On Monday, a Saudi prisoner at Guantánamo, Muhammad Abd al-Rahman al-Shumrani, refused to attend his Periodic Review Board, convened to assess whether he should continue to be held without charge or trial, or whether he should be recommended for release. He refused to attend for a reason that his personal representatives — two US military officers appointed to represent him — described as “very personal and tied to his strong cultural beliefs.” The representatives explained that he “has consistently stated his objection to the body search required to be conducted prior to his attendance at legal meetings or other appointments,” adding that he regards “the body search as conducted, which requires the guard to touch the area near his genitals,” as “humiliating and degrading.” The representatives stressed, however, that his refusal to attend, because of his problems with the body search, does “not imply an unwillingness to cooperate.”
The PRBs were set up last year to review the cases of 71 of the remaining 154 prisoners. 46 of these men were recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama appointed to review all the prisoner’s cases shortly after he took office in 2009.
The task force issued its report recommending prisoners for release, prosecution or ongoing imprisonment in January 2010, and in March 2011 President Obama issued an executive order authorizing the ongoing imprisonment of the 46 men, on the basis that they were too dangerous to release, even though insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.
It was, of course, outrageous that the president was prepared to authorize indefinite detention on the basis of information that failed to rise to the level of evidence — in other words, on the basis of dubious reports by US personnel and dubious statements made by the prisoners themselves or by their fellow prisoners, in circumstances in which telling the truth was unlikely. President Obama tried to address this by promising that the men would receive periodic reviews of their cases, but, disgracefully, the first of these did not take place until November 2013, two years and eight months after the executive order was issued.
By this time, 25 other men — initially recommended for prosecution by the task force — had been made eligible for the PRBs, after the military commission trial system was dealt a major blow by appeals court judges in Washington D.C., who overturned two of the only convictions achieved in the much-criticized trials because the war crimes of which the men had been convicted were not internationally recognized, and had, in fact, been invented by Congress.
Since the first PRB in November 2013, five more hearings have taken place, which I have been reporting in detail. That first hearing led to a recommendation (in January) for the release of the prisoner in question, a Yemeni named Mahmoud al-Mujahid, and just two weeks ago another Yemeni, Ali Ahmad al-Razihi, also had his release recommended. This is good news in theory, although in practice there is no sign of when, if ever, they will actually be released, as they have merely joined a long-standing list of Yemeni prisoners who have been cleared for release but are still held, consisting of 55 men whose release was recommended by the Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010. These men are still held because of US fears about the security situation in Yemen, but it is, of course, completely unacceptable to establish a review process — or, as it now is, two review processes — and then to not release prisoners recommended for release.
In between the two positive if inconclusive results for Mahmoud al-Mujahid and Ali Ahmad al-Razihi, the review board — which includes 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 — concluded that another Yemeni, Abdel Malik al-Rahabi, should continue to be held (even though the supposed evidence against him is profoundly untrustworthy), and last month two other reviews took place, for which decisions have not yet been reached — in the cases of Ghaleb al-Bihani, a Yemeni who worked in Afghanistan as a cook, and Salem bin Kanad, listed by the US as a Yemeni, but who apparently has close family in Saudi Arabia.
For Muhammad al-Shumrani’s PRB, it was left to his personal representatives to make the case for his release, which they did to the best of their ability in a statement to the board, even though they were unable to meet him because of his refusal to undergo the body searches. They explained that he has only made an exception when he has had the opportunity to talk to his family, but added that he communicated with them in preparation for his PRB through letters.
They also noted that he expressed a willingness to take part in the Saudi government’s rehabilitation program if released, which, as they put it, shows that “he does not have a desire to return to the fight and should not be considered a continuing significant threat to the United States.”
In contrast, the US authorities tried to portray al-Shumrani as a threat, noting in the unclassified summary of evidence against him that he was “recruited for jihad while working as a high school teacher in Saudi Arabia,” and subsequently traveled to Afghanistan, where he underwent military training and fought against the Northern Alliance for a few months. The US authorities allege that, in addition, he “almost certainly” also fought against US forces, but no proof is provided for this additional allegation.
More worrying is the description of al-Shumrani as “a problematic and unpredictable detainee,” who has “committed several significant disciplinary infractions and used his authority as a religious leader to encourage other detainees not to cooperate with detention staff.” His personal representatives addressed these claims in their statement, explaining how his “resistant mindset while in detention is similar to the mindset and behaviors we expect of our own military members should they be captured and become Prisoners of War.”
It seems to me that this is an accurate description of al-Shumrani, and that, as a result, the board members will need to assess how long they believe it is justifiable to hold those seized as soldiers — and who, it should be noted, cannot even be proven to have taken up arms against US forces. The authorities, on the other hand, are unwilling to back down. Their unclassified summary of al-Shumrani describes how he “repeatedly has told interrogators and other detainees he would reengage in extremism if he were released from Guantánamo,” which sounds alarming, but “extremism” is not defined, and, it seems to me, refers more to an ongoing belief in the rights of Muslims to self-defence than it does to any active threat on al-Shumrani’s part, especially, as the US authorities also acknowledge that he “has minimal known associations with at-large extremists.”
A decision about Muhammad al-Shumrani’s case will probably not be reached for a couple of months, so in the meantime I’m posting below the personal representatives’ opening statement.
Good morning ladies and gentlemen of the board. We are the Personal Representatives for Muhammad Abd Al-Rahman Al-Shumrani. We will be presenting Muhammad’s case to you today without the aid of private counsel.
Additionally, Muhammad has elected not to participate during this portion of the process, but we want you to know that though he is not physically present at today’s board, he has been cooperative during the earlier stages of the PRB process. He has provided information to us via letters on several occasions that help explain why he has chosen not to appear today. He has also provided us some information about what he would like to do in the future.
Muhammad has spent 12 years at Guantánamo Bay and during that time he has missed the birth of many family members and has had to endure the pain of losing his father. In fact, he found out about the death of his father 8 years after the fact. Now he desires to be reunited with his family, especially his mother, and make up for lost time. Today you will hear about the composition of his family and his future desires, should he be released from Guantánamo Bay.
Muhammad benefits from being a Saudi citizen and according to the unclassified dossier “the Saudi government has provided the appropriate assurances to facilitate the transfer of detainees.” As a result of “these assurances, the United States has transferred over 100 detainees, including two in 2013, to Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia has established a robust rehabilitation and aftercare program “focused on changing the attitudes of Saudis who have been involved in terrorism and include detainees transferred from the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. These components [of the program] include counseling, religious instruction, sports, and social and therapeutic activities.” Additionally, family members are able to visit the detainees going through the program. Muhammad has told us that he is willing to go through the government program even though he does not know the details of the program. This shows his desire to turn his life around and return home to be with his family.
Muhammad would like to be here today and talk to the board personally, but his reason for not participating is very personal and tied to his strong cultural beliefs. He has consistently stated his objection to the body search required to be conducted prior to his attendance at legal meetings or other appointments. For this detainee, the body search as conducted, which requires the guard to touch the area near his genitals, is humiliating and degrading. Muhammad has not only refused to attend our scheduled meetings with him, he has even refused dental appointments, knowing that his own personal comfort would be affected by failure to meet with the medical provider. In fact, the only appointments Muhammad takes are the limited opportunities he has to talk to his family. I will share Muhammad’s own words with you later today and I believe you will see that his convictions do not imply an unwillingness to cooperate, nor do they establish or support in any way that he is a significant threat to the United States, but rather that he is a man who cannot subject himself to searches he finds degrading.
Since being in detention, Muhammad’s behavior has been classified according to his unclassified dossier as “problematic and unpredictable” and it has been stated he uses “his authority … to encourage other detainees not to cooperate with detention staff.” In many ways, and as those of you with prior military experience would likely acknowledge, Muhammad’s resistant mindset while in detention is similar to the mindset and behaviors we expect of our own military members should they be captured and become Prisoners of War. Article III of the Code of Conduct states, “If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available.”
Muhammad’s pattern of behavior in detention does not mean he is a significant threat to the United States; rather that he is behaving like a man captured in conflict who is continuing to resist by all means available, a quality which we train for and require from our military members.
As I have already stated, Muhammad has said he would like to return to Saudi Arabia and go through the country’s extensive detainee rehabilitation program so that he may rejoin his family. Never in our inquiries to Muhammad did we ask about or even mention the Saudi rehabilitation program. We did not ask him if he would be willing to participate in the program in any of our correspondence. Rather, Muhammad volunteered the information freely, thus showing he does not have a desire to return to the fight and should not be considered a continuing significant threat to the United States.
You have probably already reviewed the historical information that led to Muhammad’s detention. As you review the additional documentation we have provided, and have the opportunity to ask questions, I urge you to consider the whole picture when making your recommendation. Muhammad is a man who wants to start over and should be given a second chance. He should not be considered a continuing significant threat to the United States.Thank you for your time and consideration. We are happy to answer any questions you may have throughout this proceeding.
Note: The next three PRBs are for the last two Kuwaitis in Guantánamo, Fawzi al-Odah and Fayiz al-Kandari, and for Muhammad Murdi Issa al-Zahrani, a Saudi. All three were notified of their PRBs in February, but there has, however, been no indication yet of when the hearings will take place.
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 six-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.
Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. It’s important that we pay attention to the Periodic Review Boards, because the US government will use them to claim that there is progress on Guantanamo, when there is no such thing. After 12 years, no one should be held unless they’re facing trials for terrorism or genuine war crimes, but the men facing the PRBs – who, at most, were foot soldiers for the Taliban back in 2001, before the 9/11 attacks – are either having their ongoing imprisonment supposedly justified on the basis of tired old information masquerading as evidence, or are being cleared for release but then not being freed.
The greatest scandal at Guantanamo right now is the refusal of the Obama administration to release any of the Yemenis whose release has been approved – 55 by President Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force in January 2010, and two as a result of the PRBs. As I keep saying, if you approve people for release through official review processes, but then don’t release them from their ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, that makes you worse than dictatorships, which don’t pretend to have review processes that lead to release.
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