Held for 800 Days Since Being Approved for Release from Guantánamo: Moath Al-Alwi, Zakaria Al-Baidany and Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu


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This is the fifth in a new series of ten articles, alternately posted here and on the Close Guantánamo website, telling the stories of the 16 men still held at Guantánamo (out of 30 men in total), who have long been approved for release from the prison by high-level US government review processes, but have no idea of when, if ever, they will actually be freed. The first four articles are here, here, here and here.

Shamefully, these men are still held because the reviews were purely administrative, meaning that no legal mechanism exists to compel the US government to free them, if, as is apparent, senior officials are unwilling to prioritize their release.

To be fair, most of these men cannot be repatriated, because of US laws preventing the return of men from Guantánamo to countries including Yemen, where most of the men are from, but if senior officials — especially President Biden and Antony Blinken — cared enough, these men would already have been freed, and the suspicion, sadly, must be that they are failing to do anything because the they don’t want to upset the handful of Republican lawmakers who are fanatical in their support for Guantánamo’s continued existence, while they seek the GOP’s cooperation in funding military support for Israel and Ukraine.

The story of Moath al-Alwi

Of the 16 men approved for release, none are even vaguely household names, although the best known is probably Moath al-Alwi (ISN 028), a Yemeni who is the creator of astonishing sailing ships made out of recycled materials.

His artwork first came to prominence in the fall of 2017, when it was featured in “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo,” the first ever exhibition of current and former prisoners’ art, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which I visited and wrote about here, and it also reached a wide audience via a short documentary film that was made available by the New York Times in July 2021. Subsequent exhibitions have subsequently taken place in other locations across the US (see here, for example), and last month some of his artwork (but not his ships) was featured in an exhibition in Berlin.

46 or 47 years old, al-Alwi has spent nearly half of his life at Guantánamo, having arrived on a flight from Afghanistan on January 17, 2002, just six days after the prison opened. For anyone wanting to keep count, that means that, as of today, he has been held for 8,085 days in total, without ever having been charged with a crime.

Despite only arriving in Afghanistan in June 2001, to support the Taliban in their ongoing civil war with the Northern Alliance, and being seized crossing into Pakistan six months later, al-Alwi and 29 other men seized with him were described as the “Dirty 30” on their arrival at Guantánamo, farcically regarded as “bodyguards” for Osama bin Laden (UBL) or “other members of UBL’s security detail,” even though it was patently absurd to suggest that bin Laden would have entrusted his security to anyone other than battle-hardened individuals with whom he had a long relationship.

It took nearly seven years before al-Alwi had an opportunity to challenge the basis of his detention, after the Supreme Court granted the Guantánamo prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights in June 2008, in Boumediene v Bush. For two years, until malignant, politically motivated conservative appeals court judges gutted habeas of all meaning for the men held at Guantánamo, District Court judges ordered 38 of them to be freed, on the basis that the government had failed to demonstrate that they had any meaningful connection to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban or other associated forces.

Al-Alwi, however, was not so fortunate. His case came before District Judge Richard Leon, and, in December 2008, Judge Leon turned down his habeas petition, on the absurd basis that, “rather than leave his Taliban unit in the aftermath of September 11, 2001,” he “stayed with it until after the United States initiated Operation Enduring Freedom on October 7, 2001; fleeing to Khowst and then to Pakistan only after his unit was subjected to two-to-three US bombing runs.”

As I described it at the time:

In other words, Judge Leon ruled that [Moath al-Alwi] can be held indefinitely without charge or trial because, despite traveling to Afghanistan to fight other Muslims before September 11, 2001, “contend[ing] that he had no association with al-Qaeda,” and stating that “his support for and association with the Taliban was minimal and not directed at US or coalition forces,” he was still in Afghanistan when that conflict morphed into a different war following the US-led invasion in October 2001. As Leon admitted in his ruling, “Although there is no evidence of petitioner actually using arms against US or coalition forces, the Government does not need to prove such facts in order for petitioner to be classified as an enemy combatant under the definition adopted by the Court.”

Al-Alwi appealed, but lost his appeal in 2011. However, by this time he had been recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, which, throughout 2009, had reviewed the cases of the 240 men inherited from George W. Bush, and had recommended that 156 of them should be freed, 36 should be prosecuted, and 48 other should continue to be held without charge or trial, on the basis that they were “too dangerous to release,” but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

Those in this latter category were, eventually, made eligible for a second review process, the Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), a parole-type process that began in November 2013. As the viability of the military commissions collapsed, many of those recommended for prosecution by the Task Force were, instead, made eligible for PRBs, and, throughout the rest of the Obama administration, 64 men had their cases reviewed, and 38 were approved for release (with all but two of them leaving Guantánamo before Obama’s presidency came to an end).

Al-Alwi, however, lost out again. A long-term hunger striker, he weighed just 97 pounds when his first PRB took place, in September 2015, and, although he was generally regarded as a “compliant” prisoner, the board regarded him as “evasive and hostile in response to its questions as well as failing to acknowledge or accept responsibility for his prior actions,” when they subsequently approved his ongoing imprisonment.

In November 2016, al-Alwi had a second PRB, but was again recommended for ongoing imprisonment, even though he had eventually abandoned his hunger strike, and even though his prowess as an artist and sculptor, flagged up by his attorney Beth Jacob, who had recently started representing him, was acknowledged by the board members.

As a profile published last year by the Center for Constitutional Rights explained, in the early years of the Obama administration, after he began drawing on the walls of his cell, he “created a large ‘window,’ a three-dimensional collage looking out on a sea he created, replete with islands, boats, trees, a house,” and also “started creating furniture — cabinets, bookshelves, tables, a foot-operated trash basket — all out of cardboard, soap, and whatever other limited materials were available.” He also began teaching himself to paint, and although “[h]is creations were destroyed by the guard force in 2013,” he continued to create art, soon branching out into his magnificent sculptures of sailing ships, “using threads from his shirts and prayer caps, strings from mops, bottle tops, cardboard, and other odds and ends.”

One of Moath al-Alwi’s magnificent sailing ships, made out of recycled materials.

By this point, any pretence that there was a reason to continue holding al-Alwi had completely evaporated, as all of the “Dirty 30” had been released, except for al-Alwi and Uthman Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Uthman, profiled in the first article of this series.

For the next four years, under Donald Trump, the PRB process became thoroughly discredited, as only one man was approved for release. For al-Alwi, these years were particularly hard, because his art, which had become a lifeline for him, was clamped down on after the Pentagon took exception to the John Jay College exhibition, restricting its creation, threatening to destroy it all, and banning prisoners from taking any of their creations with them when they left the prison.

As he stated at the time, “‘I was asked, if you had the option between your own release and your artworks’ release, which one would you choose?’ And without any hesitation, I answered: ‘I would opt for the release of my artwork because as far as I am concerned, I’m done, my life and my dreams are shattered, whereas if my artwork is released, it will be the sole witness for posterity.’”

Eventually, under Joe Biden, al-Alwi was approved for release, on December 27, 2021, with the US authorities finally conceding that he “probably was not one of [bin Laden’s] bodyguards,” and that they didn’t even know “whether he engaged directly in combat.” 800 days later, it is unforgivable that he still held, but at least the ban on prisoners leaving with their artwork was lifted last February, following an intervention by two UN Special Rapporteurs, and I look forward to him being able, one day, to make art without being behind bars.

The story of Zakaria al-Baidany

Zakaria al-Baidany (ISN 1017), identified by the US authorities as Omar al-Rammah, is a 48- or 49-year old Yemeni, who has also spent nearly half his life imprisoned without charge or trial, and whose story is one of the most bewildering in the whole of Guantánamo’s sad catalog of brutally interrupted lives.

As I explained in 2007, in my book The Guantánamo Files, drawing on publicly released US government documents, he “was captured far from the battlefields of Afghanistan — in Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, in April 2002, with an Algerian, Soufian al-Hawari (ISN 1016), who was freed in November 2008.” After spending over a year in CIA “black sites” in Afghanistan, including the notorious “Dark Prison,” and, probably, at least one Afghan prison run on behalf of the US, he arrived at Guantánamo in May 2003.

As al-Hawari explained in Guantánamo, “The Americans didn’t capture me. The [Russian] Mafia captured me. They sold me to the Americans … When I was captured, a car came around and people inside were talking Russian and Georgian … We were delivered to another group who spoke perfect Russian. They sold us to the dogs. The Americans came two days later with a briefcase full of money. They took us to a forest, then a private plane to Kabul.”

When asked who was with him, al-Hawari replied, “There were four of us. Myself, my friend Abdul Haq, a Yemeni guy named Zakaria, and a Chech[en] driver, who was killed.” According to a Cageprisoners report, based on accounts provided by former prisoners, they were sold to the Americans for $100,000.

Nothing was heard from al-Baidany in any publicly released records, although, according to reports from released prisoners, he was subjected to brutal treatment in the early days of the prison’s existence, and the CCR report last year added that, shortly after his arrival, “when he complained of a toothache,” he “was taken to a ‘dentist,’ who (without explanation) pulled eight teeth and sent him back to his cell.”

Recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, his first PRB took place in July 2016, when Beth Jacob, who had recently become his attorney, explained, in a heartbreaking condemnation of the normalization of isolation at Guantánamo, that he had “not been able to make contact with his family since his arrival” at the prison, and that his “last conversation with his mother was in 2002 from Georgia, when she told him to come home.”

As CCR’s report last year explained, al-Baidany is from “a well-educated, prosperous, cosmopolitan family,” in which “all of his siblings, including his sisters, are college graduates, and most have graduate degrees.” As the youngest of the siblings, “his father’s death when he was only 16 set him adrift,” which was how “he ended up going to Georgia to support the Chechnyan rebels against Russia.”

The prolonged silence must have been unbearable both for al-Baidany and for his family, and yet the board members refused to approve him for release, despite conceding that there were “no indications” that he had “current associations with active extremists.”

His case was reviewed again in February 2017, but his ongoing imprisonment was again upheld, although his Personal Representatives (military officers assigned to represent him) noted that he was now in touch with his family, and that they were “highly educated and well traveled,” and had “offered both the emotional and monetary support necessary for [his] transition [to civilian life].”

Shamefully, it took his review board three years and eight months to deliver its decision, once more upholding his ongoing imprisonment in October 2020, and although a long-overdue decision to approve him for release finally took place in December 2021 after another PRB, it is, as with Moath al-Alwi, completely unacceptable that he has now been held for 800 days since that decision was taken.

His lawyers note that he “likes to play videogames, especially adventures, and watch American movies,” and that he “says that when he plays the games and watches the movies, he is transported to another world — away from prison and abuse.” They also explain that “[h]is dream is to open a cafe where his customers will be able to play video games while drinking their coffee,” and I can only hope that one day his dream comes true.

The story of Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu

Another largely incomprehensible story involves Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu (ISN 10025), a 50- or 51-year old Kenyan, and a father of three, who was one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo, in March 2007.

For the US authorities, he was regarded as having had “a close relationship with high-level operational planners and members of Al-Qa’ida in East Africa,” and had also been involved in terrorist attacks in Mombasa in November 2002, although investigators working with his lawyers at Reprieve suggested that what had actually happened was that, as I described it in 2021, “he was seized and badly beaten by Kenyan police, who, although they ‘apparently found no evidence linking [him] to any criminal activity … drove him to an airport and handed him, with no form of judicial process, to US military personnel.’”

From Kenya, “he was flown to Djibouti, ‘where he was detained in a shipping container on a US military base and told by interrogators that he was about to embark on a “long, long journey,” and was then flown to Afghanistan, where he was held at Bagram ‘in appalling conditions,’ and at a second prison, and was then flown to Guantánamo.”

After his arrival at Guantánamo, he was clearly not considered significant, as he was not given a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, which was a pre-requisite for being put forward for a trial by military commission, suggesting that there was actually no case against him. This was a a suspicion that was essentially confirmed after President Obama took office, when the Guantánamo Review Task Force didn’t recommend him for prosecution, putting him, instead, in the group of 48 men recommended for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial.

In May 2016, a Periodic Review Board reviewed his case, but upheld his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, and in 2019, under Donald Trump, he boycotted his next hearing, in common with the majority off the prisoners, who had appropriately concluded that the entire process had become a sham. He then had to wait until September 2021 for a PRB under President Biden, at which, finally, he was approved for release, after hearing in which his attorney, Mark Maher, had pointed out that he was “among the most compliant detainees,” and had also noted his devotion to peace and healing.

Sadly, 800 days later, he too is awaiting the day when his long ordeal will come to an end, and, as with Moath al-Alwi and Zakaria al-Baidany, I can only hope that the Biden administration will, at some point in the not too distant future, finally prioritize their release.

* * * * *

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.

6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, the fifth in my ongoing series of ten articles about the 16 men approved for release from Guantanamo but still held, 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.

    The articles are published alternately here and on the Close Guantanamo website, and this particular article highlights three men approved for release in December 2021 — the talented artist Moath al-Alwi, who makes extraordinary sailing ships out of recycled materials, and two victims of extraordinary rendition and torture: Zakaria al-Baidany, who was not in touch with his family for over a decade, and Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu, a Kenyan who was one of the last prisoners brought to Guantanamo, in 2007.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Abdellatif Nasser wrote:

    May Allah grant their freedom 🙏

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Abdellatif. You know more than most about waiting for years to be freed after being approved for release, but I genuinely find it unforgivable that the model of imprisonment at Guantanamo is so broken that these kinds of delays – between being approved for release, and actually being freed – have become a fixture of the regime for the last 15 years.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Abdellatif Nasser wrote:

    Thank you so much, Andy, for your tremendous and genuine efforts to bring justice and freedom for those brothers.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the lovely supportive words, Abdellatif. I do this work because it is so necessary to make a stand against the US having initiated a form of penal dictatorship at Guantanamo, but it is also hugely important that you are all like family to me, and have been since I started this work 18 years ago.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish translation, on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Retenidos 800 días desde que se aprobó su excarcelación de Guantánamo: Moath Al-Alwi, Zakaria Al-Baidany y Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu’: http://www.worldcantwait-la.com/worthington-retemidos-800-dias-desde-aprobo-excarcelacion-gtmo-moath-al-alwi-zakaria-al-baidan-mohammed-abdul-malik-bajabu.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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