Yemeni Tribal Chief, Businessman, Intelligence Officer and Torture Victim Seeks Release from Guantánamo Via Periodic Review Board


Yemeni prisoner Abd al-Salam al-Hela, in a photo from Guantanamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Last week, a 48-year old Yemeni citizen held at Guantánamo, Abd al-Salam al-Hela (aka Abd al-Salam al-Hilah or Abdul al-Salam al-Hilal), became the 37th prisoner to have his case considered by a Periodic Review Board. This high-level, US review process, which involves 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, began in November 2013.

In the two and half years since, the PRBs have been reviewing the cases of two groups of men: 41 men originally described by a previous review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force (which President Obama set up when he first took office in 2009), as “too dangerous to release,” and 23 others initially put forward for trials until the basis for prosecutions largely collapsed, in 2012 and 2013, after appeals court judges ruled that the war crimes being prosecuted had been invented by Congress.

For the 41 men described as “too dangerous to release,” the task force also acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, which set alarm bells ringing for anyone paying close attention, because, if insufficient evidence exists to put someone on trial, then it is not evidence at all. At Guantánamo — and elsewhere in the “war on terror” — the reasons for this emerged under minimal scrutiny from anyone paying attention. Instead of being evidence, information was extracted from prisoners through the use of torture or other forms of abuse, or through being bribed with the promise of better living conditions, which, as a result, is demonstrably unreliable.

What the task force also meant, it has transpired since the PRBs began, is that having a negative attitude towards the US also counted as a reason for being regarded as “too dangerous to release,” and the PRBs, which are best viewed as being akin to parole boards, are therefore seeking to establish that the men whose cases they are studying are capable of expressing remorse about what they did (or are alleged to have done), and are willing to spend time and effort seeking to establish that they do not pose a threat if released.

21 men have so far been approved for release, and just seven have had their ongoing imprisonment recommended, while nine others are awaiting decisions. This is a success rate for the prisoners of 75%, which convincingly demonstrates that the task force’s “too dangerous to release” description was exaggerated and inappropriate. Abd al-Salam al-Hela is one of the 41 men regarded as “too dangerous to release” by Obama’s task force in 2010, when, interestingly, he was one of 13 men that the task force additionally recommended for possible transfer to imprisonment in the US.

The case of Abd al-Salam al-Hela

I first wrote about Abd al-Salam al-Hela’s case in 2006-07, for my book The Guantánamo Files, in the chapter entitled, “‘Extraordinary rendition,’ ‘ghost’ prisoners and secret prisons,” and I recall thinking at the time how extraordinary it was that a prominent businessman, who also worked for the Yemeni government on intelligence matters that related, in particular, to former mujahideen, had been kidnapped in Egypt, tortured in secret prisons and sent to Guantánamo.

Had it been a US citizen and businessmen, involved in intelligence, who was captured by an enemy and held incommunicado, it is unthinkable that the US government would have put up with such a cavalcade of lawlessness, but in the “war on terror,” of course, the normal rules were jettisoned, and al-Hela was seized at a time when the CIA seemed to be giddy with power, abducting people and rendering them to be tortured on the shallowest of bases — to give just a few examples, Abu Omar, a cleric kidnapped in broad daylight on street in Milan in February 2003 and flown to Egypt for torture, Khaled el-Masri, a case of mistaken identity, seized in Macedonia in December 2003 and sent to a “black site” in Afghanistan, and Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, a Pakistani also sent for torture in Egypt, in whose case the CIA had been called by Indonesian intelligence on the basis of a single overheard conversation in a bugged house.

In my book, I drew largely on a 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, and began with the then-34-year old al-Hela’s arrival in Cairo in September 2002:

The manager of a pharmaceutical firm, he was also the Yemeni representative of Egypt’s biggest construction company, and had been invited to settle some financial disagreements, but within a week he was abducted by the Egyptian security services on behalf of the Americans. According to certain reports, an Egyptian militant in Yemen suggested that he had ties to al-Qaeda operatives, and it’s possible that, when this information was passed on to the Americans, the decision was made to capture him. What seems more likely, however, is that the al-Qaeda story was a ruse, and that the Americans — now sufficiently emboldened after abducting and rendering whoever they felt like for over a year — decided to abduct him for his intelligence value.

As well as being a businessman, al-Hela was a colonel in Yemeni intelligence, responsible for seeking asylum in other countries for the ‘Arab Afghans,’ including hundreds of former mujahideen who returned from Afghanistan to fight the Marxist rebels in south Yemen during the 1994 civil war, and some of the 30,000 other Yemenis who also went to Afghanistan over the previous 20 years. For the Americans, al-Hela had precious intelligence: he knew who had settled down and moved away from politics, who continued to be active, and who had left the country, and, as well as being familiar with members of the militant groups, he had a close relationship with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salih, and with numerous Arab and Western intelligence services.

After his abduction, al-Hela was interrogated in two hotels for a week, where he was subjected to ‘degrading treatment,’ and was then driven to an airport and handed over to masked American agents who stripped him, dressed him in blue overalls, chained his hands and feet, blindfolded him, and took him to the ‘Dark Prison,’ where, as well as being kept in permanent darkness, with ‘sharp metallic rock music’ playing 24 hours a day,’ he was ‘regularly stripped naked and interrogated,’ was ‘suspended from the ceiling for prolonged periods,’ and had one of his hands ‘cuffed to the wall at all times making it difficult for him to sleep or go to the toilet.’ He added that ‘the only time he saw light was when a bright strobe light was flashed in his eyes during interrogation, temporarily blinding him,’ and that he lost 30 kg in weight.

He was then transferred to another underground prison near Kabul called Malidu, a more modern facility where he was held for two and a half months and interrogated for 15 consecutive days, and was then taken to another secret prison, where he was held for 14 months, and where ‘his jailers told him he was being held at the behest of the US.’ Although he was also tortured in this unknown prison, he pointed out that ‘the psychological burden of being confined incommunicado was far worse than the physical abuse.’ He was then transferred to Bagram, where, he said, the conditions were ‘very, very bad,’ but did not wish to elaborate. While there, he managed to smuggle out a letter that was printed in a Yemeni newspaper, in which he pleaded for help and pointed out, acutely, ‘My only crime is that the Americans wanted information from me, but couldn’t find any, so I was left in Afghani prisons. My last interrogation was a year ago.’ He was transferred to Guantánamo on 17 September 2004, in the plane full of supposedly significant suspects mentioned above, and has been held in Camp 5, reserved for prisoners who are considered to be dangerous or to have intelligence value.

Al-Hela’s story also featured in an article in Harper’s Magazine in September 2006, by Eliza Griswold, who had traveled to Yemen with some of the prisoners’ lawyers. She began by noting that he was “a prominent businessman and tribal leader to some 10,000 people,” and wrote about a family visit at his home “with his three brothers, some community leaders, and a group of American lawyers from southern California.” A man named Hamoud, who “was acting as tribal leader in Abdulsalam’s stead,” said, “The Yemeni government has said they want him back, but the government is afraid of America.” Nodding towards the lawyers, he added, “We are hoping for something good from these American people.”

After lunch, al-Hela’s brothers explained what they knew. Griswold wrote, “Abdulsalam brokered large-scale construction deals, and several years ago he arranged to help some Egyptian contractors build universities. When the Egyptians stiffed him, he flew to Cairo to sort it out. Within days he was detained by Egyptian intelligence officers. The family’s theory was that the cheating businessmen somehow framed their brother. More likely, though, Abdulsalam fits into that second category of detainees: those who are not necessarily suspected of wrongdoing but might have valuable intelligence. As a tribal leader, Abdulsalam had been instrumental in helping Arab Afghan fighters return home after the Yemeni civil war. This association with foreign fighters may have interested the American military, but no one can say for sure.”

At Guantánamo, his lawyer David Remes made notes of a meeting with al-Hela in July 2009 available after they had been through the Pentagon’s declassification process. They came at a difficult time — a month after the death, allegedly by committing suicide, of a Yemeni named Muhammad Salih, who had been a popular figure amongst the prisoners.

In the notes, al-Hela revealed his fears for his life, based on a pair of scissors he found, inexplicably, in his cell:

Because of the incidents that are happening one after another, not even mountains could withstand it. It is beyond the ability of humans to endure. I can’t find the right expression. I stopped shaking, being scared. This is not how I planned my life, but I can endure it because this is Allah’s plan for me. I’ve been here seven years. It would give a child gray hairs. On [July 6, 2009] at 11pm, I returned to my cell after rec time [recreation time]. Usually, right after I come back from rec, or before I go to sleep, I try to clean myself up. I also arrange my bed so I can go to sleep. When I began to arrange the bed, I found a sharp object, which I recognized as a big pair of scissors — 20-25 cms or 8-10 inches. It was very sharp, and each of the blades could be a very sharp knife. It’s impossible for such an object to be found with a prisoner at GTMO, especially in Camp 5, which is the most secure prison. Even the scissors in the first-aid kit are blunt and 4 inches and the tips are bent, so no prisoner could hurt himself if he managed to get it.

None of the other prisoners had ever seen anything like it in all their years at Guantánamo. I was tempted to call the guards, but it occurred to me that they may have placed the scissors there so I could kill myself; maybe they thought they could get rid of me because there’s no agreement with Yemen because of me. The other brothers say my name is always at the top of the issues, so we speculate that they were trying to set me up to kill myself in a moment of weakness, when any human would think of killing himself. Nothing is done by chance or stupidity here. They use psychological torture, which is worse than direct murder. More serious. The second possibility is that they planted this not just so they could say I had taken my own life but, if not that, and there is no agreement with Yemen, they’re killing the Yemenis one after another. Why do they want to kill me? What have I done? Don’t kill me in this low way — saying that I killed myself. Just execute me openly.

Abd al-Salam al-Hela has also suffered huge personal losses during his time at Guantánamo — his two young sons, who died when a grenade they were playing with exploded, and the deaths of his mother and father.

Abd al-Salam al-Hela’s PRB

In its unclassified summary for the PRB, the US authorities claimed that Abd al-Salam al-Hela “entered into extremist circles at a young age and rose to be a prominent extremist facilitator who leveraged his position within the Yemeni Political Security Organization (PSO) to provide refuge and logistical support to extremist groups,” adding that he “probably learned about terrorist plots against Yemeni and Western interests on multiple occasions through his extremist contacts.” It was also stated that, “[d]uring detention, [he] has admitted to many of these activities,” although it is difficult to know how reliable his admissions were, as much of his early detention was in circumstances that are not conducive to truth-telling. The authorities also noted that “[h]is reported pre-detention activities suggest that [he] was sympathetic to extremists and driven by a desire for personal position and financial gain.”

The authorities acknowledged that, “[s]ince his arrival at Guantánamo, [al-Hela] has committed a moderate number of infractions relative to other detainees,” adding that he “appears to calibrate his cooperation with Joint Task Force-Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO) personnel to extract his preferred living conditions.” It was also noted that he “has expressed a few, general aspirations for his time after Guantánamo, including wanting to help transfer additional Guantánamo detainees and open a business,” although these may not be enough for the review board members, who are keen to hear detailed plans for prisoners’ lives after Guantánamo.

The authorities also expressed concerns about al-Hela’s thoughts on terrorism, which may also not sit well with the review board members. It was stated that al-Hela “has provided few insights into his original motivations for supporting terrorists in Yemen or his current thinking,” and that he “has eschewed discussion about extremism and has instead focused his comments in interviews on politics and the security situation in Yemen” — although to my mind this latter point could be read as encouraging, as his concerns are with his home country and not with an international, or pan-Muslim approach to politics. That said, it is more worrying that the summary also noted that he “has expressed continued support for extremists and terrorist groups, including ISIL,” although no further details are provided to be able to assess what this supposed support actually entails.

It was also noted that he “has been in direct contact with two extremists outside of Guantánamo during his detention.” One of these alleged extremists is one of his brothers, although the authors of the summary, having described him as an extremist, then concede that they “cannot confirm” that he “still supports extremist activity.” Another is “a former Guantánamo detainee suspected of reengaging in terrorism,” although without further clarification I find it disturbing, as I have in other PRB cases, that correspondence with a former prisoner who has come under suspicion by the US can be regarded as evidence of sympathy with extremism without further scrutiny.

The summary concluded by speculating that al-Hela “probably would have multiple avenues to reengage in terrorism if he chose to do so because of these contacts, his expansive extremist connections from before his detention, and because his family resides in an area of Sanaa known for extremist activity,” but if his release were to be recommended, these concerns would be irrelevant, because the entire US establishment is in agreement that no Yemenis at Guantánamo can be repatriated, because of the security situation in their home country.

Below I’m cross-posting the opening statements of his personal representatives (military personnel appointed to help prisoners to prepare for their PRBs) and of his lawyer, David Remes. The representatives, who described him as Abedelsalam, delivered a powerful summary of his role as a tribal leader, political figure and successful businessman, and David Remes, noting how senior political figures have long been calling for his release, was also at pains to stress that his client “is through with government and politics,” and how he “has no ideology” and only “wants to restore his life with his wife and daughter.”

Periodic Review Board Initial Hearing, 12 May 2016
Abd Al Salam Al Hilah, ISN 1463
Personal Representative Opening Statement

As Abedelsalam’s Personal Representatives, we would like to thank the Board for allowing us the opportunity to present his case and demonstrate how he is not a continuing significant threat to the United States, her people or her Allies.

First, Abedelsalam was a highly respected leader in his native country of Yemen, and he had a great deal of tribal, political and business influence. After the passing of his father, a tribal leader who had taught him the intricate lessons of leadership and influence, Abedelsalam became the leader of his family at the age of twelve years old. He raised his brothers and sisters with the help of his mother, which earned him considerable respect from his community.

Later, he developed his business and trade skills to such a degree that he was able to become not only financially stable, but prosperous. He got married to a loving and supportive wife, who bore him two beautiful daughters and two handsome sons. He is extremely proud of his family, who support him, and who he wishes to see again soon.

As he continued in his businesses and tribal affairs, he attracted the attention of the political parties in Yemen. Ultimately, he joined the General Congress Party (the largest political party in Yemen) at the request of the President of Yemen, hoping to bring together all of the parties. As a result, his tribe encouraged him to run for Parliament. He used his influence to help raise the economic standards of all the people in Yemen. He helped bring international companies to Yemen to build bridges, roads, airports, power plants, and increase the efforts of energy exploration.

With such great respect and influence, Abedelsalam was asked to help the government in cooperating with other tribes to root out any Afghan trained fighters and have them handed over to the government. This was a task that should have been recognized as aiding the West in its efforts to combat terrorism; however, when he visited another Middle Eastern country to arrange for $200 Million in financial commitments to Yemen, he was arrested and handed over to U.S. authorities and eventually interned at the detention facility in Guantanamo.

Abedelsalam has never had any intentions to harm the United States, her Allies or the people of the Western Democracies, and he is ready to answer any questions the Board may have for him at this time.

Periodic Review Board, May 12, 2016
Abdulsalam Abd Al-Salam Al-Hilah (ISN 1463)
Opening Statement of Private Counsel David H. Remes

Good morning. I am David Remes, private counsel for Abdulsalam Ali Abdulrahman Al-Hela (ISN 1463). I have represented Abdulsalam in his habeas corpus case for over a decade. I have met with him countless times, and I believe I know him well. I have also met with members of Abdulsalam’s family, including his brothers and his wife, on almost every one of my eleven trips to Yemen between 2005 and 2013. I have been to their homes and broken bread with them.

Abdulsalam al-Hela is a strong and justifiably proud man. The son of an influential sheikh, Abdulsalam became an influential sheikh in his own right. He also became a successful businessman and a figure of national prominence. President Ali Abdullah Saleh enlisted him to mediate disputes between the government and the tribes, and the tribes enlisted him to mediate disputes among themselves.

Abdulsalam was among those chosen by President Saleh to help manage the deportation of jihadists who had settled in Yemen after defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with assistance from the United States.

The letters of support that we have submitted for Abdulsalam prove the high esteem in which he is held in official and political circles in Yemen. I have discussed his case, on many occasions, with leaders of Yemen’s national legislature and senior government officials. The Deputy Leader of the Chamber, Hemiar Al-Ahmar, leads the Committee of notables who have been fighting for Abdulsalam’s release for many years. All speak out strongly in favor of his release and are emphatic that he poses no threat to anyone.

The Board should not conclude that Abdulsalam is a continuing significant threat to the United States based on activities or associations 15 to 25 years ago. He is nearing fifty and is through with government and politics. He has no ideology. He wants to restore his life with his wife and daughter. He was devastated by the death of his mother and the deaths of his two young sons, who were killed by a live hand grenade left in the area. Abdulsalam also wants to reestablish himself as a businessman, and he should have no trouble doing so. He used to conduct business throughout Europe; he speaks English; and he is cosmopolitan. Building an import-export business for products to be sold to Yemen is an obvious possibility.

Wherever he is resettled, Abdulsalam wants to build, not tear down. He will submit to rehabilitation and close supervision. Abdulsalam is not a continuing significant threat to the United States. I urge the Board to recommend his transfer.

Thank you.

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 (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), 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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12 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the Periodic Review Board last week for Abd al-Salam al-Hela, a Yemeni tribal leader and businessman, who also worked with the Yemeni governent on resettling former mujahideen. Kidnapped in Egypt in September 2002, he was held in CIA torture prisons for two years, and then sent to ‪Guantanamo‬. He is the 37th prisoner to face a PRB, and to date 21 men have been approved for release, while seven others have had their ongoing detention upheld.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. Please also check out my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantanamo website:

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Harriet Marrinan wrote:

    Thanks for the update, Andy. How long after the review by the PRB does a decision normally come?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Between one month and two months, Harriet. Thanks for your interest, as ever!

  5. Martin says...

    Actually, this year nearly all of the decisions came after 30 days. Ayub Salih transfer approval took 36 days. We should learn Obaidullah and Said Nishir’s fate next week.

  6. Martin says...

    And for the record Mr. Worthington, I have no problem with detainees being transferred as long as they are not obviously dangerous or high-ranking leaders. I’m positive the HVDs and the alleged 20th hijacker are not going to be approved for transfer unless they make plea deals or another country will agree to prosecute them. I’m not sure what the PRB will decide about Mohamedou Slahi. He definitely shouldn’t plead innocence because that enraged the PRB so much that they didn’t even type the usual “look forward to reviewing his file in six months” after scolding him.

  7. Martin says...

    “after scolding him.”

    I’m referring to Saifullah Paracha by the way.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your comments, Martin. Yes, it does seem that decisions are taking place quicker this year – all, presumably, part of the drive to get the first round of PRBs completed by the fall.
    And regarding transfers, I obviously agree that no one should be released who actually poses any sort of threat. I hope that strenuous efforts will be made to prosecute anyone against whom any case can be made that involves terrorism or other crimes, and what I’m aiming for above all is to see the day when Guantanamo is closed, the Geneva Conventions are properly reinstated, and criminals are prosecuted for their crimes in a speedy manner and without the use of torture or abuse.

  9. Martin says...

    Holy ****, Obaidullah has been APPROVED for transfer. You called it, Mr. Worthington. Congratulations. I guess more prosecution detainees have a good chance.

  10. Martin says...

    Regarding your statements, I believe the PRB will be finished by September or October. Obama better hurry up and transfer the detainees approved for transfer by January 2017 because if Donald Trump becomes President, the detainees will remain in custody.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Martin. I always thought, though, that he was essentially a nobody (militarily), and no threat to the US. It’s a different matter with people who may have been more deeply involved in actions against the US, when, as we’re already seeing, I think, decisions have to be taken that very much involve weighing whether those people have genuinely changed during 14 years of imprisonment.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I believe the releases are moving forward as planned, along with the determination to complete the first round of PRBs. The idea of a President Trump is worrying on so many levels, but I remain unconvinced that he – or any other Republican candidate – can attract enough support.

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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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