No Escape from Guantánamo: An Update on the Periodic Review Boards

Four Guantanamo prisoners whose cases are still nominally being reviewed by Periodic Review Boards. Clockwise from top left: Omar al-Rammah, awaiting a decision in his review after 16 months, and Khalid Qasim, Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani and Uthman Mohammed Uthman, who all had their ongoing imprisonment upheld after reviews this year.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Regular Guantánamo-watchers will know how wretched it is that Donald Trump is in charge of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, because he appears to have no ability or willingness to understand that it is a legal, moral and ethical abomination, where most of the 40 men still held are imprisoned indefinitely without charge or trial, in defiance of all agreed laws and treaties, and a handful of others are facing trials in a broken trial system, the military commissions, that is not fit for purpose.

Under George W. Bush, a total of 532 prisoners were released from Guantánamo, and Barack Obama released another 196. Trump, to date, has released just one man, a Saudi repatriated for ongoing imprisonment, who was only released because of a plea deal he had agreed to in his military commission proceedings in 2014, and has shown no interest in releasing anyone else, even though five of the 40 men still held were approved for release by high-level review processes under President Obama. With only nine men facing trials, that also leaves 26 other men in that unjustifiable limbo of indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial.

The only mechanism that exists that theoretically could lead to the release of any of these men is the Periodic Review Board system, the second review process set up by President Obama. The first, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, assessed in 2009 whether prisoners should be freed or tried or whether they should continue to be held without charge or trial. 156 were recommended for release, and 36 for prosecution, and 48 for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the basis that they were regarded as too dangerous to release, but insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

This was a move on Obama’s part that, sadly, enshrined indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial as his own policy, not just one inherited from Bush, but he did follow it up with the establishment of the Periodic Review Boards, which functioned as a kind of parole system, whereby prisoners could be approved for release if they demonstrated to a panel of military and intelligence officials that they were contrite, and that they had plans for a constructive post-release life.

As a result of the PRBs, which ended up applying not just to the “forever prisoners,” but also to many of those initially recommended for prosecution by the task force, as the legitimacy of the military commissions collapsed in a number of court rulings, 38 men were recommended for release by the PRBs, and 36 of them were freed before Obama left office (the other three men still held who were approved for release under Obama were actually approved for release by the 2009 task force).

The Periodic Review Boards under Trump

Since the start of Trump’s presidency, although the PRB process still exists, it has failed to deliver a single recommendation for release, and seems to be doing nothing more than simply going through the motions. It may be that this is because the remaining 26 prisoners in the PRB system are genuinely regarded as still constituting a threat to the US, or it could be because of the changing political context — from Obama, who was using the PRBs as a way to bypass Congressional obstacles to the release of prisoners, and to inch towards his promise to close the prison, to Trump, who wants to keep it open, and has no interest in releasing anyone.

Last year, I wrote about the first PRBs that had taken place under Trump — some file reviews, purely desk-based reviews every six months, and full reviews, where the prisoners get to go before a panel of officials (by video link) to make a case for their release. These were supposed to take place every three years, but under Obama they had tended to be every one or two years, with some even taking place at shorter notice. I wrote about these reviews in two articles last May, Under Trump, Periodic Review Boards Continue at Guantánamo, But At A Glacial Pace and Review Boards Approve Ongoing Imprisonment of Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo’s Oldest Prisoner, and Two Others.

In the full reviews, three men had ended up having their ongoing imprisonment approved — alleged al-Qaeda facilitator Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al Hajj (ISN 1457), the Pakistani businessman Saifullah Paracha (ISN 1094), and Haroon al-Afghani (ISN 3148), a hapless Afghan who had only recently secured legal representation — while a fourth man, Omar Muhammad Ali al-Rammah (ISN 1017), a Yemeni seized in Georgia, against whom the US seemed to have no case, was awaiting a verdict after his review in February 2017.

Over a year since I last wrote about the PRBs, the board members have still not made a decision in al-Rammah’s case, as Jessica Schulberg recently explained in an article for the Huffington Post, stating, “The Pentagon declined to say why it is taking so long to make a decision in Al-Rammah’s case. But the lengthy delay indicates a disagreement between government officials over whether the Yemeni should be cleared for release.”

Schulberg proceeded to explain that, although the panel members — “senior officials from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State; the Joint Staff; and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence” — must reach a unanimous decision, “even after they make a decision, their bosses — the heads of those agencies — can object to the decision and request a meeting to reexamine the case,” and can also “request a review within 30 days of the PRB’s decision.” They also “step in if the PRB can’t reach a consensus,” as Sarah Higgins, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told Schulberg in an email. She added, “I can’t share at this time which scenario is holding up the final determination,” and advised that the DoD remains “committed to the PRB process.”

Wells Dixon, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents men still held at Guantánamo, told Schulberg that it was “unlikely that the PRB has failed to reach a consensus after 16 months of deliberating.” As he put it, “My speculation is that some of these men have been approved for transfer by the board, there has then been an objection, and the principals committee has not met to resolve that objection — or has met but has not resolved it.”

In the meantime, a new round of full reviews began in January, with the case of Khalid Qasim (ISN 242), a Yemeni, and a prominent artist at Guantánamo, who remains held because the authorities don’t, historically, like his attitude. The board approved his ongoing imprisonment in March, as they did for Abdul Rabbani Abu Rahmah aka Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani (ISN 1460), a Pakistani whose case was reviewed in February, and Uthman Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Uthman (ISN 27), a Yemeni whose case was reviewed in April, with a decision delivered in May.

No decision has yet been taken in the case of Moath Hamza Ahmed Al-Alwi (ISN 28), a Yemeni, and another prominent artist, whose case was reviewed in March, and two more prisoners have recently had their cases reviewed: Abd Al-Salam Al-Hilah (ISN 1463), a Yemeni businessman, on June 19, and Haroon al-Afghani — again — on June 26. Human Rights First covered al-Hilah’s review, the only other media outlet to take any interest whatsoever in the PRBs.

Torture victim Mohammad Mani Ahmad al-Qahtani (ISN 63) is the next to be reviewed, on July 24, and, although no other full reviews are currently listed, it is reasonable to assume that the cases of the rest of the 26 men will be reviewed over the rest of the year and into 2019. Meanwhile, the file reviews also continue, with a big list on the PRB website, but as with the full reviews, it is hard to shake the notion that, under Trump, there is no reason for any panel to stick their neck out and recommend a prisoner for release.

When the boss says — or tweets — that he doesn’t think anyone should be released from Guantánamo, why would a panel of officials invite his scorn by approving the release of anyone tarred as one of “the worst of the worst,” and who, it seems, very few people care about?

The PRBs, I fear, have become a sham — although I would dearly love to be proved wrong, as the sad truth is that amongst the 26 are men who have never had anything whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda or international terrorism, and whose continued imprisonment — because of a perceived bad attitude related to their long imprisonment without charge or trial — makes a mockery of justice.

As Wells Dixon also pointed out, “keeping the PRB system in place, even in its neutered form, gives the Trump administration a nominal defense when critics accuse it of indefinitely detaining prisoners without due process,” as Jessica Schulberg described it.

Dixon said, “It is the only thing that the government can point to to show that there is any sort of review that is occurring at Guantánamo. It is what the government hangs its hat on to fight off habeas claims,” like the one currently being reviewed in a US court, which was brought on behalf of eleven prisoners. He added, “It is a meaningless process for all practical purposes.”

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 music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

Review Boards Approve Ongoing Imprisonment of Three More Prisoners at Guantánamo, Even As Lawmakers Urge Donald Trump to Scrap Them

Protestors with Witness Against Torture outside the Supreme Court on January 11, 2017, the 15th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo (Photo: Andy Worthington).Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the first two months of the Trump administration.

 

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

The problem with Guantánamo has never been what right-wingers delude themselves into thinking it is — that it’s a perfect acceptable, secure facility for holding terrorists whose existence is undermined by liberals constantly trying to close it down, endangering America’s national security.

Instead, the problem is Guantánamo itself, a place of arbitrary detention, where very few of the 779 people held there by the military over the last 15 years have genuinely been accused of any involvement with terrorism, but where, because of the Bush administration’s contempt for internationally recognized laws and treaties regarding imprisonment, the majority of the men held — overwhelmingly, foot soldiers for the Taliban, and civilians, many sold for bounties — have been deprived of any rights whatsoever, and can only be freed at the whim of the executive branch.

For a brief period from 2008 to 2010, those held could appeal to the US courts, where judges were able to review their habeas corpus petitions, and, in a few dozen cases, order their release, but this loophole was soon shut down by politically motivated judges in the court of appeals in Washington, D.C., and the Supreme Court has persistently refused to revisit the positive rulings it made regarding the prisoners’ habeas corpus rights in 2004 and 2008, hurling the men back into a disgraceful legal limbo in which their only hope for release lies, yet, again, with the presidential whim. Read the rest of this entry »

Algerian Approved for Release from Guantánamo, As Three Other Men Have Their Ongoing Imprisonment Upheld

Sufyian Barhoumi, in a photo taken at Guantanamo in 2009 by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and made available by his family.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.” Read the rest of this entry »

Yemeni Seized in Georgia, Who Has Not Been Able to Make Contact With His Family in 13 Years at Guantánamo, Seeks Release Via Review Board

Yemeni prisoner Omar al-Rammah, in a photo from Guantanamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.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.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

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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