In the last three weeks, six Periodic Review Boards have taken place at Guantánamo, in which prisoners recommended for ongoing imprisonment by a high-level task force six years ago are being given a parole-like opportunity to plead for their release. I’ll be writing about those reviews soon, but before I do so I’d like to sum up four other decisions taken over this same period — one decision to approve a prisoner for release, and three others upholding prisoners’ ongoing detention. 62 reviews have now taken place, since the PRBs began in November 2013, and out of those reviews 33 men have been recommended for release, 19 have had their ongoing imprisonment upheld, and ten decisions have yet to be taken. Two final reviews are taking place in the next two weeks.
The man whose release was approved is Sufyian Barhoumi (ISN 694), an Algerian, born in July 1973, whose PRB took place on May 26. Seized in a house with the “high-value detainee’ Abu Zubaydah, whose review also took place recently, Barhoumi was alleged by the US authorities to have been a bomb-maker, and had been put forward for a trial by military commission under President Bush, although the charges were later dropped.
For his PRB, however, his attorney, Shayana Kadidal of the Center for Constitutional Rights painted a compelling portrait of a ”natural diplomat,” 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 found [that Kadidal] 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.
Barhoumi was approved for release on August 9. In their final determination, by consensus, the board members “determined that continued law of war detention of the detainee is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.” Even though they recognized that he “presents some level of threat in light of his past activities, skills, and associations,” they also assessed that “the risk [he] presents can be adequately mitigated” for reasons outlined in the rest of the determination.
In making their determination, the board members “considered [his] candor with the Board, his acknowledgement and acceptance of responsibility for his past activities, and his lack of extremist views.” They also “noted [his] detailed plan for the future and extensive family and outside support as detailed by his private counsel,” his “record of compliance while at Guantánamo and history of positive engagement with the guard force, and t[his] efforts to improve himself while in detention by taking advantage of educational classes.”
The board members also “recommend[ed] repatriation to Algeria due to the detainee’s strong family support,” and, as noted above, “Algeria’s strong track record in prior transfers.”
The first of the three men whose ongoing imprisonment was approved is Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani (ISN 1460), a Pakistani citizen of Saudi origin, born in 1967, who was identified for his PRB as Abdul Rabbani Abu Rahmah. Rabbani is accused of being an al-Qa’ida facilitator, although for his PRB last month his personal representatives (military officers assigned to help prisoners prepare for their PRBs) and his attorney, Agnieszka Fryszman, provided a far more sympathetic portrait of him as “a simple man,” who is “not well educated,” and who, moreover, is thoroughly remorseful for his actions assisting al-Qaeda members, which he did solely to support his family.
The board members, however, were not convinced. When they endorsed his ongoing imprisonment on August 8, they were particularly concerned that, as they put it, he had “worked directly for al-Qa’ida external operations chief Khalid Shaykh Muhammad (ISN 10024) providing significant assistance to include playing a prominent role moving and housing al-Qa’ida fighters and key figures,” as well as his perceived “lack of candor and contradictory statements regarding knowledge as to the activities of Khalid Shaykh Muhammad and others, and the lack of evidence of a change in [his] mindset” — despite claims to the contrary by his attorney and his personal representatives.
The board members also noted that, according to their perception, Rabbani “did not articulate a plan to prevent exposure to avenues for reengagement,” even though that contradicted proposal made by lawyers at Reprieve, who have a well-respected and well-established Life After Guantánamo project, and concluded that, for his further review, or reviews, they “would welcome additional information from the Saudi government.” They also encouraged Rabbani “to be more forthcoming with the Board” in future.
The second man whose ongoing imprisonment was approved is Ismael Ali Faraj Ali Bakush (ISN 708), also known as Ismael al-Bakush, a Libyan born in July 1968, whose review took place on July 14. Although he was an impeccable opponent of Col. Gaddafi, and a member of the exiled Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which opposed Gaddafi from Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is not clear that was, as the US alleged, an LIFG “explosives expert who trained al-Qa’ida members and probably associated with and provided operational support to key al-Qa’ida figures.”
Nevertheless, when his ongoing imprisonment was endorsed, on August 15, the board members noted in their final determination that, in making their decision, they had “considered [his] long history of working with the LIFG and al-Qa’ida and the fact that he played a significant role in al-Qa’ida operations, including his role as an explosives expert and trainer.” They also noted his “lack of candor and evasive, implausible, and frequently absurd responses to questions regarding his past, activities, and beliefs” — and the use of the word “absurd” clearly indicates how he completely failed to impress the board.
The board members also considered his “minimal efforts in preparing for the review process,” his “lack of effort to prepare for life after detention while at Guantánamo, and [his] failure to present a plan for life after transfer,” all concerns that must be addressed by prisoners if they are to have a chance of being approved for release in the PRBs, whose closest analogy in the justice system on the US mainland are parole hearings, where demonstrating contrition and planning for a peaceful and law-abiding future are essential.
The board members also noted that, due to what they perceived as al-Bakush’s “lack of truthfulness,” they were “unable to assess his intentions for the future and whether he has had a change in mindset.” Additionally, because of what they regarded as his “lack of participation in preparation for the hearing,” there was “no information provided regarding available family support should he be transferred.”
I hope that, for future reviews — a file review in six months’ time, and a full review again in one to two years’ time — al-Bakush will work with his Minneapolis-based attorney, Matthew Melewski, who, back in 2013, explained that his client had become so disillusioned with the situation at Guantánamo that he had cut off contact with him.
The third man whose ongoing imprisonment was approved is Omar Mohammed Ali Al-Rammah (ISN 1017), a Yemeni, born in 1975, whose review took place on July 21. Seized in Georgia by Russian forces and apparently sold to the US, he appeared to be connected wth the conflict in Chechnya and to have nothing whatsoever to do with Al-Qaeda, and it was distressing to learn that, in 13 years at Guantánamo, he has not been able to communicate with his family at all, and, as his attorney Beth Jacob described it, his “last conversation with his mother was in 2002 from Georgia, when she told him to come home.”
However, although the US authorities admitted that they had no information establishing that al-Rammah was anything more than a low-level facilitator working with Muslim freedom fighters in Chechnya, and although they also conceded that there are “no indications” that he “has current associations with active extremists,” when the board members endorsed his ongoing imprisonment on August 22, they made a point of dwelling on what they described as his “lengthy history as a jihadist, working as a facilitator, attending extensive military training, and engaging in extremist support in various countries to include Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Georgia.”
The board members also noted what they described as al-Rammah’s “past expressions of support for extremist activity against the United States,” and his “lack of a developed plan for the future,” which I noted at the time of his PRB, when, though charming, his hope for a future involving dancing appeared not to have been what board members would have been looking for.
The board members also stated that they were “unable to assess [his] current intentions and mindset due to his general evasiveness,” adding that “the recent discovery of his family” — something that was not known at the time of his PRB — “makes it difficult for the Board to assess the level of available family support.”
Following up on this, the board members also made a point of stating that they were “encouraged by efforts to reconnect with [his] family and identify additional sources of support for [him], and appreciated [his] candor regarding his military training and travel,” adding, “Given the new connections and resources, the Board looks forward to [him] providing a more developed reintegration plan for the future. More information regarding family contacts, the planned level of familial support, and [his] plan for the future will be important in the Board’s assessment.” They also encouraged “improved candor about [his] radicalization process and past activities so the Board can assess his claimed change of mindset. Given the recent and positive developments, a file review should be completed in less than six months.”
These last comments suggest that al-Rammah may well manage to persuade a second review board, in future, to approve his release, if, as seems possible, his newly discovered family will be able to provide support for him.
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:
Some good news from Guantanamo, as Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian and a “natural diplomat” in the prison, is approved for release by a Periodic Review Board, bringing to 33 the number of men initially described as “too dangerous to release” who have been approved for release. Three other men have had their ongoing imprisonment upheld, joining 16 others. Ten decisions have yet to be taken, and two reviews have yet to take place. Of the 61 prisoners still held, 20 have now been approved for release.
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.
Email Andy Worthington
Please support Andy Worthington, independent journalist: