Abdul Rahman Shalabi, Long-Term Hunger Striker, Repatriated from Guantánamo to Saudi Arabia


Abdul Rahman Shalabi, in a photo from the classified military files from Guantanamo that were made available by WikiLeaks in April 2011.Yesterday (September 22), the US authorities reduced the population of the prison at Guantánamo Bay to 114 by releasing Abdul Rahman Shalabi, the prison’s most enduring hunger striker, who had been on a hunger strike for over ten years.

As I explained in an article in October 2010, he “weighed 124 pounds when he arrived at Guantánamo in January 2002,” but “rarely weighed more than 110 pounds [after] 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.'”

Shalabi, who is 39 years old, spent a third of his life at Guantánamo, and was one of 48 prisoners designated for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial in January 2010, by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009, whose remit was to recommend prisoners for release or for trial. In the end, the task force decided that 48 men were too dangerous to release, but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. This was deeply problematical, because it meant that the evidence was no such thing — and was, for example, a collection of unreliable statements made by the prisoners themselves, or their fellow prisoners, as a result of torture or other forms of abuse, bribery (the promise of “comfort items” and better living conditions) or exhaustion as the result of never-ending interrogations.

President Obama issued an executive order in March 2011 approving the ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial of these 48 men, sweetening the pill, however, by promising them periodic reviews. These finally began in November 2013, and Shalabi’s PRB (Periodic Review Board) took place in April this year, when I noted that 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, 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.”

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,’ claims that, again, are problematical, because there is no guarantee that those witnesses gave reliable information freely, and were not tortured or otherwise abused.”

Shalabi was approved for release on July 15, and, as I mentioned at the time:

[T]he 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].”

Shalabi arrived at Guantánamo on the day it opened, January 11, 2002, with 19 other men, and the Miami Herald noted that his release “leaves seven of those 20 first-day detainees” still at the prison. The newspaper also noted that, as with previous releases to Saudi Arabia, the Saudi authorities “sent a jet to pick him up.”

Shalabi is fortunate that such good relations exist between the US and Saudi Arabia, and also, perhaps, that he is from a “well-established family,” as the PRB noted, or his release would not have been so swift.

Of the 114 men still held, 43 were approved for release nearly six years ago — in January 2010 — by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, and nine others have been approved for release since January 2014 by PRBs, making 52 prisoners in total who have been approved for release. The majority, however, are Yemenis — 43 of these 52 — and with the entire US establishment agreeing that it is unacceptable to repatriate any Yemenis because of the security situation in their home country, and with Congress having imposed a ban on bringing any prisoners approved for release to be resettled in the US, they are waiting for third countries to be found that will take them in.

The other nine men include Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, who was first told that the US no longer wanted to hold him in 2007, and whose return to his family in the UK ought to be straightforward. Campaigners (including my own campaign, We Stand With Shaker), MPs and even the Prime Minister David Cameron have been repeatedly calling for his release, and yet, inexplicably, he is still held.

Defense secretary Ashton Carter has to sign off on any proposed releases, and to notify Congress 30 days in advance, and on September 14 the Associated Press noted that Carter has received the files of four prisoners which “are ready to go to Capitol Hill, likely later this month.” I await the news of these men’s release — and their identities — with great interest, and note that, in the Washington Post yesterday, Adam Goldman stated, “With Shalabi’s transfer, there are nine Saudis remaining at the prison, but only Shaker Aamer, a British resident, has been cleared for release. Carter is expected to approve his transfer in the coming weeks, along with one for Ahmed Ould Abdel al-Aziz, a Mauritanian.”

I very much hope that this true. However, I cannot emphasize enough how urgent it is that all the men approved for release are freed as soon as possible, as it is unacceptable that anyone should continue to be held nearly six years after they were first told that the US no longer wanted to hold them.

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, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). 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.

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 122 prisoners released from February 2009 to mid-September 2015 (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 Saudis1 Mauritanian1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; 13 Afghans (here and here); 3 British residents10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (herehere and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; 2 Algerians; 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; 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); 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); 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); 3 Yemenis to Georgia, 1 Yemeni and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia, and 1 Saudi; December 2014 — 4 Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian to Uruguay4 Afghans2 Tunisians and 3 Yemenis to Kazakhstan; January 2015 — 4 Yemenis to Oman, 1 Yemeni to Estonia; June 2015 — 6 Yemenis to Oman; September 2015 — 1 Moroccan.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I also wrote:

    Anyone want to buy ‘Song for Shaker Aamer’ to mark Adam Goldman’s claim that US defense secretary Ashton Carter “is expected to approve his transfer in the coming weeks”? Hoping this is true! Just 80p will get you the song, with 25% going to the family, although you’re welcome to pay more! https://thefourfathers.bandcamp.com/track/song-for-shaker-aamer

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Monique D’hoohge wrote:

    that would be excellent news

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    It would be indeed, Monique. And how long overdue!

  4. anna says...

    What did I just hear on AlJazeera english – in between tons of hypocrisy from Washington official visits – that Shaker will be released soon?

    I’ll believe it when it happens, but until then I will at least enjoy this hope to the full :-))).

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, such wonderful news, Anna!

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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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