Guantánamo Scandal: The Released Prisoners Languishing in Secretive Detention in the UAE


Ravil Mingazov and Obaidullah, two of the former Guantanamo prisoners resettled in the United Arab Emirates between 2015 and 2017, whose lawyers have stated that they are being held in a form of secretive detention.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


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.

There’s been some disturbing news, via the Washington Post, about former Guantánamo prisoners who were resettled in the United Arab Emirates, between November 2015 and January 2017, after being unanimously approved for release from Guantánamo by high-level US government review processes. 

23 men in total were sent to the UAE — five Yemenis in November 2015, 12 Yemenis and three Afghans in August 2016, and another Afghan, a Russian and another Yemeni in January 2017, just before President Obama left office, as he scrambled to release as many prisoners approved for release by his own review processes as possible before Donald Trump took office. 

All were resettled in a third country because the entire US establishment refused to contemplate releasing Yemenis to their home country because of the security situation there, because Congress had, additionally, refused to allow any more Afghan prisoners to be repatriated, and because, in the case of the Russian, it was not considered safe for him to be sent home. 

For the Washington Post, Missy Ryan reported that, despite being unanimously approved for release, because of assessments that they did not pose any kind of significant threat to the US, the men “have disappeared from public view, largely cut off from the outside world since their transfer to a secretive rehabilitation program run by the United Arab Emirates,” adding that they “have had limited contact with their families, some for more than two years, and have not been told when they might be released,” according to their relatives, their attorneys, and current and former US officials who spoke to the Post.

As Missy Ryan explained, “Their uncertain fate exposes the limits of the United States’ ability to track and safeguard inmates resettled overseas” as part of efforts to close the prison, and “highlights the consequences of the Trump administration’s decision to close a State Department office tasked with overseeing Guantánamo matters” — the office of the envoy for Guantánamo closure, which existed from 2013 until the end of Obama’s presidency, and organized the resettlement of former prisoners, as well as monitoring those released.

Just two months ago, the consequences of Trump’s actions were starkly revealed when two former prisoners resettled in Senegal were repatriated to Libya, where they subsequently disappeared into the custody of a militia associated with grave human rights abuses. One of the men had wanted to return to Libya, but the other emphatically did not, and yet, under Trump, the US government no longer has any practical involvement in monitoring former prisoners or making any kind of representation on their behalf. 

Regarding the 23 men sent to the UAE, Missy Ryan stated that, in interviews with attorneys for 19 of the former prisoners, the Post “found that few, if any, of the 23 men transferred to the UAE between 2015 and 2017 have been released, despite what attorneys said were informal assurances that they would be out within about a year.”

At the time of the men’s release, the circumstances of their resettlement were unclear, but it is alarming to hear that they were supposed to be held for “about a year” after their transfer, because they had already gone through rigorous review processes in the US to establish that it was safe for them to be freed, not for them to be transferred to another form of imprisonment. We cannot stress enough how disappointing we find this seemingly endless refusal to actually release men no longer regarded as posing a significant threat to the US. 

And yet, in the Post’s words, the rehabilitation program in the UAE, “[l]ike a well-known program in Saudi Arabia,” was “designed to ensure that prisoners weren’t radicalized,” as well as ensuring that they “could adapt to outside life.” 

Missy Ryan noted that one of the Afghans, Haji Wali Mohammed, an Afghan citizen who had been “held at Guantánamo for 14 years before he boarded a plane in January 2017 and prepared to begin what his attorney was informed would be a temporary rehabilitation program in the UAE,” has become “very hopeless” after more than 16 months at the UAE-run center, according to his son, Abdul Musawer, who has occasionally been allowed to speak with his father by phone. 

From his home in Afghanistan, Abdul Musawer said, “The U.S. government said my father would be freely living with his family, but they lied.”

The Post noted that “some of the men transferred to the UAE report satisfactory conditions and appear to be progressing through a program granting prisoners greater liberties over time,” but that “others remain under restrictions and express mounting distress.”

Lawyers and family members stated that “some of the men have not been permitted to use the Internet or go outside,” adding that “[p]eriodic phone calls to family members are typically limited to five minutes, and are sometimes cut off if the conversation veers into politics or conditions at the center.”

In the case of Ravil Mingazov, the Russian, who was resettled in the UAE in January 2017, his mother, Zukhra Valiulina, said that, in a recent call to his family, he “suggested that conditions were worse than at Guantánamo.” In a phone interview, Valiulina said that her son said, bluntly, “Mama, this is a prison.”

In the case of Obaidullah, an Afghan once put forward for a military commission trial under George W. Bush, whose military lawyers then traveled to Afghanistan to establish that the government had no case against him whatsoever, his civilian attorney, Anne Richardson, explained that his family “was able to visit him early in his time in the UAE,” after his transfer in August 2016, but that “subsequently he was out of touch with his family for more than a year.”

Richardson said, “This seems like indefinite detention all over again,” and Missy Ryan noted that, although prisoners at Guantánamo are quite severely cut off from the outside world, “the U.S. military has allowed periodic visits by lawyers and the Red Cross, and provided certain information to the media. Not so in the UAE.”

Establishing detailed information about conditions in the UAE has generally been quite difficult. Some attorneys said that “their former clients have reported satisfactory conditions to their families, possibly because they are in the later stages of the program,” and some of the former prisoners “have received multiple visits from family members.” Ryan also noted that “UAE authorities have provided visas and money for other families.” It is not known how or why some prisoners are being treated better than others.

As Ryan also explained, however, “No matter the conditions, nearly everything about the UAE program remains secret, even its location. Attorneys and relatives of the men say at least some have reportedly been moved to a new site in recent months.” 

The Post also noted that UAE officials refused to respond to requests for information about the former prisoners, and a State Department spokeswoman only provided a woolly hope that the former prisoners “would be integrated into their new countries.”

Some of the attorneys have said that “they have been unable to get even basic information” about their former clients. As the Post explained, “In letters this year to the State Department and the UAE’s Foreign Ministry, several lawyers requested the men be visited by their families and the Red Cross. They also asked for a time frame for their release and ‘clarity on the rights they will have.’” They added that previous entreaties “have either been met with silence or with contradictory instructions.”

The Post also explained that “Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blamed the Trump administration for shutting down the State Department’s Guantánamo office, which negotiated the transfer agreements and followed up on resettled detainees.” As Rep. Engel said, “The U.S. government made commitments to protect our security and the rights of former detainees. On both counts, the administration is utterly failing to meet its responsibilities.”

That is undoubtedly true, and former envoys Daniel Fried and Lee Wolosky have been critical of the Trump administration’s position, as we explained in an article in April last year, Shutting the Door on Guantánamo: The Significance of Donald Trump’s Failure to Appoint New Guantánamo Envoys. More recently, after the Libya fiasco, both men spoke out about how Trump’s position was dangerous for national security, as well as being diplomatically disastrous — see here and here.

Attorneys for the former prisoners told the Post that “they were never permitted to see the agreements but were told by the State Department that the men would cycle through the UAE program and gradually be granted greater freedoms, at first inside and then outside the facility.” 

Gary Thompson, who represented Ravil Mingazov, and previously “represented another Guantánamo prisoner who went through the Saudi program before being released,” said, “We felt that, because this was the established practice, this was great. However, weeks became months and months became over a year. It started to slip away, and then calls to his family became very brief and sounded funny. We just can’t figure out what’s happening.”

Former officials told the Post that the UAE, a close U.S. ally, “agreed to take the detainees and establish the rehabilitation center as a favor to President Barack Obama,” but those who worked on the transfers said that “the extended detention in the UAE violates the spirit of that arrangement.” 

One former official said, “It is one thing to put the guys in a rehab program, or otherwise evaluate them for a short period, but this seems like the UAE is imprisoning them on behalf of the U.S. government. That wasn’t the deal and isn’t right.”

Other former officials apparently “voiced confidence” that the UAE authorities “would make appropriate judgments about the inmates’ readiness to be released,” but as I stressed above, these are men whose appropriateness for release had already been established by high-level US government review processes, and it simply shouldn’t be the case that the UAE is imposing yet another obstacle in a seemingly never-ending set of obstacles to the men ever being granted freedom. 

Previously, I have compared getting released from Guantánamo to being let out of an airlock — but only into another airlock — with this process repeated apparently ad infinitum. It is unjust and unfair, and it should be brought to an end with all the men released and allowed to start the process of rebuilding their lives. 

Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, explained, as the Post described it, that “U.S. law did not impose any obligations on the government once detainees were no longer in its custody.” As he said, “Once we cut ties, there really aren’t remedies under U.S. law.”

Gary Thompson added that “the situation was even more frustrating than Guantánamo.” As he described it, “Before, we could at least file a petition for habeas corpus, we could at least get on a plane and go to Guantánamo. We at least had procedures, even if they were kangaroo procedures. This is deeply frustrating because there is no process.”

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 music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, 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.

23 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, reporting on and analyzing a Washington Post article about 23 Guantanamo prisoners (18 Yemenis, four Afghans and a Russian) resettled in the United Arab Emirates between November 2015 and January 2017, who, instead of securing their freedom, and being able to resume their lives, are apparently being held in some sort of secretive detention. There’s something genuinely disturbing about how men unanimously approved for release by high-level US government review processes are held in a prison-like rehabilitation program, and also about how impotent the US government now is, with Donald Trump having shut down the office of Guantanamo envoy in the State Department, which arranged the resettlement of prisoners, and, crucially, also monitored them after release.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Julia Hemetsberger wrote:

    This is unbelievable. How in God’s name is this allowed?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s an entirely appropriate response, Julia, and unfortunately the fate of the men shows us is what happens when a government – the administration of George W. Bush – decides that the normal rules don’t apply, and rounds people up in the fog of war without putting them through any kind of screening process, and then imprisons them without granting them rights as criminal suspects or prisoners of war. And when, eventually, pressure was exerted by their home governments, or through international criticism, to charge them or to release them, Republicans created a state of panic, suggesting that everyone held at Guantanamo constituted some sort of unparalleled existential threat to the US, even though any objective analysis of the prison’s population demonstrates that only a few percent of the nearly 800 men held since the prison opened in January 2002 are or were genuinely alleged to have had any meaningful involvement with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
    From top to bottom, it’s a complete mockery of justice.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone taking an interest in this. I commend Missy Ryan and the Washington Post for this report, but I’m genuinely upset to hear that men whose cases I reported about for years, and worked to get released – because, let’s not forget, there was no evidence that they had done anything wrong – have ended up being treated with such contempt in the UAE. I’m particularly thinking of Obaidullah and Ravil Mingazov, shown in the photos.
    Here, for example, is how Obaidullah’s lawyers established his innocence:

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    This was what I wrote about Ravil Mingazov, when he had his Periodic Review Board in 2016, which subsequently approved him for release:

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    When they made a deal, they assumed they would be released. This is a deception, the agreement is invalid.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I think that’s logical, Aleksey, but the reality, unfortunately, is that there was no contract, and the UAE, unfortunately, has a very bad reputation for authoritarianism, so the prisoners and their lawyers were told there would be some period of time spent in a rehabilitation center before they would be freed – which I don’t recall hearing about at the time – and that has ended up being for a much longer period than anyone expected, with, perhaps, no guaranteed release if, say, an ex-prisoner is regarded as troublesome in any way; in other words, replicating the hoops they had to jump through to get out of Guantanamo in the first place. It’s really quite disgraceful, but mired in the kind of slipperiness and legal obfuscation that is one of Guantanamo’s core problems.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Susie Sullivan wrote:

    To think of that is unbearable imagine feeling you are free and you are imprisoned again? You would want to give up all hope. Buried alive in some bloody awful confinement and no-one knows where you are. Terrifying, living in hell!!!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly, Susie. I’m trying to reach the lawyers for some of the men, but without support from the State Department it’s like the terrible situation of the Libyans repatriated from Senegal, who have disappeared into the custody of a militia known for its human rights abuses. The State Department is supposed to be able to exert the considerable diplomatic influence of the US, but under Trump – on Guantanamo, as in other areas of its traditional remit – it no longer has any kind of functional presence. It’s a very sad situation.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    The lack of due process or transparency is really shocking. It starts to look more like unrefined sadism than a policy.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it was clearly something ad hoc – what we might call a bodge job – from the beginning, David, with the US under Obama flapping around trying to secure whatever deals it could for men who needed resettling in third countries. It’s clear that some of the countries chosen, in Europe and elsewhere, haven’t been satisfactory, and at the time Gulf countries were chosen – Oman and the UAE – I worried about the UAE because of its reputation for authoritarianism, especially with regard to terrorism. This is Ian Cobain writing about British citizens being tortured on behalf of the UK in other countries, including the UAE, in 2009:
    And here’s the AP from last year on the UAE being involved in torture in secret prisons in Yemen (working with the US):

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Neece wrote:

    The injustice is stunning … who can we write to about this, Andy?

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, absolutely, Susan. Thanks for taking an interest.
    As for who to write to, I’m thinking that it needs to be some government oversight body – perhaps supportive lawmakers on the Armed Services Committee?

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    When Betty Molchany shared this on Facebook, she wrote:

    Years ago, I went to a meeting of the Future of Freedom Foundation and heard Andy Worthington speak about his research on the Guantanamo prisoners. And I bought two copies of his book and put one in the local library. Let me remind you there has been no evidence that most of these prisoners did anything wrong!

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for sharing, Betty, and for your introductory comments. Great to hear from you!

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Lorraine Barlett wrote:

    I am starting to think that the only hell IS on this earth… what monsters – devils – humans can be towards their fellow men. Lord have mercy.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, Lorraine!

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    So much for paying your debt to society. At least you’re supposed to be given a new lease on life once you’ve done your time – unless you’re innocent in the first place – then you pay for life. Where’s the logic?

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    A good point, Tashi. That’s one of Guantanamo’s great injustices. People never changed, tried or convicted of anything get regarded as being “more guilty” than those who have been given due process and have served sentences. It’s why the rules shouldn’t be broken. Charge, try and convict people, or hold them as prisoners of war in connection with finite battlefield scenarios. This third way – holding people as “enemy combatants” and continuing to define them as that even after release – is an insult, a shame to us all, and a pointless and unjustifiable destroyer of lives. The more time goes on, the more it becomes clear that the former Guantanamo prisoners need international bodies and lawyers to assert their right to have rights, against their former captors, who have left them in a limbo of identity in which they fundamentally can’t take any rights as human beings for granted.

  20. Tom says...

    In a sense, I’ve had the same problems happen to me. The three pedophiles who raped me (along with their accomplises) were never arrested or put away. I can’t file for a criminal or civil case against them. I can’t get victim compensation. The key reason? The statute of limitations ran out.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Very sad, Tom. There should be no expiry date on the prosecution of crimes that involve damaging other people.

  22. Ethan Winters says...

    At least three of the men were freed last December and were surprisingly allowed to return to Afghanistan.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Ethan, for the link to that very useful Afghanistan Analysts report on the three men repatriated from the UAE to Afghanistan. I had seen this story in a few Afghan news reports last month, and had been meaning to write about it, but it was all a bit vague. This report clarifies matters considerably, and I’ll be following up on it soon.

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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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