Last Thursday, July 21, a Yemeni prisoner at Guantánamo, Omar Muhammad Ali al-Rammah (ISN 1017), became the 54th prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board. The PRBs were set up in 2003 to review the cases of prisoners who had not already been approved for release, or were not facing trials, and to date 30 men have been approved for release, while 14 have had their ongoing imprisonment upheld. For further information, see my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantánamo website.
This is a 68% success rate for the prisoners, and, as I explained in an article last week, these results are “remarkable — and remarkably damaging for the credibility of the Obama administration — because the majority of these men were described, by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama set up shortly after taking office in January 2009, as ‘too dangerous to release,’ when the reality has not borne out that caution.” I added, “Others were recommended for prosecution, until the basis for prosecutions in Guantánamo’s military commission trial system largely collapsed after a series of devastating appeals court rulings, confirming that the war crimes being tried were illegitimate, having been invented by Congress.”
Al-Rammah (also identified as Zakaria al-Baidany), who is 40 years old, was, as I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files, captured far from the battlefields of Afghanistan — in Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, with an Algerian, Soufian al-Hawari (ISN 1016), who was freed in November 2008. Al-Hawari explained in Guantánamo that he was formerly a drug user and petty thief in various European countries, but that he then became a devout Muslim, and traveled in 2001 to meet an old friend from Algeria called Abdul Haq in Georgia, where, as I described it, he said he “was captured on a bridge 50 miles from his friend’s house under the most extraordinary circumstances.”
Al-Hawari said, “The Americans didn’t capture me. The [Russian] Mafia captured me. They sold me to the Americans … When I was captured, a car came around and people inside were talking Russian and Georgian … We were delivered to another group who spoke perfect Russian. They sold us to the dogs. The Americans came two days later with a briefcase full of money. They took us to a forest, then a private plane to Kabul.”
When asked who was with him, al-Hawari replied, “There were four of us. Myself, my friend Abdul Haq, a Yemeni guy named Zakaria [al-Rammah], and a Chech[en] driver, who was killed.” According to a Cageprisoners report, based on accounts provided by former prisoners, they were sold to the Americans for $100,000. Al-Rammah has not spoken at Guantánamo in any publicly released records, but, according to two reports, he was subjected to brutal treatment in the early days of the prison’s existence.
Cageprisoners reported that he “would be held with his hand tied behind his back and his feet chained to the floor while being subjected to extremely cold temperatures,” and “would not be allowed to use the toilet or eat,” and Juma al-Dossari, a prisoner released in Saudi Arabia in July 2007, described how al-Rammah “went on a hunger strike because of the abuse that he was subjected to during interrogations, but was still interrogated every day for more than twelve hours.” He added that “the interrogator ordered the guards to keep him awake and he was then placed in solitary confinement.” Al-Dossari explained, “You have no idea of what the solitary isolation cells in Camp Delta are like; they cause psychological illnesses. They beat him in solitary and I heard his screams when they were beating him.”
In the unclassified summary for al-Rammah’s PRB, the US authorities admitted that they had no information establishing that he was anything more than a low-level facilitator working with Muslim freedom fighters in Chechnya. The summary stated that he “probably was a low-level mujahidin fighter since the mid-1990s, when he probably participated in the Bosnian jihad, and a facilitator since the late 1990s when he became associated with an extremist network affiliated with al-Qa’ida.” The doubtfulness in the above, with the double use of the word “probably,” continued in the following description of how he “may have trained at al-Qa’ida-associated camps in Afghanistan before relocating to Georgia in mid-2001 to support the Chechen jihad.”
The summary added, “While in Georgia, he was part of a force led by Chechen mujahid Ruslan Gelayev and may have fought against Russian or Abkhaz forces in the breakaway region of Abkhazia.” After 9/11, he “continued to work as a trusted but low-level mujahidin facilitator while he aspired to enter Chechnya to fight. He arranged to acquire fraudulent passports; and sought to acquire weapons, ammunition, and other supplies for mujahidin operations in Chechnya.” It was also claimed that he “probably received some training under Abu Atiya, who led a toxin network while in Georgia, but probably had no other inyolvement in its operations.” Captured in April 2002 by Russian forces, he arrived at Guantánamo in May 2003 after being held in a variety of CIA “black sites” and US-run secret prisons in Afghanistan.
Moving on to his behavior in Guantánamo, the summary noted that, although he has been “moderately compliant,” he “has refused to cooperate with US personnel and probably retains an extremist mindset” — again, the use of the word “probably” does not inspire confidence that this is necessarily an accurate assessment. The summary added that al-Rammah “has made no effort to reconnect with family,” although this claim is contradicted by his civilian lawyer, Beth Jacob, who, in her submission to the board, posted below, explicitly states that “despite several efforts by the International Red Cross (which my firm has confirmed independently through conversations with the ICRC) and others — he has not been able to make contact with his family since his arrival at Guantánamo.”
The summary also noted that al-Rammah “probably does not want to be repatriated to Yemen” (although he would not be allowed to anyway, as the entire US establishment is agreed that no Yemenis can be repatriated from Guantánamo, because of the security situation in their home country). It was also noted that he “has little formal education and has not articulated any plans or hopes for his life after release, suggesting that he lacks the social and vocational skills to support himself without comprehensive assistance.” This does not augur well for his PRB, because, as a process similar to parole, what is required, as well as contrition, is a serious and convincing plan for life after Guantánamo.
In closing, the summary noted that there are “no indications” that al-Rammah “has current associations with active extremists,” although it was noted that “Soufian Abar Huwari [aka al-Hawari] was arrested by Belgian authorities in July 2015 for criminal activities.”
Below, I’m posting the opening statements made by al-Rammah’s personal representative (a military officer appointed to help him prepare for his PRB) and his attorney Beth Jacob, who refers to him as Zakaria, the name by which he is best-known. Both statements are revealing of a young man of limited education who made some terrible life choices, but whose ramifications he has understood.
The PR also noted how, as a “rebellious youngster,” he “focused on playing soccer, dancing and having fun,” and Jacob noted how, “through watching American movies he learned about open societies and cultures where men and women can interact freely,” and, as a result, his ambition now is for “a life with friends both male and female, and his dream is to be able to go out dancing at night with his wife and then come home to their children.” His PR also noted how is hoping to “marry a woman who is educated,” and to “live somewhere where she doesn’t have to keep her head covered.”
In reading through the opening statements, I actually found myself feeling rather sad for al-Rammah, who, like many of the men held at Guantánamo, has developed an enthusiasm for US culture in spite of the way that the US government has treated him. The saddest moment, however, as I mentioned above, came with Beth Jacob’s explanation that al-Rammah has not been able to communicate with his family at all since his capture, and, as she described it, his “last conversation with his mother was in 2002 from Georgia, when she told him to come home.”
Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 21 Jul 2016
Omar Mohammed Ali Al-Rammah, ISN 1017
Personal Representative Opening Statement
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Board. I am the Personal Representative for Omar Mohammed Ali Al-Rammah (ISN 1017), who goes by a nickname Zakariya. Thank you for this opportunity to show Zakariya is not a continuing significant threat to the United States.
Zakariya, whose birth name is Faysal Mohammed Alawi Ali Salem, was born and raised in Jedda Saudi Arabia, although his family is Yemeni by blood. Zakariya comes from a moderate family that highly values education. In fact, both his older brothers pursued advanced degrees at foreign universities. As a typical rebellious youngster, Zakariya did not put much effort into his schooling and instead, focused on playing soccer, dancing and having fun. He also chose not to attend mosque or practice Islam until he reached high school when someone at a nearby mosque showed him a video describing heaven and hell. This scared him enough that he turned towards a more strict faith. This eventually led him to head for Bosnia in the 1990’s so he could help protect the Muslims from the atrocities of that period. After only a month of basic training his barracks was shelled, injuring his leg and forcing him back home to get proper care. After a couple years spent recovering and completing additional schooling, someone at mosque showed him videos of the Chechen conflict and he again felt the need to go help the Muslims there. After a short stay in Afghanistan to finish his basic training, he ended up in Georgia.
Once Zakariya arrived in Georgia, the Chechens there essentially told him they didn’t trust Arabs to do any fighting and sent him to provide support in the rear areas of the conflict. This left Zakariya to spend his time performing menial tasks such as loading food for transport. One day, Zakariya took a cab between towns and the cab was ambushed. Zakariya and two other passengers were apprehended while the Chechen driver was killed next to Zakariya. He was eventually handed over to Americans and, after being held an extended time in Afghanistan, he was finally transferred to Guantanamo Bay. His traumatic capture experience finally brought home the brutal reality of his choices and forever altered his view of armed conflict.
While at Guantánamo, Zakariya has settled into a much more moderate practice of Islam, sometimes even earning the displeasure of other detainees for his willingness to speak with female guards and staff members. He participated in numerous class offerings and likes to spend his time playing video games and watching American movies. Zakariya greatly admires Western culture and wants to move to an accommodating country with religious freedoms, preferably in Europe. He wants to marry a woman who is educated, who he can take dancing and live somewhere where she doesn’t have to keep her head covered. He understands that he has limited education and job training and is willing to accept any job he can to provide for a family. Zakariya is ready to answer any and all questions to prove he is not a continuing significant threat to the United States. Thank you.
Attorney’s Opening Statement
Good morning. I am Beth Jacob, a member of the law firm Kelley Drye & Warren, private counsel for Faysal Alawi Ali Salem, also known as Zakaria al Baidany. He has been called Zakaria for most of the last dozen years, so I will use that name in referring to him.
I would like to give you a little background about myself, so you can have context to consider my comments about Zakaria. Shortly after law school I became a prosecutor in the New York City District Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, where I worked for eight years investigating and prosecuting organized crime, official corruption, white collar crime, large scale tax evasion and financial frauds. Some years after I left the District Attorney’ s Office, I defended the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — the owner of the World Trade Center complex — in some of the litigations arising out of the September 11, 2001 attacks. On a pro bono basis, I helped victims of those attacks make claims against insurers and obtain compensation from the fund established by the United States government for that purpose. Now most of my work is representing generic pharmaceutical companies in patent infringement litigation against brand pharmaceutical companies.
Along with others in my previous and current law firms, I have represented men detained at Guantánamo since 2005.
I have known Zakaria only a few months, when he asked if I could be his private counsel at this hearing because a series of departures from the firm that had been working with him left him without a lawyer. But in those few months, I have spoken and met with him almost a dozen times. I talked with his previous lawyers and read their notes. He has always been friendly and polite; I do not wear a headscarf or a skirt when we meet; and he shakes my hand and thanks me profusely at the beginnings and ends of our meetings.
At Guantánamo, Zakaria has taken many classes, and you have letters from two of his teachers. But what he likes best is to play videogames and to watch American movies — he likes adventure movies and romantic stories, where he can follow the plots despite his limited English. He told me that when he watches movies, he is transported to another world. And he told me that through watching American movies he learned about open societies and cultures where men and women can interact freely. Now, Zakaria’s ambition is a life with friends both male and female, and his dream is to be able to go out dancing at night with his wife and then come home to their children. His thoughts about employment are modest and realistic — he would like to work in a store, perhaps one selling sweets or drive a taxi.
Zakaria is not someone who is interested in political or religious philosophy, or who wants to change the world or other people. When he was young, he liked music and dancing (even though that was not accepted in Saudi Arabia where he grew up), and playing soccer. He then made what he readily admits were wrong decisions that he regrets intensely. He was scared by a story of heaven and hell, got religion as a result and was guided to Bosnia and then Chechnya to support his fellow Muslims, decisions that he now regrets deeply. He was captured in a violent ambush in Georgia where the young man sitting next to him was shot dead before his eyes — a shock that still reverberates when he talks about it today. He was transferred to American custody and held in CIA black sites before he was transferred to Guantánamo.
These experiences traumatized him — especially the death of the young man, the first death he had seen.
He has gained a reputation as a good cook. And while I have not had the privilege of sampling his cooking, we have had discussions about food and spices, and about different kinds of coffees.
Zakaria grew up in a family that valued education and was not unduly religious. We have not been able to provide statements from his family because — despite several efforts by the International Red Cross (which my firm has confirmed independently through conversations with the ICRC) and others — he has not been able to make contact with his family since his arrival at Guantánamo. Zakaria’s last conversation with his mother was in 2002 from Georgia, when she told him to come home. He has given me the names of his family in Saudi Arabia, his mother’s family in Yemen a businessman who is a family friend and his home phone number from 15 years ago, and we are actively trying to locate them. From what he says his family is well educated and has resources, and will be able to help support him financially as well as emotionally wherever he ends up living.
But in the absence of family, before we are able to locate them, we have made arrangements to provide support and structure to ensure that he is able to make a safe and successful transition to life after transfer from Guantánamo, wherever he ends up. I am sure many of you know of Reprieve’s “Life After Guantánamo” program with its impressive track record of successfully helping several dozen detainees from Guantánamo after they were transferred. Reprieve has agreed that Zakaria can participate in that program and we have submitted a letter from them to that effect that describes the program in more detail. And Zakaria has not one, but two, international law firms — mine and his previous counsel — who are committed to continuing our work as his lawyers to give him or find for him whatever assistance is needed. I have explained all of this to Zakaria, and he is very grateful.
You will see that Zakaria will be forthright with you about his past and that his remorse is genuine. He was a young unsophisticated kid who behaved stupidly. The independent responsibilities suggested by the profile, in my opinion, would have been beyond his capabilities. He never was engaged in fighting, and his first experience of violence shocked him to his core. As Zakaria puts it, he has learned through a very hard lesson, not to follow bad advice. That this lesson remains learned is clear from his conduct at Guantánamo. For years he has been housed with the compliant and Westernized detainees and his ambition is for a future where he can go out dancing. It is clear that Zakaria will not be a threat to the United States or anyone else if he is released.
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’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). 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 Omar al-Rammah, a Yemeni seized in Georgia in 2002 by Russian agents, and then sold to the US, who held him in “black sites” for a year before sending him to Guantanamo. A low-level operative in the Chechnyan conflict, he seems to have embraced US culture at Guantanamo, and wants to marry someone he can go out dancing with. Heartbreakingly, to my mind, the ICRC has not been able to put him in contact with his family at all in his 14 years of imprisonment without charge or trial. He last spoke to his mother in 2002.
More good news, as Ravil Mingazov, the last Russian in Guantanamo, has been approved for release, although Haroon Gul, an Afghani, has had his ongoing imprisonment approved, despite suspicions from his newly appointed lawyers that his is a case of mistaken identity. Article on these two to follow tomorrow.
Carol Anne Grayson wrote:
Well done Andy
Thanks. Good to hear from you, Carol.
Rammah has a chance at being transferred due to being “low-level”. Hopefully he provided more plans for his future than “dancing.”
“[T]he use of the word “probably” does not inspire confidence that this is necessarily an accurate assessment.”
True, unlike the HVDs, the summary doesn’t say Rammah has made extremist statements which could help him. I think one or two more detainees will be approved for transfer. The HVDs aren’t going anywhere.
Yes, let’s see, Martin. “Dancing” obviously isn’t a very detailed plan for life after Guantanamo, though perhaps it shows at least that his spirit hasn’t been crushed.
I can’t see any good reason for continuing to hold him, as his role seems to have been (a) minor, (b) very long ago, and (c) to do with Chechnya, and not against the US.
Thanks for the reply. Agreed, like Ravil Mingazov and Sufyian Barhoumi, Rammah was fighting against Russia.
Thanks, Martin. Yes, I think it makes a difference for the US’s credibility to be holding only those allegedly involved in actions against itself. Otherwise, I think extradition to foreign courts is a worthwhile course of action if there is solid evidence of activities aimed at other countries.
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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