Guantánamo’s Youngest Prisoner, Hassan Bin Attash, Approved for Release; 21 of the 37 Men Still Held Are Now Awaiting Their Freedom

8.5.22

Hassan bin Attash, photographed sometime after his arrival at Guantánamo in 2004, after being held and tortured in Jordan for two years on behalf of the US authorities. Hassan is now 36 or 37 years old, but no up-to-date photo of him exists.

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I’m pleased to report that, after nearly 18 years of imprisonment without charge or trial at Guantánamo, preceded by two years in proxy torture prisons and CIA “black sites,” Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, Hassan bin Attash, a Yemeni brought up in Saudi Arabia, has been approved for release by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established under President Obama, Just 16 or 17 years old when he was first seized, in a house raid in Pakistan on September 11, 2002, Hassan has, as a result, spent over half his life imprisoned without charge or trial.

Between 2014 and 2016, the PRBs reviewed the cases of 64 men at Guantánamo who were accurately described in the media as “forever prisoners.” 41 of them, including Hassan, had been designated as “too dangerous to release” by Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, which had reviewed the cases of the 240 men inherited from George W. Bush in 2009, with the task force members conceding, however, that they had insufficient evidence against them to put them on trial.

23 others had been recommended for trials by the task force — until a number of successful appeals in the military commissions (the trial system ill-advisedly invented for Guantánamo) made it clear that war crimes trials were inappropriate for low-level terrorist designations like “providing material support for terrorism,” which had been the rationale behind many of the prosecution recommendations.

38 of these 64 men were approved for release by Obama’s PRBs, although bin Attash, the last to be reviewed, in September 2016, was not one of them. 36 of the 38 were released before Obama left office, and the other two have subsequently been freed by President Biden, after four years under Donald Trump when only one man was reluctantly freed, and the PRBs ossified to such an extent that most of the prisoners (including Hassan, in September 2019) ended up boycotting their hearings, having correctly concluded that they had become a sham process.

In Trump’s dying days, a PRB approved another prisoner for release, leaving Biden, when he took office, with 22 “forever prisoners,” six men already approved for release, and 12 men facing, or having faced trials, and it is to his credit that 17 of these “forever prisoners,” including Hassan bin Attash, have subsequently been approved for release, although only one of them, Mohammed al-Qahtani, who suffers from schizophrenia and other severe mental health problems, has, to date, been freed.

Despite the delays in actually freeing men approved for release, the decision in bin Attash’s case is to be commended, because his long imprisonment without charge or trial — and, in the early days, the torture to which he was subjected — have never realistically been based on anything that he himself is alleged to have done, but because his elder brother, Walid, seized in April 2003, and held and tortured in CIA “black sites” for three and a half years before his arrival at Guantánamo, with 13 other “high-value detainees,” in September 2006, is one of five men accused of involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

Adding to the problems caused by his brother’s involvement in Al-Qaeda, Hassan was also damned in the eyes of the US authorities because, when he was seized, in a house raid in Pakistan on September 11, 2002, he was captured with Ramzi bin al-Shibh, another “high-value detainee” charged in connection with the 9/11 attacks.

The problem with all of the above, of course, is that “guilt by association” is a wretched substitute for anything resembling actual proof of wrongdoing, and the US authorities looked rather ridiculous when they alleged that his “extremist activity began in 1997,” when he reportedly pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, because he was just 12 years old at the time, and would only have been around 15 when, as the US authorities also alleged, he “served as a facilitator and explosives expert for al-Qa’ida in the early 2000s.”

However, even if these claims were accurate (and it seems unlikely that they were), it should have been clear to the US authorities that Hassan was a juvenile (under 18), when he was seized, and was not therefore responsible for his actions. Under the terms of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which the United States has been a signatory since January 23, 2003 (just four months after Hassan’s capture), he — and all the other juveniles held at Guantánamo — should have been rehabilitated rather than punished.

Instead, however, he was sent to Jordan to be tortured for 16 months, where, at least until his brother was captured, it seems probable that he was subjected to particularly brutal torture. In “Double Jeopardy,” a 2008 Human Rights Watch report about the proxy torture prison in Jordan, a Jordanian prisoner held at the same time as bin Attash said that he and Ali al-Hajj al-Sharqawi, another prisoner later transferred to Guantánamo, were “beaten more severely than him or most other prisoners,” and also recalled that “the guards didn’t allow [bin] Attash to sleep. The guards would look in on him through the small window in his cell door. If they saw that his eyes were closed, they’d wake him up by slapping his face or spraying water on him.” His attorney, David Remes, later explained in a habeas corpus petition that bin Attash told him that, for a period of three months, he was “tortured for twelve hours per day.”

At Guantánamo, the US authorities claimed, at the time of his first PRB, that he had been “non-complaint and hostile with the guard staff” — as many of the younger Gulf prisoners were — until 2013, when he “became highly compliant.” The authorities insinuated that his compliance came about because he perceived that it was “likely to improve his chances for release,” as though that wasn’t the whole point of the PRBs. It also seems to me that this cynical assessment fails to recognize how, like many of the younger prisoners who had raged against the injustice of their imprisonment for many years (including Mansoor Adayfi, who has written powerfully about these experiences in his memoir, “Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantánamo”), Hassan was in his late 20s when his behavior changed, and when, it seems reasonable to suggest, he was in a different frame of mind than he was when he arrived at Guantánamo at the age of 18 or 19.

More significantly, as those who have got to know Hassan have attested, the transformation in his behavior is so consistent that it thoroughly undermines any supposed rationale for his continued imprisonment. At his latest PRB, in January, for example, his Personal Representative (a US military official appointed to help with his PRB) stated that “the influence that nearly two decades of being surrounded by American culture has had on him is apparent.” The Representative added that, “In addition to speaking English fluently, he is comfortable with people of different backgrounds and beliefs,” adding that his fluency in English is so pronounced that “he hopes to eventually gain employment as a translator,” and “has been working towards this goal.”

The Representative added that “Hassan’s outlook on life is remarkably positive,” and that he “believes that his capture and subsequent detention changed the trajectory of his life,” adding that he “has used his time at Guantánamo to read and learn about world history and religion,” and that he “candidly discussed with me how his understanding of the world has changed as he has become more educated and informed.”

In addition, his attorney George Clarke, who has represented him for the last four years along with his colleague Cameron Reilly (having taken over from David Remes, who represented him for over a decade), urged the board to conclude that Hassan “does not present a significant threat to the security of the United States,” and to recommend his release. Clarke noted how he “has matured into an adult” at Guantánamo, and has “demonstrated an optimistic outlook toward this life after Guantánamo,” particularly focussing on his mastery of English, and his enthusiasm for learning.

Moreover, Clarke pointed out that, since 2013, Hassan “has been very compliant with few disciplinary infractions, which the camp and guards recognize and appreciate,” adding, “In fact, he has been a block leader for several years, and is thus now responsible for solving daily routine issues between other detainees and the guards.” Clarke also noted that he “is also well known for his cooking skills,” and also that he “takes great care of his health, often working out several hours a day.”

Clarke added that he has “never heard Hassan deprecate the American people or American values, or express extremist views,” and in a separate statement sought to assuage any other doubts the board members might have had by assuring them that he “will take an active role in ensuring that Hassan’s resettlement needs are met,” and “will help lobby the foreign country [he is sent to] to ensure whatever cooperation the US government requests (including financial assistance, employment opportunities, and reintegration into society) from that country is met.” He also promised that he “will visit Hassan and will assist in his integration personally,” as he previously did for two other prisoners that he represented, Uyghurs who were resettled in Palau in 2009.

In an email, George Clarke noted that, although he and Cameron Reilly “are grateful to the board for clearing Hassan, unless the administration starts to take repatriation of all of the cleared detainees seriously, it will be a meaningless act.”

Clarke added, “As you know, one of my other clients, Toffiq al Bihani [aka Tawfiq al-Bihani] has been cleared for over a decade and is still there.” Al-Bihani is, indeed, one of three men still held who were approved for release in 2009 by Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, and it is supremely important that the Biden administration frees everyone approved for release, whether those decisions were taken last month, or over a decade ago.

* * * * *

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 you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

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 struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — 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 some more good news from Guantanamo, as Hassan bin Attash, Guantanamo’s youngest prisoner, who was just 16 or 17 years old when he was first seized in a house raid in Pakistan in September 2002, has been approved for release by a Periodic Review Board.

    Although a juvenile at the time, Hassan was sent for torture in Jordan after his capture, and has been dogged throughout his imprisonment by the fact that his brother, Walid, is one of the men charged with involvement in the 9/11 attacks, even though there has never been any proof that Hassan shared his brother’s aims. Moreover, as a juvenile, Hassan, who was taken to Pakistan by his brother, was not responsible for his actions, and should have been rehabilitated rather than punished.

    Hassan’s approval for release means that 21 of the 37 men still held at Guantanamo have now been approved for release, and it is to be hoped that the Biden administration recognizes how important it is that these men are actually freed.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Send them home and close Guantánamo!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Natalia!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    David Barrows wrote:

    After these people make it out of Guantanamo and into countries that are actually going to take care of them — rather than imprison and torture them all over again (as has sometimes been the case) — they need to be financially compensated and allowed visits by their families. Meanwhile, lawyers like John Yoo who made phony excuses for torture to be used in secret should be sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives as well as those criminal politicians who brought torture about like President George Bush II.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Well said, David. It’s particularly dispiriting, I think, to realise that some former prisoners resettled in third countries are not only not allowed to travel, but are also prevented from having family members visit them.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan McLucas wrote:

    Great news, especially if they start letting these people go!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    There’s apparently movement on this, Susan, but, as with so much relating to Guantanamo, it appears to be glacially slow.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Meagan Murphy wrote:

    Free him now!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, Meagan. Good to hear from you.

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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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