How Guantánamo’s Periodic Review Boards Exposed Woefully Distorted Intelligence Assessments

12 of the Guantanamo prisoners put forward for Periodic Review Boards. Top row from left: Mohammed Ghanem (Yemen, approved for release), Haji Hamidullah (Afghanistan, freed), Abdul Rahman Shalabi (Saudi Arabia, freed), Ayyub Ali Salih (Yemen, freed). Middle Row​: Yassin Qasim (Yemen, approved for ongoing imprisonment), Abdu Ali al-Hajj Sharqawi (Yemen, approved for ongoing imprisonment), Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Mauritania, freed), Mansoor al-Zahari aka al-Dayfi (Yemen, freed). Bottom, from left, Ravil Mingazov (Russia, approved for release), Abu Zubaydah (Palestine, not decided yet), Salman Rabei’i (Yemen, approved for ongoing imprisonment), Abdul Latif Nasir (Morocco, approved for release).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.

Over the last three years, I’ve been monitoring the Periodic Review Boards, the most recent review process at the prison, set up to give some semblance of justice to the cases of men held year after year without charge or trial, and subjected to varying forms of abuse and, in some cases, torture. See our definitive Periodic Review Board list here.

The first two review processes — the Combatant Status Review Tribunals and the Administrative Review Boards — took place under President Bush. Consisting of panels of three military officers, they were essentially designed to rubber-stamp the men’s designation, on capture, as “enemy combatants” who could be held indefinitely without charge or trial. The prisoners were allowed to be present for the unclassified section of the hearings, but were not allowed to hear classified material, and often had no idea where the allegations against them had arisen.

The third review process, which did not involve any interaction with the prisoners themselves, took place in 2009, under President Obama. The Guantánamo Review Task Force was a high-level, inter-agency process in which the cases of the 240 men who were held when President Obama took office were examined, and decisions taken about whether to release them, to put them on trial, or to continue holding them without charge or trial. In its final report, in January 2010, the task force approved 156 men for release and 36 for prosecution, and designated 48 others for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the basis that they were allegedly “too dangerous to release,” even while acknowledging that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »

Yemeni Freed from Guantánamo in Montenegro; 29 Cleared Prisoners Remain

Abd al-Malik Wahab al-Rahabi (aka Abdul Malik al-Rahabi), in a photo taken by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross at Guantanamo, and made available to his family, who made it publicly available via his lawyers.Last Wednesday, Abd al-Malik Wahab al-Rahabi (aka Abdel Malik Wahab al-Rahabi), a Yemeni prisoner held at Guantánamo since the day the prison opened on January 11, 2002, became the 690th prisoner to be released, when he was given a new home in Montenegro. He was the second prisoner to be resettled in the Balkan nation, following another Yemeni in January.

Al-Rahabi is also the 10th prisoner to be freed after being approved for release by a Periodic Review Board, a review process set up in 2013 to review the cases of men described as “too dangerous to release” or recommended for prosecution by the previous review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009. 36 decisions have been taken to date, and two-thirds of those — 24 — have ended up with recommendations for release, a rather damning indictment of the task force’s extreme caution and/or mistaken analyses of the prisoners’ significance.

The task force described 48 men as “too dangerous to release,” despite conceding that there was insufficient evidence to put them on trial (which, in other words, was not evidence at all, but a collection of dubious statements made by the prisoners themselves), and the men recommended for prosecution has their proposed charges dropped after appeals court judges, embarrassingly, threw out some of the few convictions secured in Guantánamo’s permanently troubled military commission trial system, because the war crimes for which they had been convicted had been invented by Congress. Read the rest of this entry »

Saifullah Paracha, Pakistani Businessman and “Very Compliant” Prisoner, Faces Guantánamo Review Board

A photo of Guantanamo prisoner Saifullah Paracha, taken by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and made available to his family.I wrote the following article — as “Guantánamo Review Board for Saifullah Paracha, Pakistani Businessman and ‘Very Compliant’ Prisoner, Kidnapped in Thailand in 2003” — 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.

Last week Saifullah Paracha, a Pakistani businessman, and, at 68 years of age, Guantánamo’s oldest current prisoner, became the 28th Guantánamo prisoner to have his potential release considered by a Periodic Review Board (see our full list here). This review process was set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners not facing trials (just ten men) or already approved for release by President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2010, when almost two-thirds of the remaining prisoners — 156 out of 240 — were recommended for release, or, to use the task force’s careful wording, were “approved for transfer subject to appropriate security measures.”

Of the 28, five decisions have yet to be made, but of the 23 others the success rate for these men securing approval for their release is extremely high — 83% — with 19 men having their release recommended. What makes these decisions particularly important is that they puncture the rhetoric that has surrounded these men — both under George W. Bush, with the glib dismissal of everyone at Guantánamo as “the worst of the worst,” and under Barack Obama, with his task force’s conclusion (more worrying because of its veneer of authority) that 48 of those eligible for PRBs were “too dangerous to release,” even though it was also acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial; in other words, that it was not reliable evidence at all.

In attempting to justify its decisions, the task force noted that its members had relied on “the totality of available information — including credible information that might not be admissible in a criminal prosecution — [which] indicated that the detainee poses a high level of threat that cannot be mitigated sufficiently except through continued detention.” Read the rest of this entry »

Eroding Hyperbole: The Steady Reclassification of Guantánamo’s “Forever Prisoners”

Mansoor-al-Zahari at Guantanamo, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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.

Despite the relentless fearmongering of Republican supporters of Guantánamo, claims that the prison holds a significant number of people who pose a threat to the US continue to be eroded; primarily, in recent years, through the deliberations of Periodic Review Boards — panels 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, who hear from the prisoners, their lawyers and their military representatives via video-link from Guantánamo, where the men are able to make a case for why they should be approved for release.

The men in question have, with some accuracy, been dubbed “forever prisoners” by the media. Originally numbering 71 men, they comprised two groups: 46 men assessed to be “too dangerous to release” by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009 to recommend whether the men he inherited from George W. Bush should be released or prosecuted. This third alarming option — “too dangerous to release” — was, as far as we know, dreamt up by the task force itself, for prisoners regarded as a threat but against whom insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.

Reading between the lines, this meant tainted evidence — in other words, men regarded as unprovably dangerous because the evidence against them was derived through the use of torture or other forms of abuse, making it fundamentally untrustworthy — or, in some (perhaps many) cases, a perceived attitude problem: prisoners who, though perhaps understandably aggrieved at being held without charge or trial for over a decade in abusive conditions, had threatened retaliation, however hollow those threats may have been, that were taken seriously by the authorities. Read the rest of this entry »

Mauritanian, Cleared for Release Since 2009, Finally Repatriated from Guantánamo

Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, in a screenshot from a video taken in Mauritania after his release from Guantanamo after over 13 years of imprisonment without charge or trial.The news about the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, has been so all-consuming that I’ve had no time to report about another prisoner release last week — of Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, a Mauritanian who, like 41 other men still held, was approved for release six years ago by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009.

112 men are still held at Guantánamo, and 12 other men have been approved for release since January 2014 by Periodic Review Boards, making 53 men altogether who have been approved for release but are still held.

Ahmed, 45, is a cultured man, seized by mistake in a house raid in Pakistan over 13 years ago, who wanted only to be reunited with his family. As three of his lawyers, John Holland, Anna Holland Edwards and Erica Grossman, stated in an article for Close Guantánamo, the website I co-founded with the US lawyer Tom Wilner, in June 2013: Read the rest of this entry »

Obama’s Mixed Messages on Guantánamo, as Justice Department Tells Judge Not to Intervene in Case of 75-Pound Hunger Striker at Risk of Death

Members of the campaigning group Witness Against Torture hold up a banner featuring an image of Tariq Ba Odah outside the White House in June 2015 (Photo: Matt Daloisio via Flickr).I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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.

One day, when we’re looking back on Guantánamo and apportioning blame to those who contributed most powerfully to its cruelty, and to keeping it open long after the most senior officials in two governments conceded that it should be closed, a spotlight will be shone on the lawyers in the Civil Division of the Justice Department who have worked so assiduously to prevent prisoners from being released.

I have criticized these lawyers occasionally, but I have rarely heard any criticism of them in the mainstream media, and yet, from the moment that the Supreme Court granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, they have been making life difficult for lawyers representing the prisoners, micro-managing their meetings with their clients and their travel arrangements, and often, it is impossible not to conclude, in an effort to obstruct the lawyers’ ability to represent their clients.

In addition, as I noted in an article in August, the Civil Division lawyers “have fought tooth and nail against every single habeas petition submitted by the prisoners, with just one exception — the severely ill Sudanese prisoners Ibrahim Idris, whose petition was granted unopposed in 2013.” I added, “Disgracefully, the Justice Department lawyers have repeatedly challenged habeas petitions submitted by prisoners whose release has already been approved by the Guantánamo Review Task Force,” the high-level, inter-agency task force set up by President Obama shortly after taking office in January 2009, which issued its final report a year later, recommending 156 men for release, 36 for trials and 48 others for ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial, on the alarming basis that they were “too dangerous to release,” but that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial. Read the rest of this entry »

Despite His Conviction Being Quashed Three Times, Guantánamo Prisoner Ali Hamza Al-Bahlul Remains in Solitary Confinement

Guantanamo prisoner Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, in a photo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011.For some prisoners held in the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, it seems there really is no way out. One example would seem to be Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a 45-year old Yemeni prisoner and a propagandist for al-Qaeda, who made a promotional video glorifying the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, in which 17 US soldiers died, and who received a life sentence for providing material support for terrorism, conspiring with al-Qaeda and soliciting murder after a one-sided military commission trial in the dying days of the Bush administration.

Al-Bahlul has been held in solitary confinement ever since — on what is known as “Convicts’ Corridor,” according to Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, even though, since January 2013, he has had every part of his conviction overturned in the US courts — most recently in a ruling by the appeals court in Washington D.C. (the D.C. Circuit Court) on June 12.

In January 2013, a three-judge panel in the D.C. Circuit Court overturned the material support and solicitation convictions, on the basis that the charges of which he was convicted were not recognized as war crimes at the time he was accused of committing them; or, to put it another way, that they had been invented as war crimes by Congress. That ruling drew on a ground-breaking ruling by the D.C. Circuit Court three months earlier, overturning the material support conviction against another man, Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden who was freed in December 2008. The decision in al-Bahlul’s case was confirmed by a full panel of judges in July 2014, and the judges last month overturned the conspiracy conviction — on the basis that conspiracy is not a crime under the international law of war. Read the rest of this entry »

“Petty and Nasty”: Guantánamo Commander Bans Lawyers From Bringing Food to Share with Prisoners

The meeting room in Camp Echo, mentioned in Guantanamo commander Rear Adm. Cozad's May 2015 memo prohibiting lawyers from bringing food into meetings with the clients, as seen from one of the cells. Camp Echo is where prisoners used to be held in isolation.I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 with 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 latest news from Guantánamo, the prison’s military commander, Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, has issued a memorandum banning lawyers for the prisoners from bringing food to meetings with their clients. The memorandum, entitled, “Modification to Rules Regarding Detainee Legal and Periodic Review Board Meetings,” states, “Food of any kind, other than that provided by guard force personnel for Detainee consumption, is prohibited within meeting spaces.”

That innocuous sounding ban is, nevertheless, a huge blow to many lawyers and prisoners. Since lawyers were first allowed to visit prisoners ten years ago, and to represent them, after the Supreme Court granted them habeas corpus rights in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, it has been an opportunity for bonding between lawyers and prisoners, and an opportunity for the prisoners to receive something from the outside world, in a place where, initially, they were completely cut off from the outside world, and where, even now, over six years after Barack Obama became president, they are still more isolated than any other prisoners held by the US — unable, for example, to meet with any family members, even if their relatives could afford to fly there, and, in almost all cases, held without charge or trial in defiance of international norms.

As veteran Guantánamo reporter Carol Rosenberg explained in an article for the Miami Herald, “the custom of eating with a captive across a meeting table at Camp Echo — with the prisoner shackled by an ankle to the floor — took on cultural and symbolic significance almost from the start when lawyers brought burgers and breakfast sandwiches from the base McDonald’s to prison meetings in 2005.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Last Three Uighurs Are Freed from Guantánamo; 76 Cleared Prisoners Remain

As was reported on New Year’s Eve by Carol Rosenberg in the Miami Herald, one of Guantánamo’s burning injustices has finally been addressed with the release — to Slovakia — of the last three Uighur prisoners, five years and two months after a US judge ordered their release.

The Uighurs are Muslims from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province, in the north west of the country, and, prior to the 9/11 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, 22 of them, who subsequently ended up at Guantánamo, had been living in a small, rundown settlement in the Tora Bora mountains in eastern Afghanistan — either because they had been unable to reach countries they hoped to reach in search of a new life (primarily Turkey, as the Uighurs are a Turkic ethnic group) or because they nursed far-fetched hopes of training militarily to rise up against their oppressors.

After the US-led invasion, their settlement was bombed by US planes, and the survivors fled, eventually making it across the border to Pakistan, where they were greeted warmly by villagers who then promptly handed therm over — or sold them — to US forces.

Although it should have been clear that the men were seized by mistake, as they had only one enemy, the Chinese Communist government (a point they made repeatedly), they were initially used as pawns in diplomatic games with the Chinese government, whereby they were designated as terrorists in return for a promise by China not to oppose the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Read the rest of this entry »

Guantánamo Suicide Was Severely Mentally Ill, And Was A Case of Mistaken Identity

There is cruelty. There is stupidity. And far too often, when it comes to the activities of the US government in the “War on Terror,” there is both.

In my previous article, The Only Way Out of Guantánamo Is In a Coffin, I wrote about the death at Guantánamo — reportedly as a result of committing suicide — of an Afghan prisoner identified by the US military as Inayatullah, who was the penultimate prisoner to be brought to the prison in Cuba, arriving in September 2007.

Noting that the US military had recycled information from a press release issued when he arrived at Guantánamo, describing him as “an admitted planner for Al-Qaeda terrorist operations,” but dropping a claim that he had “admitted that he was the Al-Qaeda Emir of Zahedan, Iran,” I suggested that he had never, in fact, been appraised adequately since his arrival, as no tribunal had been held to assess him as an “enemy combatant,” and noted, moreover, that his file was one of 14 missing from the classified military assessments of 765 prisoners, which were recently released by WikiLeaks.

In addition, I lamented that it was “unlikely that the evident truth about Obama’s Guantánamo — that the only way out is by dying — will shift public option either at home or abroad,” and also noted that, “whatever Inayatullah’s alleged crimes, it was inappropriate that, because of President Obama’s embrace of his predecessor’s detention policies, he died neither as a convicted criminal serving a prison sentence for activities related to terrorism, nor as a prisoner of war protected by the Geneva Conventions.” Read the rest of this entry »

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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, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer (The State of London).
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