Last week, Haroon al-Afghani, who is around 35 years old and was one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo, in June 2007, became the 46th prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board. This latest of many review processes at Guantánamo began in November 2013 to provide reviews akin to parole boards for 71 men — 46 described as “too dangerous to release” by the previous review process, the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009, and 25 others recommended for prosecution by the task force, until the basis for prosecutions largely collapsed in 2012-13, after appeals court judges threw out a number of convictions on the basis that the war crimes for which the men had been sentenced were not legitimate war crimes, and had been invented by Congress.
By the time the PRBs began, seven men had been removed from consideration — five “forever prisoners” were freed in a prisoner exchange, and two men initially recommended for prosecutions agreed to plea deals in the military commissions. Of the 64 remaining prisoners eligible for PRBs, 35 decisions have so far been taken — and 24 of those decisions have been recommendations for release, demonstrating, if any proof were needed, that the task force’s assessments of the men back in 2010 were unacceptably exaggerated.
Al-Afghani was one of the men recommended for prosecution by the task force in 2010, but in truth there never seemed to have been a viable war crimes case against him. Although the Pentagon described him, when he arrived at Guantánamo, as a “dangerous terror suspect,” who was “known to be associated with high-level militants in Afghanistan,” and had apparently “admitted to serving as a courier for al-Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL),” it seemed more probable that he had been part of a militia that, although opposed to the US, was not something to genuinely consider in anything other than a military context.
As the Pentagon described it, there was “significant information available” that he was a senior commander of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), led by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who, ironically, had been one of the major recipients of billions of dollars of American money to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s, which was channeled to him through his supporters in Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. According to the Pentagon, al-Afghani “commanded multiple HIG terrorist cells that conducted improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in Nangarhar Province” (centered on Jalalabad) and was ”assessed to have had regular contact with senior AQ [al-Qaeda] and HIG leadership.”
Shamefully, al-Afghani was not given an administrative review after his arrival at Guantánamo — a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) — which would have made some information about him publicly available, and he is the only prisoner not to be assigned a number specific to Guantánamo. His number, ISN 3148, is actually a number from Bagram. The conclusion to be drawn from all this can only be that he was never regarded as a significant threat — as a CSRT is required to be eligible for a military commission trial.
Al-Afghani also had no legal representation until very recently, when Reprieve began to represent him. On the day of his PRB, Reprieve issued a press release explaining how Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who represented him at his PRB, only met him for the first time the week before, adding that she “is severely limited by military classification rules, and cannot say much about her new client besides the following statement,” a powerful indictment of the secrecy that, for some men, like Haroon al-Afghani, never seems to have dissipated:
Very little is known to the world about Haroon, and Guantánamo’s secrecy laws currently ban me from filling in the blanks. I can say that my new client is every bit as heartbroken by the senseless violence in Orlando as I am, and presented for his Monday meeting with tears in his eyes.
I can also say that the bright-eyed, chatty young man I met for the first time last week is not allowed to meet me alone for more than ten minutes before government representatives forcibly remove him from the room. At his Board hearing today, Haroon will not be allowed to see the evidence against him; the Board can hold its findings against him without ever asking him if the information is true.
As Haroon was removed from our meeting, he was told to be grateful for the fifteen minutes attorney access he got. He looks to me for an answer: “Are they right … should I be grateful?” his eyes ask. I tell him to trust me. But I am flatly terrified of what will become of Haroon and those like him. I went to law school to be a part of the American justice system, but in Guantánamo, I cannot find it.
In their unclassified summary for the PRB, the US authorities reiterated some of the claims made when al-Afghani first arrived at Guantánamo, describing him as “a Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) commander who organized and led attacks on Coalition forces in Afghanistan and for a time served as a link between senior al-Qa’ida members and other anti-Coalition fighters.” The summary also claimed that he “worked as a courier for al-Qa’ida military commander Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi (IZ-10026) until 2004 or 2005, provided logistics support to fighters aligned with al-Qa’ida and HIG, and probably collaborated on operational matters with leaders of other anti-Coalition groups.” It was also noted that he was “[a]rrested by Afghan security forces with six HIG associates on 4 February 2007 and transferred to Bagram on 5 May 2007.” In his own defence, in discussions with interrogators, al-Afghani stated that he only saw al-Iraqi “approximately eight times.” and ceased to have contact with “Arabs” long before his capture.
In Guantánamo, it was noted that al-Afghani had “incurred a moderate number of disciplinary infractions relative to other detainees — of which the majority were failures to comply with instructions from the guard force, according to Joint Task Force Guantánamo’s (JTF-GTMO) record of his compliance.” Crucially, it was also noted that he “has not voiced his views of extremism,” although he “has repeatedly focused on medical issues and writing letters to camp staff with requests and queries about his PRB status.”
In conclusion, the summary noted that he “probably would prefer to return to Afghanistan or Pakistan, where the majority of his family lives,” but where, the authors of the summary suggested, “he would have ample opportunities to reengage in terrorist activities if he chose to do so, most likely with HIG but also potentially with his former associates in al-Qa’ida, the Afghan Taliban, or Pakistani extremist groups.”
Below, I’m cross-posting the opening statements made by al-Afghani’s personal representatives (military personnel appointed to represent prisoners in their PRBs) and by Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, but prior to that I also think it useful to also refer to an article for Al-Jazeera, from January this year, in which Sami Yousafzai and Jenifer Fenton tried to fill in some of the considerable blanks in al-Afghani’s case.
The Al-Jazeera profile
Examining the circumstances of al-Afghani’s capture, Yousafzai and Fenton pointed out that, according to a report by Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), which runs the prison, and which was included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011, he was captured with six other men who were also suspected of being HIG associates, although “that claim comes from just one source, identified in JTF-GTMO report footnotes as TD-314/08910-07, a CIA report serial number” from 2007. In contrast, one of his family members told Yousafzai and Fenton, “I think he was alone while captured.”
Yousafzai and Fenton also noted “a further accusation by the US that Afghani was an improvised explosive device expert in charge of cells targeting US and coalition forces,” adding, “This intelligence comes from two sources, identified only as CIR 316/00242-07 and IIR 6 105 4594 07. ‘CIR’ could be a criminal investigative report from the Department of Defense investigative task force, and ‘IIR’ indicates a non-CIA report.” They asked an expert on Afghanistan, who was “recognized as such by the Guantánamo military commissions,” but was not familiar with al-Afghani’s case, to review his file, and the expert said his file “reminds me of the broad swath of disparate bits of [information] from various interrogations done over years and documented often by newly initiated persons in the JTF overseen by newish [and] temporary supervisors.”
The expert added that it was “plausible” that someone notable like Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi “would have trusted a native speaker as a courier … [because] Al-Qaeda leadership knew even the best linguist Arabs spoke Dari, [Pashto], Urdu and Farsi with an accent and could not hide in plain site like natives.”
Al-Afghani, it was noted, is fluent in Arabic, Pashto and Farsi, but the expert added that “there was not much … integration of Al-Qaeda Arabs with Afghans or Pakistanis in operation or combat matters,” and cited two main reasons: “lack of trust and language barriers.” In conclusion, the expert said, witheringly, the JTF-GTMO report was nothing more than “pandering and wishful writing.”
Yousafzai and Fenton also spoke to a relative of al-Afghani, establishing that he was born in on around 1981 in the Sherzad district of Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. The relative explained how his family had “a long history” of belonging to Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), a political party that preceded the establishment of HIG. “It is not a crime to be a member of the HIA,” the relative said, explaining that al-Afghani was not a “big name” or “important figure” in the group, and that his affiliation “was ordinary, like millions of other Afghans who are members of the HIA.”
The relative also said that al-Afghani “is not capable of killing anyone,” and is “innocent, a victim of local jealousy,” adding that this was “not an uncommon story for many Afghans rounded up by US or Afghan forces on the basis of false information.”
The relative added, “He was just a normal young boy,” pointing out that he “was a student when the Taliban was in power,” and “studied economics at Hayatabad Science University in Peshawar, Pakistan.” Although his file mentioned that “his association with senior Al-Qaeda members extended to include Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” the relative said that that men like KSM and Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi “would not have met with a ‘simple young boy like Haroon.’” he called the allegations “total baseless propaganda,” and added that, “if someone is tortured, he will claim he has been to the ‘sky and the moon.’”
Another source, however, described al-Afghani as having been close to “Arabs” (Al-Qaeda members), and also opponents of the Afghan government. One source noted he “was said to be charging ‘Arabs’ for an unspecified service,” and an Afghan intelligence official, who worked as a government security officer from 2006 to 2008 and had access to a file about al-Afghani, said Afghan and US officials “kept day-to-day information about Afghani’s movements in the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar.” The source said, “We had reports about his roaming with Al-Qaeda, but we don’t know if he was involved directly in any attack. Perhaps US found more solid evidences that led him to Gitmo.”
Or perhaps, as so often, hunches were regarded as equivalent to evidence.
Whatever the case — and it is not known whether the PRB, whatever decision is taken, will shed clear light on who exactly al-Afghani is — what is clear is that after his disappearance his family did not know where he was for about three years until they “received a letter from him from Guantánamo via the International Committee of the Red Cross.” In the letter he said, “I am in Gitmo. Pray for me … I am OK.”
Yousafzai and Fenton established that he “was married not too long before he was taken, and he has a daughter, who is still young,” adding that his wife “lives in a refugee camp with another family member.” They also stated, “Every six months, the family used to wait for his letters. Family members were then allowed to have phone conversations with him, and now they go to a Red Cross office in Kabul or Pakistan to Skype with Afghani every five weeks or so.”
They also stated, “When one of the family members first saw Afghani, he looked older than his age, he was complaining of headaches, and he had dark circles around his eyes.” However, the relative added, “He said he is OK. We were so happy seeing him after such very long time.”
Below, in the hope of shedding further light on the largely unknown figure of Haroon al-Afghani, are the opening statements from his PRB — from his personal representatives, who gave his name as Asadullah Haroongul, and explained how it was “very apparent” that “he does not possess hard-line extremist ideals, especially with regards to women,” and from Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who noted how he “has come a long way since he arrived at Guantánamo,” having ”taken advantage of many of the courses offered and excelled in all of them,” and having been “compliant during his time in detention.” She and the representatives also noted his devotion to his wife and daughter, with Sullivan-Bennis adding that “he feels immensely guilty for having left [them] to fend for themselves.” She also noted Reprieve’s expertise in resettlement programs, specifically voting how he has relatives in Pakistan and the UK, where Reprieve has offices.
In conclusion, based on everything I have read, I share Haroon al-Afghani’s representatives’ assertions that he should be released, and I hope the review board agrees.
Periodic Review Board [Initial] Hearing, 14 June 2016
Haroon Al-Afghani, ISN 3148
Personal Representative Opening Statement
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Board. We are the Personal Representatives of ISN 3148. We will be assisting Asadullah Haroongul this morning with his case.
Since our initial notification, Haroon has attended all meetings with us and has earnestly participated in the Periodic Review Process. Based on our interaction with Haroon as well as the way he talks about his daughter and her education, it is very apparent that he does not possess hard-line extremist ideals, especially with regards to women.
Haroon has conducted himself in a professional and patient manner throughout all engagements with his Personal Representatives. His study of the English language in the past four years made our meetings very productive. He has a proven history of relatively compliant behavior while detained at Guantánamo. He has also been compliant in his engagement with the Joint Task Force Medical Staff in order to deal with multiple health issues. This teamwork has improved his quality of life.
He has taken advantage of many of the opportunities for education and personal enrichment while detained at Guantánamo. These opportunities include courses in English, Nutrition, and Art.
Haroon is fortunate to have a very supportive family remaining in Pakistan and England comprised of his spouse, daughter, father, mother, brother and three sisters. His family members and the town elders have pledged unwavering financial support, a place of residence, and assistance with employment during his transition to the utmost of their ability.
Subsequently, Haroon will discuss both his past and his desire for a better life for himself in the future. He is open to transfer to any country, but if given his choice, he would prefer to be transferred to Europe. Even though he himself is a Muslim, he has no problem integrating with anyone of any religion. We do believe that Haroon’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.
Thank you for your time and attention. We are pleased to answer any questions you have throughout this proceeding.
Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 14 June 2016
Haroon Al-Afghani, ISN 3148
Private Counsel Opening Statement
Esteemed Periodic Review Board Members:
My name is Shelby Sullivan-Bennis. It is my privilege to represent Haroon al-Afghani and to appear before this Board today.
Haroon has come a long way since he arrived at Guantánamo many years ago. He has taken advantage of many of the courses offered and excelled in all of them. He has been compliant during his time in detention and has enjoyed all of the privileges that accompany his status.
Having completed a two-year university program in economics and mastered five different languages, Haroon is more able than most to begin a productive and peaceful life upon release. He wants nothing more than to return to his wife and daughter, whom he feels immensely guilty for having left to fend for themselves. It is his feeling of responsibility to support them that will lead the charge of his search for a better life.
Uniquely, Haroon has not had the benefit of an attorney for the duration of his time here at Guantánamo. Where Reprieve, as habeas attorneys for other detainees, has been able to orchestrate successful inter-governmental communication and placement, Haroon has had only the support of his family to vie for his welfare.
I start now, at quite the late date, on a quest to provide Haroon with the support he should have gotten years ago-enhancing his quality of life, facilitating family, as well as governmental communication, and most importantly, organizing for his release. This is a great undertaking, but Reprieve is likely the best-placed organization for the task.
With affiliate offices in both Pakistan — where Haroon’s wife and daughter live — as well as London — where his sister and her family live — Reprieve is uniquely situated to offer the utmost support to Haroon in his resettlement. We have represented over sixty Guantánamo detainees and our UN-funded “Life After Guantánamo” program has provided on-the-ground support to 38 former detainees and their families (in many cases, we visit the former detainees in-country post release to help them adjust to their new surroundings).
In 2015 alone, we visited 17 former detainees and family members in their home or host countries, working with them and the local government on social integration issues. We consider it our continuing duty to forge relationships with local authorities and non-governmental organizations to provide them with the services they need, and we stand ready to do the same for Haroon.
Thank you for taking into consideration the information we have provided. We respectfully submit that Haroon al-Afghani should be approved for transfer from Guantánamo, consistent with the President’s mandate to close the prison.
Very Truly Yours,
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, looking at the Periodic Review Board last week for Haroon al-Afghani, one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantanamo, in 2007, who has never been heard from before. The government claims that he was involved with an Afghan insurgent group, and with senior Al-Qaeda figures. Until two weeks ago, he didn’t even have a lawyer to represent him. I struggle to understand how this resembles justice in any sense.
Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. Just updated – my definitive Guantanamo prisoner list: http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Periodic-Review-Boards
Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:
OMG. One of America’s Ghost Detainees. How could he possibly have been in Gitmo all this time without anyone but his jailers knowing? This is awful.
He was known about, Rose, it’s just that we knew nothing about him, apart from what the Pentagon said when he arrived at Guantanamo, until WikiLeaks released his file in April 2011, almost four years after he arrived at Guantanamo. If that hadn’t been leaked, then yes, we wouldn’t have found out anything until last week – or rather, until January, when Al-Jazeera’s article was published. It kind of undermines any pretence that Guantanamo is, as the authorities claim, “Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent,” doesn’t it?
Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:
Andy: Absolutely. Thank you for the information. It makes me sick.
You’re welcome, Rose. Although I’ve been working on Guantanamo for over ten years, the sad truth is that opportunities to shine a truly bright light on its horrors don’t occur all the time. The injustices need hooks, like this story – of a man largely unknown for eight years and without a lawyer until two weeks ago.
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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