End 16 Years Of Injustice

Guantánamo’s Lost Diaspora: How Donald Trump’s Closure of the Office Monitoring Ex-Prisoners Endangers U.S. National Security

A Miami Herald graphic abut the 30 countries that took in prisoners from Guantánamo who were not their nationals using the presidency of Barack Obama.

By Andy Worthington, November 19, 2018

The presence of Donald Trump in the White House has been an unmitigated disaster for anyone concerned about the ongoing existence of the prison at Guantánamo Bay, and any notion of justice regarding those held there, or, indeed, those freed from the prison over the years.

For Trump, the notion that there might be anything wrong — or un-American — about imprisoning people forever without any meaningful form of due process clearly doesn’t exist. Since he took office nearly two years ago, only one prisoner has been released, out of the 41 men still held at the prison when Obama took office; and that man, Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi, was only released, and transferred to ongoing imprisonment in Saudi Arabia, because of a plea deal he agreed to in his military commission trial proceedings back in 2014.

Trump, clearly, has no desire to meaningfully continue the parole-type process — the Periodic Review Boards — that Barack Obama initiated to release lower-level prisoners who could demonstrate that they didn’t pose a threat to the U.S. Indeed, his contempt for the process is such that he has shut down any possibility of the two men whose release was approved by Obama’s PRBs, but who didn’t get released before Obama left office, being freed by shutting down the State Department office that dealt with resettlements — the office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure.

This was a move that also prevents three other men approved for release by an earlier review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, from being freed, but it also has wider ramifications, as the envoy’s office not only negotiated the release of prisoners (especially to third countries, when they couldn’t be safely repatriated), but also monitored released prisoners — benevolently, to try to ensure that they were being treated well, but also less benevolently, to try to ensure that no one released might end up doing anything to harm the U.S. or its interests.

We first reported the problems with the demise of the envoy’s office back in April 2017, and are pleased that it resurfaced again last week in a McClatchy Newspapers report by Carol Rosenberg, the indefatigable reporter who has been covering Guantánamo for the Miami Herald since the prison first opened, nearly 17 years ago.

Rosenberg’s article, "Trump closed an office that tracked ex-Gitmo inmates. Now we don’t know where some went," began by focusing on the case of Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a troubled Syrian ex-prisoner who was re-settled in Uruguay four years ago, but then persistently sought to escape his new home. As Rosenberg explained, at Guantánamo "he was an incessant irritant to his American jailers — a committed hunger striker who underwent painful forced feedings to protest his detention without charge," while in Uruguay he "never really settled, unlike the other five former detainees who were sent there with him. He organized protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo and resumed his hunger strikes there to protest separation from his family."

Lee Wolosky, the second of Obama’s two envoys, told Rosenberg, "We worked pretty hard to make sure that he stayed in Uruguay in the Obama administration." However, throughout that time, "Dhiab found his way to Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela and at one point on a flight to South Africa, only to be sent back to Uruguay through U.S. intervention." In 2017, after Obama left office, "he also used a forged passport to fly to Morocco, which returned him to Uruguay."

Jose Gonzalez, an "executive adviser to Uruguay’s Interior Minister," told McClatchy that, for his latest escape, Dhiab "walked across the Uruguay-Brazilian border, took a bus to Sao Paolo and caught a flight to Turkey. The Turkish Embassy in Washington said a search of Interior Ministry records found no evidence that he had arrived there." Since then, however, he "has been detected in south central Turkey where he has slipped in and out of the rebel held Idlib province, controlled by the al-Qaida affiliate al Nusra Front, according to a Syrian diplomatic source, citing Syrian intelligence." It was also explained that his mother "is receiving medical care in Turkey."

In one telling anecdote, Wolosky explained why Donald Trump’s dismissive attitude to the office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure was so troubling. He "said he had been receiving phone calls from foreign envoys and other concerned people — even though he left government at the close of the Obama administration — because 'they have no one to talk to in the U.S. government.'"

He described the disappearance of Dhiab as "particularly worrisome," noting, "He was not only damaged but he was someone who I thought was dangerous."

That remains to be seen, as it always seemed to me that Dhiab, whose case I have studied closely for many years, was more of a threat to himself than anyone else, but at least his situation seems to have awakened some people within the Trump administration to the threat posed by shutting down the envoy’s office.

An aide at the House Foreign Affairs Committee anonymously told McClatchy that Syria was "the worst place for an angry [former detainee] to turn up." U.S. intelligence and State Department officials, meanwhile, "would not discuss Dhiab’s whereabouts," although a spokesperson, Alexander Vagg, said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently instructed the Counterterrorism Bureau to start addressing "any issues stemming from the arrangements made between the Obama administration and foreign partners regarding the resettlement of former Guantánamo Bay detainees."

Other problems with the closure of the envoy’s office

While George W. Bush had few meaningful deals involving security issues that were put in place for former prisoners, the Obama administration "took a different approach to detainee transfers," as Carol Rosenberg described it, adding that Obama and his officials "negotiated deals with 30 countries to take in men who could not be sent to their home countries because of domestic instability or poor human rights records, generally in small numbers and with specifically fashioned social welfare arrangements." As Rosenberg also put it, "Terms of the deals have never been made public but Obama administration officials said the host countries would provide housing, living stipends and language classes if necessary to help them adapt. As a rule, the host countries agreed to not provide them travel documents for their first two years."

As Rosenberg also explained, "By the time Trump took office, the State Department special envoy office had sent 142 men to 30 nations for rehabilitation, resettlement or safe haven — and another 52 back to their homelands. Most of the resettled captives went to Europe, Africa and Persian Gulf nations."

However, after Trump became president, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson closed the envoy’s office and "assigned the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs to handle any problems that arose in the transfers" — a move that House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), called "ineffective," according to the committee aide who spoke to Rosenberg. Then, as she put it, "deals with some third countries began to unravel."

In April, as reported here, here, here, here and here, Senegal repatriated two former prisoners from Libya who had been taken in two years previously, "declaring," as McClatchy put it, that "it was done with its obligation to host them."

As I had noted, one of the two men, Omar Khalifa Mohammed Abu Bakr (aka Omar Mohammed Khalifh, but described by McClatchy as Awad Khalifa), was desperately afraid of being repatriated. On return, the two men vanished, and Khalifa’s attorney, Ramzi Kassem, said that "efforts to locate Khalifa through 'the United Nations and other entities' have failed." Kassem added, as McClatchy put it, that, "Had Khalifa known he could be forcibly returned to Libya [he] would have refused to leave Guantánamo in April 2016." As Kassem put it, "As horrible as Guantánamo is, and it is horrible, my client has good reason to fear that Libya would be even worse."

In May, following a Washington Post article, we reported how 23 men released from Guantánamo in 2016 but sent to the United Arab Emirates, where they were supposed to be put through a rehabilitation program, have instead "disappeared into what their American attorneys now believe to be a detention setting," as McClatchy put it. Gary Thompson, an attorney "who has tried to check on his client, Ravil Mingazov, an ethnic Tatar from Russia and a former Red Army ballet dancer who fled his homeland in 2000 and was captured in Pakistan two years later," told McClatchy, "They’re incommunicado." Thompson explained how Mingazov, despite being approved for release, had "feared persecution as a Muslim if he returned to his homeland," but, as he added, "Of course our current State Department could not care less and our own country is checked out. That leaves Ravil and these other detainees entirely at the mercy of the UAE government."

Lawyers for all 23 men sent a letter to the UAE’s foreign minister in Abu Dhabi in February, urging the men to be allowed "to safely rebuild their lives in the UAE." However, they have not received a reply.

McClatchy also had updates that we didn’t know about. Five former prisoners were sent to Kazakhstan in December 2014, but only two are left. Their lawyers told McClatchy that they "felt isolated with no prospects for assimilation in the non-Arabic speaking society," and although one of the five, a Yemeni, "died of kidney failure from a longstanding illness soon after he arrived," two Tunisians "relocated to Mauritania with the assistance of the International Red Cross" after the Guantánamo envoy’s office was closed, as attorney Mark Denbeaux, who represented one of the men, explained. Carol Rosenberg added that State Department officials "would not comment on whether they were even aware of the transfer."

Carol Rosenberg also noted that only four out of a total of eight prisoners sent to Slovakia by the Obama administration between 2010 and 2014 "are believed to still be there but the government did not respond to emails asking how many left and where they went," while the State Department "likewise declined to discuss individual detainee transfer cases."

One of the eight, Rafiq Alhami (described by McClatchy as Rafik al Hami), "returned to his native Tunisia in a repatriation that was worked [out] with the Obama administration," as I discussed at the time. Once there, however, he "fell into a deep depression and disappeared," according to Mark Denbeaux, who was also his attorney. He then reportedly ended up in Syria, where he was killed.

Fortunately, as Carol Rosenberg explained, "not every deal had a bad ending."

As she explained, the Obama administration "sent 18 former Uighur prisoners — former Chinese citizens whom a federal court found unlawfully detained by the U.S. military — across the globe to get them out of Guantánamo. Six were sent to the East Pacific nation of Palau, and moved on to Turkey with advance notice to the State Department. Two left El Salvador in 2013, also likely for Turkey, with notice to the United States."

Dan Fried, the first of the Guantánamo envoys, said that "when he negotiated the Uighur transfers the Bush administration had 'already conceded' they were held unlawfully so there was no legal need to restrict their movements." However, with the other deals, as he put it, "one of the downsides of abolishing the Gitmo office is there was nobody in the State Department assigned to actually follow up. It may have sounded like a good idea to somebody. But who’s in charge of contacting, liaising the governments to find out what’s going on?"

One final story concerns the Yemeni Abdul Malik Wahab al-Rahabi, who was sent to Montenegro in June 2016, five months after another Yemeni was sent there. He "described it as 'a beautiful, beautiful' welcoming country, so much so that they helped him bring his wife and teenage daughter to join him," but "the language was too hard for his daughter, making it impossible for her to further her education. And his wife missed the company of fellow Arabic speakers."

The two-year stipend and housing provided by the government of Montenegro was running out, al-Rahabi told McClatchy, adding that he couldn’t find a job. As McClatchy put it, "He had hoped to make a living by selling artwork he took with him from Guantánamo, but his Twitter marketing campaign didn’t work out." He then arranged to move to Sudan, and, once an agreement was in place, "Montenegro brought me this travel document for refugees. Like a passport, you know," he said by phone from Sudan. "I said, please make sure to ask the United States if there is no problem with me if I travel. I don’t want to go to Guantánamo or another prison."

As McClatchy described it, al-Rahabi said that the government of Montenegro "notified the U.S. Embassy, which did not object, and then bought tickets for his family," adding, "They traveled to Khartoum via Istanbul in a journey that he described as both scary and thrilling. It was his first unshackled flight in nearly two decades, one where he could both look out a window and listen."

"I was afraid maybe in the airport they would refuse, tell me no. But they gave me a visa for me and my daughter and my wife," al-Rahabi said. In Sudan, he added, "he has found other Yemenis who can’t go home to the civil war torn nation."

He also said, "Life here is so difficult," and explained that "he has yet to find work — or sell the art he took from Cuba to the Balkans to Northeast Africa." However, as he also said, "it is good for another side for me and my family. Same language, same culture, it’s easy to get close with the people, buy something, go there and there and speak with everyone."

In contrast to al-Rahabi’s openness and fundamental optimism, Carol Rosenberg noted, "Neither Trump State Department officials nor U.S. intelligence would comment on whether they were aware of the move."