Insignificant Afghan Finally Approved for Release from Guantánamo


Afghan prisoner Obaidullah, in a photo taken at Guantanamo and included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Good news from Guantánamo, as another prisoner, Obaidullah, an Afghan, is approved for release by a Periodic Review Board. Decisions have now been taken in the cases of 29 prisoners, with 22 recommended for release, and just seven recommended for ongoing imprisonment. This is a success rate for the prisoners of 76%, which is hugely significant, because, back in 2010, they were either recommended for prosecution or were described as “too dangerous to release” by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, which President Obama established, shortly after taking office in 2009, to review the cases of all the prisoners held when he became president. 23 men were in the former category, and 41 in the latter.

The decision also means that, of the 80 men still held, 28 have been approved for release — 15 by the task force in 2010, and 13 by the PRBs (nine of those approved for release by PRBs have already been freed). 35 others are awaiting PRBs, or are awaiting decisions, and just ten men are facing trials — or have already had trials.

Obaidullah, who was just 19 years old when he was seized at his home in Afghanistan in July 2002, is one of the prisoners who had initially been recommended for prosecution — and is the second former prosecution candidate to be recommended for release by a PRB (three others have been recommended for ongoing imprisonment). He had been put forward for a trial by military commission in September 2008, charged with providing material support for terrorism and conspiracy, based on claims that he “stored and concealed anti-tank mines, other explosive devices, and related equipment”; that he “concealed on his person a notebook describing how to wire and detonate explosive devices”; and that he “knew or intended” that his “material support and resources were to be used in preparation for and in carrying out a terrorist attack.”

At the time, I described these allegations as “the thinnest set of allegations to date” in the commissions, in an article entitled, “Guantánamo trials: another insignificant Afghan charged,” in which I also mentioned how Obaidullah had spoken, in an earlier review at Guantánamo, of his torture by US forces in Afghanistan — how, in Khost, US soldiers “put a knife to my throat and said if you don’t tell us the truth and you lie to us we are going to slaughter you,” how they “tied my hands and put a heavy bag of sand on my hands and made me walk all night in the Khost airport,” and how, In Bagram, “they gave me more trouble and would not let me sleep. They were standing me on the wall and my hands were hanging above my head. There were a lot of things they made me say.”

As I also pointed out, when Charlie Savage of the New York Times wrote about Lt. Cmdr. Pandis’s investigation back in 2012, he noted, “It is an accident of timing that Mr. Obaidullah is at Guantánamo. One American official who was formerly involved in decisions about Afghanistan detainees said that such a ‘run of the mill’ suspect would not have been moved to Cuba had he been captured a few years later; he probably would have been turned over to the Afghan justice system, or released if village elders took responsibility for him.” The last Afghans transferred to the general population in Guantánamo were sent in November 2003, and it is certainly true to note that the majority of alleged Afghan insurgents seized and held at Bagram from December 2003 onwards were returned to their families many years ago.

It is also worth noting, I believe, that, when Obaidullah was first charged, I wrote, “It doesn’t take much reflection on these charges to realize that it is a depressingly clear example of the US administration’s disturbing, post-9/11 redefinition of ‘war crimes,’ which apparently allows the US authorities to claim that they can equate minor acts of insurgency committed by a citizen of an occupied nation with terrorism.”

In October 2010, Obaidullah also had his habeas corpus petition ruled on by a US judge, who turned it down, but, as the Associated Press noted this week, “The government dismissed the [military commission] charges in 2011 and his lawyers have been pressing for his release ever since.” This was even before the charges in the military commissions were largely discredited, when, in 2012 and 2013, appeals court judges ruled that providing material support for terrorism and conspiracy were not war crimes triable by a military commission.

Also in 2011, an investigator with the defense team for his military commission, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Richard Pandis, “visited Afghanistan, establishing a coherent narrative in which Obaidullah was innocent,” as I explained in an article in 2011, and as I described it in my recent article discussing Obaidullah’s PRB last month. I added:

To cite just one example unearthed during the investigation, the fact that dried blood was found in the back seat of his car — which the US authorities attributed to him carrying wounded insurgents — actually came about because, “two nights before the raid, Mr. Obaidullah’s wife had given birth in the car while on the way to the hospital.” The defense team added that he “had not volunteered that explanation about the blood” because of “a cultural taboo about discussing childbirth.”

The board members issued their final determination on May 19, confirming, that, “by consensus,” they had “determined that continued law of war detention of the detainee does not remain necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”

The board members explained that that had “some concern with the [Odaidullah]’s failure to demonstrate sufficient candor related to events prior to detention,” but “found that the risk [he] presents can be adequately mitigated” in light of the following: that he “has not expressed any intent to re-engage in terrorist activities [and] has not espoused any anti-US sentiment that would indicate he views the US as his enemy,” that “neither [he] nor his family have any ties to extremists outside of Guantánamo,” and that he “has been mostly compliant while at Guantánamo.”

The board members added that they had “also considered the multiple letters of support for [Obaidullah], to include the willingness to provide [him] financial and integration support upon transfer, [his] efforts to take advantage of education opportunities while at Guantánamo, and [his] positive and constructive leadership in detention, to include mediating concerns raised between other detainees and between detainees and the guard staff.”

It was recommended that he be transferred “preferably to a country with an integration program, strong monitoring program, and an ability to keep [him] productively engaged,” and I hope a case can be made for him be returned to his family in Afghanistan, where, I believe, he deserves to be after his nearly 14-year ordeal.

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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11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, celebrating the good news that Obaidullah, an insignificant Afghan prisoner in ‪Guantanamo‬, whose story I’ve been following for many years, has finally been recommended for release – by a Periodic Review Board. He is the 22nd prisoner to be recommended for release by a PRB, with just seven men having their ongoing imprisonment approved. This is a success rate for the prisoners of 76%, remarkable when you consider that they were initially either recommended for prosecution or described as “too dangerous to release.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. I also just updated the definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantanamo website. Check it out!

  3. Martin says...

    I guess at this rate the number of detainees that will be recommended for ongoing imprisonment would be at least 30 which would cut the number of “too dangerous” detainees by half.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s starting to look that way, Martin, which I certainly find appropriate.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Marine Maj. Derek Poteet, who had represented Obaidullah since 2010 as a military defense lawyer, said after his release, “This young man should have been released years ago. He was taken from his bed at his home peacefully without resistance. He was subjected to real abuse at Bagram.”

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Wonderful news…XX

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lindis. Yes, very good news. It’s ridiculous how long he’s been held and how the US authorities have so persistently – until now – refused to back down in their claims that he was somehow significant, when, had he been held in Bagram and not transferred to Guantanamo, he would have been sent home years ago.

  8. Martin says...

    Obaidullah’s partner also approved for transfer.

    Now only four Afghans remain in indefinite detention and none of them seem to be insignificant:

    Muhammad Rahim al Afghani (a high value detainee)

    Haroon al Afghani (an alleged senior Hezb-e-Islam Gulbuddin commander)

    Abdul Zahir (he allegedly participated in a grenade attack against American civilians)

    Haji Wali Mohammed (an alleged financier for al-Qaeda and the Taliban)

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Martin. So yes, 24 approved for release, 9 detentions upheld. A 73% success rate for the prisoners.

  10. Martin says...

    I would expect that percent to drop. I think 10 detainees at most will be approved for transfer if they express candor and show remorse.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    We’ll have to wait and see, Martin. I think it will be more, but it’s dependent on factors that we can’t predict in advance.

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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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