Two Yemenis Approved for Release from Guantánamo Via Periodic Review Boards As “Highly Compliant” Afghan and Another Yemeni Also Seek Release

Zahir Hamdoun, in a photo made available by his lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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. Please also get involved in the new Countdown to Close Guantánamo.

Two weeks into the Guantánamo prison’s 15th year of operations, the last of a wave of recent releases has taken place — with 16 men freed between January 6 and January 20 — but progress towards the prison’s closure continues.

Of particular significance on this front are the ongoing Periodic Review Boards. Of the 91 men still held, 34 have been approved for release. 24 of those men were approved for release six unforgivably long years ago, by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after first taking office in January 2009, but ten others have been approved for release in the last two years, by Periodic Review Boards, set up to review the cases of most of the other men still held at Guantánamo. Just ten of these men are facing– or have faced — trials, leaving 47 others awaiting PRBs, or the result of PRBs, or, in a few cases, repeat reviews. Just ten of the men still held are facing, or have faced trials.

Initially, the PRBs were meant to be for 48 men recommended for ongoing detention by the task force in January 2010 on the basis that they were “too dangerous to release,” even though the task force’s members acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. President Obama at least tacitly acknowledged that this was a disgraceful basis on which to deprive people of their liberty, by promising periodic reviews of the men’s cases when he authorized their ongoing detention in March 2011, although he failed to spell out why — because, of course, not having enough evidence to try someone means that the information you hold is not evidence at all, but rumors, hunches and hearsay, from frontline interrogations made shortly after capture, when the use of violence was widespread, and from other statements made by the prisoners later, about themselves and about each other, in interrogations at Guantánamo — or, in some cases, “black sites” — where the use of torture, abuse and bribery (the promise of better living conditions) was widespread. Read the rest of this entry »

Seriously Ill Egyptian and a Yemeni Freed from Guantánamo in Bosnia and Montenegro; Another Refuses to Leave

Abdul Aziz-al-Suadi (aka al-Swidi), a Yemeni, and one of two prisoners freed from Guantanamo on January 20, 2016. He was rehoused in Montenegro.On Wednesday, with exactly one year left until the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, two more prisoners were released from Guantánamo, leaving 91 men still held. A third man was supposed to have been freed, but he refused at the last minute.

One of the two men freed, Tariq al-Sawah (ISN 535), also identified as Tariq El-Sawah, who is 58 years old, had gained some notoriety in the past — first as a disillusioned former training camp instructor who had become a welcome informant in Guantánamo, and then as he became seriously overweight, endangering his health. At one point, he weighted 420 pounds, double his weight on arrival at the prison in 2002.

In 2013, as his lawyers sought his release because of his ill-health and his cooperation, I explained how he “had high-level support for his release,” having “received letters of recommendation from three former Guantánamo commanders,” as the Associated Press described it. I stated, “One, Rear Adm. David Thomas, recommended his release in his classified military file (his Detainee Assessment Brief) in September 2008, which was released by WikiLeaks in 2011 … In that file, al-Sawah’s health issues were also prominent. It was noted that he was ‘closely watched for significant and chronic problems’ that included high cholesterol, diabetes and liver disease.” Read the rest of this entry »

Pentagon Blocks Prisoner Releases from Guantánamo – Including 74-Pound Yemeni Hunger Striker

Members of the campaigning group Witness Against Torture hold up a banner featuring an image of Tariq Ba Odah outside the White House in June 2015 (Photo: Matt Daloisio via Flickr).As the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba begins its 15th year of operations, there has been a flurry of mainstream media interest, in part because 2016 is President Obama’s last year in office, and yet, when he was first inaugurated in January 2009, he promised to close Guantánamo within a year, an unfulfilled promise that is bound to tarnish his legacy unless he can make good on that promise in his last twelve months in office.

A major report was recently published by Reuters, which focused in particular on the ways in which the Pentagon has been obstructing the release of prisoners, as was clear from the title of the article by Charles Levinson and David Rohde: “Pentagon thwarts Obama’s effort to close Guantánamo.”

Blocking the release of 74-pound hunger striker Tariq Ba Odah

The article began with a damning revelation about Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni prisoner who has been on a hunger strike for seven years, and whose weight has dropped, alarmingly, to just 74 pounds (from 148 pounds on his arrival at the prison in 2002), and who is at risk of death. Ba Odah has been unsuccessful in his recent efforts to persuade a judge to order his release, but he is eligible for release anyway. Back in 2009, when President Obama established the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force to assess all the prisoners’ cases, he was one of 30 Yemenis approved for release but placed in “conditional detention,” a category invented by the task force, which recommended that those placed in this category should only be freed when it was assessed — by whom, it was not explained — that the security situation in Yemen had improved. Read the rest of this entry »

Ten Yemenis Freed from Guantánamo, Given New Homes in Oman; Now 93 Men Remain

Fahd Ghazy, photographed before his capture and his rendition to Guantanamo.As the disgraceful US prison at Guantánamo Bay begins its 15th year of operations, President Obama has been busy attempting to show that, with just one year left in office, he is determined to close the prison, as he promised to do on his second day in office back in January 2009, when he promised to close it within a year. Last month, we heard that 17 men would be released in January, and the releases began just days before the 14th anniversary of the opening of the prison with the release of two Yemenis in Ghana and the return to Kuwait of Fayiz al-Kandari, the last Kuwaiti in the prison. On the actual anniversary, a Saudi was returned home, and two days after the anniversary ten more Yemenis were released in Oman, Yemen’s neighbor, to add to the ten Yemenis sent to Oman last year.

David Remes, who represents three of the men sent to Oman, said it was “a particularly good fit for them,” as the New York Times described it. “I’m sure that they are ecstatic just leaving Guantánamo,” he said. “But it’s even better than that. They’ve been sent to Oman, an Arab country, whose language, culture and religion are their own. Oman is also one of Yemen’s neighbors, so their families will be able to visit them often.”

Three more releases — of unidentified prisoners to unidentified countries — are expected soon, and, after the release of the ten men to Oman, Lee Wolosky, the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure in the State Department, said, “We expect to be in a position to empty Guantánamo of all detainees who are currently approved for transfer by this summer.” Including the three men who are expected to be freed soon, Wolosky’s description currently applies to 34 of the 93 men still held  — 25 since January 2010, who were approved for release by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, and nine in the last two years, by a new review process, the Periodic Review Boards. Read the rest of this entry »

Two Yemeni Prisoners Released from Guantánamo to Ghana; 105 Men Remain

Guantanamo prisoner Mahmoud Bin Atef, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Yesterday, the Pentagon announced that it had released two Yemeni prisoners from Guantánamo to new homes in Ghana. These releases are the first since November, when five Yemenis were given new homes in the United Arab Emirates, releases that followed the release of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the Mauritanian Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, at the end of October. With these releases, 105 men remain at the prison — including 46 also approved for release, ten facing (or having faced) trials, and 43 others awaiting reviews promised five years ago but not yet delivered. Three others had their ongoing imprisonment approved by the review boards, and another three are awaiting the results of theirs.

The release of these two Yemenis is progress, of course, and, as we heard last month, another 15 releases are expected in the near future. With the 14th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo taking place on Monday, this is a good time for President Obama to be making sure that men are being freed, to maintain the focus on his intention to close Guantánamo before he leaves office, and to neutralize the sting of critics pointing out that, on January 22, it will be seven years since he promised to close Guantánamo within a year.

The two Yemenis released — who were both born in Saudi Arabia, but to Yemeni parents — are men I identified in June 2012 in a major article about the failures to release prisoners approved for release, entitled, “Guantánamo Scandal: The 40 Prisoners Still Held But Cleared for Release At Least Five Years Ago.” The five years in the title, of course, is now eight and half years, and both of these men were first approved for release long before President Bush left office. They were then approved for release again under President Obama, following the deliberations of the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009. Read the rest of this entry »

Five Yemenis Freed from Guantánamo, Given New Homes in the United Arab Emirates

Three of the five prisoners released from Guantanamo and given new homes in the United Arab Emirates on November 13, 2015. From L to R: Ali al-Razihi, Khalid al-Qadasi and Sulaiman al-Nahdi.There’s good news from Guantánamo, as five Yemenis, approved for release from the prison in 2005, 2007 and 2014, have finally been freed, and given new homes in the United Arab Emirates.

As the New York Times reported, the resettlement “was the first of its kind to the United Arab Emirates, which had previously taken in just one former Guantánamo detainee, in 2008 — its own citizen,” Abdullah al-Hamiri, whose story I discussed here.

The Times also explained that, “In May, President Obama met at Camp David with leaders or representatives of the six Middle Eastern countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, including a representative from the United Arab Emirates. The main topic of discussion was the nuclear agreement with Iran, but officials familiar with the deliberations said Mr. Obama had also pressed them to consider resettling groups of detainees. The deal announced on Sunday appears to be the first fruits of those talks.” Read the rest of this entry »

Eroding Hyperbole: The Steady Reclassification of Guantánamo’s “Forever Prisoners”

Mansoor-al-Zahari at Guantanamo, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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.

Despite the relentless fearmongering of Republican supporters of Guantánamo, claims that the prison holds a significant number of people who pose a threat to the US continue to be eroded; primarily, in recent years, through the deliberations of Periodic Review Boards — panels consisting of representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who hear from the prisoners, their lawyers and their military representatives via video-link from Guantánamo, where the men are able to make a case for why they should be approved for release.

The men in question have, with some accuracy, been dubbed “forever prisoners” by the media. Originally numbering 71 men, they comprised two groups: 46 men assessed to be “too dangerous to release” by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009 to recommend whether the men he inherited from George W. Bush should be released or prosecuted. This third alarming option — “too dangerous to release” — was, as far as we know, dreamt up by the task force itself, for prisoners regarded as a threat but against whom insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

Reading between the lines, this meant tainted evidence — in other words, men regarded as unprovably dangerous because the evidence against them was derived through the use of torture or other forms of abuse, making it fundamentally untrustworthy — or, in some (perhaps many) cases, a perceived attitude problem: prisoners who, though perhaps understandably aggrieved at being held without charge or trial for over a decade in abusive conditions, had threatened retaliation, however hollow those threats may have been, that were taken seriously by the authorities. Read the rest of this entry »

Obama’s Mixed Messages on Guantánamo, as Justice Department Tells Judge Not to Intervene in Case of 75-Pound Hunger Striker at Risk of Death

Members of the campaigning group Witness Against Torture hold up a banner featuring an image of Tariq Ba Odah outside the White House in June 2015 (Photo: Matt Daloisio via Flickr).I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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.

One day, when we’re looking back on Guantánamo and apportioning blame to those who contributed most powerfully to its cruelty, and to keeping it open long after the most senior officials in two governments conceded that it should be closed, a spotlight will be shone on the lawyers in the Civil Division of the Justice Department who have worked so assiduously to prevent prisoners from being released.

I have criticized these lawyers occasionally, but I have rarely heard any criticism of them in the mainstream media, and yet, from the moment that the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, they have been making life difficult for lawyers representing the prisoners, micro-managing their meetings with their clients and their travel arrangements, and often, it is impossible not to conclude, in an effort to obstruct the lawyers’ ability to represent their clients.

In addition, as I noted in an article in August, the Civil Division lawyers “have fought tooth and nail against every single habeas petition submitted by the prisoners, with just one exception — the severely ill Sudanese prisoners Ibrahim Idris, whose petition was granted unopposed in 2013.” I added, “Disgracefully, the Justice Department lawyers have repeatedly challenged habeas petitions submitted by prisoners whose release has already been approved by the Guantánamo Review Task Force,” the high-level, inter-agency task force set up by President Obama shortly after taking office in January 2009, which issued its final report a year later, recommending 156 men for release, 36 for trials and 48 others for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the alarming basis that they were “too dangerous to release,” but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »

Fan of Shakira, Taylor Swift and Game of Thrones Asks Review Board to Free Him from Guantánamo, As an Afghan is Approved for Release

Mansoor-al-Zahari, a Yemeni prisoner at Guantanamo, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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.

Last week, Mansoor al-Zahari, a Guantánamo prisoner from Yemen, who has embraced western culture, becoming a fan of Shakira, Taylor Swift and Game of Thrones, became the 19th prisoner to have his case reviewed by a Periodic Review Board — the review process, established two years ago, to review the cases of all the prisoners not facing trials (just ten of the 114 men still held) and not already approved for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009 (43 others).

The PRBs consist of representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and, since January 2014, they have approved the release of 14 men — and have only approved the ongoing detention of two others. The process is moving far too slowly — 50 others are awaiting reviews, and at the current rate the first round of reviews will not be completed until 2020 at the earliest. In addition, of the 14 approved for release, just three have been released — in part because, like 37 of those approved for release by the task force but still held, six of the 11 approved for release by the PRBs but still held are Yemenis, and the entire US establishment is unwilling to repatriate Yemenis, because of the security situation in Yemen, and third countries must be found that are prepared to offer them new homes. Read the rest of this entry »

Yemeni Prisoner Zaher Hamdoun Says He Is “Buried in a Grave Called Guantánamo”

Guantanamo prisoner Zaher Hamdoun (aka Zaher bin Hamdoun) in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.On Friday, the Guardian published words from Guantánamo written by Zaher Hamdoun (ISN 576), aka Zahir Hamdoun or Zahar Hamdoun, and also identified as Zaher bin Hamdoun or Zahir bin Hamdoun, a Yemeni who has been held at the prison since May 2002. Hamdoun’s words were interspersed with commentary by his lawyer, Pardiss Kebriaei, a Senior Staff Attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

I’m cross-posting the article below, which is worth reading not only for Hamdoun’s own words about his long ordeal, but also for Pardiss Kebriaei’s frustration with the review process — the Periodic Review Boards — established by President Obama in 2013 to examine the cases of all the prisoners still held when he took office who were not subsequently approved for release in 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force he appointed (44 of the 116 men still held) or who have not been put forward for trials (just ten of the men still held).

Hamdoun is one of 47 men awaiting a chance to pitch for his release through a Periodic Review Board, a process that, as Kebriaei notes, is appallingly slow. “At the rate prisoners’ reviews are going,” she writes, “the administration will not finish by the time Obama leaves office.” Just 17 reviews have taken place since November 2013, and, as a result, ten men have been approved for release (but just two have been freed), four others have had their ongoing detention approved (but two are awaiting the results of a second review), and three others are awaiting the results of their reviews. 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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