By Andy Worthington, October 8, 2015
Last week, Mansoor al-Zahari, a Guantánamo prisoner from Yemen, who has embraced western culture, becoming a fan of Shakira, Taylor Swift and Game of Thrones, became the 19th prisoner to have his case reviewed by a Periodic Review Board -- the review process, established two years ago, to review the cases of all the prisoners not facing trials (just ten of the 114 men still held) and not already approved for release by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009 (43 others).
The PRBs consist 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, and, since January 2014, they have approved the release of 14 men -- and have only approved the ongoing detention of two others. The process is moving far too slowly -- 50 others are awaiting reviews, and at the current rate the first round of reviews will not be completed until 2020 at the earliest. In addition, of the 14 approved for release, just three have been released -- in part because, like 37 of those approved for release by the task force but still held, six of the 11 approved for release by the PRBs but still held are Yemenis, and the entire U.S. establishment is unwilling to repatriate Yemenis, because of the security situation in Yemen, and third countries must be found that are prepared to offer them new homes.
However, it is progress, and on October 7 Mohammed Kamin, an Afghan accused of aiding the anti-U.S. insurgency, whose case was reviewed in August, became the 14th prisoner to be recommended for release. The review board, concluding that "continued law of war detention of the detainee does not remain necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States," stated that they "appreciated [his] high degree of candor regarding his past activities and acknowledgement of mistakes that led to his detention," noted that he "has been one of the more compliant detainees at Guantánamo and there is an absence of evidence that the detainee has expressed extremist views while in the camps," and also "considered the presence of family and tribal support available to[him] upon transfer, [his] strong desire to return to his family, [and] the absence of information that [he] harbors anti-American sentiments." They also "found him credible in his desire to pursue nonextremist goals."
In a press release, Kamin's lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights stated that he "was told of the result during an unclassified phone call," and said, "I cannot tell you how happy I am. I sometimes dream of being free, and am so happy; then I wake up in this facility, and have a different feeling."
CCR also noted, "Advocates have cited picking up the pace of the PRBs as one of the key elements to closing Guantánamo before President Obama leaves office," and Senior Managing Attorney Shayana Kadidal said, "As the president reviews his plan for closing Guantánamo, he should accelerate the Periodic Review process to determine the feasibility of transferring more men out of the prison. Clearing Mr. Kamin for release was the right decision. It is also the right decision for numerous other men who remain trapped in indefinite detention at Guantánamo.”
He also said, "The PRBs have cleared 14 of the 16 detainees whose cases they reviewed, which shows that the group of men who supposedly ‘cannot be tried but are too dangerous to release’ is really a null set."
Last week (on September 29), it was the turn of Mansoor al-Zahari, also identified as Mansoor al-Warifi or, to the Periodic Review Board, Abdul Rahman Ahmed or Mansur Ahmad Saad al-Dayfi (ISN 441), to seek his release via a PRB. Just 22 years old when he was seized in Afghanistan, where he had briefly been, at most, a lowly foot soldier for the Taliban, he is now 36, and even the government accepts that he is insignificant. The unclassified summary for his PRB states that he "probably was a low-level fighter who was aligned with al-Qa'ida, although it is unclear whether he actually joined that group. He traveled to Afghanistan in mid-2001, trained at an al-Qa'ida camp, and was wounded by a coalition airstrike after the 9/11 attacks. Afghan forces captured him in late 2001 and imprisoned him at the Qala-i-Janghi fortress, where he probably did not play a significant role in the subsequent prisoner uprising" (see here for further details). The government also noted that "his behavior has improved since late 2012, and since early 2013 he has expressed nonextremist goals for his life after detention."
In letters over the summer to Carlos Warner, a Federal Public Defender who has been representing him for seven years, Mansoor's enthusiasm and sensitivity were very clearly revealed.
In one letter, he praises "the lovely gorgeous troublemaker Taylor Swift," and in another calls Shakira "a unique singer and dancer," and asks Warner to send his "best regards" to her. That same letter was titled, "Winter is coming" -- a reference to Game of Thrones -- which he liked, although all the bloodshed made him feel sick. He also read a book about Martin Luther King, and stated that he was "a great person" who "dedicated his life for what he believed it was right, he fought against suppression, racism and injustice with love and peace, and these two are the most powerful weapons can be used."
In another letter, he was sorrowful about the state of the world. "WHAT IS HAPPENING TO US AS HUMAN BEING?" he asks, "and for how long are we going to continue acting in such a way as nothing is happening around us?!! When I watch the news sometimes, I cry because the world that I knew once doesn't exist anymore. All I can see only wasting of human lives everywhere, wars, chaos and distraction. And no one is doing anything about it as if the matter doesn't concern us."
Mansoor's story is not only interesting because of his letters. Although the Bush administration tried hard --and with considerable success -- to encourage the U.S. public not to inquire about the men held at Guantánamo, and to accept, instead, that they were "the worst of the worst," many stories have emerged over the years, and when an opportunity arises for the spotlight to focus on a prisoner, it often turns out that they have a fascinating story.
Mansoor is no exception. Below I'm cross-posting the opening statements to the PRB of his personal representatives (military personnel appointed to represent him), and of one of his lawyers, Beth Jacob, who works for a law firm in New York, and her account is particularly fascinating, revealing, as it does, that Mansoor, who had railed against his imprisonment for many years -- leading to his classification as one of the prisoners who were "too dangerous to release" but could not be charged -- was completely transformed after he met Andy Hart, a Federal Defender in Ohio, who sadly died two years ago. As Beth Jacob describes it, "Andy encouraged Mansoor to take classes and learn English, and this opened up a whole new world" -- of the English language and U.S. culture. As well as liking Taylor Swift, Shakira and Game of Thrones, Mansoor "enjoys watching U.S. sitcoms" and Christopher Nolan movies, and "likes Little House on the Prairie, because it reminds him of his very rural home with few modern conveniences."
Carlos Warner explained more about Andy Hart -- and about Mansoor -- in a letter to the board last month, which he forwarded to me. Explaining that he understood that Mansoor "is not being held for what he allegedly did prior to his detainment, as much as for his conduct while being detained at Guantánamo," he added, "The allegations leading to his detention are exceptionally if not laughably weak."
Warner also acknowledged that "between 2002 and 2008 Mansoor was not a model detainee," and added, "When I met Mansoor in 2008-2009, he was a very angry man who professed his innocence and who waited six years to see a lawyer. He spoke no English and did not understand why he was detained, what legal process was ahead or what his prospects for release were."
Warner added that, at the time, he found it difficult to connect with Mansoor, in part because he "viewed Guantánamo as a legalistic problem," whereas now he recognizes that it "has nothing to do with legalities or courts," and states, "I now see that it is impossible to legally 'win' no matter how innocent a client may be." Andy Hart, however, "approached Guantánamo from a humanitarian perspective." He not only taught Mansoor English; he also learned Arabic in return. As a result, as Warner stated in the letter, "Mansoor now speaks and writes perfect English. Andy encouraged Mansoor to grow while detained and not to waste his life in a cycle of anger. I witnessed Mansoor's transformation first-hand, and like to think Andy played a major role in opening new perspectives on Mansoor's detention to Mansoor … Andy encouraged Mansoor to avail himself of every program or opportunity available to him in Guantánamo. Mansoor, operating off faith, friendship or both, did exactly that -- and the results are outstanding."
He has now, Warner notes, become "a model detainee from the government's perspective."
Below are the statements from Mansoor's PRB, which I hope you have time to read, and that you will share this article if you find it useful. I very much hope that Mansoor will be approved for release, but more than that I hope that the Obama administration will soon find new homes for the many Yemenis approved for release who are still held, because otherwise being approved for release means nothing, and is, instead, a cruelty that would make even a dictator blanch.
Good morning ladies and gentlemen, we are the Personal Representatives for Mr. Abdul Rahman Ahmed, whom we address as Mansoor. While working together and preparing for his board, Mansoor has been very enthusiastic, cooperative and forthcoming. He has been looking forward to meeting with you and answering your questions.
During his detention, Mansoor seized many opportunities to educate himself on different subjects as shown by the exhibits submitted in his case file and has earned his GED. This proves he is an excellent and serious student dedicated to advancing his knowledge and improving himself. His contribution to the Yemen Milk & Honey feasibility study and business plan combined with his ability to learn English demonstrates his potential to succeed as a business owner in almost any country. He is an energetic self-starter and resourceful self-learner. Mansoor is ready to begin a new life. build a career, and start a family. He is willing to go to any country that allows him to accomplish these goals while continuing his education. Prior to his detention, he is remembered by the residents in his native village as being a well-behaved and friendly boy.
The teachers, elders, and sheiks in the village speak highly of his academic abilities and peaceful behavior. Despite the challenges and circumstances at Guantánamo, Mansoor has maintained a positive attitude and been cooperative with camp staff which is evident by his current location, communal living. He schedules his day with constructive activities in order to continue growing and maturing. He will show you today that he is no longer a significant threat to the U.S. and is ready to be transferred so that he may start a new life as a business owner, husband, and father.
In closing, I'd like to mention Mansoor's spirited and dialectic personality because it kept our meetings productive, educational, and even enjoyable at times. Never once however, was he disrespectful to our mission, goals, and authority.
Thank you again for the opportunity to share these opening remarks. We would now like to defer to Mansoor's Private Counsel for her opening statement.
I am Beth Jacob, private counsel for Mansoor Ahmed Rahman Said al Warifi.
I would like to give you a little background about myself, so you can have context to consider my comments about Mansoor. Shortly after law school, I became a prosecutor in the New York City District Attorney's Office in Manhattan, where I worked for eight years. I was in the Rackets and Frauds Bureaus, investigating and prosecuting organized crime, official corruption, white collar crime, large scale tax evasion and major financial frauds. Along the way, I handled some street crime cases as well.
Some years after I left the District Attorney's office, I defended the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- the owner of the World Trade Center complex -- in the litigations arising out of the events of September 11, 2001. On a pro bono basis, I also helped victims of that attack make claims against insurers and obtain compensation from the fund established by the United States government for that purpose. Now, most of my work is representing generic pharmaceutical companies in patent infringement litigation against brand pharmaceutical companies. Along with others at my previous firm and my current firm, I have represented men detained at Guantánamo since 2005.
Turning to the immediate question before you: Who is Mansoor today, and what are his attitudes toward the United States? Is there any reason why he should remain detained? Mansoor now is a man who has acquired some education and maturity; he is pretty Westernized and more familiar with much of Western popular culture than I am. He speaks English well, rapidly, and at length about everything from his own experiences, to his favorite singers and TV shows, to his hopes for the future, to his philosophy about life. He gets along with the guards -- while I was there a few weeks ago, one of them gave him a list of recommended books -- and is housed in a block for compliant detainees who are comfortable with Western culture. At my first meeting, my female colleague and I walked in wearing scarves over our hair as a courtesy. Mansoor stood up, held out his hand for a handshake, and told us to take the scarves off, they were not necessary.
Mansoor will tell you that his attitudes changed completely starting in 2009, when he was moved from pretty harsh circumstances into communal living and was given a lawyer. That lawyer was Andy Hart, an Ohio federal defender who died several years ago. Andy encouraged Mansoor to take classes and learn English, and this opened up a whole new world. Mansoor was able to see America through American TV and English language writings, and even became a fan of American culture. He likes listening to Taylor Swift. He enjoys watching U.S. sitcoms. He likes Little House on the Prairie, because it reminds him of his very rural home with few modern conveniences. He enjoys Christopher Nolan movies.
In the past six years, Mansoor has taken advantage of every opportunity for education. These studies have been as serious as was possible -- not only crafts and health, but also the GED (high school equivalency) program, and languages (he learned English and now has started Spanish). The books he requested include a history of the United States and computer technology, because he would like to go into IT when he is released from Guantánamo -- a very realistic and pragmatic choice. As do most of the men down here, he hopes to get married -- but, as he will tell you, his view of marriage is pretty modem: He is looking for a wife who will be a friend and a companion, well educated and able to help him make his new life.
Mansoor also is one of the group who put together the Yemen Milk and Honey Farm business proposal, which I gather you are familiar with. This work shows an impressive ability to learn new subjects, to put them together in a realistic and practical way, and to persevere. In addition to its content, the presentation itself is impressive.
Mansoor's first goal when he is transferred from Guantánamo is to go to college. He actually tried to apply to colleges a few years ago, with the help of his lawyer Andy Hart and the Red Cross. but it is not possible while he is detained here. He is looking forward to a future which is not that different from many young Western men -- go to college, go into IT, start a family, start a business.
I have gotten to know Mansoor not only from a half-dozen all-day meetings over the past two months, but also from reading his letters to his habeas counsel over the past six years and talking with his habeas counsel. His current attitudes are not new or assumed for this board. We have asked to submit copies of one or two letters he wrote which demonstrate this.
I also have gotten to know Mansoor from the statements in his support from his family and village. Almost four dozen people from his village sent video statements through short cell phone clips and several others sent writings. We have submitted about a dozen of the videos for you to watch -- we can provide them all if you like -- and transcriptions of them all. These were collected over a year ago, without lawyer input and long before this hearing was scheduled. Each is very short, but their individual content is not the point. Two things come clear from the collection. The first is that Mansoor has the strong support not only of his immediate and extended family, but also of his entire community. He has a stack of letters from his immediate family and has had regular telephone calls with them since those were allowed.
The simple fact that his brother was able to get so many people to speak on behalf of Mansoor demonstrates that there is a strong and committed community which will provide moral and practical support for Mansoor once he is released. And Mansoor appreciates this and feels strong ties in return. I was with him while we played all of the video clips for him -- it took over an hour.
I saw his reaction, and he became emotional, actually tearing up when he saw his father speak and as his friends. family, former teachers, and community leaders all stood to express their support.
The second thing is that in these videos, everyone agreed that Mansoor had been a good student, very smart. and very well-behaved in school. He was not a trouble-maker. I would like to comment specifically on the last two videos that we gave you to watch -- an elderly couple. This is a couple in straitened circumstances who Mansoor helped out when he was living at his home. I think when you watch the videos and read the statements, you will agree with this couple's conclusion: Mansoor was a good boy.
The evidence before you indicates that the good boy they knew has grown into a good man. He has been here for over 13 years, and over that time has matured. He is now a man who is eager to learn about other cultures, and who is able to appreciate attitudes and lifestyles different from his own. He wants to continue his education, and if given a choice would prefer to be sent to a country where that will be possible, and where be can continue to enjoy the Western culture that he has gotten to know and enjoy.
Mansoor is willing to cooperate with any rehabilitation process. He understands that everything cannot happen immediately, and that it will take time before he can create this future. He has shown a willingness to work toward a realistic goal that takes time to achieve -- the Milk & Honey Farm prospectus, learning English, taking the courses of the GED curriculum.
I have seen no sense of entitlement in him, no sense of resentment or any grudges. To the contrary, he is grateful for the educational opportunities be has been given here, he is friendly with the guards, he is appreciative of the help of his counsel and his personal representatives.
As his Personal Counsel and his habeas co-counsel, my firm and I stand ready to assist and support Mansoor to make a new and productive life after Guantánamo. I have been through the college application process recently with my children, so perhaps that is one way we can be of help. We also hope to be able to assist in his acclimation to his new country and to life outside of prison.
Whatever problematic statements or activities may be in his past -- and we are not here to go through that -- in the present Mansoor is poised to be a productive member of society. He presents no threat to the safety of the United States, and he should be cleared for transfer.