Yemeni Torture Victim and Insignificant Afghan Approved for Release from Guantánamo by Periodic Review Boards


Guantánamo prisoners Sanad al-Kazimi and Asadullah Haroon Gul, who have been approved for release by Periodic Review Boards.

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Fresh from the news that Pakistani torture victim Ahmed Rabbani has been approved for release from Guantánamo by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established by President Obama, comes the further revelation that two more “forever prisoners” have also been approved for release — Sanad al-Kazimi, a Yemeni, and Asadullah Haroon Gul, one of the last two Afghans in the prison.

The approval for the release of both men is long overdue, but it is reassuring that, after nearly 20 years, it has finally become unfashionable for the US government to suggest that men who have never been charged or tried can be held indefinitely in the notorious offshore prison at the US’s naval base in Cuba. This year, letters to President Biden from 24 Senators and 75 members of the House of Representatives have spelled out, in no uncertain terms, how men who have not been charged with crimes must be released.

In the case of Asadullah Haroon Gul, held at Guantánamo since 2007, the US’s reasons for holding him evaporated many years ago. Despite his youth (he was only around 19 years old when the US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in October 2001), he had allegedly held some kind of leadership position in Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), the militia led by the former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A recipient of significant US funding during the time of the Soviet occupation, Hekmatyar had turned against the US following the invasion in October 2001, but in recent years had joined the Afghan government via a peace deal in 2016 that had led to HIG members being released from prison (and one, sent to the UAE from Guantánamo, being repatriated).

Irritatingly, the one place this peace deal didn’t reach was Guantánamo, where the Justice Department, in particular, continues to behave as though the normal, evidence-based rules regarding people’s imprisonment don’t apply. In February, the Afghan government submitted a request for his release via an amicus brief, but when his lawyers sought to free him via a habeas corpus petition in the District Court in Washington, D.C., prosecutor Stephen McCoy Elliott claimed that, although the government “does not take lightly the fact that [Gul] has been detained more than 10 years,” we “have been and remain at war with al-Qaeda,” and that, as a result, his “detention, while lengthy, remains justified.”

Whilst it is reassuring that a PRB has approved Gul for release, it remains troubling that the Justice Department continues to retain such indefensible positions, and it is dispiriting that the Biden administration seems to have no interest in using the courts to redress the prolonged and unjustifiable imprisonment of men held for an unforgivably long time without charge or trial.

Gul’s case has been well-chronicled in recent years, but little has been heard of Sanad al-Kazimi, who was seized in Dubai in January 2003, and held in CIA “black sites” from August 2003 until his transfer to Guantánamo in September 2004.

His first PRB took place in May 2016, and his ongoing imprisonment was approved a month later. His next review was in December 2018, when Donald Trump was president, and like most of the prisoners at the time, he boycotted his hearing, having concluded that the process had become a sham, and his ongoing imprisonment was upheld.

To understand more of his story, we have to go back to an article I wrote in February 2009, when I stated:

Sanad al-Kazimi … has had a particularly bleak time. Accused of training in Afghanistan in 2001, swearing bayat [an oath of loyalty] to Osama bin Laden, and then of being involved with al-Qaeda activities in the Gulf in 2002 after his escape from Afghanistan, he was seized in the United Arab Emirates in January 2003, handed over to US forces, and tortured in various facilities in Afghanistan, including the “Dark Prison” and Bagram, until his transfer to Guantánamo. He has explained that, in this period, he “endured horrific physical abuse”; specifically, that he was “subjected to sensory deprivation techniques, causing extreme disorientation and psychological stress, physical and sexual assault, threat of rape, and repeated plunging into pools of cold water while suspended in the air by a mechanical lift.”

More of his story is reported here, based partly on a report by Jane Mayer, who interviewed his [former] lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, but what has not been explained — if al-Kazimi is really so dangerous — is why he was not put forward for a trial by Military Commission. My hunch is that, although he was tortured as though he were a “high-value detainee” with knowledge of the workings of al-Qaeda, he was actually nothing of the sort, and was, at most, a peripheral character. Or it may even be, as he stated at his tribunal in Guantánamo, that, although he had sworn bayat to bin Laden, he “later swore against him, and was wondering why that second sworn statement was not put into this evidence.”

In its decision, the review board finally seemed to have taken on board al-Kazimi’s regrets, and his relative insignificance. The board’s recommendation for his release noted his “lack of a leadership role in an extremist organization and the limited timeframe of his associations with [al-Qaeda] members.”

One-third of the men still held have now been approved for release

With these decisions taken by the Periodic Review Boards, 13 men out of the 39 men still held — a third of the total number of men still held — have been approved for release, and yet only one man has been freed since President Biden took office, even though he inherited five prisoners approved for release — one at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, one in 2016, and three, shamefully, way back in the mists of time, in 2010. Five more men were approved for release in May and June this year.

The New York Times, reporting on these decisions, noted that Gul’s release will “most likely require reaching an agreement with the Taliban,” while al-Kazimi’s board specifically recommended his resettlement in Oman, “whose rehabilitation program received 30 detainees during the Obama administration.” As the Times also explained, a third country is required to resettle al-Kazimi because “Yemen is considered too unstable to monitor and help rehabilitate returnees.”

The Times added that “Oman has been considered an ideal, culturally compatible nation to receive Yemeni detainees. The country’s program has generated no known controversy and has helped Yemeni detainees find homes and jobs and, in some instances, allowed family members in Yemen to send women for them to marry.”

Noticeably, the Times also reported that the board “approved Mr. al-Kazimi’s transfer on Oct. 7, less than two weeks after the State Department official responsible for overseeing detainee transfer arrangements, John T. Godfrey, visited Oman, the United Arab Emirates and London in his capacity as acting coordinator for counterterrorism.”

This is encouraging news, as it suggests that the administration is focusing on Oman as a resettlement location — with the visits to the UAE and the UK, presumably, being in connection with the UAE’s punitive and shameful imprisonment of former prisoners, including 12 Yemenis threatened with enforced repatriation, and the threat to forcibly repatriate Ravil Mingazov, a Russian who faces human rights abuses if sent home, and whose wife and son were given asylum in the UK several years ago.

Responding to the news from the PRBs, al-Kazimi’s lawyer, Martha Rayner, a professor at Fordham Law School, said, as the Times described it, that “he was in ‘pretty good’ health and ‘looks forward to being transferred as quickly as possible.’”

She added that he “sought to be transferred to an Arabic-speaking country where he could be reunited with his wife and would be able to ‘someday see his four children and his grandchildren.’” As she described it, “What he wants is to live in a stable country in peace,” although he is “concerned about the unknowns ahead of him — and knows that many men have been cleared and yet languished for years.”

In Gul’s case, the Times explained that the board “said in its decision, also dated Oct. 7, that it had concluded he could be safely transferred, with security arrangements, in light of his ‘lack of a leadership role in extremist organizations and his lack of a clear ideological basis for his prior conduct.’” However, “It did not make a recommendation on where he should go,” and it is unclear whether the Taliban will endorse his return, because of Hekmatyar’s peace deal with the now-departed Afghan government.

That said, Gul’s family, including his wife and daughter, still live in the refugee camp in Pakistan where he was living prior to his capture, so it may be possible for him to return via the Pakistani authorities. It is certainly to be hoped that he does not remain separated from his family, as they mean so much to him, and he has already been cruelly kept apart from them for nearly 15 years.

As Mark Maher, his lawyer at Reprieve, said in a statement after the news that he had been approved for release was announced, “The board’s recommendation is welcome, but we should remember Asadullah has spent over 14 years of his life in prison without charge or trial. He should have been home long ago, so while his clearance is a relief, it is not justice. Asadullah missed his daughter’s entire childhood. He should be reunited with his family as soon as possible, but there is no way to restore what has been taken from them.”

In conclusion, I also look forward to hearing more news about “forever prisoners” being approved for release. With these decisions, 14 of the 39 men still held continue to languish in the frustrating and unjustifiable limbo of being “forever prisoners,” and I continue to remind the Biden administration that this is unacceptable, and that all of these men — who include the artists Moath al-Alwi and Khalid Qassim, the mentally ill torture victim Mohammed al-Qahtani, and Abu Zubaydah, for whom the post-9/11 torture program was created — must also be freed, unless they are to be charged with crimes.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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 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, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the 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 2017 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. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

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9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, reporting on the latest news from Guantanamo: that two more men have been approved for release by Periodic Review Boards, bringing to 13 the number of men still held who the US no longer wants to hold, which is one-third of the prison’s current population.

    The two men are, on the left, Sanad al-Kazimi, a Yemeni who was held and tortured for over a year in CIA “black sites” until his transfer to Guantanamo in September 2004, where he has been held ever since without charge or trial, and, on the right, Asadullah Haroon Gul, one of the last two Afghans in Guantanamo, and one of the last prisoners to arrive at the prison, in June 2007, who has also been held ever since without charge or trial.

    The PRBs recommended al-Kazimi for transfer to Oman, where several dozen former Guantanamo prisoners have been successfully resettled; Gul’s fate is rather more unclear, as his family lives in a refugee camp in Pakistan, but we must hope that he will able to be reunited with them as soon as possible, just as we must hope that the Biden administration recognizes that all the men approved for release must be freed or resettled as swiftly as possible — and also that the remaining “forever prisoners,” now numbering 14 of the 39 men still held, must also be released, unless they are to be charged.

  2. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, didn’t read it yet, too much of late to try and keep track off – and virtually none of it positive…
    But here’s something which is, were it only for preventing Aafia Siddiqui’s plight from being forgotten :
    May it lead to her release, so that she at least can spend what is left of her ruined life & health in a peaceful, friendly place.

  3. Anna says...

    And yet another little miracle ?

    Wonder what precedence consequences this might have for the other prisoners ?
    If, that is, this judgement is upheld and executed.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna, for the update about Aafia’s case. I hadn’t seen that, but I did hear about her being attacked recently in the prison. It does seem implausible somehow that the injustice of her case can continue indefinitely, but that hasn’t stopped the US government yet.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s very good news about Asadullah Haroon Gul’s habeas corpus petition being granted, Anna – the first such decision in eleven years. However, we don’t yet know if the ruling will stand or if the government will appeal it, and it’s also unclear how Gul might be released even if the US doesn’t challenge it because of the current situation in Afghanistan.

    That said, I do think it’s significant because it’s been such a long time since a habeas petition was granted.

  6. Ethan Winters says...

    Didn’t Aafia Siddiqui try to kill U.S. soldiers with an M4 rifle?

    I doubt the U.S. government framed her. Unlike most of the detainees at Guantanamo, at least Siddiqui was charged with a crime and had a trial.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Aafia Siddiqui’s story is such a murky one, Ethan. Where was she for all those years after her initial disappearance – in 2003 – and how convenient was it that she suddenly reappeared five years later and tried to shoot a US soldier so that she could be whisked to the US and given an 86-year sentence? 86 years? That’s surely disproportionate, isn’t it?

  8. Birthday of the Plague Year (2nd edition) – The Talking Dog says...

    […] detainee has prevailed in a habeas case for the first time in over a decade. This comes just as the same detainee (and another) were approved for transfer, bringing to 13 the number of men officially held at GTMO even though our government says its OK to […]

  9. Political Prisoners in the USA - Stop the Wars at Home and Abroad! says...

    […] 2018, he boycotted his hearing, and his ongoing imprisonment was upheld, but he was finally approved for release under President Biden in October […]

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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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