Held for 5,150 Days Since Being Approved for Release from Guantánamo: Toffiq Al-Bihani and Two “Ghosts,” Ridah Al-Yazidi and Muieen Abd Al-Sattar

28.2.24

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Three weeks ago, I began a new Guantánamo project, telling the stories of the 16 men who have been approved for release from the prison, in an effort to humanize them, to remind the world of their existence, and to highlight the disgracefully long amount of time that they have been held since being approved for release.

I’m alternating publication of the articles here and on the Close Guantánamo website, tying them in to noteworthy dates relating to how long they have been held since the US authorities first decided that they no longer wanted to hold them. The first article focused on the case of Uthman Abd Al-Rahim Muhammad Uthman, a Yemeni who, on February 7, had been held for 1,000 days since being approved for release, and the second focused on Hani Saleh Rashid Abdullah, another Yemeni, who, on February 11, had been held for 1,200 days since being approved for release. For the fourth article, about Abdulsalam Al-Hela and Sharqawi Al-Hajj, see here.

The reason these men have been held for so long without being freed is, sadly, because the decisions taken to release them — via Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type review process established by President Obama in 2013 — were purely administrative, meaning that the US government has no legal obligation to free them, and they cannot, for example, appeal to a judge to order their release if, as has become sadly apparent, the government has failed to prioritize their release.

In contrast, prisoners who have been charged with crimes in Guantánamo’s military commission trial system, and have either been convicted after a trial, or, more generally, have agreed to plea deals, have been released because those decisions are legally binding, leading to a ludicrous and frustratingly unjust situation whereby it is easier to get out of Guantánamo as a convict than as someone so insignificant that you were never able to be charged with a crime in the first place.

While 12 of these 16 men have been approved for release since President Biden took office, and one, Hani Saleh Rashid Abdullah, was the only prisoner approved for release under Donald Trump, the three men featured today have been waiting for far longer than any of the others: 5,150 days, or, to put it another way, 14 years and 37 days, since January 22, 2010, when a review process established by President Obama the year before, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, issued its final report after reviewing the cases of all the men — 240 in total — inherited from President Bush.

The Task Force — comprising representatives of the Departments of Justice, Defense, State and Homeland Security, as well as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff — reviewed the men’s cases throughout 2009, and recommended that 36 men should be prosecuted, 48 should continue to be held without charge or trial, and 156 should be freed. The latter were all eventually freed, with the exception of Toffiq al-Bihani, Ridah al-Yazidi and Muieen Abd al-Sattar.

The three men’s stories are all infuriating and sad — and in some cases quite profoundly so.

The story of Toffiq al-Bihani

Toffiq (or Tawfiq) al-Bihani (ISN 893) is a 51-year old Yemeni of Saudi origin, whose ongoing imprisonment exposes quite how broken and unaccountable Guantánamo’s system for releasing prisoners is. As his attorney, George Clarke, explained to me in June 2017 for an article I wrote for Al-Jazeera, al-Bihani was told in April 2016 that he was going to be freed, and that he would be sent to Saudi Arabia with nine other men, but “he was pulled at the last minute.” Despite his best efforts to ascertain why, Clarke told me that “[n]o one will tell me what the security issue is,” and it has never been clarified in the long years since.

The lack of an explanation is outrageous, but it is, sadly, typical of the secrecy that, throughout Guantánamo’s history, has permeated almost every aspect of the prison’s existence.

No valid reason seems to exist to prevent al-Bihani from having been resettled elsewhere in the intervening years — in Oman, for example, where 28 Yemenis were resettled in 2015 and 2017 — and yet his long ordeal continues, unremarked upon by successive US administrations, and despite an ongoing campaign on his behalf by Amnesty International USA.

I’ve been covering his story for many years, most notably in November 2010, after District Judge Reggie B. Walton, rather shamefully, turned down his habeas corpus petition on the basis of his attendance at the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Farouq training camp in Afghanistan for five months in 2000, despite recognizing that he had prior substance abuse problems in Saudi Arabia, and that the trainers at Al-Farouq had “kick[ed him] out of the camp” because of his propensity for “feigning illness in order to leave and ‘do hashish or tobacco.’”

In addition, the very fact that the Obama administration had contested al-Bihani’s habeas petition showed a fundamentally incoherent inconsistency within the government, because al-Bihani had already been approved for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, although that information was not made publicly available until 2013. Infuriatingly, this pattern was repeated in the cases of numerous other prisoners, and yet no one has ever called the Justice Department to account for challenging the habeas petitions of men approved for release, as I explained in articles in 2013 and 2015.

Al-Bihani’s own account of his long ordeal, which involved him being seized in Iran, where he had fled from Afghanistan, in January 2002, then transferred to Afghan custody, and then to a notorious CIA “black site” — the medieval “Dark Prison” in Kabul — before his eventual arrival at Guantánamo in February 2003, was included in a letter he wrote to George Clarke that was published in a 2009 book The Guantánamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison, Outside the Law, and I quoted it in my article about his habeas petition. He was also mentioned in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA torture program, whose explosive executive summary was released in December 2014.

However, while his treatment prior to his arrival at Guantánamo will continue to form part of the evidence of CIA torture for which, one day, international legal experts hope that the US government will be held accountable, it is his ongoing imprisonment at Guantánamo that should concern everyone who believes in justice and fairness, and who can recognize that, shorn of any legal enforcement, the purely administrative means for approving men for release from Guantánamo are so disgracefully weak that Toffiq al-Bihani can still be languishing at Guantánamo over 14 years since he was told he would be freed.

While al-Bihani’s story is infuriating, the plight of the other two men approved for release over 14 years ago reveals, startlingly, that no mechanism exists to prevent men at Guantánamo from simply disappearing into administrative cracks, and becoming little more than ghosts.

The story of Ridah Al-Yazidi

Ridah al-Yazidi (ISN 038) is a 59-year old Tunisian who was on the first flight into Guantánamo on January 11, 2002, the day the prison opened. When the Bush administration introduced cursory reviews of the men’s cases in 2004 — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) — it was alleged that he “traveled to Afghanistan from Italy in 1999, that he attended the Khaldan training camp [an independent camp unaffiliated with Al-Qaeda], and that he fought on the Taliban front lines in 2001.” In response, he “stated that he did not engage in any significant combat during the entire time he was on the front lines,” but, like most of the men whose cases were reviewed, he was found to have been an “enemy combatant” who could continue to be held indefinitely.

His classified military file, dating from June 2007 and released by WikiLeaks in 2011, recommended him for ongoing imprisonment, but as I discovered for an article in June 2012, a subsequent Bush-era review process, the Administrative Review Boards (ARBs), a successor to the CSRTs, recommended him for release on November 19, 2007. When Obama took office, however, all of the outstanding recommendations for release under George W. Bush, relating to at least 40 men, were discarded, to be replaced by the recommendations of the Guantánamo Review Task Force, which, eventually, also approved him for release.

Despite this, Al-Yazidi has refused all efforts to secure his release. In December 2016, as I explained here, Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported that officials had told him that the Obama administration was “reluctant to repatriate” al-Yazidi, and two other men, “for reasons having to do with their home countries,” but all efforts to find a third country for his resettlement were thwarted because of al-Yazidi’s refusal to engage with anyone.

In 2015, Carol Rosenberg, then at the Miami Herald, wrote an article about the men on the first flight into Guantánamo, and spoke to Brent Rushforth, the attorney assigned to represent him, who told her that he “met al-Yazidi only once in 2008,” and since that time he had “refused calls and invitations to other meetings.”

The story of Muieen Abd Al-Sattar

Muieen Abd al-Sattar (ISN 309) is even more of a ghost, having persistently refused any legal representation whatsoever. He is apparently 48 years old, but beyond that even his nationality is a mystery. The Bush administration assessed that he was born in Dubai, and therefore listed him a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, but the Emirati authorities didn’t recognize him as a citizen, and, instead, he appears to be a Rohingya of Burmese origin, with a Pakistani passport.

In his classified military file, released by WikiLeaks in 2011, the authorities at Guantánamo suggested that he is “an ethnic Rohingya Burmese who claims Pakistani citizenship,” noting that he “was born in Dubai, [U]AE, but lived in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (SA) most of his life,” where he “was employed as a religion teacher at a private school.” The authorities added that he “possessed a Pakistani passport, which his father acquired for him because it was easier and cheaper to obtain [than a passport from another country],” and which falsely suggested that he was born in Karachi.

He apparently traveled to Pakistan on vacation in June 2001, and was then persuaded by someone he met to travel to Afghanistan, where, according to the US authorities, it was assessed that he joined Al-Qaeda forces in the Tora Bora mountains, and was captured with other men as they crossed into Pakistan.

It is not known whether there was any truth to these allegations, but in 2009 the Guantánamo Review Task Force recommended that he should be released, although his refusal to engage with anyone makes it highly unlikely, as with Ridah al-Yazidi, that he will ever be freed. Many long years ago, a habeas corpus petition was filed on his behalf, but that was dismissed by District Judge John D. Bates in October 2009 because, as he stated, “Al-Sattar has given no indication during the almost three-year pendency of his case that he wishes this habeas action to proceed” and “has unequivocally rejected representation.”

With no legal representation, and with no evident home country to return to, al-Sattar, a fundamentally stateless ghost, would seem, like Ridah al-Yazidi, to be stuck at Guantánamo forever. In December 2016, when Charlie Savage spoke to government officials about the men still held at Guantánamo at the time, they told him, unsurprisingly, that “no country had offered al-Sattar a home.”

In conclusion, I hope you share my sense of outrage that Toffiq al-Bihani still hasn’t been freed, and my sense of creeping hopelessness that the other two men —  “ghosts” in the prison’s broken bureaucratic regime — can slip through the cracks to such an extent that their refusal to cooperate with the authorities, for whatever reason, can be brushed aside as though it is of no real significance, even though it may mean that they will never leave Guantánamo.

* * * * *

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.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

13 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, the third in my ongoing series about the 16 men approved for release from Guantanamo, noting how long they have been held since those decisions were taken, telling their stories, and tying publication of these articles into significant dates in their long ordeal. This particular article highlights the three especially unfortunate men who were approved for release over 14 years ago.

    In one of these cases — that of Toffiq al-Bihani, a Yemeni of Saudi origin — the failure to release him is inexplicable, and no explanation has ever been given for why, in April 2016, when he was supposed to have been sent to Saudi Arabia with nine other men, he was pulled from the flight at the last minute. Because the decision to release him was purely administrative, however, he, like most of the men approved for release more recently (between 2020 and 2022), cannot appeal to a judge to order his release if, as is apparent, the US government is persistently failing to prioritize his freedom.

    In the cases of the other two men — Ridah Al-Yazidi, a Tunisian, and Muieen Abd Al-Sattar, a stateless Rohingya — the situation is even more alarming. Both men have refused to accept any legal representation, and have refused to cooperate with the authorities regarding their resettlement, meaning that they can, quite genuinely, be regard as “‘ghosts’ in the prison’s broken bureaucratic regime”, as I describe them, who, as a result, may never actually be freed.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Judith Lienhard wrote:

    ❤️🙏❤️

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Judith. Good to hear from you.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Lizzy Arizona wrote:

    Free Free the remaining Gitmo victims and close the hell hole asap.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Lizzy. Good to hear from you.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    David Barrows wrote:

    Outrageous! These men are the victims of morally bankrupt politicians.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s a very good description, David. It doesn’t matter whether it’s been Bush and his administration, or Obama, Trump, Biden and their administrations, none have shown the courage and principles necessary to deal with the abomination that is Guantanamo, and have let its injustices, its cruelty and its broken bureaucracy fester.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Russell B Fuller wrote:

    Shared, thanks.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Russell. Much appreciated.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Lizzy Arizona wrote:

    We the people – ie Andy and followers – have to keep agitating to close that American gulag; we must.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lizzy. The next coordinated global vigils for Guantanamo’s closure are next Wednesday, March 6, but if Biden doesn’t release some of these men soon we’re going to need to try and work out how to step up our actions.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Also coming up soon, Lizzy – 8,100 days of Guantanamo’s existence on March 15. I encourage anyone who cares to take a photo with the poster, and to send it to info@closeguantanamo.org
    The poster’s here: https://gtmoclock.com/posters/GTMO-Clock-8100.pdf

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish translation, on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Detenidos durante 5.150 días desde que se aprobó su excarcelación de Guantánamo: Toffiq Al-Bihani y dos “fantasmas”, Ridah Al-Yazidi y Muieen Abd Al-Sattar’: http://worldcantwait-la.com/worthington-detenidos-durante-5150-dias-desde-aprobo-excarcelacion-gtmo-toffiq-al-bihani-y-dos-fantasmas-ridah-al-yazidi-muieen-abd-al-sattar.htm

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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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