Who Are the Two “Forever Prisoners” Approved for Release from Guantánamo by Periodic Review Boards?

Guantánamo protests over the years: on the left, Abdulsalam al-Hela’s children call for his release from Guantánamo in Yemen in 2005, and, on the right, Sharqawi al-Hajj’s attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei, calls for his release outside the White House on January 11, 2018.

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In extraordinary news from Guantánamo, two more “forever prisoners” — the Yemeni tribal leader Abdulsalam al-Hela, 53, and Sharqawi al-Hajj, 47, another Yemeni, and a long-term hunger striker — have been approved for release by Periodic Review Boards, the parole-type system established under President Obama, to add to the three approved for release in May.

Eleven of the 40 men still held have now been approved for release — the five under Biden, one under Trump, the only two of the 38 men approved for release by the PRBs under Obama who didn’t manage to escape the prison before he left office, and three other men, still languishing in Guantánamo despite being approved for release by Obama’s first review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, in 2010.

No one who cares about the need for Guantánamo to be closed should be in any doubt about the significance of these decisions.

Both men arrived at Guantánamo from CIA “black sites” in September 2004, and were both regarded as being of significance when the Guantánamo Review Task Force published its report about what President Obama should do with the 240 prisoners he inherited from George W. Bush in January 2010. At that time, as was finally revealed when the Task Force’s “Dispositions” were released in June 2013, Sharqawi al-Hajj was one of 36 men “[r]eferred for prosecution,” while al-Hela was one of 48 others recommended for “[c]ontinued detention pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001), as informed by principles of the laws of war, subject to further review by the Principals prior to the detainee’s transfer to a detention facility in the United States.”

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Retired Admirals Urge Biden to Release Everyone at Guantánamo Not Charged With a Crime — 28 of the 40 Men Still Held

Retired Rear Admirals Donald J. Guter and John Hutson, who recently wrote an op-ed for the Nation calling on President Biden to release all the men at Guantánamo who have not been charged with a crime — 28 men out of the 40 still held.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

Since Joe Biden became president five months ago, there have been numerous high-profile calls for him to fulfill a promise that President Obama failed to fulfill (when Biden was vice president) and that Donald Trump had no interest in whatsoever; namely, closing the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay.

A week after President Biden’s inauguration, 111 organizations, including Close Guantánamo, sent a letter to the new president urging him to close the prison, around the same time that seven former prisoners — all authors —  wrote an open letter to Biden, urging the prison’s closure, which was published in the New York Review of Books. Other calls for the prison have come from Bill Clinton advisor Anthony Lake and our co-founder, the attorney Tom Wilner, from Lee Wolosky, former Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure under Barack Obama, and from former CIA analyst Gail Helt.

The most seismic shift, politically, came in April when 24 Senators wrote a letter to the president, not only urging him to close the prison, but also providing details of how that can be achieved — through the appointment of a senior White House official to oversee the closure process, and also though the re-establishment of the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure at the State Department, established by Obama but shut down under Trump, which was responsible for “identifying transfer countries and negotiating transfer agreements.”

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Biden’s Slow Progress on Closing Guantánamo

A composite image of President Biden and a tattered US flag at Guantánamo.

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An article last week by NBC News — “Biden quietly moves to start closing Guantánamo ahead of 20th anniversary of 9/11” — was widely shared by opponents of the continued existence of the shameful prison at Guantánamo Bay, but frustratingly failed to live up to the promise of its headline.

40 men are still held at Guantánamo, and nine of these men have been approved for release by high-level US government review processes — three in 2010, two in 2016, one in 2020, and three just last month, in decisions taken by the Periodic Review Boards set up under President Obama that show a willingness on the part of the Biden administration to recognize that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that continues to hold, indefinitely, men who have been held for up to 19 years, and have never been charged with a crime.

The PRBs reviewed the cases of 64 men under Obama, and approved 38 of them for release, but since then the process of reviewing the other 26 men has largely ossified into rigid threat assessments based on the initial decisions taken under Obama. That has finally changed with the recent decisions to approve three men for release, and it is to be hoped that further recommendations for release will be forthcoming in the PRBs, although none of this will mean anything if these men are not actually freed.

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The 15th Anniversary of the Contentious “Triple Suicide” of Three Prisoners at Guantánamo

Yasser al-Zahrani and Ali al-Salami (aka Ali Abdullah Ahmed), two of the three prisoners who died at Guantánamo on the night of June 9, 2006, in what was described by the authorities as a “triple suicide,” an explanation that has been robustly challenged on numerous occasions in the years since. No known photo exists of the third man, Mani al-Utaybi.

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There are some days that are so significant that everyone remembers what they were doing. September 11, 2001 is one such day, when planes flew into the Twin Towers in New York, and for those paying attention to the US response to the 9/11 attacks, January 11, 2002 is also significant, when the first prisoners — “detainees,” in the Bush administration’s words — arrived at Guantánamo.

Almost immediately, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized the release of photos taken by a serving US soldier — photos that showed US soldiers shouting at men who were kneeling on gravel under the burning sun at a US naval base in Cuba, half a world away from the battlefields of Afghanistan, men who were wearing orange jumpsuits, and who had their eyes, ears and mouths covered, creating the vivid impression that they were being subjected to sensory deprivation.

For US viewers, the photos were not necessarily noteworthy. Prisoners on the US mainland often wear orange, and the clearly abusive conditions captured in the photos were part of a depressingly successful narrative that the Bush administration was selling to the American people — that these men were, as Rumsfeld described it, “the worst of the worst,” terrorists so hardened and so bloodthirsty that, as General Richard E. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described it, they “would chew through a hydraulics cable to bring a C-17 [transport plane] down.”

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Quarterly Fundraiser: Seeking $2500 (£1800) to Support My Guantánamo Work Over the Next Three Months

Andy Worthington calling for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay outside the White House during the annual vigil for the prison’s closure on January 11, 2020.

Please click on the ‘Donate’ button below to make a donation towards the $2,500 (£1,800) I’m trying to raise to support my work on Guantánamo over the next three months, and/or for my London photo-journalism project ‘The State of London’




 

Dear friends and supporters,

Every three months I ask you, if you can, to make a donation to support my reader-funded work on Guantánamo — telling the stories of the men still held, working to get the prison closed, and remembering key events in its long and shameful history.

I began working full-time on Guantánamo over 15 years ago, initially by spending 14 months researching and writing about the prison’s history, and the men held there, for my book The Guantánamo Files, and, ever since, as a freelance journalist and activist. Since May 2007, I’ve written and published nearly 2,400 articles about Guantánamo, and after initially getting into debt writing the book, and then spending some time chasing around for freelance work, I began asking you, my readers, to support my endeavors on a quarterly basis 12 years ago, in June 2009. As I have no institutional backing, I’m dependant on your generosity to enable me to keep writing about Guantánamo, and to call for the prison’s closure, until it is finally consigned to the history books, where it belongs.

Throughout this period, the prison’s newsworthiness has ebbed and flowed. Sometimes I have received only a fraction of the $2,500 I ask for every three months, while at other times your kindness has exceeded my expectations. All along, however, there have been many dozens of people who have regularly donated to fund my work, and I am immensely grateful to all of you, as well as to the many others who have made one-off donations, however large or small.

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Fighting Guantánamo in the Courts Under President Biden

Three of the Guantánamo prisoners who are currently seeking their release from the prison through the US courts. From L to R: Khalid Qassim and Abdulsalam al-Hela, both Yemenis, and Asadullah Haroon Gul, an Afghan.

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I wrote the following article (as “The Ongoing Legal Struggles to Secure Justice for the Guantánamo Prisoners Under President Biden”) for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

In the nineteen unforgivably long years since the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay was first established, lawyers have worked tirelessly to challenge and overturn the Bush administration’s outrageous contention that everyone who ended up at Guantánamo was an “enemy combatant” with no rights whatsoever, who could be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

There have been victories along the way, but the sad truth is that Guantánamo’s fundamental lawlessness remains intact to this day. Since 2010, only one prisoner has been freed because of the actions of lawyers and the US courts (a Sudanese man whose mental health issues persuaded the Justice Department, in this one instance only, not to challenge his habeas corpus petition), and, as the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency showed, if the president doesn’t want anyone released from Guantánamo, no legal avenue exists to compel him to do otherwise.

The lawyers’ great legal victories for the Guantánamo prisoners came in the Supreme Court in what now seems to be the distant, long-lost past. In June 2004, in Rasul v. Bush, the Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right to have the evidence against them objectively assessed by a judge. That ruling allowed lawyers into the prison to begin to represent the men held, breaking the veil of secrecy that had allowed abusive conditions to thrive, but Congress then intervened to block the habeas legislation, and it was not until June 2008 that the Supreme Court, revisiting Guantánamo, ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that Congress had acted unconstitutionally, and affirmed that the prisoners had constitutionally guaranteed habeas rights.

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How China Uses Guantánamo’s Former Uyghur Prisoners to Justify the Mass Imprisonment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province

Uyghur prisoners in Guantánamo calling for their release in 2009 (above), and Uyghur prisoners in a “re-education” camp in Xinjiang province in 2018 (below).

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CNN is to be congratulated for recently publishing a detailed article about one of lingering injustices of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, involving the Uyghurs, a predominantly Turkic-speaking ethnic group from Xinjiang province, in the north west of China, whose cases I have reported on ever since I first began researching and writing about Guantánamo in 2006.

22 Uyghurs, captured crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001, ended up at Guantánamo, where the Bush administration, seeking cooperation from the Chinese authorities in the global “war on terror” that the US declared after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, obligingly designated the Uyghur prisoners as members of a largely non-existent terrorist organization, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

This decision not only continues to blight the lives of the former Guantánamo prisoners, who were all resettled in third countries between 2006 and 2013, having been cleared of all wrongdoing by the US, but has also been used by the Chinese government to justify its ruthless imprisonment, since 2017, of at least a million Uyghurs in “re-education” camps, where credible allegations have been repeatedly made about how, as well as attempting to eradicate Uyghur culture, religion and identity through “re-education,” the camps also involve the forced sterilisation of Uyghur women, and the forced separation of children from their parents. There have also been numerous credible reports about Uyghur women being subjected to rape and torture.

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Great News from Guantánamo As Three “Forever Prisoners,” Including 73-Year Old Saifullah Paracha, Are Approved for Release

Guantánamo prisoners Saifullah Paracha, Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani and Uthman Abd al-Rahim Uthman, whose long overdue release from the prison was approved by Periodic Review Boards on Monday, although it is not yet known when they will actually be released.

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In extremely encouraging news from Guantánamo, three men have been approved for release from the prison by Periodic Review Boards, the high-level government review process established under President Obama.

The three men are: 73-year old Pakistani citizen Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner; Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani, another Pakistani citizen who is 54 years old; and Uthman Abd al-Rahim Uthman, a 41-year old Yemeni. All have been held without charge or trial at Guantánamo for between 17 and 19 years.

Between November 2013 and January 2017, when President Obama left office, the Periodic Review Boards — consisting of representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — reviewed the cases of 64 prisoners, to ascertain whether or not they should still be regarded as a threat to the US, and, in 38 cases, recommended the prisoners for release. All but two of these men were released before the end of Obama’s presidency.

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Lee Wolosky, Former Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, Calls on President Biden to Close the Prison

A composite image of former Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure Lee Woloskwy, and Camp 6 at Guantánamo, photographed in 2010.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

It’s now two weeks since the end of the first 100 days of the Biden presidency, when there was a short flurry of mainstream media interest in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, which has been largely ignored by the Biden administration since taking office, except for brief mentions of embarking on a “robust” review of the prison’s operations, and an “intention” to secure its closure.

To mark Biden’s first 100 days, I cross-posted an op-ed written for The Hill by Anthony Lake, national security adviser to President Clinton from 1993 to 1997, and Tom Wilner, who represented the Guantánamo prisoners in their Supreme Court cases in 2004 and 2008, and with whom I co-founded the Close Guantánamo campaign in 2012.

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Abu Zubaydah Files Complaint About Torture and Ongoing Imprisonment at Guantánamo with UN Arbitrary Detention Experts

Abu Zubaydah: illustration by Brigid Barrett from an article in Wired in July 2013. The photo used is from the classified military files from Guantánamo that were released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

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On Friday, Abu Zubaydah (Zayn al-Abidin Muhammad Husayn), a notorious victim of torture in the CIA’s “black site” program, who has been held without charge or trial at Guantánamo since September 2006, submitted a complaint to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, regarding the lawless nature of his imprisonment and treatment since he was first seized in a house raid in Pakistan in March 2002.

The case has been submitted by Helen Duffy, Abu Zubaydah’s international legal representative since 2010, who represented him in his successful cases before the European Court of Human Rights regarding his “black site” detention in Poland and Lithuania, and the complaint accuses seven countries of having responsibility for his long imprisonment and mistreatment — not only (and primarily) the US, but also Thailand, Poland, Morocco, Lithuania and Afghanistan, the five countries in which he was held in “black sites” over a period of four and a half years, and the UK, which is accused of having “participated in other ways in the ‘global spider’s web’ of complicity in rendition,” primarily via “estimates that UK personnel were involved in approximately 2,000-3,000 interviews of CIA detainees in the aftermath of 9/11”, as indicated by the findings of the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in 2019.

In a press release, Duffy explains that this is “the first international case brought by Zubaydah against the United States,” and is also “the first time that international legal action is taken against the UK, Afghanistan, Morocco and Thailand for their complicity in the US rendition and secret detention program.” In addition it is “the first time that a case has been brought against all states participating in an individual’s rendition and torture and ongoing unlawful detention at Guantánamo.”

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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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