The American Lawyer’s Six Guantánamo Bar Profiles: Thomas Wilner, David Remes, Jennifer Cowan, Wells Dixon, David Nevin and Lee Wolosky

Thomas Wilner of Shearman & Sterling (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi).

The November 2015 issue of The American Lawyer featured a “Special Report: The Guantánamo Bar,” consisting of six interviews with attorneys who have worked on Guantánamo. I’m cross-posting them below, as I think they will be of interest, and I also estimate that many of you will not have come across them previously.

The six lawyers featured were: Thomas Wilner of Shearman & Sterling; David Remes, formerly of Covington & Burling; Jennifer Cowan of Debevoise & Plimpton; J. Wells Dixon of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Public Defender David Nevin; and Lee Wolosky of Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Wolosky was appointed last June as the White House’s special envoy for Guantánamo closure, while the rest have represented prisoners held at Guantánamo.

Thomas Wilner represented a number of Kuwaiti prisoners, and also represented the prisoners in their habeas corpus cases before the Supreme Court in 2004 and 2008. He is co-founder, with me, of the Close Guantánamo campaign, launched in January 2012, through which, for the last four years, we have been attempting to educate people about why Guantánamo must be closed, and who is held there, and I’m pleased to note that The American Lawyer described him as “the most vocal proponent in the Guantánamo bar for the closure of the offshore prison.” Read the rest of this entry »

29th Periodic Review Board at Guantánamo – for Sharqawi Ali Al-Hajj, Alleged Al-Qaeda Facilitator

Yemeni prisoner Sharqawi Abdu Ali al-Hajj, in a photo from Guantanamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

Last week, Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al-Hajj (aka Abdu Ali Sharqawi), a 41-year old Yemeni, became the 29th Guantánamo prisoner to have his case considered by a Periodic Review Board, the review process that, since 2013, has been reviewing the cases of all the prisoners not facing trials (just ten men) and those 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.

Of the 91 men currently held, 24 were approved for release by the task force but are still held, while 12 others have been approved for release by Periodic Review Boards. Discounting the ten facing trials, that leaves 45 men awaiting PRBs, or the results of PRBs, which, it seems certain, will add to the number of men approved for release.

23 men have so far had decisions taken on their PRBs, and in 19 of those cases the review boards have recommended them for release, a success rate of 83%. What ought to make this shameful for the administration is that the men facing PRBs were described by the task force as “too dangerous to release” six years ago, but those claims have unravelled under further scrutiny. At the time, the task force accepted that it was holding men who couldn’t be put on trial, because the information used to defend their detention wouldn’t stand up in a court, but refused to acknowledge that this meant that it was fundamentally unreliable. The task force also regarded men as dangerous based on their resistance in Guantánamo, but the PRBs are now functioning more like a parole process, and allowing prisoners the opportunity to demonstrate why they do not pose a threat, and will not pose a threat  in the future. Read the rest of this entry »

Afghan Approved for Release from Guantánamo, as Lawyer Presents Persuasive Case for Release of Yemeni Who Has Become A Prolific Artist

Yemeni prisoner Muhammad al-Ansi in a photo taken at Guantanamo and included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.As the dust settles on President Obama’s plan to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay before he leaves office, and defense secretary Ashton Carter urges Congress to drop its ban on bringing prisoners to the US mainland, one key element of the plan — Periodic Review Boards, assessing, on a case by case basis, whether or not around half of the 91 men still held can be released — continue to deliver significant results.

Two weeks ago, a Yemeni, Majid Ahmad — once, I believe, mistakenly described as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden — was approved for release, and last week the Periodic Review Secretariat announced another release, bringing the total number of men approved for release to 19, out of 22 results, a success rate of 86%. 36 of the 91 men still held have now been approved for release, 24 since 2010, and 12 through the PRBs (to add to the seven men already freed as a result of the PRBs).

As I noted last week, the success rate “reveals the extent to which dangerous hyperbole has played such a significant part in the story of Guantánamo, as these are men regarded six years ago as ‘too dangerous to release’ by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office, even though the task force also conceded that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial,” which “should have been a sign that the information used to continued imprisoning these men was profoundly unreliable, produced through the use of torture or other forms of abuse, or through bribing prisoners with better living conditions.” Read the rest of this entry »

24th Periodic Review Board Held at Guantánamo for Yemeni Who Has Become A Health Adviser to His Fellow Prisoners

Guantanamo prisoner Yasin Ismail, a Yemeni, in a photo from 2005 included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011. Last week — delayed for a week because of bad weather — the 24th Periodic Review Board took place at Guantánamo, for Yasin Ismail (aka Yassin Ismail), a Yemeni prisoner who is reportedly 36 years old — although, years ago, one of his lawyers stated that his year of birth had incorrectly been recorded as 1979, when he was actually born in 1982, which would mean that he is currently 33 years old. I note that no one, apart from Human Rights First, has actually written about this PRB.

The Periodic Review Boards were established in 2013 to review the cases of prisoners regarded as “too dangerous to release” by the the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that, in 2009, had reviewed the cases of all the prisoners held when Barack Obama took office. Alarmingly, these men — 46 in total — were given this description even though the task force acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. In other words, rumor, hearsay and unreliable statements by the prisoners themselves, or by their fellow prisoners, hinted that they were dangerous, when that might not have been true at all.

25 other prisoners, initially recommended for prosecution, were also made eligible for the PRBs after the basis of their trials collapsed following a series of devastating rulings by the court of appeals in Washington, D.C., which ruled that Congress had invented a raft of war crimes, and had used them to illegally prosecute prisoners in Guantánamo’s already discredited military commission trial system. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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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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