Afghan Approved for Release from Guantánamo, as Lawyer Presents Persuasive Case for Release of Yemeni Who Has Become A Prolific Artist

1.3.16

Yemeni prisoner Muhammad al-Ansi in a photo taken at Guantanamo and included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.As the dust settles on President Obama’s plan to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay before he leaves office, and defense secretary Ashton Carter urges Congress to drop its ban on bringing prisoners to the US mainland, one key element of the plan — Periodic Review Boards, assessing, on a case by case basis, whether or not around half of the 91 men still held can be released — continue to deliver significant results.

Two weeks ago, a Yemeni, Majid Ahmad — once, I believe, mistakenly described as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden — was approved for release, and last week the Periodic Review Secretariat announced another release, bringing the total number of men approved for release to 19, out of 22 results, a success rate of 86%. 36 of the 91 men still held have now been approved for release, 24 since 2010, and 12 through the PRBs (to add to the seven men already freed as a result of the PRBs).

As I noted last week, the success rate “reveals the extent to which dangerous hyperbole has played such a significant part in the story of Guantánamo, as these are men regarded six years ago as ‘too dangerous to release’ by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office, even though the task force also conceded that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial,” which “should have been a sign that the information used to continued imprisoning these men was profoundly unreliable, produced through the use of torture or other forms of abuse, or through bribing prisoners with better living conditions.”

38 other men are still awaiting reviews, and four other reviews — including one described below — have not yet delivered opinions, but it is reassuring that President Obama promised, in his prison closure plan, to complete the first round of the PRBs by the fall, not just because the men have been waiting since their cases were reviewed in 2009 for the reviews to take place, but also because the success rate to date indicates that dozens more prisoners may also be approved for release.

This will bring the population of Guantánamo that the administration wants to put on trial or to continue holding to a small enough number that supporters of Guantánamo will find it difficult to argue that the prison should remain open, when it costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year to hold just a few dozen men.

Haji Hamidullah, an Afghan, approved for release

Haji Hamidullah, in a photo included in the classified military files from Guantanamo that were released by WikiLeaks in 2011.The man who was approved for release (on February 11, although the decision was not announced until last week) is Haji Hamidullah, also identified in Guantánamo as Ahmid Al Razak or Haji Hamdullah, who is 52 or 53 years old.

His case was reviewed on January 12, and I wrote about it here, noting that, in 2012, I had described how he is “the son of a Mullah and someone with political influence, who explained that he had been imprisoned by the Taliban, and had then fled to Pakistan, only returning after the US-led invasion, when, he said, an opponent fed false information about him to US forces, alleging that he controlled a cache of weapons and led a group of 30 men who had conspired to attack coalition forces near Kabul.”

In its Unclassified Summary of Final Determination, the review board, after noting that, “by consensus,” they had “determined that continued law of war detention … is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States,” explained how they had concluded that Haji Hamidullah “does not support a jihadist ideology, has been highly compliant, and has sought to moderate the behavior of others,” and also “considered [his] age and health problems, and the lack of clear information regarding his involvement wilh al-Qa’ida or the Taliban.”

During his review, in January, his attorney, Stephen D. Brown, asked the board “to release Hamdullah to a Muslim country other than Afghanistan or Pakistan,” as the Miami Herald described it, “so that he can spend the remainder of his years with his two wives in peace, and without concern for his own safety,” as Brown put it.

The Miami Herald also noted that “Brown made the request before a Yemeni captive refused to leave [Guantánamo] for resettlement in Europe, citing fear of going to a country where he didn’t have family. After that Jan. 20 episode, the special State Department envoy for Guantánamo closure remarked, ‘We’re not a travel agency.'”

Muhammad al-Ansi, a Yemeni who has become an artist, seeks release

The 26th review, which took place last Tuesday, February 23, was for Muhammad al-Ansi (aka Mohammed al-Ansi), a 40- or 41-year old Yemeni also identified as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden — although, as with Majid Ahmad, it has never been adequately explained how or why Osama bin Laden was accepting young men with little experience to guard him, rather than battle-hardened warriors.

The unclassified summary for his PRB also suggested that he probably took part in advanced training, and had been “considered for participation in a suicide attack or deployment to the West.” In Guantánamo, it was noted, he “has posed a low threat towards the guard force, according to Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) compliance reports, and the majority of his infractions have been relatively minor, mostly consisting of non-physical transgressions.”

It was also noted that al-Ansi “has indicated that his time at Guantánamo has broadened his world view, which differs substantially from his pre-detention mindset, and we assess he is perceived to be a leader now among the more moderate detainees and has assumed a role as a mediator among differing groups since 2011.”

Despite this very positive assessment, it was noted that he “probably still harbors sympathies towards extremists and has made statements that could be interpreted as sympathetic to extremist causes.” Those putting the assessment together also made a point of referring to his communication with former prisoners, which strikes me as a rather unacceptable intrusion on the prisoners’ privacy, given that they presumably have no way of knowing which former prisoners are regarded a suspicious, and whether those suspicions are justified. As the assessment noted, “He continues to communicate with former detainees” but “does not directly communicate with any known extremists outside of Guantánamo.”

It was also noted that he “has expressed a desire to go to a country other than Yemen — particularly other Arabic speaking nations such as Qatar, Oman, or Saudi Arabia — but has also said he would relocate anywhere as long as he is treated fairly and given an opportunity to succeed.” he has also “expressed interest in furthering his education, starting a family and finding a job, which would allow him to support his family.”

The summary also noted that, if al-Ansi returned to Yemen, where his family live near Sana’a, “the turbulent situation along with past associates who remain in Yemen would provide [him] a conduit for reengagement” — although that is irrelevant, as the entire US establishment will not contemplate repatriating any Yemenis.

Below are the opening statements made by al-Ansi’s personal representatives, (military personnel appointed to represent him), who noted that he has “constructively engaged with the Joint Task Force Medical Staff in order to deal with chronic health issues,” and has “taken advantage of all the opportunities for education and personal enrichment while detained at Guantanamo,” and his civilian lawyer, Lisa Strauss, who provided a detailed and very powerful explanation of al-Ansi’s development over the eight years she has known him. Noting that she has “dedicated over two thousand hours to his case,” she explained how he has become a prolific artist, how he is “at peace with his fellow detainees and the guards as reflected in the minimal disciplinary infractions,” and how he loves American culture.

Periodic Review Board [Initial] Hearing, 23 Feb 2016
Muhammad al-Ansi, ISN 029
Personal Representative Opening Statement

Good morning ladies and gentlemen of the Board. We are the Personal Representatives of Muhammad al-Ansi. We will be assisting Mr. al-Ansi this morning with his case, aided by his Counsel, Ms. Lisa Strauss.

Mr. al-Ansi has earnestly participated in the Periodic Review Process. He has maintained a record of perfect attendance for meetings with his Personal Representatives and Counsel.

Mr. al-Ansi has conducted himself in a professional manner throughout all engagements with Counsel and his representatives. We would characterize his personality as very reserved, yet warm.

He has a proven history of compliant behavior while detained at Guantánamo. He has also constructively engaged with the Joint Task Force Medical Staff in order to deal with chronic health issues. This constructive teamwork has greatly improved his physical condition and quality of life. He has since resolutely pursued a daily regimen of self care which includes cardiovascular activities such as treadmill and elliptical training.

He has taken advantage of all the opportunities for education and personal enrichment while detained at Guantánamo.

These opportunities include courses in mathematics, science, English, Spanish, life skills, computers, health and art. He has a record of outstanding academic performance and has proven to be a prolific artist, producing over 200 quality works of art. We have provided examples of his coursework and art in his case submission.

Mr. al-Ansi is fortunate to have a very supportive family remaining in Yemen comprised of his mother, three brothers and one sister. The family has willingly pledged to support his transition to the utmost of their ability.

Later, Mr. al-Ansi will discuss both his past life and his desire for a better life for himself in the future. We are confident that Mr. al-Ansi’s desire to pursue a better way of life if transferred from Guantánamo is genuine and that he does not represent a continuing or significant threat to the security of the United States of America. He is open to transfer to any country, but would prefer an Arabic speaking country if possible.

Thank you for your time and attention. We are pleased to answer any questions you have throughout this proceeding.

Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 23 Feb 2016
Muhammad al-Ansi, ISN 029
Private Counsel Opening Statement (Lisa Strauss)

I am very grateful to be here today to speak on behalf of my client, Muhammad al Ansi. I would also like to thank the Personal Representatives, who have taken time away from their families to meet with Muhammad in connection with this process.

I am a partner at the law firm of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, LLP, in Atlanta, Georgia, where for the last fourteen years, I have primarily represented corporations and individuals in business disputes.

Before joining the firm, I served as a law clerk in the federal district court in Atlanta. I have represented Muhammad since 2008. I have dedicated over two thousand hours to his case, and have traveled to the base over twenty times.

By now, the Board is familiar with statements from private counsel detailing their clients’ Guantánamo education, the willingness of families to welcome detainees home, and their client’s lack of hostility to the United States. Muhammad also has these same factors supporting his clearance for release, as detailed by the declarations of each of his siblings and mother, letters from his instructors at Guantánamo, and his remarkably low record of disciplinary infractions.

I would like instead to focus on some unique circumstances that also help his position.

But first, looking to the future, my law firm has a longstanding relationship with the Carter Center in Atlanta. The Carter Center was founded in 1982 by President Carter and his wife Rosalynn in partnership with Emory University and its mission is “to advance peace and health worldwide.” My law firm previously represented another detainee who was released in 2007. The Carter Center took an active role in that detainee’s swift repatriation to his home country, where it was questionable whether he would be welcomed. The Carter Center has pledged to similarly assist Mr. al Ansi with resettlement if this Periodic Review Board determines he is no longer a threat, and we have submitted a letter to that effect. As the Carter Center’s website states: “[t]he Center believes that people can improve their own lives when provided with the necessary skills, knowledge, and access to resources.” As a philanthropic organization that has significant resources, the Carter Center could provide this added layer of support and supervision.

A second supporting factor is that I represent only one client in Guantánamo, unlike some of the larger law firms and organizations. As a result, I estimate that I have spent close to three hundred hours with Muhammad over the past eight years. I could say that I have watched him mature, but it would be more correct to say that we have matured together. I knew that he was artistic, even in the beginning. His initial drawings were simple — ballpoint pen on the backs of letters we sent — and they often depicted hands in chains, tears, and metaphors for sadness and injustice. These drawings reflect our early conversations, which often focused on his frustrations over the typical prison injustices: insufficient supplies, bad food, petty disputes with guards, and medical problems.

But a few years ago, Muhammad began painting in earnest. Encouraged by his peers, he began attending art lessons. He started painting on canvas and whatever paper he could find, using oils, pastels and water colors. They are mostly peaceful landscapes – mountains, oceans, tropical locations, and a few scenes from his homeland. He told me they reflect where he longs to travel. We have included a commendation of achievement for his artwork by the instructor in the prison and a small sampling of his work. This year he made cards for other detainees to send holiday notes and greetings home. I have collected over two hundred of his paintings and drawings.

He is at peace with his fellow detainees and the guards as reflected in the minimal disciplinary infractions, none serious and none physical.

A third unique fact is that Muhammad’s respect and admiration for American culture is not new or recently undertaken. We have always discussed movies, television, food, magazines, and my situation as a working wife and mother. He loves the Fast & Furious movie series; he loves The Walking Dead (a zombie television program filmed in my hometown); he loves National Geographic. He respects women and speaks often of his yearning to fall in love and have children. Indeed, at our first meeting over seven years ago, I wondered whether he would accept a young female attorney. But he shook my hand, told me not to bother with head coverings and/or bringing my male colleagues solely to interact with him on my behalf.

This attitude is indicative of the more secular and Westernized culture to which Muhammad was exposed because of his father’s employment at a Saudi oil company and his elementary schooling in Saudi Arabia. The recent photographs in his file of his brothers, nieces, and nephews could have been taken in the United States given their Western dress, sunglasses, and grooming, including their clean shaven faces, which is of particular cultural significance.

I have had numerous conversations with his family, going through their statements in great detail as they have a great respect for the significance of the oaths they have taken. They have been very gracious and respectful for my help and the legal process, and I can hear through the phone the heart break they have suffered from Muhammad’s long absence. They are sincerely willing to do anything it takes to secure his release, including selling valuable land in the event they need additional funds, although they do not think that will be necessary. They recognize that Yemen may not be the best place for Muhammad to start a new life given the political unrest that has affected university study and reduced employment opportunities. They have pledged to help Muhammad financially if relocated to a third country, to secure medical and psychological treatment for him, and for some family members to join him for long-term visits. Alternatively, they are willing to welcome him home, to shelter and provide for him there, and to help get him on his feet. Of course,they tell me their top priority is to get him married, and I think he would agree.

Muhammad has never expressed hostility towards the United States or any desire for retribution. We have discussed his differences with the guards and interrogators over the years but he understands that they have a job to do and that they are working under difficult circumstances.

Finally, I understand that is this not the venue to address the legal basis of Mr. al Ansi’s detention. However, we previously disputed the factual and legal basis for his detention in his habeas action, and those disputes remain unresolved. Even the unclassified dossier reflects the uncertainty about his past by using words like “may” and “probably.” In 2001, he was under 20 years old, his education incomplete, and he lacked the strategic or technical skills required to plan or carry out any threatening attacks on any party. Nothing about his time in Guantánamo changes that assessment.

I respectfully request that you clear him for release and resettlement wherever you deem in his best interests.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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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One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the most recent decisions from the Periodic Review Boards at ‪Guantanamo‬, involving the 19th man approved for release out of 22 cases (Haji Hamidullah, an Afghan), and the 26th man to seek his release, Muhammad al-Ansi, a Yemeni who has become a prolific artist and a mediator amongst other prisoners. Congress may remain obstructive, but this is definitely progress, an 86% success rate for the so-called “forever prisoners” once regarded as “too dangerous to release.”

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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