Good news from Guantánamo, as the first prisoner to be released since Donald Trump won the Presidential Election last month has been freed in Cape Verde, an island nation off the west coast of Africa.
Shawki Awad Balzuhair aka Shawqi Balzuhair (ISN 838), a 35-year old Yemeni prisoner, was approved for release in July, by a Periodic Review Board, a high-level government review process set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners still held who are not facing trials and had not already been approved for release.
Seized in one of a series of house raids in Karachi, Pakistan on September 11, 2002, Balzuhair and five other men were originally — and mistakenly — regarded as members of an al-Qaeda cell-in-waiting, and described as the “Karachi Six.” By the time the six had their cases reviewed this year, however, the US government had walked back from its claims, after “a review of all available reporting,” accepting that “this label more accurately reflects the common circumstances of their arrest and that it is more likely the six Yemenis were elements of a large pool of Yemeni fighters that senior al-Qa’ida planners considered potentially available to support future operations,” and describing Balzuhair as “probably awaiting a chance to return to Yemen when he was arrested at the Karachi safe house.” Of the six men, five have been approved for release, and Balzuhair is the third to be freed.
Since arriving at Guantánamo on October 28, 2002, Balzuhair had been “highly compliant with the guard force” and had “not expressed or demonstrated any sympathy or support for al-Qa’ida, its global ideology, or other radical Islamic views.”
With Balzuhair’s release, 59 men remain at Guantánamo, 20 of whom have been recommended for release —seven by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009, to review the cases of all the men he had inherited from George W. Bush, and 13 by the PRBs. Ten other men are facing trials, while the 29 others, who had their ongoing imprisonment upheld by Periodic Review Boards, are eligible for further reviews — unless they are abandoned by Donald Trump.
Speaking after Balzuhair’s release, his attorney Angela Viramontes, a federal public defender in Riverside, California, said, “Shawqi is a private man who seeks anonymity upon his release. He looks forward to having a wife, children, and a job, the experiences most young men hope for that Shawqi has yet to experience.”
In the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg, who described Balzuhair as “a long-held, mistakenly profiled Yemeni captive,” reported that a US Air Force cargo plane flew him out of Guantánamo on Friday morning. He could not be repatriated, because of the entire US establishment’s refusal to send any Yemeni prisoners home, citing security concerns, and before he could be freed, defense secretary Ashton Carter also had to provide Congress with notice of his “intent to transfer this individual and of the secretary’s determination that this transfer meets the statutory standard,” as a Pentagon statement explained.
Also reporting on the release, Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported that Ashton Carter “recently gave a 30-day notice to Congress that eight detainees” — out of the 20 approved for release — “would be transferred several weeks from now, according to officials who discussed the notices on the condition of anonymity because they are not yet public.”
The Times also noted that White House spokesman Josh Earnest said last week that the Obama administration “intended to continue transferring detainees approved for release, in cases in which diplomats can strike appropriate security arrangements, until Mr. Trump’s inauguration,” as Charlie Savage described it. Earnest said, “That’s difficult work, but that’s work that we’ve been doing for almost eight years now. And that’s work that will continue at least through January 20th. After that, the president-elect’s team will have to decide how they want to handle that situation.”
Cape Verde, as Carol Rosenberg explained, is “a predominantly Roman Catholic island nation of about 550,000 people, with a Muslim population of just 1.8 percent” (about 10,000 people).
Balzuhair is not the first Guantánamo prisoner to be resettled in Cape Verde. Back in 2010, Abdul Nasser Khantumani, a Syrian, was resettled there, while his son Muhammed was given a new home in Portugal. As Carol Rosenberg noted, his lawyer Pardiss Kebriaei (of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights) recently said that “[t]he elder Khantumani is still in Cape Verde … and the son is still in Portugal. They have never been reunited after Guantánamo. Nor has Abdul Nasser’s wife, Muhammed’s mother, been allowed to join her husband.” Kebriaei explained accurately that “[i]t was cruel of the United States to resettle Muhammed and his father apart. It is long past time for the family to be reunited.” Kebriaei told their story in an article in Harper’s Magazine in 2015, which I cross-posted and wrote about here.
As I wish Shawki Balzuhair best wishes for his new life — and also hope that he will not be prevented from having meaningful contact with his family — I also hope to hear soon about some of the other planned releases from Guantánamo.
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.
See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009 (out of the 532 released by President Bush), and the 177 prisoners released from February 2009 to October 2016 (by President Obama), whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files, and for the stories of the other 390 prisoners released by President Bush, see my archive of articles based on the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; 1 Mauritanian; 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; 13 Afghans (here and here); 3 British residents; 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; 2 Algerians; 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan), repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 —1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani); 4 Uighurs to Bermuda; 1 Iraqi; 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad); 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni; 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody; December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah); 2 Somalis; 4 Afghans; 6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Uzbek to Switzerland; 1 Egyptian, 1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania; 1 Palestinian to Spain; March 2010 — 1 Libyan, 2 unidentified prisoners to Georgia, 2 Uighurs to Switzerland; May 2010 — 1 Syrian to Bulgaria, 1 Yemeni to Spain; July 2010 — 1 Yemeni (Mohammed Hassan Odaini); 1 Algerian; 1 Syrian to Cape Verde, 1 Uzbek to Latvia, 1 unidentified Afghan to Spain; September 2010 — 1 Palestinian, 1 Syrian to Germany; January 2011 — 1 Algerian; April 2012 — 2 Uighurs to El Salvador; July 2012 — 1 Sudanese; September 2012 — 1 Canadian (Omar Khadr) to ongoing imprisonment in Canada; August 2013 — 2 Algerians; December 2013 — 2 Algerians; 2 Saudis; 2 Sudanese; 3 Uighurs to Slovakia; March 2014 — 1 Algerian (Ahmed Belbacha); May 2014 — 5 Afghans to Qatar (in a prisoner swap for US PoW Bowe Bergdahl); November 2014 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fawzi al-Odah); 3 Yemenis to Georgia, 1 Yemeni and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia, and 1 Saudi; December 2014 — 4 Syrians, 1 Palestinian and 1 Tunisian to Uruguay; 4 Afghans; 2 Tunisians and 3 Yemenis to Kazakhstan; January 2015 — 4 Yemenis to Oman, 1 Yemeni to Estonia; June 2015 — 6 Yemenis to Oman; September 2015 — 1 Moroccan and 1 Saudi; October 2015 — 1 Mauritanian and 1 British resident (Shaker Aamer); November 2015 — 5 Yemenis to the United Arab Emirates; January 2016 — 2 Yemenis to Ghana; 1 Kuwaiti (Fayiz al-Kandari) and 1 Saudi; 10 Yemenis to Oman; 1 Egyptian to Bosnia and 1 Yemeni to Montenegro; April 2016 — 2 Libyans to Senegal; 9 Yemenis to Saudi Arabia; June 2016 — 1 Yemeni to Montenegro; July 2016 — 1 Tajik and 1 Yemeni to Serbia, 1 Yemeni to Italy; August 2016 — 12 Yemenis and 3 Afghans to the United Arab Emirates (see here and here); October 2016 — 1 Mauritanian (Mohammedou Ould Slahi).
When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:
Great news from Guantanamo, as Shawqi Balzuhair, a Yemeni approved for release in summer by a Periodic Review Board, is freed in Cape Verde, off the African coast. He couldn’t be repatriated because of a ban on sending any Yemenis home, based on long-standing fears about the security situation in Yemen. With his release, 59 men remain, 20 of whom have been approved for release. Insiders suggest another eight releases are forthcoming.
Karen Martin wrote:
Much luck to you Mr. Balzuhair; may you find a way to recover from your ordeal.
Thanks for your concern, Karen!
Natalia R Scott wrote:
Great news! I hope he will have a happy healthy life from now on.
Yes, I just hope his freedom doesn’t end up being isolation, Natalia.
Just updated – my definitive list of the remaining prisoners : http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Prisoners
Natalia R Scott wrote:
Andy the start must be very difficult for them. How brave of them.
Yes, I suppose so, Natalia. I was thinking that they don’t have much choice, but then earlier this year there was the prisoner who preferred to stay in Guantanamo rather than go to a country he knew nothing about: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/why-a-guantanamo-detainee-would-refuse-a-chance-to-leave-20160608
Natalia R Scott wrote:
Andy I know about him, I can’t imagine how scared he was of the world that he rather stayed in there. His life destroyed by that place.
I found the words of his attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei, very powerful, Natalia: “His decision may have been tragic, but there was more to it. Yes, he might have been fearful — he faced the prospect of landing in a country he learned about from the Internet and a short ‘interview’ with a foreign delegate that he shuffled to in shackles. The government doesn’t provide detainees it resettles much more information or preparation than that. But sitting across from him, he had questions about what awaited him that I thought the government could have answered, and that would have left him less in the dark. His decision might also have reflected a paralysis from being held captive for 14 years, identified by a number and moved around in chains. And yet he was asserting a demand — to be near his family. His resettlement prospect was on another continent. I thought he was insisting on a life worth living.”
Karen Martin wrote:
Andy if anyone would know its you. Any update on the Uighurs, my heart broke when I heard about their final calls to family in China, as they were dispersed to remote parts of the world.
Natalia R Scott wrote:
What happened? I don’t know anything about that. Sounds so terrible
Karen Martin wrote:
I don’t remember as much as I’d like…but here goes, prior to our invading Afghanistan, a group of mostly married Uighers (a minority sect of Muslims I think) from China, left home to seek jobs, and send money home. they were simply part of the “too-quick” to imprison frency in Afghanistan. Next thing you know they are lanquishing in Guantanamo. With help from legal aid a call got through to the wives in China….each of the men told their wives to get a divorce for they would never get home again; and they wanted the wives to seek a new husband. I believe there were about 21. A few sent to some obscure Island Nation I can’t begin to remember, another group to a Eastern Europe—oh and U.S. demands that these men can never leave the country they are sent to. All are as innocent as you or I. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There were 22 Uighurs in Guantanamo, Natalia, Turkic people from north west China, historically oppressed by the Chinese government. They’d been given a hamlet in the Afghan mountains by the Taliban to nurse their hopes of getting to the west or of rising up against their oppressors, then, after 9/11 and the US-led invasion, they were bombed, and fled to Pakistan, where villagers sold them to the Americans. When they were freed, from 2006 to 2013, tired countries had to be found for them, because it wasn’t safe for them to be repatriated, and finding third countries was difficult, because most countries didn’t want to arouse the wrath of the Chinese. They ended up in a variety of far-flung places – Albania, Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, El Salvador, Slovakia.
I haven’t heard about all of them, Karen. I know those in Palau eventually left and went to other unidentified countries.
I was writing at the same time as you, Karen! I missed that story about them calling their wives. Very sad.
Karen Martin wrote:
ho ho yes we were typing at the same time. Sorry I got some facts wrong, glad you responded when you did. I got close to the correct number. The Palau group saddened me the most for its remoteness.
I’ve been meaning to do a round-up of stories about them over the last few years, Karen. Just haven’t got round to it yet. Here’s the Palau story from last summer – ‘After Guantanamo, life on Pacific island was difficult’: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/after-guantanamo-life-on-pacific-island-was-difficult/article25172787/
Another release, another victory. And now, a more symmetrical twenty “cleared” prisoners (against the 10 “commissions” prisoners, and 29 “forever” prisoners. The Obama Administration will have to start releasing prisoners at the rate of one every other day to clear them before 20 January… hopefully, those plans are in the works.
Obviously, uncertainty in the world abounds… at Guantanamo and otherwise. Even this comment thread notes the reluctance of nations to offend China… our incoming leader, apparently, is going out of his way to offend that nation as directly as possible, presumably at the behest of genius advisers. “Interesting times…” IIRC, “may you live in interesting times” is a Chinese curse.
Good to hear from you, TD. Charlie Savage’s contacts told him Ash Carter has notified Congress of another eight releases, so that leaves 12 men marooned unless further arrangements can be made in the next few weeks. I certainly hope they are. It would be intolerable for Trump to decide not to honor decisions already taken, but not difficult to imagine, as his opinions are fluid on so many issues, and, of course, some of the people he’s recruiting for high government office seem to be the kind of people who may regard it as a mission – if not a crusade – to keep Guantanamo open, and to add to its population. I’m reassured that they’ll receive considerable criticism internationally, and also from decent people domestically, but I have no illusions that Guantanamo would be a big issue with the US public in general, because it never has been. In addition, international criticism may well be focused on a large number of issues simultaneously if Trump fulfils our worst fears, watering down potential criticism.
So yes, interesting times, as per the Chinese curse. I actually think I’ve been living in “interesting times” since May 1979, when I was just 16 and too young to vote against Margaret Thatcher, but we seem to be entering a new phase of alarming interestingness.
On Taiwan, the Washington Post is reporting that reaching out to Taiwan for the first time since 1979 was “long planned,” but Trump seems pretty unconstrained in his criticism of China, considering the economic ties between the two countries, including the $1.157 trillion of US debt that China owns: https://www.thebalance.com/u-s-debt-to-china-how-much-does-it-own-3306355
The Post article states:
Trump sent two Twitter messages Sunday that echoed his campaign-stump blasts against China. “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea?” he asked. “I don’t think so!”
It also notes that Trump, as so often, got some of his facts wrong. “The United States does impose a tax on Chinese goods — 2.9 percent for non-farm goods and 2.5 percent for agricultural products,” the article added.
The Twitter President. Unbelievable. Did you see the responses to Trump’s tweets complaining about his portrayal on Saturday Night Live? The person replying to him hit hard, but honestly, what president-elect sets himself up by tweeting his thin-skinnedness about a satire show? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/donald-trump-snl-response_us_5844ce3fe4b017f37fe55338
Who knows where all this is going?
Karen Martin wrote:
thanks for sharing—I assumed from the start they would NOT be happy in Papua.
No, it always seemed a desperate measure by the State Department, Karen – one of the few countries that had a diplomatic relationship with Taiwan rather than China, but no place for former Guantanamo prisoners to be settled.
Laura Lance wrote:
Thank you, Andy, for your work and for the spirit of your work. I always tell my 88-year old mom about the good news, as it arrives — such a rarity in this climate. I will share this news of of Mr. Shawqi Balzuhair over breakfast tomorrow morning.
Thanks for the kind and supportive words, Laura – “the spirit of your work”; that means a lot to me.
Also, Laura, say hi to your mum from me!
Nabil El Hachemi wrote:
Hearty Congrats ANDY for yr Great Achievements hoping that the remaining 39 Prisoners will be free by the End of December 2016.
We must all hope that the 20 already approved for release are freed by the time Obama leaves office, Nabil, as it’s obvious that Trump can’t necessarily be trusted to honor agreements made prior to his inauguration. Of the 39 others, ten are facing trials, while the 29 others are in a system of ongoing reviews, the Periodic Review Boards, which Trump could scrap, although I hope he won’t. They’re not perfect by any means – a parole-type process for people who have never been convicted of a crime – but they’re preferable to endless imprisonment without charge or trial.
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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