April 8, 2014
Six weeks ago, I reported on the Periodic Review Boards for two "forever prisoners" at Guantánamo — Ghaleb al-Bihani and Salem bin Kanad — who are both Yemenis, and were regarded by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, appointed by President Obama to review all the remaining prisoners’ cases in 2009, as too dangerous to release, even though it was acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial.
The PRBs — involving 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 meet at an office in Virginia and hear testimony by, or on behalf of the prisoners by video link from Guantánamo — took place to establish whether these two men should still be regarded as a threat, or whether they should be recommended for release.
This category of prisoner — as opposed to those approved for release, or those recommended for prosecution — is particularly problematical, as it relies on a presumption that the so-called evidence against the Guantánamo prisoners is somehow reliable, when that is patently not the case. The files on the prisoners are for the most part a dispiriting collection of unreliable statements made by the prisoners themselves or by their fellow prisoners in circumstances that were not conducive to telling the truth — immediately after capture, in America’s notorious prisons in Afghanistan, or in Guantánamo, all places and circumstances where torture and abuse were rife; or, in some cases, where bribery (the promise of better living conditions, for example) was used to try to secure information that could be used as evidence.
In March 2011, when President Obama shamefully approved the ongoing imprisonment without charge or trial of 48 men designated as being too dangerous to release, he tried to sweeten the pill by promising periodic reviews of the men cases. However, these only finally materialized last year, at which point the credibility of the trial system at Guantánamo — the military commissions — was also in tatters, with the result that 25 prisoners out of the 36 originally recommended for trials were also added to the list of those eligible for Periodic Review Boards, making 71 men in total (as two of the original 48 had died in the meantime).
As I have explained in a series of articles about the Periodic Review Boards, which have had only patchy coverage in the mainstream media, the entire review process is flawed, because it seeks to validate Guantánamo’s ongoing and unjustifiable system of holding men neither as criminal suspects nor as prisoners of war, when there is no third way, but at least two of the first three review boards decided that the men whose cases were being examined — all Yemenis — should be released (see here and here for my reports).
In the bleakly surreal reality of Guantánamo, however, all this meant was that they were added to the list of 55 other Yemenis who were cleared for release by the task force (in its final report in January 2010), but who are still held because everyone in a position of power and responsibility in the US government is worried about the security situation in Yemen; in other words, men cleared for release because they are not regarded as posing a threat to the US will, the US fears, not be monitored closely on their return home, as though they were men who had not been cleared for release in the first place because they are not regarded as posing a threat to the US.
Ghaleb al-Bihani approved for release
On May 28, the fourth Periodic Review Board — for Ghaleb al-Bihani, who had worked as a cook for forces supporting the Taliban prior to the 9/11 attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan, and who, in Guantánamo, has developed serious health problems — recommended his release. In his PRB, al-Bihani had distanced himself from a claim (unsubstantiated, it should be noted) that a least one of his family members had ties with Al-Qaeda, and had addressed his desire to be resettled in another country, as well as providing evidence of his diligent efforts at self-improvement during his long imprisonment. In their final determination, the board stated that, unanimously, they had "determined continued law of war detention of the detainee is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States."
The final determination continued:
In making this determination, the Board considered the detainee’s plans for the future, as well as his desire and efforts to separate himself from family members with known ties to extremism. The Board found the detainee credible on his commitment to living a peaceful life. The Board also considered the detainee’s low level of training and lack of leadership position in al-Qa’ida or the Taliban. The detainee’s shift in behavior from being disruptive in detention to playing a positive and constructive role in the administration of the camp, his efforts to improve his health situation, and his efforts to improve himself through exploring non-extremist matters were also noted by the Board.
The board recommended that al-Bihani "be transferred with the standard security assurances, as negotiated by the Guantánamo Detainee Transfer Working Group," also The Board recommending, as requested by al-Bihani, "resettlement in a third country with appropriate support, including adequate medical care."
The decision to approve al-Bihani’s release was apparently taken on May 15, but it was not announced until May 28. Pentagon spokesperson Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said that the board had determined that al-Bihani "can be transferred from the US base in Cuba 'as soon as practicable,’" as the Associated Press described it, "without specifying when [he] might be moved from the prison."
Responding to the decision, Pardiss Kebriaei, Senior Attorney at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents Mr. al-Bihani, stated:
The Periodic Review Board’s decision approving Mr. Al-Bihani for transfer from Guantánamo is encouraging. The security and other agencies on the board rightly determined that his continued detention of more than 12 years is unnecessary. Indeed, Mr. Al-Bihani was an assistant cook 12 years ago for a Taliban-affiliated group that no longer exists, and he is now seriously ill.
Kebriaei added, crucially:
The Obama administration must now give effect to the board’s decision and release Mr. Al-Bihani. Simply adding him to the group of dozens of men cleared to leave Guantánamo, but still indefinitely detained, does nothing to end his wrongful detention or close the prison. As Mr. Al-Bihani stated at his hearing, his hope is for resettlement in a third country, where he may begin a new life. He would also accept repatriation to Yemen.
Kebriaei also noted, in another important assessment of the absurd situation that prevails at Guantánamo:
Since President Obama lifted his self-imposed moratorium on transfers to Yemen a year ago and promised a "case-by-case" review of individual men, not one Yemeni has been released. In fact, no Yemeni has left Guantánamo alive in nearly four years, despite the fact that one-third of the remaining men at Guantánamo are Yemenis approved for transfer. The administration’s stated commitment to close Guantánamo will continue to ring hollow until it starts treating detained men from Yemen as individuals and stops seeing them solely through the prism of their national origin and country conditions. It can start with the release of a sick former cook.
Salem bin Kanad not approved for release
The second Periodic Review Board decision — to continue holding another prisoner, Salem bin Kanad (who seems to have both Saudi and Yemeni origins, even though the US lists him as a Yemeni) — took place on May 21, but was only made available on the PRB website a few days ago. Coinciding with the engineered uproar about the release of five Taliban prisoners in exchange for US PoW Bowe Begdahl, it failed to get a mention anywhere in the media, which was disappointing, as the PRB decisions deserve to have proper coverage.
I had fears that, although there was no evidence that bin Kanad, a Taliban foot soldier, posed a threat to the US, it would not help his case that he refused to take part in his PRB, so that the board members had no way of interacting with him, and in their final determination, as I feared, the board "determined continued law of war detention of the detainee remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States." No one was on hand to point out the irony of recommending a minor Taliban foot soldier for ongoing imprisonment at the same time that five Afghan prisoners who held leadership roles in the Taliban were being freed in Qatar in a prisoner swap.
The board explained that they had "considered the detainee’s history of fighting on the frontlines in a Taliban unit, including possibly serving in a low-level leadership role and possibly receiving extremist training," and also "noted inconsistencies regarding the detainee’s behavior while in detention and a lack of clarity regarding threatening anti-US statements made by the detainee in the past" — that later assessment providing an insight into what is regarded a supposing a threat; namely, having made "threatening anti-US statements … in the past."
The board also recognized that bin Kanad had initially taken part in the process of meeting his the representatives appointed by the military, but then ceased his involvement, with the result that they felt they "had insufficient information on the detainee’s family and the support they are prepared to provide him upon his return as well as the detainee’s skills and employment prospects." Pointedly, they added that they "had difficulty assessing the detainee’s credibility due to his decision not to participate in the hearing," and, as a result, looked forward to reviewing his file in six months’ time. They also encouraged him "to fully participate in any future review."
I hope that we will have some positive new soon about the release of prisoners clear for release through the PRBs — as well as those cleared by the task force over four years ago — because, every day that cleared prisoners are not freed is a day that ought to bring shame and disgrace on the United States.
To conclude this round-up, I’m also posting below the statement that Ghaleb al-Bihani presented to his PRB, which was not available until recently, and which provides further insight into his state of mind and his hopes for the future. It also makes clear that, although he has consistently been listed by the US as a Yemeni, he was born in Saudi Arabia, where he lived until his ill-fated decision to travel to Afghanistan, and his subsequent imprisonment at Guantánamo.
Periodic Review Board
Ghaleb Nasser Al-Bihani, ISN 128, April 8, 2014
Statement of Ghaleb Nasser Al-Bihani
I am still learning English, so I would like to present my statement in Arabic.
My name is Ghaleb Nasser Al-Bihani and my ISN is 128. I was born in Tibuk, Saudi Arabia, where I lived continuously until I was about 21, but I am a Yemeni citizen. I was born in 1979. I was brought to Guantánamo when I was 22 and I am now 34 years old.
I want a chance to build a normal life the same way other people build their lives. I don’t need an easy life, and I don’t want a hard life. I just want an ordinary life.
I want my own family. I want to become a father, and I look forward to the day when I can hold my baby in my hands. I want to provide for my family and my child.
It may be hard, but I want to pursue my education. The first thing I want to do is take classes that will help me find a good job — like English, computer and carpentry classes. Since my days would be spent working or looking for a job, I would plan to take classes in the evening.
I also want to take care of my health. I have diabetes and related problems, including severe back pain and migraines.
I have these hopes because I want a stable life. I want a happy life for my children. I want to take good care of them and provide them with an education, because I know their future will depend on it. I want to give them a better life than I had. I lost both my parents when I was a young boy, and it was hard growing up without a mother or father. I want to be in a position where I can give my children the guidance that I did not have.
I have done my best to prepare for the life that I want. I have struggled on a daily basis here because of my health, and I have felt desperate and frustrated. You can imagine that when you feel like this, you do not always act in ways you want.
Sometimes my health condition has gotten worse and made me even more tense, anxious and depressed, and given me insomnia. It got so bad last year that I asked my attorney to write a letter to the camp administration and discuss with them my health and psychological condition. I wanted to be transferred to Camp Echo just so that I could keep to myself and be in a calm environment.
But I am trying. My lawyer and relative can tell you that I have requested many books because I want to educate and improve myself, and I spend most of my time reading. In my cell now, I have many books, including English and Spanish language books, a book about diabetes and high blood pressure, a book about the Dalai Lama, and the biography of Martin Luther King. I like to read biographies because I want to learn about other peoples’ lives and the circumstances they faced, and how they were able to overcome their difficulties and move on with their lives. I want to learn how they were able to learn positive lessons from their difficulties, and how they were able to reach their goals in life without looking at the past. I hope to have the same strength and patience to overcome my difficulties.
Given a choice, I will build the life that I imagine in a new country — maybe Qatar, or countries in Europe, Latin America, or Asia that may be willing to take me. When I think of freedom, I think of a new country — a place where I can have my own independent life, where there are opportunities, where the security situation is better, and where education is important. I thought of Qatar because it is an Arab country, so it would be familiar, but also because its economy is strong, its security situation is stable, it has job opportunities, and it can provide good medical treatment for my conditions. It is a modern country with freedoms, where I would be able to live my life as an equal person.
I want to settle in a third country. If I am transferred to such a place, I can promise you that I would not try to go back to Saudi Arabia or go to Yemen, where I have never even been or lived.
But I am willing to go to any country that the government decides is an appropriate option for me. For the chance to build this new life, I will accept security measures that other transferred detainees have been subject to. I will also participate in a rehabilitation program.
For years, I have said these things about my hopes for my life to everyone who has asked. I have said it before and I will say it again — I want to build a new future for myself.
I can’t change the past, and I can’t control what other people do or what goes on in a given country. But I can control my own actions. For years I have talked about what my hopes are for the future and what my decisions would be. I have struggled through the effects of my diabetes to try to improve myself, to show that these are not simply words. I have a bright vision of my future. It is all I think about. I am asking for the chance to make my vision a reality.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the "Close Guantánamo" campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) 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 here for the US).
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