In the last five months, five prisoners at Guantánamo — out of 46 men in total who were designated for indefinite detention without charge or trial in 2011 by President Obama — have had their cases heard by Periodic Review Boards, to assess if their ongoing detention is regarded as necessary, or if they can be recommended for release. This article, the first of three, provides information about the third, fourth and fifth of these PRBs, conducted between March 20 and April 21.
The 46 men were recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial in January 2010 by an inter-agency task force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009. The task force reviewed the cases of the 240 men still held when Obama became president, and recommended 156 for release, 36 for prosecution and 48 for ongoing detention without charge or trial, on the basis that they were too dangerous to release, but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.
These recommendations, unfortunately, not only represented an alarmingly fundamental betrayal of the principles of justice, but also required the task force to take a credulous approach to the array of false and dubious statements that make up what purports to be the evidence against the majority of the prisoners at Guantánamo — statements that, under close scrutiny, ought to be revealed as being largely worthless, produced through the torture and abuse of the prisoners, or of their bribery with better living conditions, as detailed in my research into the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.
Nevertheless, President Obama followed the task force’s recommendations, issuing an executive order authorizing the men’s ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial in March 2011, and he only evaded censure by those with respect for the law by promising that these men would receive periodic reviews of their cases to establish whether they were still regarded as constituting a threat.
Disgracefully, however, it took two years and eight months until the first PRB took place, last November. In the meantime, two of the 48 men died at Guantánamo, and the trial system — the military commissions — had become so discredited, particularly through two appeals court rulings reversing two of the only convictions secured in the commissions’ history, that 25 of the 36 men recommended for prosecution were also added to the list of prisoners designated for PRBs, making 71 men in total.
The first prisoner to face a PRB, Mahmoud al-Mujahid, had his release recommended by the board, after he testified for six hours from Guantánamo by video link to the board members, consisting of representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That was in January, and I wrote about it here, but although that was a wise decision, the second PRB, for another Yemeni, Abdel Malik al-Rahabi, which took place at the end of January, led, in March, to a decision that he should continue to be held.
The board concluded that his ongoing imprisonment “remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States,” a decision that I criticized here, and also in an article for Al-Jazeera, “Guantánamo Forever,” in which I explained that the decision was profoundly disappointing, because the supposed evidence against al-Rahabi — involving a claim that he was one of the “Dirty 30,” a group of men captured in December 2001 who were regarded as bodyguards for Osama bin Laden — actually consisted of statements made by a number of prisoners who were subjected to torture and another known as the most notorious liar at Guantánamo.
On March 20, as I explained in my Al-Jazeera article, the third PRB took place, of Ali Ahmad al-Razihi, another Yemeni, who told the board, as Rolling Stone described it, that “he wished to return to his hometown in Yemen for an arranged marriage and to help run his father’s fruit and vegetable business.”
Like Abdel Malik al-Rahabi, Ali Ahmad al-Razihi has been regarded at Guantánamo as one of the “Dirty 30,” although the authorities at least noted that he was only “possibly” a bin Laden bodyguard. The PRB summary describes the origin of this claim as “detainee reporting of questionable credibility”, adding, “FBI and other interviews of Guantánamo detainees identified that [al-Razihi] served as a bodyguard for Bin Laden, although one of them later recanted the allegation.”
In his classified military file, released by WikiLeaks in 2011, the prisoner who recanted his statements was identified as Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi tortured at Guantánamo, while another alleged witness, who didn’t recant his statements, and who “photo-identified detainee as a UBL bodyguard on three separate occasions,” was the notorious liar referred to above, a Yemeni named Yasim Basardah, who was released from Guantánamo in 2010.
Reporting on the section of the hearing that outside witnesses were allowed to see and hear, which lasted for 28 minutes, the Associated Press stated that seven journalists and four human rights advocates watched the video feed, which was of “poor quality,” and “showed al-Razihi sitting at a table wearing what appeared to be a prison jumpsuit,” flanked by his representatives and an interpreter . The AP added, “He picked up a pen and took notes on paper in front of him several times, but otherwise did not appear to react to the statements against him.”
All the media and NGOs were allowed to see was the statements by the government, and by the personal representatives being read out. After that, “the feed stopped and the board went into closed session,” as the AP put it, adding that the Pentagon was “restricting access to the hearings, barring observers from traveling to Cuba to witness them and from listening when prisoners … address the board.”
The AP noted that Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, “has said the government decided not to allow the media and others to view the proceedings from Guantanamo because of the cost and logistical complexities of bringing outsiders to the base in southeast Cuba,” adding that he had also stated that “[t]he restriction on listening to prisoners speak is to maintain ‘reasonable security,’ and prevent sensitive information from getting out.” However, as the AP also noted, “Lawyers for human rights groups and media organizations, including The Associated Press, have been pressing for complete access to the non-classified portion, arguing that barring outside observers undermines the credibility of the proceedings,” and these are certainly valid complaints, which I first highlighted an article for Al-Jazeera in December entitled, “Guantánamo’s secretive review boards.”
While we await the review board’s decision about Ali Ahmad al-Razihi, I’m posting below the statement submitted to his PRB by his personal representatives, members of the US military assigned to represent him. Unlike in the two previous PRBs, al-Razihi declined to be represented at his hearing by his civilian lawyer, a decision whose wisdom was questioned by Alka Pradhan, a lawyer with Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity, who who was present for the video-conference, and who told Rolling Stone that it was “troubling” that his decision to proceed without legal representation was “being presented as a way to look better before the PRB.”
That is indeed a legitimate worry, although the military representatives certainly did their best to portray al-Razihi in a positive light, presenting his plans via Power Point, and stressing how he has been “a compliant detainee,” how he wishes to persuade the board that he is “a peaceful man,” and how he has suffered serious personal loss while at Guantánamo — the death of his mother.
I hope the board paid heed to this portrayal of him, and that its members recommend his release. Otherwise, the PRBs run the risk of looking like nothing more than another feeble effort by the US administration to justify the unjustifiable — ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the basis of vague, overblown and fundamentally unreliable allegations. After 12 years — longer than both world wars combined — all of the men facing PRBs should be freed unless a compelling argument can be made that they were actively involved in planning or undertaking acts of international terrorism, in which case they should be put on trial.
[Please note that the exhibits mentioned by the personal representatives have not been made publicly available].
Good morning ladies and gentlemen of the board, we are the Personal Representatives for Ali Ahmad Mohammed AI-Razihi. To my right/left is our translator, (translator’s call sign). We have met with Mr. Al-Razihi for over 40 hours over the past three months. Mr. Al-Razihi has obviously been eager to participate and has worked very closely with us to participate in the Periodic Review Board process. Today, we will present our case without the aid of a private counsel, and this is at the request of Ali. He is eager to demonstrate to this board in the most straight forward way that he is a peaceful man. Also, my client would like to show that he fully trusts the support and guidance of his military personal representatives. The trust he has demonstrated in us is one of many contributing factors that persuade us to believe that Ali should no longer be considered a continued significant threat to the United States.
Furthermore, I would like to expound on some of the other factors that I would like you to consider in deciding Ali’s case. First, my client is a compliant detainee. He resides in part of the camp where detainees live in communal conditions. In the last couple of months, Ali has completely turned his attention, focus and preparation toward a peaceful transition back to Yemen. He has mentioned to me many times that he desires to go back to Yemen and become a constructive member of his hometown, Taiz. He also feels that his incarceration has left him behind many of his peers from his homeland, who have gone on to establish their own home, family and career. Now, he wants to catch-up with his peers. To do this, my client has developed three main goals to accomplish on his return to Yemen.
First, understandably, my client wants to get married. Ali has never been married and as you see in the family correspondence in Exhibit 1, luckily enough, his father has already arranged a bride and his bride to be waits for his return. It also appears that Ali’s father would like to marry again, but he waits for his son’s return before doing so.
Ali’s second goal is to work on his education. Through many meetings with Ali it is apparent that he has keen business acumen. He wants to understand marketing better so he can expand his father’s fruit and vegetable business.
Expansion of his father’s business is my client’s third goal, and Ali has created a business plan for expanding his father’s business. The Major and I aided Ali in developing a business strategy Power Point presentation to better illustrate his idea to the Board, due to the language issues. The Board members have that for review in Exhibit 2. One of the major points I would like to emphasize is that Ali wanted to develop a plan that is obtainable. This is not a multi- million dollar project, but a plan that can be executed with little help and can be strategically expanded and grown, if he is present to oversee its development. During the time I’ve spent meeting and talking with Ali, I have been moved by the way he is determined to make something good come out of his detention. The very inspiration for his business plan came from the food service at Guantánamo Bay. This spirit is the will that helps him survive every day.
My client’s detention has not been without sad news from home. His mother passed while he has been incarcerated. Furthermore, his older brother has an extreme disability which has increased the burden and workload on Ali’s elderly father and amplified the need for another valuable and dependable family member to bolster the Al-Razihi household. Please refer to exhibit 3 for more details on his older brother’s condition.
Finally, I recently had a telephone conversation with Ali’s middle brother about his transition back to Yemen, should this Board recommend Ali’s transfer. Throughout the conversation, which I’ve summarized in Exhibit 5, his middle brother has expressed a desire to help with Ali’s transition back to Yemen not only financially, but also by assisting in the marital arrangements and by finding a safe place for him to live. This desire to help is also seen in the familial correspondence we’ve provided to the Board members as Exhibit 4. His brother also explained that, with the elderly state of their father, Ali would have to help with the family business. Moreover, Ali would be a critical piece in the support of the family due to his father’s condition. Family, as the Board members are aware, is central to my client’s culture.
You have no doubt already reviewed the historical information that led to my client’s detention here at Guantánamo. As you review the documentation we’ve provided, and have the opportunity to hear Ali speak to you and respond to your questions, I urge you to consider the entire spectrum, not just the past, as you determine your recommendation. He is a man with a lot of work to do at home, and a family support group more than ready to ensure he moves back in to a critical support role. Ali is a man with obtainable goals and the drive to catch up with the personal and professional growth already accomplished by his peers. He’s ready to live out the rest of his days as a peaceful man, a family man and an entrepreneur and no longer should be considered a continued significant threat to the United States of America.
Note: In the second and third articles to follow in this series of updates about the PRBs, I will be looking at the PRBs of two other men, Ghaleb al-Bihani (held on April 8), and Salem bin Kanad (held on April 21). Forthcoming, although the dates are not yet known, are the PRBs for Muhammed al-Shamrani (ISN 195), a Saudi, the last two Kuwaitis, Fawzi al-Odah (ISN 232, described as Fouzi Al Awda) and Fayiz al-Kandari (ISN 552, described as Faez Al-Kandari), and Muhammad Al-Zahrani (ISN 713), another Saudi. All four were notified of their planned PRBs in February.
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).
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On Facebook, Ajo Muhammad wrote:
Andy, this is open injustice right in front of our eyes. It pains so much to see innocent people like that suffer all this long for no reason. Wish you all the best in your efforts mate.
Thanks, Ajo. Wonderful to hear from you.
Sharmeen Syeeda wrote:
Thanks, Sharmeen. Much appreciated.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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