I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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.
First, the good news: on January 9, the Pentagon announced that the first Guantánamo prisoner to undergo a Periodic Review Board (PRB) had been recommended for release. The PRBs were first mentioned nearly three years ago, in March 2011, when President Obama issued an executive order authorizing the ongoing imprisonment of 48 prisoners without charge or trial, on the basis that they were too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.
In issuing the executive order, President Obama was following recommendations made by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that he had appointed after taking office in 2009, who spent a year meeting once a week to review the cases of the remaining prisoners. Lawyers and human rights groups were appalled by President Obama’s decision to issue an executive order specifically authorizing indefinite detention without charge or trial, and were only vaguely reassured that, as compensation, Periodic Review Boards would be established to ascertain whether or not the men continued to be regarded as a threat, featuring representatives of six US government agencies — including the State Department and Homeland Security — who would hear testimony from the prisoners at Guantánamo via video link in Washington D.C.
Of the 48 men initially designated for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, two died in 2011, but 25 others have been added since, following two major court defeats for the military commission trials. The task force had initially recommended 36 prisoners for trials, but in two rulings, in October 2012 and January 2013, the conservative appeals court in Washington D.C. scrapped two of the only convictions in the military commissions, in the cases of Salim Hamdan and Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, because they ruled that the war crimes for which they had been convicted — primarily material support for terrorism and conspiracy — had been invented by Congress. As most of the men recommended for trials were to be charged with these now discredited crimes, 25 of these men have been added to the 46 others facing PRBs, so that there will be 71 review boards in total.
Disappointingly, the first of the PRBs didn’t take place until October 2013, as I wrote about here, and, when the first one took place, in the case of Mahmoud al-Mujahid, a Yemeni, no representatives of the media were allowed to attend, a disturbing lack of transparency that I wrote about in an article for Al-Jazeera.
As a result, the news on January 9 was indeed welcome. As the Pentagon announced in a statement, “By consensus, the PRB members found that continued law of war detention is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the United States and that Mujahid is therefore eligible for transfer subject to appropriate security and humane treatment conditions.”
David Remes, one of al-Mujahid’s attorneys, said his client was “delighted” by the board’s decision, as the New York Times described it. Remes added, “Now that he’s been cleared, he should be transferred. The fact that he’s a Yemeni should not hold him back.” Al-Mujahid was described as a “committed jihadist” in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011, and a bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, although that allegation came from a false confession made by a fellow prisoner, and, as the Times added, crucially, “An official familiar with the review of Mr. Mujahid’s case said that the 2008 intelligence assessment was outdated.”
David Remes’s comments about al-Mujahid being a Yemeni unfortunately touched on the disturbing reality of him being cleared — the fact that all it means is that he joins 55 other Yemeni prisoners who were cleared for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force four years ago, but are still held (along with 21 others from other countries, 77 in total out of the 155 men who are still held altogether). As the New York Times put it, these men “have long been recommended for transfer if security conditions could be met, but remain stranded at Guantánamo because of instability in Yemen.”
That instability is often over-stated, and America’s role in fomenting it — through repeated drone strikes in which civilians are killed — is rarely mentioned. However, as the New York Times noted, a recent incident that was undoubtedly damaging to hopes that prisoners will be released was an attack on December 5 on Yemen’s Ministry of Defense by what the Times described as a “Qaeda-affiliated insurgent group,” which “led to an indefinite delay in a trip to Yemen by a United Nations agency that had been planned for this month.” That agency, the Times stated, had been “working with the Yemeni government to develop a rehabilitation program for some prisoners in Yemen,” and, separately, US and Yemeni officials had been in discussions regarding using the program to deal with some of the 56 cleared Yemeni prisoners in Guantánamo.
The obstacles to releasing cleared Yemenis
The obstacles to releasing cleared Yemenis have come from two sources — from Congress, as part of legislation designed to prevent the release of prisoners, which lasted for three years until those restrictions were eased last month, in this year’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, and from President Obama, who imposed a ban on releasing Yemenis in January 2010, after a failed airline bomb plot was revealed to have been hatched in Yemen.
Last May, in a major speech on national security issues, prompted in large part by a prison-wide hunger strike in Guantánamo, the president promised to resume releasing cleared prisoners, and dropped his ban on repatriations to Yemen. Eleven men have since been released, but none of them were Yemenis.
Administration officials told the New York Times they were “actively reviewing the Yemenis’ status on a case-by-case basis.” One said policy makers were considering “several options,” including “trying to persuade the Saudi government to take custody of several Yemeni detainees who have tribal or family ties in Saudi Arabia; finding other countries willing to resettle a Yemeni or two; and repatriating a particularly low-risk Yemeni to see how it goes.”
That, however, fails to address the number of Yemenis awaiting release, for whom the only solution may be the establishment of a rehabilitation program. Last August, President Obama and Yemen’s president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, issued a joint statement in which they cited the Yemeni government’s plans to “establish an extremist rehabilitation program to address the problem of violent extremism within Yemen, which could also facilitate the transfer of Yemeni detainees held at Guantánamo.”
As the Times noted, diplomatic officials told them that this statement coincided with Yemen reaching out to the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, and specifically its “Disengagement and Rehabilitation of Violent Extremists and Terrorists initiative,” launched in 2012, which has worked in African countries including Nigeria, in Indonesia and in Tajikistan, and whose employees include Douglas Stone, described by the Times as “a retired Marine general who was credited with successfully revamping American detention operations in Iraq, and later designed an overhaul of detention practices in Afghanistan.”
The agency had held meetings in Rome and London in August and October “with Yemeni officials and a group of potential donor nations — including the United States — that are already working in Yemen,” according to diplomatic officials, but plans for a visit were derailed by the terrorist attack in December, and a new date has not been set. Jonathan Lucas, the director of the agency, said, “We have to wait for the security situation to improve for the UN to start operating missions to Yemen. We don’t have any time frame at the moment.”
Someone described as being “familiar with the agency’s methods,” but “who was not authorized to speak on its behalf,” told the Times that its recommendations focus on “creating a secure prison center where detainees could undergo intensive, individualized assessments by psychologists, sociologists, religious leaders, family members and others,” with the goal being “to identify what motivated each prisoner to get involved in a terrorist or insurgent group — ideological commitment, peer pressure, a desire for adventure or money — and separate the more extreme inmates from the moderates.”
The source added, “Intense counseling, with the help of family and community leaders, can significantly reduce the risk that the more moderate prisoners will participate in terrorist activities after their release.”
On January 22, Voice of America published an article looking at the Yemeni situation, noting:
About nine years ago, Saudi Arabia introduced the concept of “soft rehabilitation,” based on the principle that terrorism can’t be defeated by force, but by incentive and religious reorientation. Saudi rehabilitation centers have been panned by some as being too soft — in at least one center, prisoners have access to an Olympic-size swimming pool, a sauna, a gym and television. But, as program director Said al-Bishi told AFP last May, “In order to fight terrorism, we must give them an intellectual and psychological balance … through dialogue and persuasion.”
And, as Carnegie Endowment’s Christopher Boucek has noted, Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation programs have had positive and “intriguing” results, with recidivist and re-arrest rates of only one to two percent.
Nabeel Khoury, a senior fellow of Middle East and national security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, who served as the US deputy chief of mission in Yemen from 2004 to 2007, told VOA, “The problem is money — and the people to staff it. Do the Yemenis have enough people with the kinds of skills you need to work with rehabilitating people who have been engaged in war and violence?”
VOA added that Yemen has asked the US for $20 million to cover the cost of building a rehabilitation center, described as “a bargain compared with the $800,000 per year the US spends keeping each detainee in Cuba.”
Andrea Prasow, senior national security counsel and advocate in Human Rights Watch’s US Program, was part of a group that recently traveled to Yemen to discuss the situation with Yemen’s foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi. As she told VOA, “Mr. al-Qirbi explained that in his view, a rehabilitation facility must be one that is truly designed to help the returning men recover and reintegrate into Yemeni society.” She added, however, that “security requirements should not be an obstacle to their transfer. These 56 men have never been charged with a crime and, like the others in Guantánamo, have been held in violation of international law for years.”
The next Periodic Review Board, and more secrecy
As the Associated Press recently explained, the second Periodic Review Board is taking place on Tuesday January 28, although journalists and representatives of NGOs will not be allowed to visit Guantánamo to see it. Instead, they will be required to “view the proceedings only by video link from Washington” (although in a different location from the six board members) and they will also not be able to listen in when the prisoner in question — Abd-al Malik Wahab al-Rahabi, a Yemeni — speaks to members of the review board, a process that, in Mahmoud al-Mujahid’s case, lasted for six hours.
The Pentagon claims that it is required to “impose restrictions for security reasons,” and has stated that a transcript will be released after the hearing is over. However, as the AP noted, a recently released memo “notes that the transcript may be redacted or altered.” Furthermore, neither those attending, or the prisoners themselves, will be allowed to hear any part of the hearing where classified material will be discussed.
Lawyers representing NGOs and the media are calling for “complete access” to the non-classified sections of the PRBs. Andrea Prasow told the AP, “The detainee explaining why he doesn’t pose a risk, why he should go home, that seems to be the whole point of the proceeding and we won’t get to see it. I think that’s pretty outrageous.”
Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, attempted to defend the government’s actions, citing “the cost and logistical complexities” of bringing observers to Guantánamo itself, and describing the restriction on listening to the prisoners speak as being necessary to maintain “reasonable security,” and to prevent the exposure of any sensitive information.
Critics, however, point out that observers were allowed to hear the prisoners’ testimony during the review boards that took place under President Bush, both at Guantánamo and at Bagram in Afghanistan. David A. Schulz, a lawyer for a coalition of 14 media organisations, stated, “It’s a significant new restriction on the level of transparency that has been allowed until now. You could argue that, because of the extraordinary nature of the situation, it’s even more important that there be maximum transparency.”
Furthermore, Daphne Eviatar, an attorney with Human Rights First, pointed out that “if the bulk of the evidence against the detainee is classified, then there won’t be much to see and we’re all in a position, once again, of being asked to trust the government that it’s doing the right thing.”
Abd-al Malik Wahab al-Rahabi, the prisoner whose PRB is on Tuesday, was, like Mahmoud al-Mujahid, also accused of being a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden by an unreliable witness. Many years ago, he told one of his lawyers that he had made false confessions, stating that he was “tortured by beatings” in Kandahar, that his thumb was broken by American interrogators, and that he was “threatened with being held underground and deprived of sunlight until he confessed.”
The next PRB will be for Ghaleb Nasser (aka Ghaleb al-Bihani), another Yemeni, and a cook for forces supporting the Taliban, who had his habeas corpus petition denied by a judge five years ago. His attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told the AP that she is “hopeful he will be cleared for transfer, but also wary because of the hold up in sending Yemenis to their homeland.”
As she stated, reiterating the point we have been making since the start of the PRBs was announced in summer, “For the process to be truly meaningful there needs to be much more transparency, they need to pick up the pace, and clearance has to mean transfer out. It does no one any good to add to the pile of people who are cleared and not transferred.”
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
When I posted a link to the “Close Guantanamo” article on Facebook, I wrote:
Here’s my latest article for “Close Guantanamo” – examining the recent announcement that a Yemeni prisoner has been cleared for release after a Periodic Review Board, even though he only joins a long list of 55 other Yemenis cleared 4 years ago by President Obama’s task force who are still held. That’s not justice, it’s insulting, and Obama needs to begin releasing these men now.
The photo that showed up on Facebook was of Abd al-Malik al-Rahabi, so I also wrote:
The photo above is of Abd al-Malik al-Rahabi, whose Periodic Review Board is on Tuesday. Will he too be cleared for release (but not released)?
Zoon Imran wrote:
i fear “yes” … all this is jst to heart breaking … where is the true freedom for any of them ???
Susan Lindauer wrote:
Let him go NOW!
Thanks, Zoon and Susan. I absolutely agree with your sentiments. It’s appalling that, time and again, more barriers are raised to prevent Yemeni prisoners being released. If they didn’t constitute a sufficient risk for Obama’s task force to recommend that they should continue to be held, and they committed no crimes for which they can be prosecuted, they should simply be sent home. No other course of action is excusable.
Zoon Imran wrote:
But time & time again Andy we r seeing the other way around … their freedom is in shackles of torture … mind,body & soul … But thank you with all my heart for all that you do … your fight for them is our hope of justice !!!
I think there will be further releases of prisoners this year, Zoon, but getting Obama to act is like getting blood out of a stone. I wish there was the interest to get a campaign going to call for the release of the Yemeni prisoners who have been cleared for release, but sadly I think that, in the US, the notion is well-rooted that unrest in Yemen somehow makes it acceptable to keep holding, for year after year, men that Obama’s own task force said four years ago should no longer be held.
Strange Wilderness wrote:
may Allah help you to stay strong in this seemingly “unrewarding” struggle.. you stand for the oppressed and voiceless who have been abandoned by the world.. forgotten by their own fellow citizens.. forgotten by their governments .. the humanity has lost its humanity.. the world has become just “empty slogans” and “false beliefs”.. most of the world couldn’t care less about any of these tortured souls.. but in the end .. Allah watches all this and then sees people like you .. who despite all this global inhuman lack of interest in these unjustly imprisoned souls… you go on .. and on .. and on.. Allah will help you in’shallah… Andy worthington.. the reward you’ll get can’t be matched by any Nobel prizes or any awards from the UN.. when people pray for you with tears in their eyes… that’s your reward.. even if these people lose their lives in this most unjust incarceration .. you have fulfilled your obligation to humanity and the children of Adam..
Thank you, Strange Wilderness, for your supportive words.
Chenae Meneely wrote:
Thanks for sharing, Chenae. Good to hear from you.
When I posted the link on Facebook to my cross-post above, I wrote:
So here’s my latest article looking at the decision taken by the first Periodic Review Board at Guantanamo to recommend a Yemeni prisoner for release. The irony? He joins 55 other Yemenis cleared for release four years ago by Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force, who are still held because of a lack of political will to release them. Send them all home now!
Pauline Kiernan wrote:
Irony indeed. Sharing.
Thanks, Pauline, for your interest, as ever.
Would they do the same sort of thing to white people, I wonder?
Good to hear from you, Thomas.
The answer to your question is: only if they were Muslim converts picked up in Afghanistan, like John Walker Lindh or David Hicks, both of whom were treated appallingly. Otherwise, you are absolutely correct to remark upon the double standards at work here.
Thanks for your hard work here Andy. WRT to muslim converts — there was that one Iranian drug addict, who said he was a Christian.
Wow, his was a depressing story. He described how he was a hard core addict, deeply addicted to opiates — which are much cheaper in Afghanistan, and Pakistan and Iran because they neighbour Afghanistan, the world’s major source of black market opiates.
His dealer king-pin had employed him as a street level dealer, which apparently had not been enough to support his habit, because, in late 2001, by his king-pins accounting, he owed tens of thousands of dollars.
His dealer had trusted drug couriers, who had bribed Taliban border officials to look the other way, enabling the smooth export of opium. But the fall of the Taliban had wiped away all his clandestine deals when it swept away the Taliban. This captive’s drug kingpin didn’t want to place his trusted couriers at risk. He described how his drug kingpin offered him a one-time deal, to pay off that huge debt. The kingpin entrusted him with a large sum of money to buy opium and bribe new Karzai officials, and sent him on the risky scouting mission into recently de-Talibanized Herat.
He described going to a storefront in Iran operated by the Gulbuddin wing of the Hesrat-Islami, to buy ID papers that would identify him as an Afghan citizen in exile in Iran. This was a key point that seems to have been overlooked by US intelligence officials.
His mission was risky. He was quickly captured, by anti-Taliban militia men, who were very keen to get paid the bounty for capturing Taliban fighters and foreigners. When his captives turned him in they informed the always credulous US intelligence officials that he was a “watchman for the Taliban”.
There was no evidence produced to doubt he was exactly who he said he was.
The heartbreaking parts of his story is that his drug kingpin had written to him, in Guantanamo — and had told him he was not forgiving the debt, and was going to start killing his children, unless our captive found a way to repay him.
I found it incredible that the officers reviewing his case seemed more upset with him because he was a deserter from the Iranian Navy, than by the allegations he was tied to the Taliban. Odd that they wouldn’t welcome an Iranian deserter, given the tension and distrust between the USA and Iran.
After years he was repatriated. Had his ruthless kingpin killed his children? Had he kicked his addiction in Guantanamo — or had Guantanamo medical staff prescribed him opiates there? Did he go back to being a drug addict? Did the Iranians sentence him for deserting, for being a drug dealer?
Anyhow, if his account is believed, Guantanamo held 778 muslims and one christian.
The ID card issued by the Gulbuddin official is a key point. One or two other captives, captives who were Afghans who had lived as refugees in Iran, described acquiring these HiG ID cards. Just as in Pakistan refugees needed some kind of ID card, because Police would commonly stop individuals and ask for the IDs, and if someone doesn’t have one they could expect to end up in jail, or maybe deported back to Afghanistan. Any refugee leaving their refugee camp, to hold a job, or even go shopping, needed an ID card that Police would recognize and accept.
US intelligence officials seem to have regarded each of these cards as indicating the bearer was an HiG fighter or party member. I think that what they were failing to recognize is that of the various anti-Taliban groups, some, like HiG, had wings that were allowed to operate openly in neighbouring countries, and that those wings were treated as if they were a government-in-exile. It sounds to me as if the Iranian officials treated storefronts like the one where he got his ID as quasi-consulates for that government-in-exile.
Our hero went to the storefront, with an acquaintance willing to swear an affidavit, or an oath, or reasonable equivalent, that he was an Afghan citizen, then he paid a fee, and he was given his ID card. And it sounded to me as if most of the ID cards issued at these HiG consulates merely say something like:
To whom it may concern, the quasi-government-in-exile of Gulbuddin certifies that the bearer is an Afghan citizen with permission to live in Iran as a refugee.
Millions of refugees left Afghanistan. A very large fraction of them would need an ID card, like this — possibly hundreds of thousands, or maybe more than a million. Meanwhile, HiG’s actual fighters probably never numbered more than a few tens of thousands. US intelligence officials treating every ID card like it was a party membership card was a huge mistake.
Thanks, arcticredriver, for the reminder of the sad story of Abdul Majid Muhammed (ISN 555), the Iranian well-digger, and, as far as we know, the only non-Muslim held at Guantanamo. You raise valid questions about what US intelligence’s interest in him – and the two other Iranians held at Guantanamo – would have been, and I believe you are correct to note the dubious priorities of the board members, who cared more that he had deserted from the military than that he feared his family would be murdered.
I also think you make a very good point about HiG and the ID cards, which no more showed allegiance to HiG than being forcibly conscripted by the Taliban showed sympathy with them.
WRT to the relationship between the HiG and the Taliban — it is my impression that their de facto post invasion alliance between them had a lot in common with the anti-Japanese united front between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuo Min Tang under Chiang Kai Chek. Both pairs of groups had been in the middle of civil wars with one another — until their nations were invaded.
From the documents that have been made public it sounds as if American Intelligence officials were never aware the two groups had been bitter rivals. I think it is noteworthy that HiG was not part of the Quetta Shura.
During the Soviet occupation HiG was the main receipient of the aid the CIA covertly channeled through the ISI. It is my impression that, ideologically, the HiG and the Taliban were not far apart — but then so were many of the warlords who Karzai gave cabinet posts to, like Mohammed Fahim and Dostum.
The HiG is said to have been ruthless in bombarding Kabul with missiles, causing great civilian suffering, during the civil war that followed the ouster of the communist puppet government, prior to the Taliban taking over Kabul.
Why did the ISI lose interest in favouring the HiG and choose to create the Taliban, in its place? I suspect it was that the HiG’s infrastructure included too many literate individuals, whereas, as the CSRT transcripts reveal, there were wings of the Taliban where all the leaders were either totally or functionally illiterate.
I am very concerned that the signs of westernization and greater rights for women, will soon be abandoned, with great suffering for women and others who grew used to the increased freedom.
There are relatively inexpensive radios, available at places like Radio Shack, that let the listener tune in to both FM and many short-wave radio channels — that have built-in dynamos, so the listener can charge up the radio’s built-in rechargeable batteries. What I would have liked to see would have been a pair of programs that (1) helped Afghanistan set up a fair, independent broadcaster, like the BBC, the CBC, or PBS; (2) distributed one of these wind-up radios to every child in Afghanistan. If they lived too far from a school where they could learn some science, some international geography, they could tune in to that fair, independent broadcaster.
One of the books I used to keep beside my computer was Isaac Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science. It contained brief, interlinked biographies of the 1000 individuals Asimov considered the most influential scientists. There was a period when Europe was dark and ignorant, when great muslim scientists kept Science alive. I thought it would be great if that Afghan broadcaster could broadcast flattering biographies of the great muslim scientists of the past. I thought it would be a good counter to the conservative clerics who argued a retreat from knowledge was the only path for a good observant muslim.
Even if traditionalists took power in Afghanistan again, millions of wind-up radios that enabled their owners to tune in the rest of the world would provide a lasting legacy of freedom — even if the owners mainly chose to tune in the Iranian or Pakistani top-40.
Thanks, arcticredriver, for the history lesson, and for your valuable opinions. I hadn’t considered the possibility that the Pakistanis chose the Taliban as a replacement for HiG because they were largely illiterate and therefore presumably more malleable.
The wind-up radios idea is good, but maybe a return to a primitive past is no longer possible. A friend in Afghanistan recently sent me a photo of villagers travelling to high ground and all waving their mobiles/cellphones in the air to get a signal. Perhaps we’re already too interconnected …
[…] is time for the cleared Yemenis — the 55 cleared for release by the task force, and a 56th man, recently cleared for release by a Periodic Review Board — to be sent home, without further delays and […]
[…] in October, led to a recommendation that the prisoner in question, Mahmoud al-Mujahid, a Yemeni, should be released — although the irony, of course, is that he merely joined 55 of his compatriots, who […]
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