End 22 Years Of Injustice

Under Trump, Periodic Review Boards Continue at Guantánamo, But At A Glacial Pace

A composite image of Donald Trump and Guantánamo.

By Andy Worthington, May 10, 2017

Since taking office nearly four months ago, Donald Trump has threatened much, but delivered little on Guantánamo. Leaked draft executive orders showed him wanting to revive the use of torture and to set up new CIA "black sites," as well as sending captured Islamic State fighters to Guantánamo, but it seems that wiser heads talked him down. There was a deluge of open criticism about his torture plans, including from the CIA and some of his own appointees for senior government roles, and while the plan to bring IS members to Guantánamo didn’t become a headline issue, it seems certain that, behind the scenes, sober advisers told him that he would need a new military authorization to do so, and, in any case, the best venue for prosecuting alleged terrorists is in federal court.

Nevertheless, Trump has failed to release anyone from Guantánamo, despite holding five men approved for release under Barack Obama out of the 41 men still held. Just ten are facing, or have faced trials, while the 26 others are eligible for Periodic Review Boards, a process that was first dreamt up in the early months of Obama’s presidency, but that only began in November 2013.

A high-level review process consisting 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 PRBs were set up as a parole-type process to review the cases of men regarded by the previous review process — 2009’s Guantánamo Review Task Force — as being too dangerous to release, even though the task force members also conceded that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, meaning that the so-called evidence was unreliable.

By the time the PRBs began, there were 41 men in this category, and to these were added 23 others, who had been recommended for prosecution by the task force, until the basis for prosecutions rather embarrassingly collapsed under scrutiny before appeals court judges.

Of the 64 men eligible for PRBs, 38 were approved for release before Obama left office, and all but two were freed. For the 26 others, recommended for ongoing imprisonment, the PRBs continue to review their cases — every six months in file reviews, which are purely administrative, although the prisoners' lawyers are able to submit any new material they think might be helpful, and every three years via full reviews, in which, as with the initial reviews, the prisoners are questioned by video link by the board members.

In practice, full reviews have been taking place between one and two years after the initial reviews, and when I last wrote about the PRBs, nearly three months ago, eleven full reviews had taken place. The first seven had led to the men in question being approved for release (including two in December 2016), but the last three (another in December and two in January, just before Obama left office) had approved the men’s ongoing imprisonment. The eleventh review, which took place on February 9, was for Omar al-Rammah (ISN 1017), a Yemeni kidnapped in 2002 in Georgia, who had only recently managed to get in touch with his family.

Al-Rammah had his case reviewed in July 2016 and was approved for ongoing imprisonment in August, but he then had a file review in November, which led to his second full review. As in all cases when second full reviews have been recommended, this was because the board members decided that "a significant question [was] raised as to whether [his] continued detention [was] warranted."

However, in a sign of how everything seems to have slowed down at Guantánamo since Trump took office, no decision has yet been taken in al-Rammah’s case — or, at least, no decision has been publicly announced.

In addition, since I last wrote about the PRBs, three other full reviews have taken place — on February 28, for Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al Hajj (ISN 1457), a Yemeni, on March 21 for Saifullah Paracha (ISN 1094) , a Pakistani, and on March 28 for Haroon al-Afghani (ISN 3148), an Afghan.

Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al Hajj’s second full review

Sharqawi al-Hajj, in a photo included in the classified military files released by Wikileaks in 2011.

Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al Hajj, described by the government as "a prominent financial and travel facilitator for al-Qa'ida," had his case reviewed last March leading to a recommendation for his ongoing imprisonment on April 14, 2016. A file review took place in November, leading to his second full review. The only statement on his behalf included in the publicly released documents was from his personal representative (a member of the military assigned to represent him), who discussed how he "made the decision to not attend his first board" — which doomed his chances of release — "because he did not feel confident sitting before the board … without having his lawyer present." It was not explained why his attorney had not been present.

The personal representative also described how he "has learned to appreciate other people's cultures which he had not before," adding that he is "actively participating in classes to prepare for life after Guantánamo and he speaks English quite well." He also noted that his attorney "has been in contact with his family to confirm that they will support him after his departure from GTMO," adding, "He is open to repatriation anywhere and feels he is capable of working in other cultures since he has learned to work with other detainees in GTMO."

Saifullah Paracha’s second full review

Saifullah Paracha, in a photo taken by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and made available to his family.

Saifullah Paracha, a Pakistani businessman in his 60s, described by the government as a "facilitator on behalf of al-Qa'ida senior leaders and operational planners," had his case reviewed last March and was approved for ongoing imprisonment on April 7, 2016. A file review took place in September, leading to his second review.

In the submissions on his behalf, his attorney, David Remes, addressed two issues that arose in his first review that led to his ongoing imprisonment being recommended: firstly, as Remes put it, "he did not persuade the Board that if he resumed his business career, he could or would avoid dealings with nefarious business contacts," and secondly "he did not indicate a sense of responsibility for his involvement with al-Qaeda or an awareness of the impact of his actions."

On the first point, Remes noted, "To meet the Board's first concern, Mr. Paracha will wind down his business affairs and retire when he returns to Pakistan. Mr. Paracha resolved to retire even apart from the Board's concern. He accepts that he is too old and his health too precarious to go back into business. He feels the tug of family. Mr. Paracha is understandably concerned for the financial security of his family, but he has indicated that he has sufficient assets to allow him and his wife to live comfortably. His family members in Pakistan and America are ready, willing, and able to provide financial support. Reprieve, with its U.N.-funded 'Life after Guantánamo' program and strong presence in Pakistan, will also help support him."

On the second point, Remes noted that, "When the Board probed to determine whether Mr. Paracha accepts responsibility for his actions and recognizes their impact, Mr. Paracha did not understand what the Board was driving at. He never intended to promote what happened. But he fully accepts that he may have helped enable Al Qaeda to carry out the 9/11 attacks, and, as he says, this possibility will haunt him for the rest of his life."

On the work front, his personal representative added further information about why Paracha had said at his first review that he wanted to continue working. The representative explained that he was concerned because certain people have been "taking advantage of his family due to his detention." He added that Paracha "has declared on numerous occasions to me that he does not want to return home to become a businessman out of sheer drive for success, but instead wants to get his family's life in order."

The representative also stated, "A letter he received from his wife gave details of a civil case brought against Mr. Paracha, which has obviously distressed him. The case occurred as a result of his wife being conned into selling their family home. There are many debts as well as a Guantánamo related stigma facing the Paracha family, as long-term friends and neighbors have abandoned them, making it even more difficult for Paracha's wife to succeed as the head-of-household in a male-centric society. Mr. Paracha wants to settle the court case and help his children get situated so they can take over as the supporters for the family. He wants to be there for his wife and live a retired life."

He also stated, "He does not plan to make contacts with people he knew before GTMO but instead plans to be a father and supporter for his wife and children. This support does not have to be solely financial but can also present itself in the form of knowledge or emotional strength. The elderly are valued for holding the knowledge and experience of society, and Mr. Paracha intends to teach his children so they can become the family breadwinners. All three of his children have graduated from college. He would like to return home to help strengthen his family and is willing to comply with any conditions placed on him."

Haroon al-Afghani’s second full review

Haroon al-Afghani, in a photo included in the classified military files released by Wikileaks in 2011.

Haroon al-Afghani, described by the government as "a Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin commander who organized and led attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan and for a time served as an intermediary between senior al-Qa'ida members and other anti-coalition fighters," was one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo (in 2007). He had his case reviewed last June and was approved for ongoing imprisonment on July 14, 2016. A file review took place on January 11, 2017, leading to his second full review, for which a detailed submission was made by Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, his attorney, who works with Reprieve.

She explained that "a lot has happened" since she wrote a statement for his initial Board in June 2016, because, at that time, "I had not yet met him in person."

Having representation has obviously been helpful for al-Afghani, but it remains to be seen if this will be enough to secure a recommendation for his release — and, of course, it is unknown right now if Donald Trump would honor such a decision.

As she stated, however, "Since that point, Haroon and I have met over a dozen times in person. We have had many unclassified and classified phone calls in which we discussed the details of his case, his personal history, aspirations for his future, his view on American, Afghan, and Pakistani politics, his daughter [name redacted] and others he left behind, and how best to proceed."

She added, "I have had conversations not only with his family members but also with academic experts, whose focus is the geopolitics of the region in which he grew up. I have familiarized myself with his personal history and family life as well as the government's case against him. I have filed a habeas case in his name, requested, received, and reviewed both unclassified and classified factual returns produced by the government and upon which it relies to justify his detention. I write this statement now with the full weight of that information behind me. Haroon does not pose a threat to the security of our country. Haroon had never had an attorney before he met me, had never appeared before a single review board for any type of hearing before the one in which you met him. You first met him in a circumstance where he was admittedly intimidated and blatantly scared. We are grateful today for another bite at this all-important apple."

Aiming to fill in any gaps from his first hearing, she continued, "We have a plan for the future, an open explanation of the past, and several existing resources that were not presented previously."

She proceeded to describe al-Afghani as an "educated man," who "uses his time in Guantanamo as wisely as one can: learning. For his File Review, you will have seen his nearly hundred-page business proposal that he has spent the last couple of years researching. For this hearing, he submits yet another proposed project, an addendum, if you will, to his original plan for a honey bee farm named after his daughter."
She also noted, "With these submissions comes an important revelation: Haroon is productively and actively thinking about how to help himself up from a place we can all agree is quite low. He is not embittered, he is determined."

She also noted how Reprieve "has the unique capacity to follow Haroon after he is released, to wherever he may land, and facilitate the start-up capital to make his business dreams a reality. We have done this in the past for former detainees and are well-positioned to do the same for Haroon in the future."

She also stated, "As far as there being any possibility that Haroon would join a hostile organization or become a threat to the nation, I think a simple look through his communications over the past nearly 10 years will assuage those fears. A reflective man, the Haroon that I know talks of little else beside his daughter [name redacted] and the guilt he feels at having left her effectively fatherless. If the Board does not believe, as I do, that Haroon would reject violence for his own sake, it is clear that he would for hers."


Whilst it is reassuring that Donald Trump has not scrapped the PRBs, as eleven notoriously right-wing Republican Senators urged him to do shortly after taking office, it is dispiriting to see the whole process moving so slowly. The PRBs were never ideal, of course. Setting up a parole-type system to review the cases of men who have never been charged, tried or convicted of anything is obviously far from adequate, but they were useful in bypassing the obstacles to the release of prisoners that had been raised by Republican lawmakers, and in dealing with the evident caution exercised by the 2009 task force, which had described as "too dangerous to release" men who the PRBs could find no good reason to continue holding.

But fundamentally the PRBs were only ever acceptable when they led to recommendations for prisoners’ release — to get insignificant men out of Guantánamo when there seemed to be no other way of doing so. For the men whose ongoing imprisonment was recommended, it was not a vindication of their imprisonment without charge or trial, because nobody should be held without charge or trial, and it only adds insult to injury that the ongoing reviews are now proceeding at such a glacial pace.

Note: Since our last article about the PRBs in February, 15 prisoners have had file reviews, and 11 have had their ongoing imprisonment upheld: Said Bakush (ISN 685) on February 3, Mohammad Mani Ahmad al-Qahtani (ISN 63) on February 22, Abdullah Al Sharbi ( ISN 682) on February 28, Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani (ISN 1460) on February 1, and Ismael Ali Faraj Ali Bakush (ISN 708) February 8.

And just last week, six more decisions were announced, although they were taken in March: Mohd Farik bin Amin (ISN 10021) on March 8, Bashir bin Lap (ISN 10022) on March 8, Encep Nurjaman Hambali (ISN 10019) on March 20, Muhammad Rahim (ISN 10029) on March 20, Zayn al-Ibidin Muhammed Husayn (ISN 10016) on March 29, and Guleed Hassan Ahmed (ISN 10023) on March 29.

Four decisions have yet to be taken: Mustafa Faraj Muhammad Masud al-Jadid al-Uzaybi (ISN 10017), reviewed on March 8, Mohammed Ahmad Rabbani (ISN 1461), reviewed on March 29, Hassan Muhammad Ali Bin Attash (ISN 1456), reviewed on April 5, and Suhayl Abdul Anam al Sharabi (ISN 569), reviewed on April 19.

Two more reviews are forthcoming: Khalid Ahmed Qasim (ISN 242) on May 24, and Sanad Ali Yislam Al Kazimi (ISN 1453) on May 31.