Four Insignificant Afghan Prisoners Released from Guantánamo


Shawali Khan, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.More good news regarding Guantánamo, as four Afghans have been released, and returned to Afghanistan in what US officials, who spoke to the New York Times, “are citing as a sign of their confidence in new Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.”

The Times added, “Obama administration officials said they worked quickly to fulfil the request from Ghani, in office just three months, to return the four — long cleared for release — as a kind of reconciliation and mark of improved US-Afghan relations.”

The Times also noted that there is “no requirement that the Afghan government further detain the men” — Shawali Khan, 51 (ISN 899), Abdul Ghani, 42 (ISN 934), Khi Ali Gul, 51 (ISN 928) and Mohammed Zahir, 61 (ISN 1103) — adding that Afghanistan’s government-appointed High Peace Council also “requested the repatriation of the eight Afghans who are among the 132 detainees remaining at Guantánamo,” 63 of whom have been cleared for release.

Abdul Ghani before his capture, in a photo made available by his lawyers.The release of the men had created tension in Washington D.C., with defense secretary Chuck Hagel, who is required to certify to Congress that it is safe to release prisoners, refusing to sign off on their release after Gen. John F. Campbell, the senior US commander in Afghanistan, “raised concerns they could pose a danger to troops in the country.”

However, administration officials also said that Gen. Campbell and all the “military leaders on the ground have now screened the move.” Australia’s ABC News explained that a senior US official had said that the four men were “identified as ‘low-level detainees’ who were cleared for transfer long ago and were not considered security risks in their homeland.” They were “originally detained on suspicion of being members of the Taliban or affiliated armed groups,” but a second senior US official said, “Most, if not all, of these accusations have been discarded and each of these individuals at worst could be described as low-level, if even that.”

I have been writing about these men’s cases for many years, and have had no doubt that there has never been any reason for their detention. In an article in July 2012, I explained their stories as follows:

Shawali Khan, whose habeas petition was denied in September 2010, was a shopkeeper, who seems, quite clearly, to have been falsely portrayed as an insurgent by an informant who received payment for doing so. To add further shame to the ruling, the judges of the D.C. Circuit Court refused his appeal [in] September [2011], apparently consigning him to Guantánamo forever on an apparently legal basis. [Also see a profile here by Len Goodman, one of his lawyers].

Abdul Ghani [was] a poor villager who scavenged for scrap metal, [and] was put forward for a [military commission] trial in 2008 because the authorities claimed that he had played a part in attacks and planned attacks as part of the insurgency against US forces. Ghani has always refuted the charges, and the charges against him were dropped before George W. Bush left office, and have not been reinstated. [Also see a profile here by Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, one of his lawyers].

Khi Ali Gul [was] captured in Khost and accused of taking part in a bomb plot and being part of a Taliban assassination team. During his long years in Guantánamo, he has stated that he fought with US forces in Tora Bora, and described one occasion when “the Americans were sleeping and we were guarding them.” He added, “If I were their enemy, I would have killed them all.” He was captured at a checkpoint, where, he said, “there were some people that I had a dispute with,” and he added that they “told the American soldiers a lie,” and he was then arrested.

Mohammed Zahir, 48 years old at the time of his capture in July 2003 … stated in Guantánamo that he was a teacher, and said that he had been set up by Taliban sympathizers, who arranged for his arrest by telling lies to the US forces. In contrast, however, the US authorities claim[ed] that he was employed by the Taliban in the Secret Information Office in Ghazni, and that he “possessed information associated with weapons caches, arms dealings and Taliban personalities.”

It is worth noting, however, that these claims were almost certainly dismissed when he and the other men were approved for release in 2009 by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force.

Khi Ali Gul, in a photo from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.Looking to the future, the New York Times pointed out that, for President Obama to close Guantánamo, he “faces the challenge of working out what to do with any detainees who aren’t cleared for transfer — either because the United States wants to prosecute them or continuing holding them because they are considered too dangerous to release.” Only ten men are facing — or have faced — trials, and the rest are in the unacceptable position of being “considered too dangerous to release,” even though the task force that made those recommendations admitted that they had insufficient evidence to prove their claims — or to put the men on trial. All but those facing trials — so currently 59 of those still held — are gradually having their cases reviewed by Periodic Review Boards, which have so far reviewed the cases of nine men and recommended six for release.

However, while President Obama needs to press ahead with the release of all the prisoners cleared for release, the biggest outstanding problem for him, if he is to fulfill his promise to close the prison, which he made on his second day in office in January 2009, is to somehow overcome the huge obstacle raised by Congress, which “has passed legislation blocking detainees from coming to the US for detention or trial,” as the Times put it.

Mohammed Zahir, in a photo included in the classified US military documents (the Detainee Assessment Briefs) released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.On Friday, President Obama issued a statement objecting to Congress’s latest restrictions on closing Guantánamo, in next year’s National Defense Authorization Act, calling the closure of Guantánamo a “national imperative.” He also pointed out that, despite having recently released the last three prisoners in the Parwan Detention Center (formerly known as Bagram), “the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, remains open for the 13th consecutive year, costing the American people hundreds of millions of dollars each year and undermining America’s standing in the world.” He added, “The continued operation of this detention facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists.”

The Times also noted that some supporters of the closure of Guantánamo — and I count myself in this camp — question “whether the United States has the authority to continue detaining prisoners captured in the Afghan conflict after the end of combat operations at year’s end.”

J. Wells Dixon, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “We will certainly expect to see legal challenges to continued detention at the end of hostilities, which is just in a couple weeks.”

Dixon, who worked on Shawali Khan’s case, “said he hopes Khan can reunite with his father and brother after nearly 13 years at Guantánamo.” Specifically, Dixon said, “He was sent to Guantánamo on the flimsiest of allegations that were implausible on their face and never fully investigated. He never should have been there.”

This is not only true of the four Afghans just released; it is also, I have long maintained, true of some, or perhaps most of the eight Afghans still held — Obaidullah, for example, Mohammed Kamin and Karim Bostan.

I hope we will shortly be hearing about more releases from Guantánamo — including Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, also cleared for release, who is the focus of a high-profile campaign, We Stand With Shaker, that I launched a month ago with a colleague, Joanne MacInnes. In the meantime, however, it is worth sparing a thought for these four men whose implausibly long ordeal — imprisoned for 11 or 12 years without adequate explanation — has finally come to an end.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, 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, 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.

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 101 prisoners released from February 2009 to December 8, 2014 (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 Filesand 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 (herehere and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (herehere and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 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; October 2009 — 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); December 2009 — 2 Somalis4 Afghans6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Uzbek to Switzerland1 Egyptian1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania1 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); July 2010 — 1 Algerian1 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 Algerians2 Saudis2 Sudanese3 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); November 2014 — 3 Yemenis to Georgia, 1 Yemeni and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia, and 1 Saudi; December 2014 — 4 Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian to Uruguay.

15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    More good news from ‪Guantanamo‬, as four long-cleared Afghan prisoners are finally released and sent home. Here are their stories, and all I can wonder now is if we will soon hear that Shaker Aamer is also to be released, to be reunited with his family in the UK – and if not, why not?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Carol Anne Grayson wrote:

    Great Andy… will read and share… another grave injustice.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, just a few of the sad stories of Afghans seized and held because of unreliable evidence, Carol. Had they been in Bagram, they’d have been freed years ago.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Sara Hussain wrote:

    Andy how is the fundraiser doing? Do we need to share again?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you for asking, Sara. Supporters have now donated $2000 (£1200), so I’m still seeking $500 (£300) if that sounds at all plausible!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    I am so glad Abdul Ghani is free. I will never forget his lawyer’s letter published several years ago. Never ever.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dejanka. Barry’s article was published on the Close Guantanamo website in March 2012. Once you read about him, you realize how horribly ridiculous it is that he wasn’t freed years and years ago:

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Tony Simpson wrote:

    Bring Shaker home!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes indeed, Tony. And wishing him a happy birthday today!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Sue Wilson wrote:

    Why are some being released and not others?

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Generally, it’s all political, Sue. Releases slowed down from 2010 to 2013 because of opposition from Congress, but now Obama seems determined to move towards fulfilling his promise to close Guantanamo. Defense secretary Chuck Hagel was doubtful about releasing the Afghans, as I mentioned in the article, but their release is now helpful to relations between the US and the new Afghan president.
    The big question though is: why is Shaker Aamer NOT being released?

  12. Jim says...

    I haven’t been keeping up with Guantanamo news as well as I should, so I’m sorry if this info is easily available, but is there a fund of some kind to which US citizens can contribute to help released Gitmo prisoners with the process of adjusting to life in their new (or old) countries? Thank you.

  13. – Four Insignificant Afghan Prisoners Released from Guantánamo says...

    […] By Andy Worthington […]

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Jim,
    It’s a good question, and I don’t think there’s an organization, although there should be. However, I know that both the Center for Constitutional Rights and Reprieve work with released prisoners.

  15. – Pentagon Blocks Prisoner Releases From Guantánamo Including 74-Pound Yemeni Hunger Striker – OpEd says...

    […] but then “nothing would happen.” He explained that the Pentagon’s obstruction “resulted in four Afghan detainees spending an additional four years in Guantánamo after being approved for […]

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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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