By Andy Worthington, July 21, 2016
Great news from Guantánamo, as the torture victim and best-selling author Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been approved for release by a Periodic Review Board, as has an Afghan prisoner, Abdul Zahir, who was charged in the first version of Guantánamo’s military commissions in January 2006 — although those charges were then dropped and never revived. The PRBs were set up in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners not already approved for release or facing trials, and, with these two decisions, 29 men have been approved for release and 13 for ongoing imprisonment, a success rate of 69%. See our definitive Periodic Review Board list here.
This is remarkable — and an indictment of the Obama administration’s caution — when it is recognized that, back in 2009, when President Obama set up a high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force to assess these men’s cases, these 42 men and 22 others either awaiting reviews or awaiting the results of reviews, were described as "too dangerous to release," although the task force acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, or were put forward for prosecution, until the basis for prosecutions largely collapsed under judicial scrutiny in 2012-13.
Slahi (ISN 760), a 45-year old Mauritanian, was one of those initially — and incomprehensibly — recommended for prosecution by the task force. As I explained at the time of his PRB on June 2, he "was subjected to a specially tailored torture program in Guantánamo, approved by Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and, though still imprisoned, is a best-selling author. While imprisoned, he wrote a memoir that, after a long struggle with the U.S. government, was published in redacted form. Nevertheless, the power of Slahi’s account of his life, his rendition, his torture and his long years in Guantánamo, is such that the book, Guantánamo Diary, has become a best-seller."
As I also explained, "Although the Bush administration attempted to make a case that Slahi was a member of Al-Qaeda, which was why they put pressure on the Mauritanian government to hand him over to them in November 2001, and why he was subsequently tortured in Jordan (on behalf of the U.S.) and in Guantánamo by U.S. operatives, the case evaporated under scrutiny. In April 2010, Judge James Robertson, a U.S. District Court judge, after scrutinizing his habeas corpus petition, ordered his release, finding that the government had failed to establish that what looked suspicious in his case — primarily, the fact that he was related to senior Al-Qaeda member Abu Hafs, and, while living in Germany, had met some of the 9/11 hijackers and had helped them to visit Afghanistan for military training — was actually evidence of involvement with Al-Qaeda. Slahi has admitted that he had joined Al-Qaeda, but that was in 1992, when he had visited Afghanistan during the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, and he insisted that he had not maintained any contact with the organization after that time."
The government, however, refused to accept Judge Robertson’s ruling, and appealed, and in November 2010 the D.C. Circuit Court vacated that ruling, sending it back to the lower court to be reconsidered, where, as I described it in an article about Slahi’s case in April, "it has languished ever since, mocking all notions of justice every day it has remained unaddressed."
In their final determination, dated July 14, the review board’s members determined, by consensus, that Slahi’s "continued law of war detention” is “no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States."
The board members added that they had considered Slahi’s "highly compliant behavior in detention," and also noted his "candid responses to the Board's questions, to include recognition of his past activities, [and] clear indications of a change in [his] mindset." The board members also "considered the extensive support network available to [him] from multiple sources, including strong family connections, and [his] robust and realistic plan for the future."
In a press release, the ACLU, which helped to represent him, noted that "[t]he government of his native Mauritania has said that it would welcome him home."
Nancy Hollander, one of his attorneys, said, "We are thrilled that the PRB has cleared our client. We will now work toward his quick release and return to the waiting arms of his loving family. This is long overdue."
Hina Shamsi, another of his attorneys, and the director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said, "We’re delighted for Mohamedou and his family, but the new chapter in his life won’t start until the Pentagon actually transfers him, and it should begin that process immediately." She added, in an important reminder of the other men still held, "There are still dozens of other men trapped in the misery that is indefinite detention at Guantánamo. Time is running out for President Obama to fulfill his promise to close Guantánamo and prevent its injustice from tarnishing his legacy."
In the Guardian, Mark Fallon, the deputy commander of the former Criminal Investigative Task Force at Guantánamo, called Shahi’s torture "a shameful chapter for the Department of Defense and those who served in uniform," adding, "It was a command-sanctioned torture of a prisoner in custody. It was unwarranted, unnecessary, and obviously totally ineffective."
The Guardian described how, in his book, Slahi "recalled being so broken by the torture that he would tell his tormentors whatever they wished to hear." He wrote that he told his interrogators, "I don’t care, as long as you are pleased. So if you want to buy, I am selling." He was then moved into housing reserved for cooperative prisoners, where "he was permitted to watch TV and maintain a modest garden," and where he wrote his memoirs.
As Fallon described it, accurately, Slahi’s torture “left us with a detainee [who] continued to be held for years, not based on what he did to us, but based on what we did to him.”
76 men are still held at Guantánamo, and, with the decisions taken about Slahi and Abdul Zahir, 31 of those men have now been approved for release.
In its press release, the ACLU also noted that one piece of evidence reviewed by the PRB, which was not made publicly available at the time, was a letter of support submitted by a former military guard at Guantánamo who was assigned to Slahi for 10 months. The guard described Slahi as "polite, friendly, and respectful," and also stated, "I did not see or hear support for violence of fundamentalist Islam from him." Many years ago, I was contacted by a former guard who wanted to explain how positive his experiences of Slahi had been while he was guarding him, although he did not want to be publicly identified. It may be that this guard is the same man — although it is almost certain, of course, that Slahi would similarly have impressed other guards.
A campaign to free Slahi, initiated by the ACLU, secured international support. As the ACLU noted in its press release, "The ACLU and Change.org have collected more than 100,000 signatures calling for his release. The petitions have gathered high-profile supporters, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Roger Waters. In the U.K., several members of Parliament signed a letter urging the British government to call on the U.S. to release Slahi."
The other man to be approved for release, Abdul Zahir (ISN 753), who is 43- or 44-years old, had initially been accused of a grenade attack on a vehicle carrying Toronto Star journalist Kathleen Kenna, her husband Hadi Dadashian, photographer Bernard Weil, and an Afghan driver in Zormat on March 4, 2002, but by the time of his PRB the attack, which he had always denied being involved in, was not mentioned. The summary for his PRB also noted that he was "probably misidentified" as an individual "who had ties to al-Qa’ida weapons facilitation activities."
In their final determination, the board members considered Zahir’s "candor in discussing his time in Afghanistan and involvement with the Taliban, [his] limited role in Taliban structure and activities, and the assessment that [he] was probably misidentified as the individual who had ties to al-Qaeda weapons facilitation."
The board members also noted that he "has not expressed any intent to reengage in extremist activity or espoused any anti-U.S. sentiment that would indicate he views the U.S. as an enemy," and also "considered [his] efforts to pursue educational and treatment opportunities while at Guantánamo, and [his] available support network and job skills to assist with reintegration."
At the same time that the Periodic Review Secretariat released the final determinations for Slahi and Zahir, they also announced seven forthcoming reviews, all for prisoners initially regarded as "high-value detainees" — Muhammad Rahim (ISN 10029), an Afghan, on August 2, Guleed Hassan Ahmed (ISN 10023), a Somali, on August 4, Mohd Farik bin Amin aka Zubair (ISN 10021), a Malaysian, on August 9, Bashir bin Lap aka Lillie (ISN 10022), another Malaysian, on August 11, Mustafa Faraj Muhammad Masud al-Jadid al-Uzaybi aka Abu Faraj al-Libi (ISN 10017), a Libyan, on August 16, Encep Nurjaman aka Hambali (ISN 10019), an Indonesian, on August 18, and Zayn al-Ibidin Muhammed Husayn aka Abu Zubaydah (ISN 10016) on August 23.