Last Thursday, two days after Saeed Bakhouche, an Algerian, sought release from Guantánamo via a Periodic Review Board, a high-level, inter-agency US government review process, established in 2013, another Algerian, Sufyian Barhoumi, also went before a PRB to ask for his freedom, and was the 41st prisoner to do so. Of the 30 decisions already taken, 23 have resulted in recommendations for the prisoners’ release, while just seven have resulted in recommendations for the men’s continued detention — and even those are subject to further review. This is a success rate for the prisoners of 77%, thoroughly undermining the excessive caution and misplaced zeal for prosecution that, in 2010, led the previous high-level review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, to describe the men who were later made eligible for PRBs as “too dangerous to release” or as candidates for prosecution.
The former were largely groundless claims, in a prison full of statements obtained through torture and other forms of coercion, while the latter was based on a mistaken understanding of what constitutes war crimes, spelled out in a number of appeals court rulings in 2012 and 2013, which humiliated the government by dismissing some of the handful of convictions secured in the military commission trial system on the embarrassing basis that the war crimes for which the men in question has been convicted had actually been invented by Congress.
Barhoumi, whose prisoner number is 694, is 41 years old, and, as his lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights explain, he was “born and raised in Algiers, where his mother still lives and his late father practiced law.” CCR also explain that, as a young man, he “lived in various countries in Europe – Spain, France, and England – as a farm worker and then a street merchant for about four years,” before traveling to Afghanistan, and then Pakistan, where he ended up in US custody.
In US documents, he is also identified as Sufiyan Ibn Muhammad Barhumi, and his PRB, following Saeed Bakhouche’s, and, the week before, Jabran al-Qahtani’s, was the third in a row examining the cases of men seized in a house raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan, on March 28, 2002, which led to the capture of Abu Zubaydah. As I explained in my article about Saeed Bakhouche’s PRB, Zubaydah was regarded as a “high-value detainee,” and the CIA’s brutal and ineffective post-9/11 torture program was first developed for use on him.
As I also explained, however:
Crucially, the Bush administration’s claims that he was a significant figure in Al-Qaeda — no. 3 in the organization, after Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri — have been thoroughly discredited in the years since, and in 2009 the Justice Department conceded that he was not a member of Al-Qaeda, and probably had not known in advance about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
Instead, Abu Zubaydah was the gatekeeper of a independent training camp in Afghanistan, Khaldan, which was not affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and which was closed by its emir, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, after Osama bin Laden sought to bring it under Al-Qaeda’s control. The evidence suggests that, after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Abu Zubaydah, as would be expected from someone with a great experience of logistics, was responsible for helping men, women and children – civilians as well as soldiers – to escape from the chaos of Afghanistan, and to wait in Pakistan until arrangements could be made for them to return home.
Barhoumi was put forward for a trial by military commission in 2005, until the Supreme Court ruled in 2006, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, that the military commission trial system lacked “the power to proceed because its structures and procedures violate[d] both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions.” When Congress revived the commissions, Barhoumi was again put forward for a trial, in May 2008, along with two Saudis, Jabran al-Qahtani (see above) and Ghassan al-Sharbi (who is also eligible for a PRB, which will be taking place on June 23), and Binyam Mohamed, a British resident freed in 2009. As I wrote when Barhoumi was charged:
[A]ccused of being a trainer for the bomb-making group, [he] has gone so far as to strenuously deny the allegations against him. In his tribunal at Guantánamo [his Combatant Status Review Tribunal], he admitted traveling to Afghanistan for military training in 1999, but pointed out that this was long before 9/11, and insisted that, having been shown a video of atrocities in Chechnya at a mosque in the UK, where he lived for two years, his intention was to train to fight in Chechnya. He explained that, after leaving Afghanistan, he traveled “from house to house,” ending up at the safe house in Faisalabad where he was seized with Abu Zubaydah. He added, however, that he was only there for ten days before the raid, and claimed that the allegations were the result of “hearsay” and of “people testifying against me.” He claimed that his interrogators told him, “people are talking about you a lot,” and suggested that, because he was arrested with Abu Zubaydah, “they dumped everything on me and said I was al-Qaeda also.”
The charges against him were then dropped (in October 2008), and were then filed again in January 2009, although they didn’t survive the change of administration, and Barhoumi has not been charged under President Obama.
After the Supreme Court granted the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights in June 2008, in Boumediene v. Bush, Barhoumi had his habeas corpus petition turned down (in September 2009). This ruling was then confirmed by the appeals court in June 2010, as I discussed in detail at the time, in an article entitled, In Abu Zubaydah’s Case, Court Relies on Propaganda and Lies.
By 2013, he was so fed up with having become held in an endless legal limbo that he asked to be charged with war crimes, on the basis that there seemed to be no other way out of Guantánamo, but prosecutors showed no interest in charging him again.
And so, nearly three years later, Barhoumi has finally been given an opportunity to get out of Guantánamo, via a PRB that has revealed important information about him that was not previously well-known – that, as his attorney, Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights explained in a submission to the board, he is a ”natural diplomat,” and popular with both his fellow prisoners and the guard force. As Kadidal put it, “I personally have never seen any other detainee treated by the guards as well as Barhoumi, even at times when relations between prisoners and the authorities were at a low point.” He added, “If the language barrier is one of the greatest causes of misunderstandings and conflict at GTMO, he’s used his language skills to help both prisoners and guards quash problems before they grew too big to tame. It has not gone unappreciated by either group.”
I hope you have time to read Kadidal’s statement in full, as I found it painted a convincing portrait of a man who “describes himself as a ‘people person,’ a born salesman,” and has “the calmness, humility, patience, and joy in living that allow him to look forward to life as a free man in the future” – in Algeria, where, it should also be noted, there are no examples of recidivism, as the government keeps a close eye on former prisoners.
In its unclassified summary for the PRB, the government confirmed Kadidal’s accounts of Barhoumi’s behavior at Guantánamo, describing how, since his arrival in June 2002, he “has accrued a low number of disciplinary infractions compared to the rest of the detainee population, and is considered to be compliant with the Guantánamo detention staff, according to JTF-GTMO reporting.” The summary added that JTF-GTMO have also stated that “[m]ost of [his] infractions have been minor instances of failing to follow instructions or camp rules, probably as a show of passive resistance or as a means to achieve individual concessions, rather than to make political or ideological statements.”
The summary also ran through his history – or a version of it – explaining how he “illegally immigrated” to UK from Algeria in the 1990s and was allegedly “radicalized and recruited at the Baker Street Mosque in London to travel to Afghanistan for jihad.” He then “obtained a falsified passport in the UK and traveled to Afghanistan in 1999, intending to fight in Chechnya but ultimately deciding to stay in Afghanistan because of tight Russian border security and because of an injury he suffered to his left hand while training to disarm land mines.”
The summary suggested that he “received advanced training at several camps in Afghanistan, including at Khaldan and Derunta,” but then runs out of conviction, noting that “he probably was not a member of al-Qa’ida or the Taliban,” although he apparently (emphasis added) “worked with multiple violent extremist groups as part of the Khaldan group, was well known by several leaders in al-Qaida, and traveled to several training camps and guest houses throughout Afghanistan between 2000 and 2001 to provide training in remote control improvised explosive devices (RCIEDs).”
He then, according to the summary, “most likely traveled to Tora Bora with members of al-Qa’ida [emphasis added, again], eventually fleeing to Pakistan and staying at several safehouses along the way while evading Pakistan authorities before finally agreeing to provide training on how to construct RCIEDs” at the safehouse of Abu Zubaydah, wrongly identified as a “well-known al-Qa’ida facilitator.” While there, the summary claimed, he “probably [emphasis added again] agreed to join Zubaydah’s Martyr’s Brigade [an alleged militia that was only mentioned for the first time in court papers in 2010] and plot further attacks against the United States.” It was also noted that he “probably blames Zubaydah for his detention at Guantánamo,” and in 2005 said, “All my problems are because I was in the house with Abu Zubaydah.”
The summary also stated that, although he “has answered questions regarding his travel to Afghanistan and the training he underwent,” he “has largely avoided implicating himself as an explosives expert or trainer,” and “has maintained in interviews throughout his detention that he only wanted to fight in Chechnya and was not a member of al-Qa’ida or any other extremist group,” claims which may well be true, although it is difficult to know if the board members would accept this, or if, as is more probable, they would have been expecting Barhoumi to accept the allegations against him, but to show contrition in order to possibly secure an approval for his release. If freed, the authorities noted that he “has stated that he would like to be reunited with his mother in Algeria,” and also noted, usefully, “We have not identified any associations between [Barhoumi] and at-large terrorists.” The summary added that, “given his skillset as an experienced RCIED expert and trainer, [he] could serve as a valuable asset to extremist groups should he seek to re-engage,” although this seems highly unlikely, as Barhoumi has shown no desire to be involved with terrorism, and, in any case, as mentioned above, the Algerian government keeps a close eye on former prisoners.
Below, I’m cross-posting the opening statement of Barhoumi’s personal representatives (military personnel appointed to help the prisoners prepare for their PRBs), who explained that he “has realized and regretted all of his mistakes,” and “has no ill-will toward the United States,” and below that Shayana Kadidal’s submission to the board.
Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 26 May 2016
Sufyian Barhoumi, ISN 694
Personal Representative Opening Statement
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Board. As Sufyian Barhoumi’s (ISN 694) Personal Representatives, we would like to thank the Board for allowing us this opportunity to demonstrate how Sufyian is no longer a continuing significant threat to the United States.
Sufyian comes from a large middle-class family, and when the economy of Algeria was in the depths of a serious recession, Sufyian, like many unemployed Algerian youths, decided to leave the country in search of a better opportunity. After stowing away on a ship to Europe, he literally worked his way from Spain through France and eventually ended up in the United Kingdom. While living and working in London for nearly a year and a half, he was shown videos of the Russian carnage and mayhem that were occurring in Chechnya, and he wanted to go there and help the Chechens. In order to do that, he made arrangements to travel to Afghanistan to receive some training that he would be able to use in Chechnya. However, Sufyian never made it to Chechnya; the cold weather, difficult terrain and the numerous border guards, coupled with his injuries, subsequent surgeries and physical therapy, forced him to abandon that plan. After the U.S. response to the events of September 11th, he sought to return to Algeria to be with his mother, but he was captured and brought to Guantánamo.
Since his detention in Guantánamo, Sufyian has been a compliant detainee who has been respectful of both the guard force and his fellow detainees. He has realized and regretted all of his mistakes. Sufyian seeks to put the past behind him and look only to the future. He has no ill-will toward the United States, and he believes that the time he spent at Guantánamo has allowed him the opportunity to grow up and mature. He has plans to go into business with his brothers, and his mother already has three marriage candidates selected for him.
Sufyian has realized what extremists have done and are doing, and he would tell young people not to go and fight; instead, he would encourage them to stay at home and take care of their families.
Sufyian is ready to answer any questions the Board may have for him and should be able to prove that he is no longer a continuing significant threat to the United States.
May 16, 2016
Statement of Private Counsel for Sufyian Barhoumi, ISN 694
Members of the Periodic Review Board:
My name is Shayana Kadidal. I am the managing attorney of the Guantánamo litigation project at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City. Together with my colleagues, we’ve represented Mr. Barhoumi for over a decade in his habeas proceedings, and I’ve represented him as lead counsel for more than six years. I’ve also been privileged to work with his excellent military commission defense team, who haven’t had charges to defend against in quite some time, but remain hard at work trying to find creative ways to get Sufyian back home to his mother in Algeria.
What I remember best about my first visits with Mr. Barhoumi is that I could tell even before I walked into the room that he was regarded differently than my other clients; I could sense an air of relaxation in the attitude of the guards escorting me back to the meetings, as if they felt so comfortable with my client that they knew he couldn’t pose a threat to them. The Board has before it a letter from a former guard who still remembers Barhoumi fondly more than ten years later; this is to my knowledge the first time any detainee has managed to submit a letter from a former guard in support of their release. That letter recounts how Barhoumi helped orient newcomers rotating through guard force duty at GTMO, explaining to them — in English — how things were done; how he mediated and helped defuse both camp-wide and personal disputes when they happened; how, when newbies who didn’t know how to handcuff his missing left hand would get frustrated about it, he’d defuse the several layers of tension inherent in the situation by laughing about his disability, and then would show them how to do it.
I personally have never seen any other detainee treated by the guards as well as Barhoumi, even at times when relations between prisoners and the authorities were at a low point. I’ve known plenty of detainees who spoke better English, so that alone doesn’t explain it — in fact, I think the English you’ll hear him speak today at this hearing is more a consequence of his good historical relationships with the guards, which allowed him to practice and improve his language skills during his time here, than the cause of it. If the language barrier is one of the greatest causes of misunderstandings and conflict at GTMO, he’s used his language skills to help both prisoners and guards quash problems before they grew too big to tame. It has not gone unappreciated by either group.
Even putting to one side the language skills, he is a natural diplomat: whenever he needs to raise something uncomfortable with counsel (for example, how they really should visit more often), there’s always a sense for the feelings of the other party. He’ll wait to complain about something in person in a private meeting rather than do it on a monitored call; other times he’ll route requests through intermediaries to blunt their impact. It is this same set of empathic skills that I’m guessing made him a good street merchant, that allow him to enjoy watching cheesy Hollywood movies with his military defense counsel, to befriend Yemenis and Saudis and fellow Algerian prisoners alike, and that allow him to claim the title “best striker in GTMO” — after all, in soccer you can’t score if others won’t feed you the ball. (Barhoumi’s passion for the world’s favorite sport is documented in several of the letters of support before the Board, and his claim to the title is better established now that two professional-level players have been released.) As the letter from his defense counsel notes, he’s always treated everyone with “respect regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation,” here in prison no less than in England and France, where he lived among people of all faiths as neighbors.
Despite losing fourteen years of his life to this facility, Barhoumi has frequently said that he has “no black heart against America.” That’s not because he’s always been treated well here — his psychological brutalization during his first few years of interrogations was well-documented in his habeas case — but rather simply because it’s in his nature to be open to the best that people have to offer. I suppose that is typical of the sort of person who picks up and moves to a new country at age 22. Even now, at nearly twice that age, he has tremendous hopes for the future.
He desperately wants to return home to his mother. In 2012 he offered very publicly to plead guilty to anything the government was willing to charge him with in order to get a date certain when his mother could see him again. The response was that there was nothing they were willing to charge him with. So here he sits, waiting for the government to figure out what if anything it truly believes he might be guilty of. The odds are he will never be tried: as his commission counsel relates, having dropped all their previous charge sheets, “it is clear from my many interactions with military prosecutors that they have no intention of charging him again.”
He has faced this situation with what the Judge called “evident” “personal strength.” In today’s hearing I’m sure you will see many sides of his personality: the proud fatalism that has helped him endure, but also along with it the calmness, humility, patience, and joy in living that allow him to look forward to life as a free man in the future.
As to that future, he sees himself living surrounded by the tight-knit family that economic circumstances first separated him from 21 years ago. The three eldest among his brothers have solid, salaried jobs, and the family owns property that will provide them flexibility in the future. Barhoumi himself will do fine: he describes himself as a “people person,” a born salesman, and I think that’s correct. He had no problem finding work buying and selling goods in Europe in his years there, and I believe he will have no problem finding his way if he goes home. They’ve talked about using some of their family capital to start a patisserie, and it appears that since the last time Barhoumi spoke to them, they’ve bought a small pizza and snack shop.
He’s also worked hard on improving himself here in prison. You already know about the classes he’s taken. A letter from one of his current commission defense counsel notes how he listened to audio book versions of English books to match sound to written word, and used to come to meetings with lists of words he didn’t understand from the English newspapers.
The fact that Barhoumi is from Algeria should make it particularly easy to decide to transfer him home. Every man returned from Guantánamo faces a mandatory period of preventative detention, and every one is then subject to a formal judicial investigation. Most have been tried for the crime of membership in terrorist organizations operating outside Algeria — which is an offense even if the group has no relationship whatsoever to Algeria — and most of the trials have resulted in convictions. Repatriated men are required to report to the police on a regular basis and are also subject to random visits by the authorities. The government also engages in extensive electronic surveillance of communications. Border controls, even in remote desert regions, are tight. As a result, remarkably few foreign fighters with ISIL have come from Algeria. No Algerian repatriated from Guantánamo has received a passport or other travel document of any sort from the Algerian government, none have been permitted to leave the country, and there have been no reported incidents of “recidivism,” either domestically or abroad, among them.
I have complete confidence that Mr. Barhoumi will not pose a threat to the national security of the United States if he is sent home to Algeria. I look forward to helping to answer the Board’s questions about all aspects of this case.
Private Counsel to ISN 694
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).
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, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:
Here’s my latest article, about the Periodic Review Board last week for Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian prisoner in Guantanamo. He was seized 14 years ago in Faisalabad, Pakistan with Abu Zubaydah, who then became the first victim of the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program. In Guantanamo, Barhoumi is respected by prisoners and guards alike, and his attorney has described his “calmness, humility, patience, and joy in living.” Will he be recommended for release, as in 23 of the 30 cases so far decided?
If he is recommended for release, I see no problem in sending him and Said Bakush back to Algeria. We have yet to see any recidivists from Algeria.
Yes, I think Shayana Kadidal made that very clear in his submission for Barhoumi, Martin. I think it would be fair to say that the Algerian security services and government are known for quite a heavy-handed approach to former prisoners, which may not necessarily be appropriate, but it’s certainly helpful when seeking parole.
So today, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of the best-selling Guantanamo Diary, had his Periodic Review Board. I’ll be writing about it soon, but in the meantime check out his brother’s article for the Guardian, and see my article about a Parliamentary meeting for him that took place in March: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/29/brother-guantanamo-bay-heart-family-missing
I’ve just updated my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantanamo website, reflecting the decision to approve another prisoner for release on May 31 (more on that soon), linking to my articles about the two reviews last week, and noting the two reviews this week, which, of course, I’ll be writing about soon: http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Periodic-Review-Boards
On the Close Guantanamo Facebook page, where I posted a link to the article, Christina Canty wrote:
Heartbreaking. So grateful for this group to keep us updated, and for the attorneys who are working diligently for justice.
Good to hear from you, Christina, and thanks for your interest. Sadly, too many people don’t care about Guantanamo, even though, every day it remains open, it promotes the notion that it is somehow appropriate to hold people forever without charge or trial, which it isn’t, of course. We will make sure we continue to cover the Periodic Review Boards, which only sporadically attract the interest of the mainstream media.
Have a listen to me talking about Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s case, the importance of the Periodic Review Boards, and Republican opposition to President Obama’s efforts to close Guantanamo on Sputnik Radio’s Loud and Clear show with Brian Becker: http://sputniknews.com/radio_loud_and_clear/20160602/1040673120/gitmo-prisoner-torture-victim.html
Barhoumi finally approved for transfer. I guess the letter from a former guard helped. Plus, he is missing his left hand. I guess Bakush and Rammah have a chance after well. Congratulations.
Again, thanks for the update, Martin. So that’s 33 approved for release, and 17 recommended for ongoing imprisonment. Back on the 20th. For now most of my time is taken up with the sea and sun here in north eastern Spain.
Glad to hear about Barhoumi being approved for release. I think he made a good case for being granted his freedom.
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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