By Andy Worthington, December 15, 2015
Last Tuesday, the 21st prisoner to face a Periodic Review Board at Guantánamo -- Zahir Hamdoun, a 36-year old Yemeni -- asked the board, made up 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, to approve his release from the prison. The board members communicate with Guantánamo by video feed, and hear directly from the prisoners and their representatives, although very little of what takes place is open to the media, and, by extension, the public.
The PRBs, which began in November 2013, were established to review the cases of 46 men deemed "too dangerous to release" in 2010 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in January 2009, plus 25 others originally recommended for prosecution -- until the basis for prosecution largely collapsed under judicial scrutiny.
The description of 46 men as "too dangerous to release" sounds dramatic, but in fact the task force conceded that insufficient evidence existed to put these men on trial, so instead of "too dangerous to release" a better description would have been "subjected to unreliable information, in many cases obtained through torture, or forms of abuse or bribery, or regarded as a threat because of their attitude while unjustly imprisoned for years without charge or trial."
Since the PRBs, 18 cases have been decided, and in 15 cases these men, allegedly "too dangerous to release," have actually been approved for release, exposing that designation as hyperbole. For further details, see my definitive PRB list here.
Unfortunately, the reviews are moving far too slowly, and 43 men are still awaiting reviews, which, at the current rate, will not be completed until sometime in 2020. This, unacceptably, will be ten long years after the task force's initial recommendations, which, from the beginning, were accompanied by discussions about these men receiving periodic reviews of their cases.
Little has been heard about Zahir Hamdoun -- aka Zaher Hamdoun or Zahar Hamdoun, and also identified as Zaher bin Hamdoun or Zahir bin Hamdoun -- during his long imprisonment, but in August Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights, appointed to his case in the last few years, had an article published in the Guardian featuring Hamdoun's words interspersed with her own commentary (which I also wrote about here). In a moving statement, Hamdoun said:
I have become a body without a soul. I breathe, eat and drink, but I don’t belong to the world of living creatures. I rather belong to another world, a world that is buried in a grave called Guantánamo. I fall asleep and then wake up to realize that my soul and my thoughts belong to that world I watch on television, or read about in books. That is all I can say about the ordeal I’ve been enduring.
Hamdoun is one of several prisoners seized in a variety of house raids in Karachi, Pakistan in February 2002, and, as I explained in August, "the authorities tried to claim, improbably, that, although he was just 22 or 23 years old at the time of his capture, he was an al-Qaeda member, who had been a trainer in a military camp." However, these claims came, for example, from the notorious torture victim Abu Zubaydah, for whom the CIA's post-9/11 torture program was first developed, from Yasim Basardah (aka Mohammed Basardah), a Yemeni well-known as the most prolific liar in Guantánamo, and from Adel al-Zamel, a Kuwaiti who has stated publicly that, under duress, he made false statements about people he didn't know.
Last Tuesday, when Hamdoun went before his review board, Pardiss Kebriaei told the board that CCR was prepared to offer years of long-term support for him ranging from "financial assistance and referrals for needs large and small, ranging from live-in interpreters and mental health care, to laptops and language CDs." Both Kebriaei and Hamdoun understand that he will not be permitted to return to Yemen, because of fears about the security situation in the country, and that, if approved for release, a third country must be found that will offer him a new home. Kebriaei also spoke extensively about his family's support for him.
A military officer assigned to represent him, a woman, also pointed out that Hamdoun "shook my hand enthusiastically" when they first met, and explained that he "has expressed regret for the decisions he has made in the past," adding that "he has been exposed to a variety of cultures and religions while here and understands the importance of respecting everyone regardless of beliefs. He knows it is important to treat everyone as you wish to be treated."
In contrast, the authorities claimed that Hamdoun had been a trainer at a military camp in Afghanistan -- a claim based on dubious statements by other prisoners -- although it was conceded that it was not known "whether the formally joined al-Qa'ida." Regarding his behavior in custody, it was noted that he has been "polite but uncooperative." It was also claimed that he "dislikes the U.S.," although this was described as "an emotion that probably is motivated more by frustration over his continuing detention than by a commitment to global jihad." It was also noted that the authorities "have seen no indications that [Hamdoun] or his family members have close ties to terrorists outside of Guantánamo," and while concerns were expressed about him returning to Yemen, we know that will not happen, and of greater interest is the fact that he "has relatives in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE," even though the authorities "do not know whether they would be able to support him."
Below I'm posting the opening statements made by his personal representatives, and by Pardiss Kebriaei, which I believe shed greater light on why Hamdoun is not a threat to the U.S. and should be recommended for release.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the Board. We are the Personal Representatives for Mr. Zahar Omar Hamis Bin Hamdoun. We are joined by his Private Counsel and translator.
At my first meeting with Zahar, he stood and shook my hand enthusiastically. From the beginning, it was obvious that the fact that I was female did not concern him. Before the meeting was over, he gave me one of his drawings as a gift to show his appreciation for my assistance in this process. Over the past three months, we have met with Zahar close to 50 hours and he has been very cooperative, enthusiastic, polite and forthcoming with all of his answers.
Zahar has expressed regret for the decisions he has made in the past. Working to enhance his education and learn new skills, he has grown as a person during his time at GTMO. He has been exposed to a variety of cultures and religions while here and understands the importance of respecting everyone, regardless of beliefs. He knows it is important to treat everyone as you wish to be treated.
When he is transferred, he wishes to marry and start a family of his own. If possible, he wishes to continue his education as this is a duty in his family for both male or female. As for work, it will depend on the economy where he is transferred, but he would like to open a store, perhaps selling groceries, as he has experience as part of his family's business. He is willing to go to any country and he understands that returning to Yemen is not an option. Zahar is also willing to participate in any rehabilitation or reintegration program necessary.
As much as he wishes to see his mother and family again, he really does not wish to return to Yemen as there is no future due to the current instability. Of course, he does hope to someday be allowed to bring his mother, if only for a visit, wherever he may end up. Regardless of where he is transferred, he will have the full support of his family. The distance is inconsequential, as his eldest brother, who is like a father, already provides support to his family in Yemen, while living in a different country. He will do the same for Zahar.
Based on everything we have seen and heard during our time with Zahar, we do not believe he is a continuing significant threat to the United States or its interests.
We are happy to answer any questions that you may have throughout this proceeding. At this time, Zahar's Private Counsel will present an opening statement. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Members of the Board, good morning.
I have represented Guantánamo detainees since 2007, including several men whom the government has successfully resettled. I have been working with Mr. Hamdoun for over two years.
I would like to use my time to underscore or expand on a few points in Mr. Hamdoun's personal statement.
The first concerns his family. In recent months, I have been in regular conversation with Mr. Hamdoun's family, in particular, two of his older brothers, for the purpose of preparing for this review. They put me on speakerphone while their mother listens in the background in the same home Mr. Hamdoun grew up in. They are a stable, close-knit group. Hard work and education are core values reflected in the paths of Mr. Hamdoun's siblings, down to his youngest sister, who graduated from college a few years ago, and his youngest brother, who is still trying to attend his college classes in Sana'a despite the circumstances. We have submitted information about them each, and Mr. Hamdoun will say more about how they sustain him. I want just to make two brief points, since Mr. Hamdoun has not been able to speak to his family since his review process began. One is to emphasize that the family knows that Mr. Hamdoun may not be transferred to Yemen, and they accept that possibility. In my initial conversations with one of the older brothers, while the other siblings and their mother gathered around his cell phone, I broached the subject gingerly, anticipating a fair amount of questions and frustration. Their response: "Yes, this is obvious." They know the circumstances in their country. They are honest people who have no desire to interfere with the terms of any transfer agreement and bring additional difficulty to Mr. Hamdoun or themselves. What they want is a chance for Mr. Hamdoun to rebuild his life, wherever that may be.
Additionally, I want to note that the materials included in Mr. Hamdoun's submission unfortunately do not reflect the family's effort to support this review process. Mr. Hamdoun's mother and several of his siblings had intended to submit videotaped oral statements. They spent weeks preparing their thoughts and coordinating with us on the logistics. That plan was thwarted, remarkably, by a cyclone (Chapala) in the Gulf of Aden that made a rare landfall in their region in early November, the first in decades. A week later, a second major cyclone (Megh) struck their region. Needless to say, power outages and record-level flooding in the wake of the storms prevented them from being able to provide, before our deadline, the materials they had intended to prepare.
The second area I want to expand on concerns the support Mr. Hamdoun would have after transfer from my organization in particular. We have had the experience of supporting the reintegration of several clients over the years. I have included a document in our submission specifying the range of assistance we have provided in the past and are ready to offer Mr. Hamdoun, depending on what might be necessary. My experience with two clients whom the Administration resettled in 2009 and 2010 provides a good snapshot. In those cases, we worked with the State Department and host governments on transition plans for the men; we visited them multiple times after release; we served as an ongoing point of contact for local authorities to help problem-solve as issues arose; we provided financial assistance and referrals for needs large and small, ranging from live-in interpreters and mental health care, to laptops and language CDs; and we tapped into our wide network of regional and local partners to help address other needs. We were a trusted and experienced resource in facilitating the transition of these clients. Critically, our support continued long-term, for several years. We would be ready to provide the same breadth and depth of support to Mr. Hamdoun.
The third issue I want briefly to address concerns his past conduct. Mr. Hamdoun regrets his decision to go to Afghanistan in 1999, as he expresses in his statement [not included in the publicly available documents]. But the question of his activities there is not settled, as the unclassified detainee profile also indicates. Mr. Hamdoun brought a habeas petition disputing the allegations against him, which was never ultimately decided by the district court. I would be glad to address Mr. Hamdoun's own narrative in more detail in the closed session.
I would like to offer a final personal observation based on my experience working with Mr. Hamdoun over the course of the past two years, against the background of the eight years I have been working with detainees. In our meetings, he is attentive and earnest. He is not withdrawn. He does not decline visits. He apologizes when he brings requests. He comes to listen, work and try. He recognizes his limitations. He tells me he has moments of low energy. He is unsettled by his inability to communicate with his family. He is frustrated about his situation. All of these are real. But I have not seen someone resigned, hardened or remote. I have seen effort -- someone very much wanting and trying to believe in a better future. Someone very much wanting to be before you today. I have worked with clients after release, for years. Reintegration is a long process that takes effort, engagement and hope. Mr. Hamdoun has shown these qualities, which will serve him well going forward.
Thank you for your consideration.