In conclusion, the release of this document, which pierces the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the men since January 2010, is important, and, after the death of Adnan Latif, needs to lead to the release of all the cleared prisoners, so that Adnan Latif’s cruel and unjust death at Guantánamo was not in vain.

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

21 Responses

  1. harpie says...

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    I know. Excellent news, but now the Canadian government has to release him and not keep him imprisoned, provoking fresh legal challenges in Canada. Enough is enough!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, I wrote:

    Thanks to everyone who has read this, and liked and shared it. I will be coming up with a more detailed analysis of those cleared but still held in the weeks to come, focusing on some of the all-important stories of the human beings behind the statistics, but I do believe this provides a good introduction, and useful pressure points for those of us who care about closing Guantanamo.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Patricia Sheerin-Richman wrote:

    They won’t release Shaker to Britain, where he will be free to speak out. They will only release him to Saudi Arabia, where he will be silenced. We need to put pressure on William Hague to insist on his return to the UK.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Agreed, Patricia, and that’s definitely something for campaigners in the UK to focus on. In addition, when I examine the list in more detail, I’ll be focusing on those who can be released immediately, and Shaker is top of that list, so pressure also needs to be exerted in the US as well.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Patricia Sheerin-Richman wrote:

    I have written to Michelle Obama as a first step!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s good to hear, Patricia. There’s certainly a particularly strong moral case to be made for making sure that cleared prisoners are released since Adnan Latif died three weeks ago, because he was cleared over and over again, but never released, making a mockery of any pretense that there is anything resembling justice at Guantanamo.

  8. arcticredriver says...

    Omar’s repatriation is excellent news. According to some reports the Harper government had to yield due to a leak in the office of Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews (pronounced Tays).

    I’ve mentioned before that many of the Ministers in the Stephen Harper government are not competent — not cabinet level people. Harper undermines his ministers making policy decisions and making policy announcements, without informing them. In other cases these weak ministers make horrible, embarrassing mistakes.

    Toews said he couldn’t agree to accept Khadr until his office had been supplied the tapes and transcripts from Michael Welner’s interviews with Khadr. Why was he only requesting these documents in 2012, when the Canadian government had essentially agreed to repatriate him when his plea deal was made in 2010? Toews claimed his office had only recently became aware of the interviews.

    The USA supplied the recordings and transcripts around September 7th, September 10th. Within a week the transcript, which the USA considered classified, had been leaked to a Canadian journalist.

    Toews was planning to delay his decision until January. But, according to some reports, the USA was furious with Toews for allowing the transcript to be leaked, and the sudden reverse on Omar’s repatriation was a sign the decision had been wrenched from the incompetent minister’s control.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. That’s very interesting. I am just glad that the impasse was broken, for Omar’s sake. It must have been very hard to have been back in solitary in Guantanamo after his plea deal not knowing when his government – which had persistently let him down – might finally deign to honor its deal.

  10. arcticredriver says...

    It is depressing how many Canadian press reports giving background on Khadr’s repatriation repeat serious misconceptions, and are biased against him.

    A lot of the press reports describe Khadr as the youngest captive to have been held in Guantanamo. This is not a seriously damaging misconception, but it is depressing as it shows how little homework the reporters did. Over half a dozen minors held there were younger than he was — including Mohammed el Gharani and Mohammed Jawad. He is also described as the only Canadian to be held in Guantanamo — when his older brother Abdurahman was also held there.

    Many articles keep repeating the notion, most recently uttered by Vic Toews, that in Guantanamo Khadr had been interacting with older hardened terrorists.

    Well, first, the USA had an obligation, under International law, to hold minors like Khadr in a facility for minors, where they received schooling, to help make sure they could re-integrate into the mainstream of society — and where they weren’t in contact with older hardened fighters. Canada had an obligation to make sure the USA complied with its international commitments in its treatment of Canadian citizens.

    If Omar had interacted with, and been radicalized by, older captives, this was in part due to failures by successive Canadian governments.

    But, as your readers know, Guantanamo only held a couple of dozen hardened jihadists. The most dangerous of the genuine hardened jihadists are held in Camp Platinum, and had no contact with Omar.

    In the excellent film “You don’t like the truth” we see Moazzam Begg, Omar Degayes, Mamdouh Habib tell the film-makers of the excellent advice they gave Omar when he was first visited by Canadian security officials. These three men were never hardened jihadists. They were innocent civilian bystanders. I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts though that Toews has accepted at face value US analysts assessments that these innocent men were the “hardened jihadists” who had a bad influence on Omar.

  11. arcticredriver says...

    Michael Friscolanit, the reporter who got a copy of the Welner transcripts, and who seems to have been allowed to view the actual recordings, wrote that Khadr did not seem contrite. Other press reports have repeated this. Toews has commented on this.

    Of course, under the Guantanamo system, his confession and guilty plea, don’t establish he was actually guilty. Under the Guantanamo system, the US asserted they could continue to hold captives indefinitely, potentially for the rest of their lives, even if they were acquitted on all charges.

    A confession and guilty plea is a reliable indication of guilt only in a system where the payoff for the innocent man seeing their trial through to the bitter end, is that their acquittal will win them release.

    Anyone, but a committed jihadist who wanted a show trial, would give serious consideration to a false confession and false guilty plea, if that was the only reliable way to be able to win a definite release date.

    It bugs me to read suggestions Khadr should be more contrite, should take more responsibility for the acts he confessed to, when he may very well have been coerced into false confessions.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Excellent points, arcticredriver. Lazy journalists – and their editors – reveal how indifferent they are to the plight of the prisoners in Guantanamo, and I’m sure Vic Toews has read the classified military files released by WikiLeaks and has swallowed the lies that are packed into their pages along with every other right-winger – and far too many Democrats as well. I’m also completely with you about the rationale for false confessions. Thanks.

  13. America’s Extradition Problem « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] In conclusion, based on all the information above, I fail to see how the vast expense of bringing these five men from the UK to the US is either good value for money, or justifiable in terms of justice being done. As with everything related to terrorism since the 9/11 attacks, it seems, instead, that the US-UK Extradition Treaty is merely adding new injustices to those inflicted in US courts on US citizens accused of offences purportedly related to terrorism, and those inflicted with no acceptable process at all on the foreign nationals held at Guantánamo. [...]

  14. Lawyer for Cleared Detainee says...

    Andy,

    Excellent work as always. I must note one correction, however. You suggest that the DOJ lawyers litigating habeas cases were not made aware of Task Force decisions to approve detainees for transfer. In fact, those lawyers were aware of the decisions, and not only that, they were responsible for informing a detainee’s habeas counsel (e.g., me) that the detainee had been approved for transfer.

    So the DOJ knew all along that it was arguing in court to continue detaining men that the Task Force had already approved for transfer. Those of us who had to deal with that situation tried to argue that a transfer decision should mean automatic victory in habeas, or at the very least, that it was strong evidence in a detainee’s favor. But the DC Circuit, in its typical wisdom, said that the Task Force decision to approve someone for transfer was irrelevant to whether his detention was lawful.

    And thus we end up with tragedies like Almerfedi, Hatim, Hussain, Khan, and, above all, Latif.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for that important information. I hadn’t realized that the DoJ lawyers specifically knew who had been approved for transfer by the Task Force. It seems to me that it just makes even more of a mockery of the decisions taken by the Task Force. The D.C. Circuit Court might as well have said that the decisions, as well as not impacting on the lawfulness of detention, also meant nothing anyway, as that is largely how it’s turned out.

  16. Last Brit in Guantanamo; Parliamentary Meeting Oct 29th Hse of Commons | Radio Free Brighton says...

    [...] about Shaker’s status was revealed on a list of the names of 55 cleared pris­on­ers that was released as part of a court case, sur­pris­ing law­yers for the Guantanamo pris­on­ers who had been told since 2009 that this [...]

  17. A Photo of Shaker Aamer After Eleven Years in Guantánamo – AlHittin.com says...

    [...] actively seeking his return, and two months since, for the first time, his name was included in a list of 55 prisoners cleared for release but still held, that was made publicly available by the US Justice [...]

  18. Tom says...

    One angle in this story is the growing number of Americans who literally don’t feel safe in their own country and go elsewhere. If you don’t agree with the government and don’t feel safe enough to work in your home country, what does THAT say? Other aspects of this range from dual taxation to the liabilities of continued US citizenship on your family in your new country.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s a bad sign, isn’t it, Tom? And it’s something I’m hearing from more and more people here in the UK these days.

  20. Tom says...

    Regarding UK emigrants, I’ve heard that many still prefer France and Spain (one example of that: Talk Radio Europe, staffed almost entirely by Brits and Irish presenters). Now though, there’s a backlash from the unemployment rate. Another is from a bad exchange rate and then social service cuts when they try to go back to the UK, Australia or wherever.

    For many Americans, it’s a matter of taxes or political repression. If you oppose the Afghan War and go to Canada, you’ll get deported. Back in the ’50s, there were some people who went to the UK for asylum (Sam Wannamaker and his wife). Strictly for their political views. One Vietnam vet got political asylum in China. Now 2012. If I tried to make a serious claim for political asylum, would U.K. Immigration laugh at me and then deport me? Obama can have me killed anywhere in the world based on his opinion of “evidence” I’m not allowed to see. I can legally be sacked from my job if my boss doesn’t like something about me. The govt. monitors all of my communications and then criticizes China because they’re “repressive”? What would they say?

    I’ve lived in the UK and Japan. I’ve dealt with Immigration, work visas and take people seeking legitimate asylum very seriously. Having said that, would they take me seriously?

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Good points, Tom. I’m sure they wouldn’t take your application seriously these days, no. I hadn’t realized before that Sam Wanamaker came over here during the McCarthyite witch hunt. As for now, yes, it’s obviously a troubling symptom of the times that we have – or have had – war criminals as our Presidents and Prime Minister over the last 11 years, but we’re apparently not allowed to point that out!

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