Abdul Rahman Shalabi, Hunger Striker Since 2005, Asks Review Board to Approve His Release from Guantánamo


"Close Guantanamo": a campaigner holds a postcard promoting the "Close Guantanamo" campaign on January 11, 2012 in Washington D.C., the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo.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 Tuesday, April 21, Abdul Rahman Shalabi became the 14th “forever prisoner” at Guantánamo to have his case reviewed by a Periodic Review Board. The PRBs — which 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 — were established in 2013 to review the cases of prisoners who had neither been approved for release by the high-level, multi-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after first taking office in 2009, nor had been put forward for trials.

At the time of the PRBs’ creation, 71 men were deemed to be eligible for reviews, but, according to my records, five of these men have been released, one other accepted a plea deal in the military commissions, and another was charged, leaving 50 more prisoners eligible for the process.

Progress has been slow, but, of the 13 cases so far decided, nine have ended with the boards approving the release of the prisoners in question, and just four have been approved for ongoing imprisonment.

A caveat is that only two of these nine have been freed — a Saudi and a Kuwaiti — while the rest have joined the 50 other men approved for release by the task force but still held. 43 of these 50 men are Yemenis, who are still held because of fears regarding the security situation in Yemen, and six of the seven men approved for release through the PRB process are also Yemenis.

In the last six months, however, a dozen Yemenis have been released in third countries, so there is, finally, some hope for these 49 men, although the Obama administration needs to show renewed vigor in finding new homes for them if their ongoing imprisonment is not to become a cruel joke.

Shalabi, 39, is a Saudi, which may make it easier for him to be released if the board decides in his favor, although that is by no means certain, as the authorities identify him as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. It is by no means certain, however, that there is any accuracy to this claim. Shalabi is described as one of the “Dirty Thirty,” captured crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001, who were all initially described as bin Laden bodyguards, but that has never seemed likely, as the men in question were generally young, and had not been in Afghanistan for long prior to their capture.

Shalabi had been there slightly longer, having apparently arrived in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, but there is no independent verification of his supposed status. The authorities noted that he has “denied any involvement with al-Qa’ida,” but claimed that “several other detainees — including senior al-Qa’ida figures and other former bodyguards — have separately identified him as a Bin Ladin [sic] bodyguard,” claims that, again, are problematical, because there is no guarantee that those witnesses gave reliable information freely, and were not tortured or otherwise abused.

The authorities also noted that Shalabi has generally been “noncompliant with the guard staff,” although this seems to be based primarily on the fact that he is a long-term hunger striker, and not because he has been particularly disruptive while refusing food. In fact, as his lawyer, Julia Tarver Mason-Wood explained, “He has been on a peaceful but long-term hunger strike since 2005.” She also described him as the prison’s longest-running hunger striker.

In addition, two personal representatives assigned to represent him (who are members of the US military), stated, “Although it is looked upon as a negative factor in the overall issue relating to compliance, it’s important to emphasize that hunger striking is not an illegal act, but rather a non-violent and peaceful means of protesting camp conditions and continued detainment. Abdul Rahman has stated on multiple occasions that if hunger striking was illegal, he would have immediately ceased such protest.”

As I explained in an article in October 2010:

Shalabi … weighed 124 pounds when he arrived at Guantánamo in January 2002, but has rarely weighed more than 110 pounds since he began his hunger strike in August 2005, as part of the largest hunger strike in the prison’s history. At one point, in November 2005, he weighed just 100 pounds (PDF), and when the authorities took harsh steps to bring the strike under control in January 2006, importing a number of restraint chairs to make sure that it “wasn’t convenient” for the strikers to continue (as Gen. Bantz J. Craddock, the head of the US Southern Command, explained to the New York Times), Shalabi, Tarek Baada, a Yemeni, and another Saudi, Ahmed Zuhair (who was released [in June 2009]), refused to give up.

In September 2009, after four years of being force-fed daily, Shalabi weighed just 108 pounds, and wrote a distressing letter to his lawyers, in which he stated, “I am a human who is being treated like an animal.” In November 2009, when his letter was included in a court submission, one of his lawyers, Julia Tarver Mason, stated, “He’s two pounds away from organ failure and death.”

At the time of my 2010 article, Shalabi had, according to the authorities, eaten solid food on several occasions, although, in their court submission, the authorities “conceded that Shalabi weighed only 101 pounds — just two-thirds of his ‘ideal body weight’ — in September [2010], and also noted that doctors had diagnosed him with gastroparesis, a condition which slows the digestive system.”

According to Navy Capt. Monte Bible, who commanded the Joint Medical Group at Guantánamo at the time, gastroparesis “causes constipation, bloating and abdominal pain,” and “was apparently caused by a weakening of his abdominal muscles” as a result of his hunger strike.

For his PRB, the personal representatives noted Shalabi’s “plans and desires to become fully re-integrated into society as a productive member,” which, they added, “includes reuniting with his family back home in Saudi Arabia, joining his siblings to help run a well-established business, taking care of his ailing mother, and getting married and having children.”

Despite their apparent misgivings about him, the authorities acknowledged that he “has not expressed intent to reengage in terrorism and does not appear to be in contact with any extremists outside of Guantánamo.” In addition, he is the uncle of a former Guantánamo prisoner, Sultan al-Uwaydha (ISN 059), who “was repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2006 [actually 2007] and who does not appear to have reengaged in extremist activities.”

Noting his desire to return to Saudi Arabia, the authorities also acknowledged that he “is aware of and probably would be open to participating in the Kingdom’s rehabilitation program, particularly as it would entail the participation of his family members, with whom he is close,” adding, “His family has no known ties to extremism and he has expressed interest in business opportunities.”

Reporting on his review, the Miami Herald noted that he “appeared slim in a video feed of the proceedings,” and that he “had a full beard and wore a white tunic top and skullcap,” according to a Pentagon official who watched part of the hearing.

As his lawyer, Julia Tarver Mason (now Julia Tarver Mason-Wood) noted, Shalabi “is committed to spending his remaining days in peace with his family,” adding that, although his nephew was successfully repatriated in 2007, rejoining the family, which “has a real estate and construction firm.” Returning home would be his “first choice,” Mason-Wood added, although she noted that he “is open to being resettled in another country if that would expedite his transfer out of Guantánamo.”

Moreover, Mason-Wood stated that Shalabi “has largely cooperated with the enteral feedings he has been provided on a daily basis over the last nine years.” For the Miami Herald, Carol Rosenberg noted that this was “something prison staff have at times confirmed to the Miami Herald through the years,” adding “Even at the height of the prison’s long-running hunger strike, according to various military sources, Shalabi would voluntarily submit to shackling for escort to a restraint chair and sometime chug a can of Ensure nutritional supplement rather than receive it through a tube snaked up his nose and into his stomach.”

What Shalabi said to the board, and what they asked him, has not been made public, but I hope you will find useful the transcript of his personal representatives’ opening statement, which is posted below:

Periodic Review Board, 21 April 2015
Abdul Shalabi, ISN 042
Opening Statement of Personal Representative

Abdul Rahman Shalabi, in a photo from the classified military files made available by WikiLeaks in April 2011.Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the board. We are the personal representatives for Abdul Shalabi, who prefers to be called Abdul Rahman. Also in attendance today is Abdul Rahman’s private counsel, Ms. Julia Tarver Mason-Wood. During the past three months we had the opportunity to meet with Abdul Rahman on multiple occasions, while each time gaining a better insight into his character, and future plans and desires to become fully re-integrated into society as a productive member. This future includes reuniting with his family back home in Saudi Arabia, joining his siblings to help run a well-established business, taking care of his ailing mother, and getting married and having children.

Abdul Rahman left behind his mother, two brothers and three sisters, with whom he is very close. Each of his immediate family members, with the exception of his oldest sister who cannot read or write, has written letters to the board in support of his release. Both of his brothers are very successful within their own respective career fields ranging from real estate to business contracting, and are eager to have Abdul Rahman join their business. Prior to his detention, Abdul Rahman was one semester short of obtaining his university degree and if given the opportunity, he is very much looking forward to completing his final semester. Abdul Rahman’s family is eagerly awaiting his return. His brothers have already arranged for all the necessary amenities and set up an apartment for him [redacted]. Additionally, Abdul Rahman’s mother and sisters are dedicated to finding a suitable partner for him to marry.

Abdul Rahman is very optimistic and sincere about participating in the many prospects that await him in his home country. The government of Saudi Arabia has long been known to provide all the necessary tools and support for a successful rehabilitation and reintegration program for detainees transferred home, including appropriate security and humane treatment assurances to facilitate the transfer of detainees. Abdul Rahman is very eager and willing to participate in this rehabilitative process if permitted to do so. Pursuant to these assurances, the United States has transferred over 100 detainees to Saudi Arabia, including Abdul Rahman’s nephew who has successfully reintegrated into society and started a family, all with the support of Abdul Rahman’s family.

I would also be remiss if I don’t take this opportunity to speak on behalf of Abdul Rahman regarding his long term hunger striking. According to his unclassified dossier, Abdul Rahman would be characterized as noncompliant. Although it is looked upon as a negative factor in the overall issue relating to compliance, it’s important to emphasize that hunger striking is not an illegal act, but rather a non-violent and peaceful means of protesting camp conditions and continued detainment. Abdul Rahman has stated on multiple occasions that if hunger striking was illegal, he would have immediately ceased such protest.

During our over 30 plus hours of meeting, Abdul Rahman has demonstrated nothing short of sincerity, professionalism, and intent to forget the past and look forward. Abdul Rahman has never exhibited any aggressive or violent behavior, or any animosity towards the United States or non-Muslims. As a teacher of Islam, Abdul Rahman believes Islam is a peaceful religion and he does not support terrorism or any groups that kill innocent people in the name of Islam. For these reasons, we fully support Abdul Rahman and wholeheartedly believe that he does not pose a significant and continued threat to the security of the United States.

We understand the board has been presented with historical data leading up to Abdul Rahman’s detention. However, given an opportunity to review our submissions while being able to see him face to face and ask the tough questions, we hope you will consider the whole picture and realize that Abdul Rahman is a compassionate and deserving man of a second chance in life. He should no longer be negatively characterized as a significant and continued threat to the United States. We ask that you approve Abdul Rahman for transfer so that he may spend the remainder of his days in peace and in the security of his mother, brothers, and sisters. We thank you for this opportunity and are standing by to address any questions or concerns you may have.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-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 the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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).

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9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the case of Abdul Rahman Shalabi, a Saudi “forever prisoner” and the 14th to have a Periodic Review Board to assess whether he should continue to be held or should be approved for release from ‪Guantanamo‬. Shockingly, he has been on a hunger strike for nearly 10 years, something that I find almost incomprehensible.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Zarina Bhatia wrote:

    Shame, Injustice in keeping Guantnamo still open.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Zarina. Yes, a profound shame for everyone involved. The prison holds only a handful of people genuinely accused of involvement in international terrorism, and yet many right-wingers are desperate to keep it open, and far too many people know still know next to nothing about it.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Sandra Peevers wrote:

    Thank you Andy for your tireless efforts on behalf of these detainees.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    And thank you for the supportive comments, Sandra, which help me to keep going!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Jørn Kurt Simonsen wrote:

    When will it end ??? …Jørn

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t know, Jørn. It has become one of those state-created horrors that will take decades to deal with adequately, but hopefully it will not stay open forever. We must always try to impress on the US establishment the stark realisation that people never charged and never convicted of anything will die there if it isn’t shut for good.

  8. Martin Walker says...

    He’s been approved for release. Great news. It could have gone either way. He’s a Saudi so his release shouldn’t take years unlike the Yemenis.


  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s good news, Martin. Thanks for letting me know. I was out all evening, so had missed the news. I’ll be writing something about it soon.

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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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