End 21 Years Of Injustice

Review Boards Approve Ongoing Imprisonment of Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo’s Oldest Prisoner, and Two Others

Guantánamo prisoner Saifullah Paracha, 69, in a photo taken by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

By Andy Worthington, May 30, 2017

Three weeks ago, in Under Trump, Periodic Review Boards Continue at Guantánamo, But At A Glacial Pace, I looked in detail at the current state of the Periodic Review Boards at Guantánamo, a parole-type process that quietly dominated Barack Obama’s detention policy at Guantánamo throughout his eight years in office, when, despite promising to close the prison on his second day, he left the White House with 41 men still held, and Donald Trump threatening to send new prisoners there.

Trump’s threats, have, fortunately, not materialized — hopefully, because wiser heads have told him that federal courts are more than adequate for dealing with captured terrorists — and the Periodic Review Boards are still functioning, despite a call for them to be scrapped by eleven Republican Senators in February, although they have not recommended anyone for release since before Trump took office.

After Obama took office in January 2009, he set up a high-level review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, to assess what he should do with the 240 men he had inherited from George W. Bush. The task force recommended that 156 of the 240 should be released and 36 prosecuted, and that the 48 others should continue to be held without charge or trial because they were too dangerous to release — although the task force members conceded that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, meaning that the so-called evidence was actually unreliable.

Obama eventually released all but three of the 156 men recommended for release by the task force, and, in March 2011, authorized the ongoing imprisonment of the 48 "forever prisoners" via an executive order, in which he also promised to set up periodic reviews to regular reassess their cases. Those reviews — the PRBs — didn’t begin until November 2013, by which time 41 of the 48 were left at Guantánamo, and 23 of the 36 men recommended for prosecution had been added to the tally of those eligible for PRBs, after the trial system at Guantánamo — the military commissions — suffered the most critical blow to its legitimacy when appeals court judges ruled that, for the most part, it had been trying men for war crimes (in particular, providing material support for terrorism) that were not recognized war crimes at all, and had been invented by Congress.

Over the next three years, the 64 men eligible for PRBs had their cases reviewed by the high-level review board panels — 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 — and 38 were recommended for release. All but two of the men were freed before Obama left office, leaving 26 to face further reviews — purely administrative file reviews every six months, and full reviews, with the prisoners interviewed by video link from a secure facility on the U.S. mainland by the board members every three years.

In reality, what has happened with the reviews is that file reviews have, in 14 cases, recommended prisoners for second full reviews within a much shorter time scale — generally within a year of their initial review — if new information, from their lawyers, for example, has suggested that "a significant question is raised as to whether [their] continued detention is warranted."

In the first eight of these second full reviews — all under Obama — the men had their release recommended, and were all freed. However, in the five most recent decisions taken, the men’s ongoing imprisonment has been upheld. I wrote about two of these decisions — in the cases of Said Nashir (ISN 841) and Uthman Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Uthman (ISN 27) — in an article in February, but the other three decisions have only been made public in the last few weeks.

The recent decisions

In the first decision, taken on April 20, but only made public around May 18, the board upheld the ongoing imprisonment of Saifullah Paracha (ISN 1094), Guantánamo’s oldest prisoner. A 69-year old Pakistani businessman, Paracha met Osama bin Laden and was allegedly involved in plotting with al-Qaeda to attack U.S. targets, although he has been unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions, which has counted against him in the board members’ assessment.

As the board members stated, in making their determination, they "considered the detainee's past involvement in terrorist activities, including contacts and activities with Usama Bin Laden [sic], Kahlid Shakyh Muhammad [sic] and other senior al-Qa'ida members, facilitating financial transactions and travel, and developing media for al-Qa'ida."

They also, crucially, "considered [his] continued refusal to take responsibility for his involvement with al-Qa'ida," described their "inability to assess [his] mindset due to his complete lack of candor, and the significant inconsistencies between written submissions to the Board and [his] testimony concerning family support and future plans." They also "considered [his] indifference to the impact of his prior actions and the lack of evidence of significant mitigation measures."

In the second decision, taken on April 27, but only made public around May 23, the board upheld the ongoing imprisonment of Haroon al-Afghani (ISN 3148), an Afghan, and the penultimate prisoner to arrive at Guantánamo in 2007. At the time of his first review, in June 2016, he had only just secured the assistance of an attorney, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis of Reprieve, who made a detailed submission on his behalf for his second full review on March 28, discussing his business plans and his preoccupation with being reunited with his daughter.

However, in making their determination, the board members stated that they had "considered [his] past involvement in terrorist activities, including [his] membership and leadership position in Hezb-e-lslami Gulbuddin (HIG), his extensive time spent fighting Coalition forces, and his prior associations with al Qaida." They also considered what they described as his "continued refusal to acknowledge his involvement in hostilities after 2001 and his repeated attempts to minimize his role within the HIG despite facts to the contrary," and also noted that he "was not credible in his responses to questions from the Board, and often provided internally inconsistent and evasive responses." In their final point, the board members also "determined that [he] is susceptible to reengagement given his prior motivations for fighting and his inability to convey a change of mindset."

In the third decision, taken on March 30, but only made public around May 26, the board upheld the ongoing imprisonment of Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al Hajj (ISN 1457), a Yemeni long regarded as a facilitator for al-Qaeda.

In making their determination, the board members stated that they had "considered [his] history as a career jihadist, to include acting as a prominent financial and travel facilitator for al-Qa'ida, and his close ties to Usama Bin Laden and Khalid Shaykh Muhammad." They also noted their "inability to determine the credibility of [his] claims of a change in his extremist mindset due to his refusal to fully answer questions about pre-detention activities and motivations," and "also considered [his] recent statements in support of extremism and that [his] age, health, and length of detention do not sufficiently mitigate his current threat level." In conclusion, however, the board members "encourage[d] further compliance" and stated that they look forward to "hearing details regarding [his] activities and associations between his time in Bosnia and his capture."

One more decision following a second full review has yet to be taken — in the case of Omar al-Rammah (ISN 1017), a Yemeni seized in Georgia in 2002, who has only recently managed to get in touch with his family. His review took place on February 9, and it is not known why it is taking so long for a decision to be announced, although it is difficult not to conclude that it is because the board members could not reach a unanimous decision. Al-Rammah, as I have previously noted, was seized by Russian forces and apparently sold to the U.S., and he appears to have only been connected wth the conflict in Chechnya and not to have had anything whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda.

In addition, two more file reviews — the purely administrative six-month reviews — have reached decisions in the last three weeks, upholding the imprisonment of Mohammed Ahmad Rabbani (ISN 1461), one of two Pakistani brothers alleged to have been al-Qaeda facilitators, and Hassan bin Attash (ISN 1456), the younger brother of the "high-value detainee" Walid bin Attash, who is one of five men facing a trial for their alleged involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Hassan bin Attash was just 17 when he was seized in Pakistan and sent to Jordan for torture.

Two more file review decisions have yet to be taken — in the cases of Suhayl Abdul Anam al Sharabi (ISN 569), reviewed on April 19, and Khalid Ahmed Qasim (ISN 242), reviewed on May 24 — and Sanad Ali Yislam Al Kazimi (ISN 1453) is having a file review tomorrow, May 31.


In conclusion, it is important to note that an unfortunate by-product of the PRBs failing to approve anyone for release since Donald Trump took office is to create the impression that indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial is somehow acceptable, when, of course, that is completely untrue, and it is thoroughly depressing that, over 15 years after Guantánamo opened, the fundamental crime of its founders remains intact — the dangerous and mistaken suggestion that, in a country that claims to respect the rule of law, prisoners can be held indefinitely without either being charged and tried in federal court or held as prisoners of war with the protections of the Geneva Conventions.