24 Down, 46 to Go: the Last 2015 Guantanamo PRB Hearing

By Alice Debarre

Yesterday the Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board (PRB) convened for the 12th and last time this year to determine whether a detainee could be cleared for release. This time, they examined 36-year old Yemeni Zahar Omar Hamis bin Hamdoun.

After over 13 years of detention at Gitmo, Hamdoun had the opportunity to present his case and explain why he does not pose a threat to the United States or its interests. Observers gathered yesterday morning at the Pentagon to watch a live feed of the unclassified portion of the hearing.

Arguing for his continued detention, the government alleged that Hamdoun traveled to Afghanistan in 1999, trained at an al Qaeda camp, acted as a weapons and explosives trainer, and possibly fought under al Qaeda leadership. Pakistani officials captured him in a house raid in 2002. His private counsel Pardiss Kebriaei, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, emphasized that although Hamdoun has expressed regret about traveling to Afghanistan in 1999, the nature of his activities there is not settled. A court never decided on the habeas petition Hamdoun filed disputing the allegations against him. Nonetheless, the inter-agency Guantanamo Review Task Force recommended him for continued detention in 2010.

The government argued that although Hamdoun has expressed “nonextremist goals to interrogators,” he has offered few specifics. His personal representatives, however, contended that Hamdoun wants to marry, start a family, and open a grocery store. He especially wants to pursue an education as his brothers and sisters have all gone to college.

Both Hamdoun and his family understand that being transferred to Yemen is not an option due to the country’s instability. Nonetheless, he can count on their support wherever he may be transferred, especially from his eldest brother. His private counsel explained that his family worked hard to submit videotaped oral statements to support Hamdoun’s release, but missed the deadline due to power outages caused by cyclones. She also went into detail regarding the support her organization would provide. Indeed, the Center for Constitutional Rights has already worked with two previously resettled Gitmo detainees.

It is abundantly clear from both sides’ submissions that Hamdoun is frustrated with his current situation. The government concedes that his resentment is “an emotion that probably is motivated more by frustration over his continuing detention than by a commitment to global jihad.” In a letter transcribed in a recent article, Hamdoun describes himself as a “body without a soul,” and calls Guantanamo “a grave.” In spite of this, his personal representatives and counsel describe him as “very cooperative, enthusiastic, polite and forthcoming.” He wants to believe in a better future.

When given the opportunity, the Board asked no questions. Now, Hamdoun must wait some more: for the decision on his release, and, if positive, for his transfer out of the prison.

The recent enactment of the NDAA, with its stringent restrictions on detainee transfers, seriously compromises President Obama’s campaign promise of shuttering Gitmo. His administration therefore needs to focus on speeding up the PRB hearings for the remaining 46 eligible detainees and transferring the 48 cleared detainees. According to PRB staff, more hearings will be held in January, a positive start.

See Human Rights First’s blueprint “How to Close Guantanamo” for a detailed outline of how the administration can close Guantanamo before president Obama leaves office.

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Published on December 9, 2015

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