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

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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.

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Held for 600 Days Since Being Approved for Release from Guantánamo: Khaled Qassim, a Talented Artist

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Sunday (March 10) marked 600 days since Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), a 47-year old Yemeni, was unanimously approved for release from Guantánamo by a Periodic Review Board, a high-level US government review process.

That decision took place on July 19, 2022, but nearly 20 months later Khaled is still awaiting his freedom, a victim, like the 15 other men unanimously approved for release by high-level US government review processes, of an inertia at the very top of the US government — in the White House, and in the offices of Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State.

For the last year and a half, an official in the State Department — former ambassador Tina Kaidanow — has been working on resettling the men approved for release, most of whom, like Khaled, are Yemenis, and cannot be sent home because of a ban on their repatriation, inserted by Republicans into the annual National Defense Authorization Act in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency, and renewed every year since.

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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.

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Held for 5,150 Days Since Being Approved for Release from Guantánamo: Toffiq Al-Bihani and Two “Ghosts,” Ridah Al-Yazidi and Muieen Abd Al-Sattar

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Three weeks ago, I began a new Guantánamo project, telling the stories of the 16 men who have been approved for release from the prison, in an effort to humanize them, to remind the world of their existence, and to highlight the disgracefully long amount of time that they have been held since being approved for release.

I’m alternating publication of the articles here and on the Close Guantánamo website, tying them in to noteworthy dates relating to how long they have been held since the US authorities first decided that they no longer wanted to hold them. The first article focused on the case of Uthman Abd Al-Rahim Muhammad Uthman, a Yemeni who, on February 7, had been held for 1,000 days since being approved for release, and the second focused on Hani Saleh Rashid Abdullah, another Yemeni, who, on February 11, had been held for 1,200 days since being approved for release. For the fourth article, about Abdulsalam Al-Hela and Sharqawi Al-Hajj, see here.

The reason these men have been held for so long without being freed is, sadly, because the decisions taken to release them — via Periodic Review Boards, a parole-type review process established by President Obama in 2013 — were purely administrative, meaning that the US government has no legal obligation to free them, and they cannot, for example, appeal to a judge to order their release if, as has become sadly apparent, the government has failed to prioritize their release.

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Guantánamo and the U.S. Courts: When Is A War Not Over? Apparently, When It’s the “War on Terror”

Guantánamo prisoner Khalid Qassim, and Senior Judge Thomas Hogan, of the District Court in Washington, D.C., who is responsible for delivering a ruling in a case brought by Qassim, whose lawyers are seeking to have Judge Hogan order his release, on the basis that he was nothing more than a foot soldier in Afghanistan at the time of his capture over 21 years ago, and that, as such, the U.S. government can no longer claim any right to hold him, after the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021.

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It’s a sign of the fundamental lawlessness of Guantánamo that, 19 months since the United States decisively brought to an end its nearly 20-year military presence in Afghanistan by withdrawing all its troops, a Guantánamo prisoner — who is not alleged to have been anything more than a foot soldier for the Taliban at the time of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan — is fighting in a U.S. court to try to get a judge to recognize that, given the definitive end to the U.S.’s involvement in hostilities in Afghanistan, he must be freed.

The prisoner in question is Khalid Qassim (aka Qasim), a Yemeni who has been held for nearly 21 years without charge or trial at Guantánamo, and is still held, even though, last July, a Periodic Review Board (a parole-type review process introduced by President Obama) approved him for release, recognizing his “low level of training and lack of a leadership role in al Qaida or the Taliban.”

This was an important decision, which finally brought to an end the U.S. government’s insistence that it could continue to hold him not because of anything he was alleged to have done prior to his capture, but because of concerns regarding his lack of compliance during his imprisonment at Guantánamo.

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UN Finally Gets to Visit Guantánamo; Also Secures End to Trump-Era Ban on Prisoners Leaving With Their Artwork

One of the ships made at Guantánamo out of recycled materials by Moath al-Alwi, a Yemeni prisoner who was approved for release in December 2021, but is still held. A third country must be found that is prepared to offer him a new home, because provisions in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, passed by Republicans under President Obama, and maintained ever year since, prohibit the repatriation of Yemenis from Guantánamo.

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Finally, over 21 years after the prison at Guantánamo Bay opened, a UN Rapporteur has visited the prison, to meet with prisoners as part of what a UN press release described as “a technical visit to the United States” by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

“Between 6 and 14 February,” as the UN explained, Ní Aoláin “will visit Washington D.C. and subsequently the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” and, over the next three months, “will also carry out a series of interviews with individuals in the United States and abroad … including victims and families of victims of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and former detainees in countries of resettlement/repatriation.”

Ever since Guantánamo opened, successive UN Rapporteurs for Torture tried to visit the prison, but were rebuffed, either by the hostility of the US government, or through a failure on the part of officials to guarantee that any meetings that took place with prisoners would not be monitored.

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Convicted Guantánamo Prisoner Ali Hamza Al-Bahlul Seeks An End to His 14 Years of Solitary Confinement

Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, in a photo taken at Guantánamo and included in his classified military file, dated November 15, 2007, which was released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

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Does anyone even remember Ali Hamza al-Bahlul?

14 years ago, on November 3, 2008, the day before Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, Ali Hamza al-Bahlul, a 39-year old Yemeni, who had been held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay since he arrived on the first flight into the prison on January 11, 2002, received a life sentence in his military commission trial, for which he had refused to mount a defense, and has been held ever since in solitary confinement.

That ought to be a shocking situation, but uncomfortable truths tend to be swallowed up in Guantánamo, and al-Bahlul’s apparently endless solitary confinement has been largely forgotten.

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“A Good Man With A Lot to Offer This World”: Khaled Qassim’s Attorney Urges Periodic Review Board to Approve His Release from Guantánamo

Khaled Qassim (aka Khalid Qasim), in a photo taken at Guantánamo around 15 years ago, and included in his classified military file released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

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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.

Two weeks ago, in an article entitled, The U.S.’s Ongoing “Forever Prisoner” Problem at Guantánamo, I discussed the last five men held at Guantánamo as “forever prisoners,” the only men out of the 37 still held who have not been either charged with a crime (eleven of the 37), or approved for release (the remaining 21).

Most of those approved for release had those recommendations made by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established under President Obama, with 16 of those decisions taking place since President Biden took office. The men in question demonstrated to the board members — comprising representatives of the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State, and the offices of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence — that they were contrite, and had plans for a peaceful life if released, with the board members also concluding that they did not pose a significant security threat.

For a variety of reasons, however, the five “forever prisoners” have been unable to persuade the boards to approve their release, generally through a failure to engage with the review process, and/or because of ongoing concerns about the threat they purportedly still pose.

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Guantánamo’s Youngest Prisoner, Hassan Bin Attash, Approved for Release; 21 of the 37 Men Still Held Are Now Awaiting Their Freedom

Hassan bin Attash, photographed sometime after his arrival at Guantánamo in 2004, after being held and tortured in Jordan for two years on behalf of the US authorities. Hassan is now 36 or 37 years old, but no up-to-date photo of him exists.

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I’m pleased to report that, after nearly 18 years of imprisonment without charge or trial at Guantánamo, preceded by two years in proxy torture prisons and CIA “black sites,” Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, Hassan bin Attash, a Yemeni brought up in Saudi Arabia, has been approved for release by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process established under President Obama, Just 16 or 17 years old when he was first seized, in a house raid in Pakistan on September 11, 2002, Hassan has, as a result, spent over half his life imprisoned without charge or trial.

Between 2014 and 2016, the PRBs reviewed the cases of 64 men at Guantánamo who were accurately described in the media as “forever prisoners.” 41 of them, including Hassan, had been designated as “too dangerous to release” by Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, which had reviewed the cases of the 240 men inherited from George W. Bush in 2009, with the task force members conceding, however, that they had insufficient evidence against them to put them on trial.

23 others had been recommended for trials by the task force — until a number of successful appeals in the military commissions (the trial system ill-advisedly invented for Guantánamo) made it clear that war crimes trials were inappropriate for low-level terrorist designations like “providing material support for terrorism,” which had been the rationale behind many of the prosecution recommendations.

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“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 by 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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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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