Held for 900 Days Since Being Approved for Release from Guantánamo: Sanad Al-Kazimi, a Yemeni Torture Victim

25.3.24

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Today marks 900 days since Sanad al-Kazimi, a 54-year old Yemeni, and a father of four, was unanimously approved for release from Guantánamo by a Periodic Review Board, a high-level US government review process established under President Obama.

This article, telling his story, is the ninth in an ongoing series of ten articles, published since early February, telling the stories of the 16 men (out of 30 still held at Guantánamo in total) who have long been approved for release. The articles are published alternately here and on the Close Guantánamo website, with their publication tied into significant dates in their long ordeal.

While most of the 779 men held at Guantánamo since it opened over 22 years ago were picked up — or bought — in Afghanistan or Pakistan and processed through military prisons in Afghanistan before their arrival at  Guantánamo (mostly between December 2001 and November 2003), al-Kazimi was one of around 40 prisoners whose arrival at Guantánamo involved a more circuitous route, through the network of CIA “black sites” established and run in other countries between March 2002 and September 2006, and, in some cases, in proxy prisons in other countries run on behalf of the CIA.

Seized in the United Arab Emirates by the Emirati authorities in January 2003, he was held by the Emirati authorities for around seven months, where, as the Rendition Project reports, “he was hooded, kept in a dark room, and shackled naked for days on end. Interrogators beat him with fists, threatened him with rape, and subjected him to simulated drowning.” As an Amnesty International report in 2008 explained, “His eyes were covered with black goggles, his arms and legs shackled and he was lifted by a machine and submerged into a pool of cold water.”

In August 2003, he was flown to Afghanistan, and held for nine months in the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Kabul, a medieval-style facility, with the addition of ceaseless amplified loud music and noise, where, he has said, “he was suspended from the ceiling for extended periods of time, beaten with electrical cables, and interrogated by Jordanian officials supervised by Americans.” He has also reported that he “attempted suicide several times by ramming his head into the wall until he lost consciousness.”

In May 2004, he was moved into US military custody at Bagram Airbase, arriving at Guantánamo four months later, with eight other men who were, at times, described as “mid-value detainees.” Five of these men have subsequently been released, while the four others (including al-Kazimi) are amongst the 16 men approved for release but still held, the others being Hassan bin Attash, profiled here, and Abdulsalam al-Hela and Sharqawi al-Hajj, profiled here.

At Guantánamo, like almost all the men held, he was subjected to a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), a process that took place from 2004 to 2005, and that was designed primarily to confirm that the men held had been correctly designated, on capture, as “enemy combatants” who could be held indefinitely without charge or trial. In the CSRTs, the prisoners were not allowed legal representation, and were generally damned by a list of unclassified allegations against them, whose sources were not disclosed.

In al-Kazimi’s case, as I explained in February 2009, in a supplementary online chapter to my book The Guantánamo Files, published in September 2007, he was “accused of training in Afghanistan in 2001, swearing bayat [an oath of allegiance] to Osama bin Laden, and then of being involved with al-Qaeda activities in the Gulf in 2002 after his escape from Afghanistan.”

As I also noted, “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.’”

The Guantánamo Review Task Force

When President Obama took office in January 2009, he established a high-level inter-agency review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, to assess the significance — or otherwise — of the 240 men at Guantánamo that he had inherited from George W. Bush. Throughout 2009, the task force, in isolation, and without consulting anyone outside the US government, reviewed the cases of all these men, and issued a final report in January 2010 recommending that 156 should be released, 36 should be prosecuted, and 48 others should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial, on the basis that they were “too dangerous to release,” even though the board members conceded that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

Al-Kazimi was one of the 36 men “referred for prosecution,” as was finally revealed through a Freedom of Information request in June 2013, when the “Final Dispositions” of the task force were released to Charlie Savage of the New York Times.

The 48 men, meanwhile, formed the basis of the next review process, the Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), a parole-type process, “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,” which was established to assess whether or not these men continued to be “too dangerous to release,” or whether their threat might be mitigated if they showed contrition for what they were accused of (whether it was true or not), and if they were able to demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the board members, that they had a meaningful plan for a peaceful and constructive life after their release.

However, by the time the PRBs finally began, in November 2013, the Obama administration had recognized that, in most of the 36 cases of the men recommended for prosecution, that route was unfeasible, because a number of appeals against the handful of convictions in the military commission has established that “providing material support for terrorism” — the primary charge against most of the men — was not a war crime, and had been, rather embarrassingly, invented as one by Congress.

The Periodic Review Boards

As a result, most of the men recommended for prosecution were shunted into the PRB process instead, including al-Kazimi, whose initial PRB took place in May 2016, when he was alleged to have been a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, which was patently absurd as he was also described as “a somewhat disruptive and insubordinate figure within the ranks of al-Qa’ida,” and was therefore categorically not someone who would have been entrusted with guarding bin Laden.

It was also claimed that, after leaving Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in October 2001, he joined a Gulf-based al-Qaeda cell led by Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a “high-value detainee” still held, and facing prosecution, but that the plot he was allegedly involved in never materialized. Although he was also described as a “financial facilitator,” the government’s allegations also noted that he had claimed that he had no interest in any plots, and that “his only interest was in receiving money from Nashiri.”

The allegations against him also noted that he had been “highly non-compliant” at Guantánamo throughout his imprisonment, but that “his number of infractions ha[d] decreased since mid-2014.”

For the hearing, his attorney, James Cohen of Fordham University School of Law (who represented him with his colleague, Martha Rayner), explained that he was only interested in his family, with whom he was in regular contact via calls arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and who had pledged to do everything they can to support him. In addition, his Personal Representatives (military personnel assigned to represent him) found him “open, honest, polite, passionate and very enthusiastic,” and stated their certainty that his “desire to pursue a better way of life if transferred from Guantánamo is genuine and that he does not represent a continuing significant threat to the United States of America.”

Nevertheless, the board members approved his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial in June 2016.

His next review took place in December 2018, under Donald Trump, when, like a majority of the men, he boycotted his hearing, having correctly concluded that, under Trump, the entire process had become a sham, and it was not until Joe Biden took office that he had another opportunity to demonstrate that it was safe for the US government to release him.

His PRB under Biden took place in August 2021, when, although he was still accused of having been a bin Laden bodyguard, who later provided “logistical support” to al-Nashiri, and was a “financial facilitator,” the US government conceded that, although he “was probably aware that the money he facilitated would support terrorist attacks,” he “may not have had prior knowledge about the specifics of the attacks”, with that concession, and the use of the word “probably,” indicating that he may not have actually been involved in any plot at all.

On October 7, 2021, he was finally approved for release, with the board members concluding that it was safe to release him because of his “lack of a leadership role in an extremist organization and the limited timeframe of his associations with AQ members,” his “expressed willingness to participate in a rehabilitation program,” his “candor in discussing his pre-detention activities,” and his “generally improved compliance in detention.”

Noting also his “desires and his need for a strong resettlement program which includes family reunification,” the board members also stipulated that his transfer should be to only one country, Oman, which accepted the resettlement of 28 Yemenis and two Afghans between January 2015 and January 2017, helping the US government out of a problem of their own making, whereby, since 2009, they have refused to send anyone back to Yemen, initially via a self-imposed ban, and then via a ban imposed by Congress, where, every year, Republicans have inserted provisions into the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which prohibit the repatriation of any prisoners from Guantánamo to a list of proscribed countries that includes Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia.

No way out

900 days since he was approved for release, however, Sanad al-Kazimi still languishes at Guantánamo like the other 15 men approved for release, even though, in August 2022, President Biden finally got round to appointing a State Department official ”responsible for all matters pertaining to the transfer of detainees from the Guantánamo Bay facility to third countries” — former Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, who is the Special Representative for Guantánamo Affairs.

As I have previously stated, throughout this series of articles, it is unimaginable to me that, by now, Ms. Kaidanow would not have found a Gulf country prepared to resettle at least some of these men, leading me to conclude, instead, that their release is being delayed by President Biden and Antony Blinken, who, in their quest for Republican support for their blank checks for warmongering — and worse — in Ukraine and Israel, have concluded that it would be inadvisable to upset the handful of hardcore Guantánamo-loving Republicans, who might make life difficult for them if they were to release anyone from the prison.

Over 22 years since Guantánamo opened, then, it seems that political expediency, rather than any respect for the rule of law, continues to keep men held at Guantánamo, with no end in sight to their long ordeal, and with no recognition by the Biden administration that telling men held for decades without charge or trial that they are going to be freed, and then not freeing them, may be more cruel than not approving them for release in the first place.

* * * * *

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.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, the ninth in my ongoing series of ten articles 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.

    The articles are published alternately here and on the Close Guantanamo website, and this particular article focuses on the case of Sanad al-Kazimi, seized in the UAE in January 2003, and held in Emirati custody and CIA “black sites” until September 2004, when he was flown to Guantanamo, where he has been held ever since without charge or trial. He was finally approved for release in October 2021, after over 12 years of tortuously slow review processes that began in 2009 under President Obama.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Lizzy Arizona wrote:

    Close Gitmo Close Guantanamo free the victims yes we can!!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Lizzy. I very much hope you’re right. We’re up against a monstrous government machine that doesn’t care about the injustices it is perpetuating at Guantanamo, but we also know that, at the very least, there are some officials within the administration who are capable of recognizing this inconvenient truth.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Richard Greve wrote:

    The whole thing is such an outrage that all it shows is that the U.S. is a rogue nation to have done this in the first place.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s a very good assessment, Richard. The US became a rogue nation after 9/11, when it jettisoned all of its domestic and international legal obligations regarding how people must be treated when deprived of their liberty, and, as the Guantanamo cases show, over 22 years no credible attempt has been made to undo that damage.

    Habeas corpus, granted to the prisoners by the Supreme Court in 2008, was gutted after two years by politically motivated appeals court judges, and everything else has involved “administrative” review processes, which are not legally binding. The men I’ve been profiling since last month are still, essentially, extra-judicial prisoners of the US government, as much as they were when Guantanamo first opened.

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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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