The Impossibility of Being Released from Guantánamo


Ali Ahmad al-Razihi, a Yemeni prisoner in Guantanamo, in a photo included in the classified military files from Guantanamo that were released by WikiLeaks in April 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.

For Ali Ahmad al-Razihi, a Yemeni prisoner at Guantánamo, a wish he has cherished for the last 12 years was granted on Wednesday, when a Periodic Review Board, made up 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, recommended his release from the prison. The unclassified summary of the board’s final determination states, “The Periodic Review Board, by consensus, determined 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.”

However, in a vivid demonstration that the prison at Guantánamo Bay remains a profoundly unjust place, over 12 years since it first opened, it is not known when — if ever — he will actually be released.

Of the remaining 154 prisoners, almost half — 71 men in total — are undergoing Periodic Review Boards to assess whether they should continue to be held without charge or trial or whether they should be released. 46 of these men were recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in January 2010, on the basis that they are too dangerous to release, but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, and President Obama endorsed these recommendations in March 2011, when he issued an executive order authorizing their ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial.

This alarming example of the Obama administration claiming a right to hold people without having to prove why they should be held was only begrudgingly accepted by the human rights community because the president promised to establish a system to review the men’s cases on a regular basis. Disgracefully, that system — the Periodic Review Boards — did not start reviewing the men’s cases for two years and eight months, holding their first hearing on November 20, 2013, when, from Guantánamo, Mahmoud al-Mujahid, a Yemeni prisoner, spent six hours testifying by video link to the board members, who were gathered in a facility in Virginia.

In January this year, the board approved al-Mujahid’s release, using the same language as in the final determination regarding Ali Ahmad al-Razihi, but he remains held because the board’s recommendation meant only that he joined a list of 55 other Yemenis who were cleared for release in January 2010 by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, but who are still held because officials with power and responsibility in the US, up to and including the president, regard Yemen as a security risk, and prefer to continue to hold indefinitely men they said they no longer wanted to hold indefinitely, rather than releasing them.

This mockery of justice is unacceptable, and, with Ali Ahmad al-Razihi now added to the list of Yemeni prisoners cleared for release who continue to languish at Guantánamo, it is imperative that everyone who wants to see Guantánamo closed contacts the White House to call for President Obama to take action.

In less than a month, on May 23, it will be a year since President Obama promised, in a major speech on national security issues prompted by a prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo, to resume releasing prisoners, after a three-year period in which the release of prisoners had almost ground to a halt because of obstacles raised by Congress. Since that speech, 12 men have been released, but that number does not include a single Yemeni, even though, in his speech last May, President Obama explicitly dropped a ban on releasing Yemenis that he had imposed in January 2010, after it was revealed that a failed airline bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009 had been hatched in Yemen.

Please phone the White House on 202-456-1111 or 202-456-1414 or submit a comment online, and tell President Obama that he must release the cleared Yemeni prisoners NOW!

The review board’s conclusions about Ali Ahmad al-Razihi

At his hearing on March 20, as I explained in an article on my website on Thursday, Ali Ahmad al-Razihi did not speak personally, or through his civilian lawyer, but, instead, allowed two US military officials — his personal representatives appointed as part of the PRB process — to make the case of this release, countering long-standing, but fundamentally untrustworthy allegations that he was “possibly” a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001, when he was just 21 years old. They did this by pointing out that he has been “a compliant detainee” at Guantánamo, and wishes only to return home to a marriage arranged by his his father, and, as they explained in a Power Point presentation, to assume an important role in his family by expanding his father’s fruit and vegetable business.

The board was evidently assured by Ali’s plans, stating, in their final determination, that, in approving an end to his “continued law of war detention,” they “considered the detainee’s plans for the future and commitment not to repeat past mistakes,” and “found the detainee credible on both issues and also noted that he had a well-established, educated family with the willingness and ability to support him upon his return.”

The board also “considered the detainee’s level of involvement with al-Qa’ida, including his lack of ties to at-large extremists, and the fact that he is expected to reside in Ta’izz [Taiz], one of the more stable regions of Yemen, upon any return to Yemen,” and also noted his “behavior in detention, including his largely peaceful, nonviolent approach to detention and his positive attitude toward future potential participation in a rehabilitation program.”

As noted above, however, all this means nothing unless Ali is actually freed, along with the 56 other Yemenis cleared for release. In its final determination, the board recommended that he should be “transferred with the standard security assurances, as negotiated by the Guantánamo Detainee Transfer Working Group, and the conditions normally associated with conditional detention.”

Documents relating to this working group have not been made publicly available, but the board explained that three options were possible for these conditions to be satisfied: “specifically: 1) the security situation improves in Yemen; 2) an appropriate rehabilitation program becomes available; or 3) an appropriate third country resettlement option becomes available.”

On this latter point, the board “strongly” recommended Ali’s return to Yemen “due to [his] desire to return to his family, the integral role [he] will play in his family, and the support the family can provide upon his return.”

Like Ali, we would not complain if a rehabilitation program in Yemen were to be established, but it has not happened, despite being discussed for many years, and, in any case, it appears to be nothing more than another hurdle placed in the way of men whose path to freedom is strewn with obstacles that make a mockery of justice and fairness.

Far better, in our opinion, would be for President Obama and defense secretary Chuck Hagel to accept that the search for perfect security conditions in Yemen is elusive, at best, and, at worst, an excuse for endless prevarication, and to release Ali and all the other Yemenis cleared for release as soon as possible.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — 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 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.

6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, when I posted the version of this article on “Close Guantanamo” yesterday, I wrote:

    Following my article yesterday about the Periodic Review Board in Guantanamo for Ali Ahmad al-Razihi, a Yemeni prisoner, the board has just recommended his release, but, absurdly, it doesn’t mean he’ll be freed anytime soon – if at all – because 56 other Yemenis cleared for release are still held, and all but one of those men was cleared for release over four years ago. Free them now!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Amy Phillips wrote:

    good news: he’s recommended for release; bad news: he probably won’t be released. total bullshit.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Amy Phillips wrote:

    i mean the PRB is total bullshit – not you!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Amy. Yes, you’ve captured the horrible absurdity of it all – and no, I didn’t think you were talking about me!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Edward Morgado wrote:

    Andy, I admire you so much (but I am quiet about it) your determination and fight for justice! Wishing you and your “beneficiaries” all the best! It’s important to keep fighting for justice!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Edward, and thanks for the supportive words!

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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