Abdul Rahman Shalabi, Guantánamo Hunger Striker for Ten Years, Is Approved for Release to Saudi Arabia


Guantanamo prisoner Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 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.

I’m pleased to report that Abdul Rahman Shalabi (ISN 042), a Saudi at Guantánamo, who has, astonishingly, been on a hunger strike for ten years, has been approved for release by a Periodic Review Board, which explained, in its final determination regarding Shalabi’s case, “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.”

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.

Originally, there were 48 men in this category of prisoners neither approved for release nor for trials, but two died before the PRBs began. To these 46 were added 25 others, originally recommended for trials, until the trial system at Guantánamo began to unravel spectacularly, with a series of damning rulings, by judges in the generally quite conservative appeals court in Washington D.C. The D.C. Circuit Court judges established that what the government called war crimes were no such thing, and had been invented by Congress, thereby rendering the entire trial system of the “war on terror” to be only one notch up from useless and thoroughly discredited.

If there was never any justification for most of the men put forward for prosecution by the task force to have been charged, huge problems were also apparent with the task force’s decision to describe 48 men as too dangerous to release, even though they acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. In far too many cases, these decisions were taken because of a certain credulity regarding allegations in the prisoners’ files, which are filled, to an alarming degree, with worthless or highly suspect statements, made by the prisoners themselves, or by their fellow prisoners, when subjected to torture, other forms of abuse, or bribery — with the promise of comfort items for cooperative prisoners — none of which are conducive to telling the truth.

In Abdul Rahman Shalabi’s case, the most damaging claim was that he was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. However, as I explained at the time of his PRB in April, although he was “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 … 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.”

I added, “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.” These claims are, of course, unreliable, especially in the cases of alleged “senior al-Qa’ida figures,” because they were all subjected to torture in CIA custody.

In its final determination, the board members explained that they acknowledged Shalabi’s “past terrorist-related activities and connections,” but added that they “found that in light of the factors and conditions of transfer identified below, the risk the detainee presents can be adequately mitigated.” Shalabi, they added, “does not appear to be in contact with any extremists and his family has no known ties to extremism.”

The board members added, “In making this determination, the Board was confident about the efficacy of the Saudi rehabilitation program and Saudi Arabia’s ability to monitor the detainee after completion of the program and noted the detainee’s credible desire to participate in the Saudi rehabilitation program and reintegrate into society. The Board also considered the detainee’s well-established family, their willingness and ability to support him upon his return, and their prior success in assisting with the rehabilitation and reintegration of a former Guantánamo detainee [his nephew Sultan al-Uwaydha (ISN 059), who was repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2007].”

The Board also “noted the detainee’s recognition of his health situation and his commitment to continue his recent efforts to improve it” — a reference, I imagine, to the long-term effects of his hunger strike, although that was not spelled out.

As I explained in April, “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) … 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.'”

Below I’m posting the statement made by Shalabi’s lawyer, Julia Tarver Mason-Wood, during his PRB, which was not available online at the time of the April hearing. In it, Tarver-Wood provides a detailed analysis of her client, based on almost ten years of visiting him and, more recently, talking to him on the phone.

Statement by Julia Tarver Mason-Wood for the Periodic Review Board for Abdul Rahman Shalabi, April 21, 2015

Good morning. My name is Julia Tarver Mason-Wood and I am the private counsel for Abdul Rahman Shalabi. Thank you so much for this opportunity to represent Mr. Shalabi in this review process.

I have represented Mr. Shalabi on a pro bono basis for almost a decade. I’ve had numerous in-person and telephonic calls with him over the years. Mr. Shalabi is no longer the young man in his early twenties who left his home and family in Saudi Arabia and went to Afghanistan. Today, as he approaches his 40th birthday, he seems much older than his 40 years. Yet even in his ailing physical health, he is intent to turn a corner in his life and now wants nothing more but to return to live in peace with his mother, sisters and brothers in Saudi Arabia.

Through our written submission and our discussion with you today, I hope that you will see a man who has matured from his youthful past and is ready to turn the page. I want to emphasize at the outset that Mr. Shalabi believes in the periodic review board process and has been eager to participate since he first learned that he was notified for a hearing. Over the past few months, he has worked diligently and patiently with his personal representatives and with us to prepare for today’s hearing.

More than anything else, Mr. Shalabi desires to return home to his family in Saudi Arabia to be reunited with his mother, two brothers and three sisters. From the very first phone call that Mr. Shalabi had to tell his family that he had been scheduled for a PRB hearing before this body, several family members set out immediately to write letters enthusiastically supporting his transfer home. As you can see from their moving statements, Mr. Shalabi is very close with his family, particularly his mother, and they fully support his transition home. This support will enable Mr. Shalabi to lead a peaceful and productive life when he returns. His oldest brother has already registered and furnished an apartment for him. And his brother and his younger brother are the owners of successful real estate and construction businesses, and they intend to employ Mr. Shalabi as soon as he is able and ready to begin work. Additionally, Mr. Shalabi’s mother and sister are devoted to finding him a suitable wife, so that he can realize his dream of getting married and just having children.

Now, these aren’t just the words of a hopeful family or a naive family. These are assurances you can trust from a family with a proven track record. Back in November 2007, Mr. Shalabi’s own nephew, Sultan Ahmed Dirdeer Musa Al Uwaydha, ISN 059, was repatriated from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia. With the support of Mr. Shalabi’s own family, Mr. Uwaydha graduated from the Saudi Rehabilitation Care Program, got married, and started his own family. In Mr. Shalabi’s own words, his nephew received a chance at a peaceful life, took it, and does not look back. Mr. Shalabi is hopeful for the same opportunity, and I urge the Board to strongly take into account the demonstrated success of Mr. Shalabi’s family and the Saudi rehabilitation program in preventing Mr. Uwaydha from engaging in any hostile activities after his release.

Like his nephew, Mr. Shalabi is eager to participate in the Saudi Arabia rehabilitation program and will cooperate fully with any stipulations his country places upon him. I would like to direct your attention to the attached statement we have provided from Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior, pledging that Mr. Shalabi will be welcomed home with the same security and human treatment assurances that have facilitated the transfer of over 100 detainees from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia, including former hunger strikers, such as Ahmed Zaid Salem Zuhair, ISN 669. We have also provided you with what I hope is a comprehensive memorandum that provides color on the Saudi rehabilitation program, explains why it has been successful in rehabilitating countless other former Guantanamo detainees, and further analyzes the reasons why Mr. Shalabi should be repatriated to his home country through this program.

Nevertheless, Mr. Shalabi is open to being resettled in another country if that would expedite his transfer out of Guantanamo. As in Saudi Arabia, he would seek to rehabilitate himself and live a peaceful life. Wherever Mr. Shalabi goes, he wishes to settle down, get married and have a family of his own, and put the past behind him.

Finally, Mr. Shalabi wants to make clear that he harbors no ill will to the United States, the American people, and non-Muslims. Mr. Shalabi recognizes that he has struggled with his almost 14-year confinement. He has been on a peaceful, but long term, hunger strike since 2005. And at times, his frustrations with the conditions of confinement has lead him to act out and be uncooperative with the detention staff. But Mr. Shalabi’s behavior is not rooted in ill will toward the United States. Instead, he has exercised a peaceful means of protest by refusing to consume food and has largely cooperated with the enteral feedings he has been provided on a daily basis over the last nine years. You will hear from Mr. Shalabi’s doctors who will tell you that it is not uncommon for individuals in·Mr. Shalabi’s condition to attempt to exercise these basic forms of control over aspects of their daily living.

As he will explain to you, Mr. Shalabi is a teacher of Islam, which he believes is a religion of peace, not war. Mr. Shalabi will tell you that he does not support terrorism or the killing of innocent people; he steadfastly believes that such acts are contrary to the Quran and to the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Furthermore, in assessing Mr. Shalabi’s behavior in detention, I encourage you to consider the written statements from Mr. Shalabi’s doctors as well as the live testimony that they will provide to you later today.

The bottom line is that Mr. Shalabi wishes to move beyond the past and look to the future. He is committed to spending his remaining days in peace with his family. Based on his testimony, his doctor’s testimony, his family’s statements, his family’s prior success in rehabilitating his nephew, as well as the proven success of the Saudi rehabilitation program in rehabilitating similarly situated individuals, Mr. Shalabi should not be considered a significant and continuing threat to the security of the United States.

I urge the Board to approve Mr. Shalabi for transfer to Saudi Arabia and recommend that he be transferred as soon as possible to begin his rehabilitation.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers). 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).

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.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted the link to the original Close Guantanamo article on Facebook, I wrote:

    For Close Guantanamo, here’s my latest article, about the most recent decision taken by a Periodic Review Board – to approve the release from ‪Guantanamo‬ of Abdul Rahman Shalabi, a Saudi who has, astonishingly, been on a hunger strike – and force-fed – for ten years. Out of 14 PRBs decided to date, ten prisoners have now been approved for release. I hope we’ll soon be hearing that he will be returning home to his family.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend Anjum Anwar shared it, I wrote:

    Thanks for sharing, Anjum.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Anjum Anwar wrote:

    always a pleasure Andy!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Helena Donaire wrote:


  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Helena. Good to hear from you.

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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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