Obama Officials Confirm That Nearly 24 Guantánamo Prisoners Will Be Freed By the End of July


Cleared for release: a photo by Debra Sweet of the World Can't Wait.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the 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 week there was confirmation that the Obama administration is still intent on working towards the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay before President Obama leaves office, when officials told Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian that there is an “expectation” within the administration that 22 or 23 prisoners will be released by the end of July “to about half a dozen countries.”

80 men are currently held, so the release of these men will reduce the prison’s population to 57 or 58 prisoners, the lowest it has been since the first few weeks of its existence back in 2002.

As the Guardian explained, however, the officials who informed them about the planned releases spoke on condition of anonymity, because “not all of the foreign destination countries are ready to be identified.” In addition, “some of the transfer approvals have yet to receive certification by Ashton Carter, the defense secretary, as required by law, ahead of a notification to Congress.”

The releases will largely fulfill a promise made in January by Lee Wolosky, the State Department’s envoy for the closure of Guantánamo, who said at the time that the government would release all the prisoners approved for release “by this summer.”

Currently, 28 of the remaining 80 prisoners have been approved for release – 15 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama appointed shortly after taking office in January 2009, and 13 by Periodic Review Boards, another high-level process, established in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners not already approved for release by the task force, or facing trials (and just ten men are in this latter category).

The remaining 42 men are all eligible for Periodic Review Boards, which the administration has promised to complete before Obama leaves office. 35 are awaiting their reviews, or the results of their reviews, while just seven men have had their ongoing imprisonment approved by the boards.

Since they began in November 2013, the PRBs – which are akin to parole boards — have approved a total of 22 men for release. This is a success rate for the prisoners of 76%, and demonstrates that the task force was severely mistaken when, in 2010, it described 46 of the men who were later made eligible for PRBs as “too dangerous to release,” while acknowledging that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial — meaning that the so-called evidence was profoundly unreliable, largely produced through interrogations involving torture or other forms of abuse, or through prisoners being bribed with better living conditions.

25 other men were recommended for military commission trials by the task force, but they too were added to the list of prisoners eligible for PRBs when the basis for prosecutions largely collapsed in 2012-13, after appeals court judges dismissed some of the few convictions secured in the much-criticized trial system, correctly ruling that the war crimes for which the men had been convicted – primarily, providing material support for terrorism and conspiracy – had been invented as war crimes by Congress.

It is impossible to estimate how many of the remaining PRBs will end with prisoners being approved for release, but it would seem reasonable to suggest that perhaps another 20 or so men will be recommended for release, leaving somewhere between 30 and 35 prisoners as what, in Spencer Ackerman’s words, “administration officials tend to call an ‘irreducible minimum.’”

Finally closing the prison, however, as President Obama promised when he first took office seven years and four months ago, remains elusive, because of a Congressional ban, included in the annual National Defense Authorization Act every year since 2011, on bringing prisoners to the US mainland for any reason. As Spencer Ackerman described it, the ban “has made the parole-and-transfer process the likeliest mechanism through which Obama can come close to accomplishing his long-thwarted goal of closing down Guantánamo.”

For next year’s NDAA, as I reported recently, the Senate Armed Services Committee has proposed that some prisoners should be able to make federal court plea deals and be imprisoned in other countries, and that seriously ill prisoners should be allowed to visit the US mainland for operations, but it remains to be seen if the proposals will be passed.

Already, however, the House of Representatives, which passed its version of the bill on May 18, restricts the release of prisoners like never before by, as the Guardian described it, “preventing the administration from transferring any detainee to a country subject to a state department travel warning — based on a standard far lower than a risk of terrorism or insurgency.” That list, as the Guardian noted, “currently includes all of Europe.”

As the Guardian also explained, “The White House has threatened to veto the defense bill, citing the Guantánamo provisions, among other reasons. Yet such veto threats have become an annual ritual. Every defense bill since 2011 that Obama ultimately signed included Guantánamo detainee restrictions.”

As a result, it may be that an executive order is the only route through which President Obama can fulfill his promise before he leaves office, or it may be that, after eight years, the president will have to admit defeat and hand over the prison’s closure to his successor – if that successor is a similar-minded Democrat, and not one of the Republican challengers who all seems to be in favor of keeping Guantánamo open, although that tough talk may, of course, change if they actually get elected and have to face sustained criticism, as happened with President Bush in his second term.

And even if President Obama – or his successor – succeeds in bringing several dozen prisoners to the US mainland, there will then be legal challenges if men continue to be held without charge or trial, because of the long-standing failure of the US to treat men seized in wartime since 9/11 according to the Geneva Conventions, and because, we believe, if they are not put on trial they will have new opportunities to challenge the basis of their detention under the US Constitution, which does not endorse indefinite detention without charge or trial, however much government officials pretend that there is such a thing as an “irreducible minimum” of prisoners who can continue to be held without either being given a trial or formally held until the end of hostilities.

First, though, let us hope that these 22 or 23 men are released within the next two months, and that steps continue to be taken to reduce the population of Guantánamo as much as possible.

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).

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.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following the Guardian’s revelation that Obama administration officials told them that 22 or 23 ‪Guantanamo‬ prisoners, who have been cleared for release, will be freed by the end of July, bringing the prison’s population down to just 57 or 58 men. This has been expected since January, but it’s good to have it confirmed. 5 or 6 others, also cleared for release, also need freeing, and, of course, it is to be hoped that some of the 35 men awaiting Periodic Review Boards, or the results of PRBs, will also be approved for release. After all, just ten of the 80 men still held are facing – or have faced – trials.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Marc Damien Rhodes-Taylor wrote:

    great news thanks andy!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Marc. As I say, it’s good to have confirmation, but it’s been expected since January. Now the main thing is to see how many of those still awaiting Periodic Review Boards also get approved for release. Several dozen, I think, would be entirely appropriate.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted the version of this article that was first published on Close Guantanamo, I wrote:

    For our latest article, I examine the recent news, via the Guardian, that 22 or 23 of the 28 prisoners currently approved for release will be freed from ‪Guantanamo‬ by the end of July, leaving just 57 or 58 men held. I wonder how many of the remaining prisoners will be approved for release by Periodic Review Boards, and whether President Obama will succeed in moving the rest – perhaps 30-35 men? – to the US mainland, so that he can finally close the prison as he promised when he first took office in 2009.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Shari Wagner wrote:

    We don’t want them moved! We want no more indefinite detentions! I guess these people are just lucky since Obama didn’t simply assassinate them with a drone?

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I understand your concerns, Shari, but the government is entitled to hold people under the laws of war. The problem all along has been that they have failed to prosecute anyone actually accused of terrorism in an appropriate forum (federal court rather than military commissions), and have pretended that those detained under the laws of war don’t need to be treated according to the Geneva Conventions – and don’t necessarily need to be freed at the end of hostilities, because – guess what? – the hostilities might not come to an end. It’s such a mess. And also, of course, from the very beginning the Bush administration didn’t care whether they had seized civilians or soldiers, when sorting out one from the other should always be a priority.

  7. Martin says...

    “It is impossible to estimate how many of the remaining PRBs will end with prisoners being approved for release, but it would seem reasonable to suggest that perhaps another 20 or so men will be recommended for release.”

    I think the number will be perhaps between 12 and 15. I doubt the PRB will approve the transfer of the Rabbani brothers, Sanad Kazimi, Abdul Malik and Bostan Karim because of their alleged ties to senior al-Qaeda leaders (which the PRB cited as a reason for denying transfer for Saifullah Paracha, Sharqawi and Suhayl Sharabi). I am looking forward to reading the intelligence summaries on Ismael Bakush, Haji Wali Mohammed and Omar Rammah.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Again, Martin, you may be right. I agree that 20 is optimistic on my part.

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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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