By Andy Worthington
On Friday, as part of a court case, the Justice Department released the names of 55 of the 86 prisoners cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2009 by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, which consisted of officials from key government departments and the intelligence agencies. The Task Force’s final report was issued in January 2010.
Until now, the government has always refused to release the names, hindering efforts by the prisoners’ lawyers — and other interested parties — to publicize their plight.
The rationale for this was explained by Ambassador Daniel Fried, the State Department’s Special Envoy for the Closure of the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility, in June 2009, when he stated that “indiscriminate public disclosure of the decisions resulting from reviews by Guantánamo Review Task Force will impair the US Government’s ability effectively to repatriate and resettle Guantánamo detainees” under the executive order establishing a review of the prisoners’ cases, which was issued on President Obama’s second day in office in January 2009, at the same time that he promised to close Guantánamo within a year.
Ambassador Fried also explained that having the government solely in charge of the negotiations for resettlement was the best way forward, because, if prisoners’ lawyers became involved, “it could confuse, undermine, or jeopardize our diplomatic efforts with those countries and could put at risk our ability to move as many people to safe and responsible locations as might otherwise be the case.”
In the filing last Friday, officials explained why they had now changed their minds:
In the over two years since the Task Force completed its status reviews, circumstances have changed such that the decisions by the Task Force approving detainees for transfer no longer warrant protection. The efforts of the United States to resettle Guantánamo detainees have largely been successful — they have resulted in 40 detainees being resettled in third countries because of treatment or other concerns in their countries of origin since 2009. In addition, 28 detainees have been repatriated to their countries of origin since 2009. Consequently, the diplomatic and national security harms identified in the Fried Declaration are no longer as acute. In Respondents’ view, there is no longer a need to withhold from the public the status of detainees who have been approved for transfer.
Advocates for an end to the ongoing injustice at Guantánamo responded positively to the news. Zachary Katznelson, senior staff attorney on the national security project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the release of the names, said, “Today’s release is a partial victory for transparency, and it should also be a spur to action.” He added, “These men have now spent three years in prison since our military and intelligence agencies all agreed they should be released.”
It is indeed time that these men were released, as many of them were initially cleared for release five or six years ago, by military review boards under the Bush administration.
In June this year, I produced a report, “Guantánamo Scandal: The 40 Prisoners Still Held But Cleared for Release At Least Five Years Ago,” in which I identified 40 prisoners cleared for release under President Bush, but never freed, and 28 of those men turned up on the list released by the Justice Department. Most of the 28 were cleared for release in 2006 or 2007, but the list also included one man — Saleh al-Zabe (or al-Thabbi), a Yemeni — who was cleared for release on September 3, 2004.
The others who were cleared under President Bush — and again by President Obama’s Task Force — include 12 more Yemenis, the last five Tunisians in Guantánamo, three Algerians, a Saudi, Mohammed Tahamuttan (the last Palestinian), Umar Abdulayev (the last Tajik), the last three Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province), and Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison.
Of the 27 prisoners not originally cleared under President Bush, 13 are Yemenis, four are Syrians, four are Afghans, and one each are from Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates.
For the most numerous of these men, the Yemenis, the problem is that, just before the Task Force issued its final report, in January 2010, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, recruited in Yemen by an offshoot of al-Qaeda, tried and failed to blow up a plane bound for Detroit with a bomb in his underwear. As a result of that foiled plot, President Obama responded to a wave of hysteria by announcing a moratorium on releasing any cleared Yemenis from Guantánamo. This remains in place two years and eight months later, even though it is a monstrous injustice to continue holding men cleared for release and to pander to populist fearmongering by insinuating that the very fact of being Yemeni is tantamount to being a terrorist — or, at the very least, a terrorist sympathizer.
The Task Force had cleared 29 Yemenis for release, and had placed a further 30 in a category they dreamt up without consulting Congress, which they termed “conditional detention,” declaring that those in this category could be released if there was an improvement in the security situation in Yemen. After the failed bomb plot, however, the other 29 Yemenis also had their release halted, and only one has since been freed. It is certain, therefore, that all the Yemenis who were supposed to be freed when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a plane with his useless bomb are on this list, and it is, moreover, probable that the 31 names of cleared prisoners not included by the government feature the 30 Yemenis consigned to “conditional detention” by the Task Force.
Mentioning the fate of the cleared Yemenis — and the indecency of holding cleared men on the basis of the guilt supposedly attached to their nationality — has been taboo in the mainstream American media since President Obama issued his moratorium in January 2010, although the death of another cleared Yemeni at Guantánamo on September 8 at least prompted the Los Angeles Times to publish an editorial questioning the moratorium.
The man in question, Adnan Latif, had mental health problems, and had been cleared for release under President Bush and also by Obama’s Task Force. He had also won his habeas corpus petition, but this decision had been overturned by the appeals court in Washington D.C., which has gutted habeas corpus of all meaning for the Guantánamo prisoners. Failed by all three branches of government, he died at Guantánamo nearly six years after a military review board first recommended him for release.
Noticeably, although the Task Force had cleared him, no attempt was made to liaise with the Justice Department, which, logically, should not have challenged his habeas corpus petition, and should not have appealed when he won. Sadly, however, that approach was not pursued, and Latif was not the only victim. Under Obama, a total of nine of the 55 cleared prisoners on the list released last Friday had their habeas petitions challenged. Seven subsequently had their petitions denied, and in two other cases, when the prisoners won, the Justice Department appealed, and won on appeal.
In the Los Angeles Times, the editors, addressing what they called “America’s detainee problem,” noted that “the administration needs to make more of an effort to arrange the repatriation or resettlement of individuals no longer considered a threat,” adding, “That would probably mean lifting the blanket ban on transfers to Yemen.”
That carefully worded suggestion is far from a ringing endorsement of the need to get rid of the moratorium, but it is some sort of progress, and will hopefully have been noted in the corridors of power. To avoid the deaths of any more cleared men, and to do something to rescue his appalling record on the treatment of “war on terror” prisoners inherited from the Bush administration, Barack Obama needs to release all the Yemenis without further delay, and also to do the same with the 29 others.
Shaker Aamer, the Saudi-born British resident whose wife and four children await his return in south London, could be sent home tomorrow, as could the five Tunisians, who could not be freed before the fall of President Ben Ali in January 2011, as they had all been sentenced in absentia in show trials and faced abuse on their return. Some of the others can also probably be freed in their home countries, but if it is unsafe for them to be returned home, because they face the risk of torture or other ill treatment, they can join the other prisoners who need new homes, and who, if no willing and appropriate countries can be found, should be rehoused in the US — the Algerians, Umar Abdulayev, Mohammed Tahamuttan, the Syrians and the three Uighurs, who are the last of 22 Uighurs in total, the rest of whom were resettled in various countries between May 2006 and April 2012.
In conclusion, the release of this document, which pierces the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the men since January 2010, is important, and, after the death of Adnan Latif, needs to lead to the release of all the cleared prisoners, so that Adnan Latif’s cruel and unjust death at Guantánamo was not in vain.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.