“Forever Prisoner” at Guantánamo: The Shameful Ongoing Imprisonment of Khaled Qassim

Guantánamo prisoner Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), in a photo included in the classified military files released bay WikiLeaks in 2011. Please be aware that this photo doesn’t reflect what Khaled looks like now, as it was taken 14 or 15 years ago, when he was around 30 years old. According to his birthdate in the Pentagon’s records, he has just marked his 45th birthday, and in May will have been held at Guantánamo for 20 years without charge or trial.

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On the 20th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay — a disgraceful anniversary that should never have come to pass — President Biden sought to divert attention from his general inaction on Guantánamo in his first year in office by announcing that five men had been approved for release from the prison by Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type process established under President Obama. 

What was less widely reported was that another prisoner, Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), held for nearly 20 years, had his ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial approved by a Periodic Review Board, not because of any crime he has committed — the board members recognised his “low level of training and lack of leadership in al Qaida or the Taliban” — but because of his “inability to manage his emotions and actions”, his “high level of significant non-compliance in the last year”, and his “lack of plans for the future if released.”

The decision reveals a fundamental weakness in the PRB system, a purely administrative process, which is not legally binding, and has, essentially, replaced reviews of prisoners’ cases in the courts via habeas corpus petitions — a process that led to dozens of prisoners having their release ordered by the courts between 2008 and 2010, when cynical, politically motivated appeals court judges passed rulings that shut the process down.

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Five More Prisoners Approved for Release from Guantánamo: 18 of the 39 Remaining Men Are Now Waiting to Be Freed

The five “forever prisoners” approved for release from Guantánamo by Periodic Review Boards in November and December 2021. From L to R: Suhayl al-Sharabi, Guled Hassan Duran, Moath al-Alwi, Omar al-Rammah and Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu.

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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.

In the run-up to the shameful 20th anniversary of the opening of the prison at Guantánamo Bay on January 11, I had the sneaking suspicion that President Biden would seek to divert attention from his general inaction on Guantánamo in his first year in office by announcing that more of the facility’s “forever prisoners” had been approved for release.

In his first year in office, President Biden released just one prisoner, even though he inherited six men approved for release from the previous administrations, but crucially, via the Periodic Review Boards, the review process established by President Obama, he has also now approved an additional 13 men for release — one-third of the remaining 39 prisoners — bringing to 18 the total number of men still held who the US government has conceded that it no longer wants to hold.

This is definitely progress — although it means nothing until the men in question are actually released — but it does show a willingness to move towards the prison’s closure, and also indicates that the administration has taken on board the criticism of numerous former officials, and, in particular, 24 Senators and 75 members of the House of Representatives, who wrote to President Biden last year to point out how unacceptable it is that the government continues to hold men indefinitely without charge or trial.

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As Guantánamo Turns 20, It Is Imperative That President Biden Finds the Political Will to Close It

Advocates for the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, including Roger Waters, call on President Biden to close it on the 20th anniversary of its opening, Jan. 11, 2022. Check out all the photos here.

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It is, to be blunt, beyond dispiriting to have to be calling for the closure of the tired and discredited “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay 20 years — 7,306 days — since it first opened.

The prison, as I have long explained, is a legal, moral and ethical abomination, and every day that it remains open ought to be a source of shame to anyone with any respect for the law — or, for that matter, with any common decency.

In countries that respect the rule of law, the only way to be stripped of your liberty is as a criminal suspect or as a prisoner of war protected by the Geneva Conventions. At Guantánamo, the Bush administration threw away the rulebook, holding men without any rights whatsoever as “enemy combatants”, who could be held indefinitely, with no requirement that they ever face charges, and with no legal mechanism in place to ever ensure their release. And despite legal challenges over the last 20 years, that is still fundamentally the situation that prevails today.

Statistics alone can’t capture the misery and lawless brutality of Guantánamo on this grim anniversary. 779 men have been held at Guantánamo by the US military since the prison opened on January 11, 2002. Nine men have died at the prison, all held without charge or trial, and all slandered by military after their deaths, just one man was successfully transferred to the US court system, where he was tried and convicted and is serving a life sentence in a Supermax prison, and 730 men have been released.

Even when they are released from Guantánamo, however, these former prisoners are not free. Many have been accused of being “recidivists” — of returning to the battlefield — in US government reports that are fundamentally unbelievable, and those freed also remain haunted by the “taint” of Guantánamo — still existing fundamentally without rights, prevented from traveling, harassed indiscriminately and sometimes even imprisoned, and generally finding it impossible to find work to support themselves. Of particular concern are many of those who, for a variety of reasons, could not be safely repatriated, and who have ended up in third countries, based on confidential agreements between the US and their host countries that are not publicly disclosed, and that have often failed to provide them with any basic protections or support.

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Yemeni Torture Victim and Insignificant Afghan Approved for Release from Guantánamo by Periodic Review Boards

Guantánamo prisoners Sanad al-Kazimi and Asadullah Haroon Gul, who have been approved for release by Periodic Review Boards.

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Fresh from the news that Pakistani torture victim Ahmed Rabbani has been approved for release from Guantánamo by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established by President Obama, comes the further revelation that two more “forever prisoners” have also been approved for release — Sanad al-Kazimi, a Yemeni, and Asadullah Haroon Gul, one of the last two Afghans in the prison.

The approval for the release of both men is long overdue, but it is reassuring that, after nearly 20 years, it has finally become unfashionable for the US government to suggest that men who have never been charged or tried can be held indefinitely in the notorious offshore prison at the US’s naval base in Cuba. This year, letters to President Biden from 24 Senators and 75 members of the House of Representatives have spelled out, in no uncertain terms, how men who have not been charged with crimes must be released.

In the case of Asadullah Haroon Gul, held at Guantánamo since 2007, the US’s reasons for holding him evaporated many years ago. Despite his youth (he was only around 19 years old when the US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in October 2001), he had allegedly held some kind of leadership position in Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), the militia led by the former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A recipient of significant US funding during the time of the Soviet occupation, Hekmatyar had turned against the US following the invasion in October 2001, but in recent years had joined the Afghan government via a peace deal in 2016 that had led to HIG members being released from prison (and one, sent to the UAE from Guantánamo, being repatriated).

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Torture Victim Ahmed Rabbani, A Case of Mistaken Identity, Approved for Release from Guantánamo

Guantánamo prisoner and torture victim Ahmed Rabbani, who has just been approved for release from the prison via a Periodic Review Board.

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Via Middle East Eye, and reporter Peter Oborne (formerly the chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph, until his resignation in 2015), comes the welcome news that Guantánamo prisoner and torture victim Ahmed Rabbani has been approved for release from the prison via a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established in 2013 by President Obama.

Oborne was told about Rabbani’s approval for release by his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of Reprieve. “Even if it is nearly two decades late, it is fabulous that Ahmed has been cleared for release,” Stafford Smith said.

A Pakistani national of Rohingya origin, Rabbani , who is now 52 years old, was seized with his brother Abdul Rahim in Karachi in September 2002, and, after two months in Pakistani custody, spent 18 months in CIA “black sites” in Afghanistan, including the notorious prison identified by the CIA as ‘COBALT,’ but also known as the Salt Pit, or, as the prisoners described it, “the dark prison.” There he was hung naked from an iron shackle, with his feet barely touching the ground, and, like the other men held there, subjected to loud music designed to prevent them from sleeping.

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Video: I Discuss the Possible Closure of the Prison at Guantánamo Bay on RT America

A screenshot of Andy Worthington being interviewed on RT America on July 20, 2021.

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On Tuesday evening, I was pleased to be asked by RT America for an interview regarding the prospects of the closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay after the release of Abdul Latif Nasser, the first release from the prison under Joe Biden, since he was inaugurated as president six months ago, and the first release for over three years.

Speaking to Scottie Nell Hughes, I explained how the closure of Guantánamo ought to now be within sight, with just 39 men still held, and only twelve of those men facing trials, or having gone through the trial process. Of the 27 others, ten — like Nasser — have also been approved for release, while the 17 others have never been charged, and have been aptly described as America’s “forever prisoners,” a label that no country that claims to respect the rule of law should want clinging to them.

Fortunately, as I also explained, 19 and a half years since Guantánamo opened, there is now a widespread acceptance within the US mainstream political culture that it is unacceptable to continue endlessly holding men who have never been charged with a crime, and, by the government’s own admissions over the years, never will be.

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Biden Frees First Prisoner from Guantánamo: Abdul Latif Nasser, Approved for Release Five Years Ago

Abdul Latif Nasser, in a photo taken at Guantánamo in recent years.

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In great news from Guantánamo, the Department of Defense announced today that Abdul Latif Nasser (aka Nasir), the last Moroccan national in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, has been repatriated. I’ve been writing about Nasser’s case since I first began researching and writing about Guantánamo over 15 years ago, and in recent years his story has frequently featured in the media, not least via a six-part Radiolab series last year.

Nasser, 56, was approved for release five years and eight days ago, after a Periodic Review Board, a review process set up under President Obama, established that, to use the PRB’s own studiously careful terminology, “law of war detention of Abdul Latif Nasir no longer remained necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the national security of the United States.” As a result, as the DoD’s news release explained, the board — which “consists of one senior career official from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State, along with the Joint Staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence” — authorized his “repatriation to his native country of Morocco, subject to security and humane treatment assurances.”

Nasser’s release from Guantánamo should have been straightforward, but the paperwork between the US and the Moroccan government wasn’t completed until 22 days before Obama left office, and, because legislation passed by Congress stipulated that lawmakers had to be informed 30 days before a prisoner release, he missed being freed by just eight days.

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UN Experts Condemn UAE Plans to Forcibly Repatriate Former Guantánamo Prisoner Ravil Mingazov to Russia, Where He Faces “Substantial Risk of Torture”

Ravil Mingazov, photographed at Guantánamo before his transfer to the UAE in January 2017.

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Yesterday (July 2), UN human rights experts, including Nils Melzer, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, condemned the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for its proposals to repatriate Ravil Mingazov, a former Guantánamo prisoner who was sent to the UAE from Guantánamo in January 2017, just before President Obama left office.

Despite what the experts describe as “informal assurances guaranteeing his release into Emirati society after undergoing a short-term rehabilitation programme,” Mingazov — and 22 other former prisoners (18 Yemenis and four Afghans), who were sent to the UAE from Guantánamo between November 2015 and January 2017 — found that, on their arrival in the UAE, the assurances evaporated, and they have instead been “subjected to continuous arbitrary detention at an undisclosed location in the UAE, which amounts to enforced disappearance.”

The only exceptions to this continued pattern of “arbitrary detention” and “enforced disappearance” are three of the Afghans, who, after suffering the same disgraceful treatment, were repatriated as a result of peace negotiations in Afghanistan involving the Afghan government and Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), a militant group that had supported al-Qaeda at the time of the US-led invasion of 2001, but that reached a peace deal with the Afghan government in 2016.

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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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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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