End 20 Years Of Injustice

Trump’s Personal Prisoners at Guantánamo: The Five Men Cleared for Release But Still Held

Guantánamo prisoner Abdul Latif Nasir, held at the prison without charge or trial for nearly 18 years.

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By Andy Worthington, November 19, 2019

The nearly three-year long presidency of Donald Trump is so strewn with scandals and cruel policies that some lingering injustices are being forgotten. A case in point is the prison at Guantánamo Bay, which is rarely reported in the mainstream media, with the valiant exception of Carol Rosenberg at the New York Times, who continues to visit the prison regularly, often being the only reporter in the whole of the U.S. to subject the working of the facility to outside scrutiny.

And yet the longer Guantánamo remains open, the more cruel and unacceptable is its fundamentally unjust premise: that men seized nearly two decades ago can be held indefinitely without charge or trial. This was grotesque under George W. Bush, who responded by releasing nearly two-thirds of the 779 men held since the prison opened on January 11, 2002, and it remained so under Barack Obama, who, shamefully, promised to close it but never did, although he did release nearly 200 more men, via two review processes that he established.

However, a new low point has been reached under Donald Trump, who has no interest in releasing any prisoners under any circumstances, and, with one exception, has been true to his word. For the 40 men still held, the prison has become a tomb.

For nine of the 40 men still held, there is, allegedly, some semblance of justice, because they are facing or have faced military commission trials, but the truth is that the commissions are a broken system, incapable of delivering justice.

For the 31 other men, however, their abandonment is almost complete.

26 were judged to be "too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution" by the first high-level government review process established by Obama, the Guantánamo Review Task Force — or they were recommended for prosecution, until some of the few convictions secured in the military commissions were overturned on appeal, further discrediting the process.

64 men in total, from both these categories, ended up being put through a second high-level government review process, the Periodic Review Boards (PRBs), a parole-type process that led to recommendations that 38 of them should be released.

However, for the 26 other men not recommended for release, the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, with his enthusiasm for keeping Guantánamo open, and not releasing any prisoners, has, not uncoincidentally, led to the Periodic Review Board process, which is ongoing, becoming completely discredited, because not a single prisoner has been recommended for release since Trump took office. I examined the failures of the PRBs most recently in an article entitled, No Escape from Guantánamo: Former Child Prisoner Boycotts the Broken Periodic Review Board Process, Describes It As Hopeless.

This is a scandal that ought to be much better known, and complained about, but for five other men, Trump’s disgraceful enthusiasm for not releasing any prisoners under any circumstances means that I feel justified in describing them, very bluntly, as his personal prisoners.

Three of them were recommended for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2009, but were not released under Obama, while two others were recommended for release by the Periodic Review Boards in 2016, but didn’t manage to be freed before Obama left office.

I have written about these men regularly since Trump took office, but it is always good for there to be reminders of these men’s plight, and most recently this came about via an article in Britain’s newspaper the Independent, written by Andrew Buncombe.

To be fair to Donald Trump, Buncombe recognized that two of the five men — Ridah Bin Saleh Al-Yazidi, a Tunisian, and Muieen Adeen Al-Sattar, who has Rohingya ancestry, and who were both approved for release in 2010 — are in a plight that is not of Trump’s making, although he could, and should address it. As Buncombe described it, "Neither Sattar or Yazidi currently have legal representation. Within the legal community that has dealt with Guantánamo, there are concerns about the mental health of all the detainees, but particularly in regard to these two, who have both been detained for more than 17 years."

While this, in itself, is an extraordinarily depressing predicament for any Guantánamo prisoner to be in, and is, in particular, an indictment of the indifference of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the plight of the other three men now rests squarely on Donald Trump’s shoulders.

The most well-known of the three is Abdul Latif Nasir, a Moroccan, whose release was recommended by his Periodic Review Board in 2016. As Buncombe described it, "In Morocco, his family prepared for him to start a new life. A brother in Casablanca, who owned a pool-cleaning and water purification company, lined up a job. Someone arranged a place for him to live. His family even found him a bride." Nasir himself packed his few possessions: "his reading glasses and a 2,000 word English-Arabic dictionary he himself had created."

"But," as Buncombe proceeded to explain, "it was not to be." For two reasons, "There was to be no homecoming celebration, no job cleaning the swimming pools of upper-class Casablancans. No wedding ceremony. No chance for Latif to pursue his dream of becoming a mathematics teacher."

The first of these reasons was "a bureaucratic delay between him being cleared for release by the U.S., and the formal agreement to accept him by the government in Rabat," as Obama’s presidency neared its end, while the second was a tweet, posted on January 3, 2017 — two weeks before his inauguration — by Donald Trump. "There should be no further releases from Gitmo," Trump wrote, adding, "These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back on to the battlefield."

In a comment made recently to one of his lawyers, Latif wrote about the crushing disappointment of being recommended for release, but not being freed. "To prevent someone from his freedom after he’s been cleared is a very painful thing," Latif said, adding, "No one can understand this kind of disappointment — to be cleared by six high American agencies and after that someone comes and says 'no you have to stay here.' I have no words to describe it."

Clive Stafford Smith, the founder of the legal rights group Reprieve, which has represented numerous Guantánamo prisoners, recently visited Latif, and said, "This has been one of the most catastrophic episodes in the history of criminal law. Abdul Latif’s situation is worse than anyone’s. It’s worse than a prisoner on death row, because at least the death row prisoner can appeal."

He added, "Abdul Latif is in the worst position. He was told he was free, and now he has been told he has to stay there forever."

Latif’s family includes five sisters and two brothers, and when family members spoke to him earlier in the year, they said that he was "stressed, angry and lost hope about having a life outside Gitmo." They say that he told them, "So many years were lost of my life, even three years after the clearance have passed, I could have returned to my country and to my homeland and could have lived freely. Now I don’t have any hope any more." 

As Buncombe explained, "They spoke with him recently and assured him they are still working for his release," which, they said, was "something that made him sound better." His brother Mustafa said, "We want people to know that Latif is a person. Just by looking at his face you’d see his innocence, [that he] loves nature and has a good character. He is someone who wishes good upon everyone, everyone testifies to this, neighbors and family, people know him by name due to his personality, his truthfulness, character, devotion. He is loved by many."

The other man approved for release by a PRB but not freed is Sufyian Barhoumi, an Algerian, represented by Shayana Kadidal of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, who told the Independent that he met recently with Barhoumi. "He was surprisingly well," he said, adding, "One of the things about these guys is their relentless optimism." 

As Andrew Buncombe described it, Kadidal said that, "while many consider keeping Guantánamo open an insanity, there are considerable interests in doing so. For Trump, the interest may be political, for the military, it may be strategic, for the numerous military-appointed lawyers defending the 9/11 accused, it may be professional and financial." As Kadidal said, "The military wants to keep running a prison, so that it can have a place to send people in the future." 

The other man approved for release but still held is Tawfiq Al-Bihani, a Yemeni approved for release in 2010. Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who represents a number of Guantánamo prisoners, including Abdul Latif Nasir and Tawfiq Al-Bihani, told Buncombe that the men had "asked different questions of her." Bihani, she said, wants to know "what the government has to say about him," and she explained that it was "hard to provide an answer; the habeas petition filed in 2017 has still not yet answered." As she said, "He reads and understands the litigation. We don’t know the reason he is being held. He was due to be transferred to Saudi Arabia. We don’t know why he was not put on the plane." 

Latif, meanwhile, "is concerned about whether he should prepare to spend the rest of his life at Guantánamo." As Buncombe described it, "He says lessons and programmes once provided by the authorities have been reduced. He says the library now receives no new books. The only English news channel is Russia Today. The Arabic channel is the Lebanese Al Mayadeen."

As Sullivan-Bennis put it, "His main concern is living a life that constitutes a life. He feels like they are only being kept alive." She added that, nowadays, the prisoners "had limited interest in spending time together" because, as they describe it, "what are we talking about? Something that happened in 2006? Nothing." 

However, she said of Latif that "if you create an atmosphere of education, he will immerse himself in what he is interested in. For example, if he is interested in English, he will all the time be talking about English. If he is interested in art, he will be talking about art. The problem is that detainees have nothing to do." 

Nearly 18 years after Guantánamo opened, it is surely unacceptable that these men are still entombed in the prison, apparently with no prospect of release — and with a total lack of interest from Donald Trump.

The US desperately needs to relocate its conscience.