End 22 Years Of Injustice

Periodic Review Boards at Guantánamo: Another Yemeni Cleared for Release, Another Approved for Ongoing Detention

Saeed Jarabh

Saeed Jarabh, in a photo from Guantánamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

By Andy Worthington, March 22, 2015

It was, on paper at least, a good week last week for Saeed Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah Sarem Jarabh (ISN 235), a 36-year old Yemeni prisoner who has been held at Guantánamo for over a third of his life -- since he was 23.

The good news on paper -- almost certainly the best news Saeed Jarabh has received at Guantánamo -- is that he has been approved for release by a Periodic Review Board, the review process established in 2013 to review the cases of all the prisoners who were not approved for release by President Obama's high-level, interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2009-10 -- with the exception of the ten men who are facing, or have faced trials. The review boards 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.

The Unclassified Summary of Final Determination for Jarabh, which was dated March 5, 2015, but wasn't made publicly available until last week, stated that his review board, by consensus, determined that "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 board members added:

In making this determination, the Board considered the fact that the detainee was a low level fighter and lacked a leadership position in al-Qa'ida or the Taliban. The Board also considered the detainee's improvement in behavior at Guantánamo over the past four years and the lack of indications that the detainee harbors anti-American sentiments, extremist beliefs, or intentions to reengage. The Board also considered the detainee's willingness to sever ties with family members who harbor extremist beliefs and the detainee's statements regarding his strong desire to return to his family, while also noting the family's willingness and ability to support the detainee in the event of transfer.

Saeed Jarabh's PRB took place on January 27, and as I explained in an article at the time, the military representatives assigned to represent him stated that he "desires to return home to Yemen and reunite with his wife, his aging parents, and especially with his 2 daughters," adding, poignantly, "His oldest daughter is engaged to be married in the next two years and Saeed dreams of being there on this special day for his daughter."

They also stated, "While detained at Guantánamo, Saeed has maximized every opportunity available to him for personal growth and education … [H]e has pursued the study of English and Spanish languages, both spoken and written. This effort will greatly benefit him should he be transferred to a country other than Yemen."

This will be necessary, as was noted in Jarabh's final determination, because the review board also recommended that he should be "transferred to a third country with appropriate support, subject to appropriate security assurances as determined by the Guantánamo Detainee Transfer Working Group."

I have highlighted the problems the entire U.S. establishment has with Yemen in previous articles, as well as my refusal to accept the response to these problems. What it boils down to is that the security situation is perceived to be so problematical in Yemen that no one with the authority to release prisoners (either in the administration or in Congress) will contemplate repatriating Yemeni prisoners at all.

From January 2010 until November last year, this was a huge problem. In the whole of that period, only one Yemeni was repatriated, and it was not until four months ago that the Obama administration finally responded to this impasse by finding third countries who were prepared to take in Yemenis approved for release. Twelve Yemenis have now been freed -- in Georgia and Slovakia, in Kazakhstan, and in Estonia and Oman.

I hope you share my profound unease with a political establishment that will not repatriate prisoners whose release was only authorized, at a high level of the government, because they were deemed not to pose a sufficient threat to the United States to carry on holding. It stinks of the fearmongering and overreaction that has been such a blight on America's behavior since 9/11.

More particularly, for Saeed Jarabh, although he is the eighth man to have his release approved by a PRB (out of 12 cases decided), the decision offers no guarantee that he will be leaving Guantánamo anytime soon. Although two men cleared for release by a PRB have been freed (a Kuwaiti and a Saudi), five of the other six are Yemenis, and there has, so far, been no movement on securing third countries prepared to offer them new homes. At present, then, a Yemeni approved for release by a PRB merely joins the 43 other Yemenis approved for release over five years ago by the Guantánamo Review Task Force.

This is disgraceful, of course, because every day that a prisoner approved for release is still held undermines any faith anyone might have in the systems set up by the U.S. to administer anything resembling justice.

A PRB recommends Khalid Qasim for ongoing imprisonment

Khalid Qasim

Khalid Qasim, in a photo from Guantánamo included in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

On March 6, the day after the decision about Saeed Jarabh, another Yemeni prisoner, Khalid Ahmed Qasim (ISN 242), who is 38 years old, had his ongoing imprisonment approved by a review board. In its Unclassified Summary of Final Determination, dated March 6, 2015, the board, by consensus, determined that "continued law of war detention of the detainee remains necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States."

The board members added:

In making this determination, the Board considered the significant derogatory information regarding the detainee's past involvement in activities in Afghanistan to include basic and advanced training from al-Qa'ida and was concerned about his susceptibility to recruitment due to his current mindset. The Board noted his high level of significant noncompliance while in detention, including persistent and serious offenses against the guard force, as well as his expression of extremist views and anti-American sentiments while in detention.

While I would take issue with the claim that Qasim received "advanced training from al-Qa'ida," which I do not believe has been proved -- and I note that, in the allegations against him prior to his PRB, it was only suggested that he "may have fought for the Taliban in or near Kabul and Bagram" -- there is no doubt that he has been badly behaved since being in U.S. custody, both physically and verbally.

However, we are in a place we should not be when we use someone's violent reaction to the torture, abuse and lawlessness of Guantánamo, over a 13-year period, as a justification to continue holding them, and adding unsubstantiated fears about what the prisoner in question would do if released does not make it any more acceptable.

Only people accused of involvement in acts of terrorism should continue to be held at Guantánamo (and only if they are facing trials), and no one should continue to be held solely because of their behaviour in prison or, preventatively, based on suppositions of what they might do in future.

That is a slippery slope that, like so much to do with Guantánamo and the "war on terror," dangerously undermines the values in which the United States claims to believe; fundamentally, in terms of the law, that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and that you can only be imprisoned for something you have done, not something you might do.

For Khalid Qasim, the only hope is that his case will be reviewed in six months, and he will the opportunity to try and persuade the board again that he should no longer be held. As his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of the legal action charity Reprieve, told the review board at his review on February 4, "Let’s face it, his disciplinary record is not good." However, as the Guardian reported, he added that Qasim "should be transferred because other Guantánamo Bay prisoners with disciplinary problems had been resettled without becoming security threats to the United States."

As his review board put it, "The Board found the detainee credible in his desire to improve himself and his behavior. The Board looks forward to reviewing the detainee's file in six months and hopes to see the detainee make progress toward moving to communal living. The Board also encourages the detainee to be open to working with the medical staff to address issues contributing to his noncompliance."

This indicates that Qasim is in solitary confinement, and would also suggest that the board would like him somehow to be sedated or otherwise addressing his "noncompliance" through pharmaceutical or perhaps psychological means. All of which only reinforces my belief that, while the PRBs are useful for demonstrating risk mitigation to Congress and that significant part of the U.S. public who are fed their news by right-wing media outlets, it fails to address the fundamental problem I highlighted above -- that no one should be held any more at Guantánamo unless they are accused of involvement with terrorism, and are facing a trial.