Held for 1,000 Days Since Being Approved for Release from Guantánamo: Uthman Abd Al-Rahim Muhammad Uthman

7.2.24

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In the first of a new series of profiles of men held at Guantánamo — specifically, the 16 men (out of the 30 still held) who have long been approved for release by high-level US government review processes — I’m focusing on Uthman Abd Al-Rahim Muhammad Uthman, a 43-year old Yemeni citizen, who, today, has been held for 1,000 days since the US authorities first decided that they no longer wanted to hold him.

Uthman arrived at Guantánamo on January 16, 2002, five days after the prison opened, when he was just 21 years old, and, as a result, he has been held for over half his life at Guantánamo. The photo is from his classified military file, released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and dating from April 2008, meaning that he would have been 27 years old, or younger, when it was taken.

Since his arrival at Guantánamo — 8,058 days ago (that’s 22 years and 22 days) — Uthman has been held without charge or trial, and with no sign of when, if ever, he will eventually be freed, even though the high-level government review process that approved him for release concluded unanimously, on May 13, 2021, that “continued law of war detention is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.”

The review process, known as the Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), is a parole-type process initiated by President Obama, “comprised of senior officials from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State; the Joint Staff; and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence”, as its website explains.

Unfortunately, Uthman is still held because the PRBs are a purely administrative process, and carry no legal weight, meaning that there is no one Uthman can appeal to — a federal court judge, for example — if, as is apparent from how long he has been held since the decision to approve him for release was taken, the Biden administration shows no interest in actually freeing him.

To be fair to the US government, there is a complication. Most, if not all of these 16 men cannot be repatriated, because of provisions inserted every year by Republicans into the National Defense Authorization ACT (NDAA), preventing their return to their home countries — Yemen, in most cases, but also Somalia and Libya.

As a result, third countries must be found that are prepared to offer new homes to these men. However, although President Biden belatedly appointed an official in the State Department — former ambassador Tina Kaidanow — to oversee resettlement issues relating to Guantánamo in the summer of 2021, the resettlement of these men is clearly not being prioritized by those in the chain of command above her; very specifically, President Biden himself, and Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State.

What makes the case of these 16 men even more shameful is that, last year, when the Biden administration was legally obliged to release Majid Khan, a remorseful Al-Qaeda courier who had been charged in the military commissions at Guantánamo, and had agreed to a plea deal whereby, in exchange for his cooperation with ongoing trials at Guantánamo, he would be freed, the US government — at, presumably, the highest level — successfully negotiated his resettlement in Belize, whereas 16 men never even charged with a crime cannot get out of Guantánamo at all because there is no legal obligation for them to be freed.

Not for the first time at Guantánamo, those treated most dismissively — and apparently consigned to lifelong imprisonment without charge or trial — are those who are too insignificant to even be charged with a crime.

Through this series of profiles, I hope to raise the profile of these 16 men, who, today, have been held for between 502 and 1,196 days since they were approved for release — and in three cases for a truly shocking 5,129 days — to help to push the Biden administration into recognizing that its failure to release these men is completely unacceptable.

Uthman’s story

According to his military file, Uthman had traveled to Afghanistan in March 2001 to assist the Taliban in their ongoing civil war with the Northern Alliance, and was seized after crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001 with several dozen other men, who also ended up being sent to Guantánamo.

As I explained when Uthman was approved for release in May 2021, the US authorities persistently claimed that he was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden — describing Uthman and those captured with him as “the Dirty Thirty” — even though this was never a credible claim, because most of the men, like Uthman, were very young, and were recent arrivals in Afghanistan, whereas bin Laden’s actual bodyguards were generally battle-hardened Egyptians.

In addition, over the years, almost all of the so-called “Dirty Thirty” were freed from Guantánamo, exposing the ludicrousness of the US claims, although Uthman was not so fortunate. His 2008 military file insisted on repeating the false assertion that he was “a member of al-Qaida and a former Usama Bin Laden (UBL) bodyguard,” and it took until February 2010, over eight years after his arrival at Guantánamo, for a federal court judge, Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr., ruling on his habeas corpus petition, to throw out these claims and to order his release.

Judge Kennedy refused to accept the Justice Department’s claims that Uthman was a bodyguard for bin Laden because they had been made by two other prisoners — Sharqawi Abdu Ali al-Hajj and Sanad Yislam Ali al-Kazimi (both still held and also approved for release) whose testimony was unreliable because of “unrebutted evidence in the record that, at the time of the interrogations at which they made the statements, both men had recently been tortured.”

Despite this victory, however, the Obama administration appealed, and in March 2011 the D.C. Circuit Court — the appeals court in Washington, D.C., which, at the time, was dominated by conservative judges — reversed Judge Kennedy’s ruling, leading law professor Jonathan Hafetz to conclude, with some accuracy, that their ruling endorsed “indefinite detention based on suspicion or assumptions about a detainee’s behavior.”

Uthman then had to wait for another five years to have his case reviewed again — this time by a PRB, in April 2016. Once more, however, the discredited bodyguard allegations resurfaced, and in May 2016 the board upheld his ongoing imprisonment, in part because of their consideration of his alleged “past involvement in terrorist activities,” including “his selection to be a bodyguard for Usama Bin Ladin.”

Uthman had another review, in December 2016, which again led to his ongoing imprisonment being upheld, and this familiar pattern — still with the bodyguard allegation — was repeated under Donald Trump, in 2017. Although most of the men eligible for PRBs boycotted their hearings under Trump, when they concluded that it had become pointless, Uthman persisted, but was turned down again in February 2020 after a hearing in December 2019.

Finally, after President Biden took office, Uthman succeeded in persuading a board to approve his release, despite the bodyguard claim still being repeated, with Beth Jacob, who became his attorney in 2019, telling the board members that he is “thoughtful, polite and open-minded,” with “a very dry sense of humor,” who is “eager to learn and has taken advantage of the opportunities at Guantánamo to take classes, ranging from business to art to English,” and “has worked hard at these studies.”

Jacob also pointed out that he “has never been resentful because of his imprisonment or hostile to the United States in any of our many conversations,” and “has been among the most compliant detainees throughout his lengthy detention,” adding that throughout his long imprisonment “he has grown up, matured and educated himself, and learned from past mistakes.”

The approval for Uthman’s release — long overdue — was entirely appropriate, but as we mark 1,000 days since this decision was taken, and the 8,058 days that Uthman has been held, it is surely time for some effort to be put by the Biden administration into giving him the freedom he so thoroughly deserves.

POSTSCRIPT (Feb. 12): See the second article, Held for 1,200 Days Since Being Approved for Release from Guantánamo: Hani Saleh Rashid Abdullah, published on the Close Guantánamo website.

* * * * *

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 (see the ongoing 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, in 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to try to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody.

Since 2019, Andy has become increasingly involved in environmental activism, recognizing that climate change poses an unprecedented threat to life on earth, and that the window for change — requiring a severe reduction in the emission of all greenhouse gases, and the dismantling of our suicidal global capitalist system — is rapidly shrinking, as tipping points are reached that are occurring much quicker than even pessimistic climate scientists expected. You can read his articles about the climate crisis here.

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.

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7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, the first of a series of articles focusing on the 16 men still held at Guantanamo who have long been approved for release by high-level US government review processes. Published to coincide with significant dates in these men’s long wait for freedom, this first article focuses on Uthman Abd Al-Rahim Muhammad Uthman, a Yemeni who was approved for release 1,000 days ago.

    Uthman arrived at Guantanamo on January 16, 2002, five days after the prison opened, when he was just 21 years old. He is now 43, and has therefore spent over half his life in Guantanamo. Throughout his long imprisonment, he was dogged by false claims that he was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, one of 30 alleged bodyguards identified by the US authorities as the ‘Dirty Thirty.’

    In 2010, a federal court judge ordered his release, concluding that these claims were based on testimony made by other prisoners after they had been tortured, but this ruling was appealed by the Obama administration, and overturned by a compliant appeals court in 2011.

    The bodyguard allegation continued to dog him as his case was repeatedly reviewed by the parole-type Periodic Review Boards (PRBs) established by President Obama, and his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial was persistently upheld – in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020. Finally, in May 2021, a PRB under President Biden approved him for release – but that, shamefully, was 1,000 days ago, and he is still held because the PRBs are purely administrative, meaning that Uthman cannot appeal to a judge to order his release, and Biden and Antony Blinken are apparently uninterested in actually freeing him.

    His story is sad indictment of the situation at Guantanamo in its 23rd year of operations, as are the cases of the other men approved for release but still held, which I’ll be publishing throughout February and March.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Winston Weeks wrote:

    Shared. Thanks for your amazing work Andy.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks very much for the supportive words, Winston!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Abdellatif Nasser wrote:

    My heartfelt thanks to you Andy for your sincere dedication to bring justice and freedom for those brothers.
    May God bless you and help you with your great efforts.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you so much, Abdellatif, for your wonderfully supportive words!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Ethan Winters wrote:

    I hope there will be more transfers but I doubt all 16 men will be transferred by January 20, 2025. Biden will obviously not win a second term so the remaining men will be Donald Trump’s prisoners.

    Tina Kaidanow is terrible at her job. The good news is Bin Amin and Bin Lep will be transferred by 2029 at the most even if Trump doesn’t transfer them. Anyway, I look forward to your other articles on the rest of the 16 men and, if you have time, on Bin Amin and Bin Lep’s plea deals. Bajabu still being held is the most shocking because Kenya is not on the Congress ban list. I think you once said something to the effect of “Kenya doesn’t want him back.” Very sad.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Ethan.

    When it comes to Tina Kaidanow, I have to say that she wasn’t given as much authority as Obama’s Special Envoys, so it might be more appropriate to lay most of the blame at the feet of her bosses, Antony Blinken and Joe Biden, and perhaps also to conclude that the reason we’re not seeing any movement is because these two warmongers don’t want to do anything at all to upset the handful of particularly rabid pro-Guantanamo Republicans in Congress while they continue to seek their assistance in sending blank checks to Zelenskyy and Netanyahu.

    I hope to get round to writing about Bin Amin and Bin Lep 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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