Afghan National Receives Initial Review Board Hearing

The Guantanamo Periodic Review Board (PRB) convened this morning to discuss the case of Abdul Zahir, a 44-year-old Afghan national. Zahir has been imprisoned at Guantanamo since October 2002.

In 2002, the United States government claimed that Zahir was involved in manufacturing chemical or biological weapons for al Qaeda. During the July 2002 raid in which he was captured, US forces recovered unknown substances, including a white powder, which they claimed to be evidence of chemical agents. It was later discovered that these substances were simply salt, sugar, and petroleum jelly. The United States has ultimately concluded that Zahir’s capture was a case of mistaken identity, but allege that he probably worked as a bookkeeper and translator for high-level al Qaeda and Taliban commanders, including Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi.

For his part, Zahir claims that he worked for al Qaeda and the Taliban only because he was concerned for his family’s safety. He denies involvement with the Taliban aside from his translation work.

Zahir’s detainee profile explains that he has been “moderately compliant” with the guards and staff at Guantanamo, and was initially cooperative with interrogators until September 2008. Since 2003, he has actively sought to distance himself from any association with al Qaeda. He has vocalized his frustrations with his detention, but says he does not consider the United States to be an enemy. The US government says that if released, Zahir’s role as family patriarch would likely keep him away from reengaging with any extremist groups.

His personal representative reiterated that his past association with extremist groups was done solely out of concern for his family. She said that Zahir’s main goals now are to return to his two wives and three children. Zahir would prefer to be transferred to an Arab country where polygamy is legal, so that his entire family can be reunited, though he understands that may take some time.

The statement from Zahir’s counsel, Robert Gensburg, emphasized that Zahir has been detained at Guantanamo for nearly 14 years only because he did translation work for al-Iraqi, and that he does not pose a threat to the continuing safety of the United States. Gensburg noted that he has requested hearings for Zahir a number of times, and has also written to General Mark Martins requesting that he charge Zahir with a crime, but that nothing happened for over a decade. He said that if Zahir had been given the opportunity to have a hearing previously, it would have been obvious that he does not pose a threat to the security of the United States, and that his detention is unwarranted.

Since 2002, Afghanistan has received more than 200 Guantanamo detainees, the most recent one being in 2014. If Zahir’s clearance is granted, it is entirely feasible that he could be repatriated if the United States and Afghanistan governments can come to an agreement regarding the terms of his transfer.

President Obama is seeking to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba by the end of the president’s term. Only 80 detainees are still housed there, and 30 have been cleared for transfer. The United States Senate is debating the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, which contains a number of provisions that would make it even more difficult for President Obama to close the facility. Human Rights First strongly recommends Senators vote against any provision that would make the transfer process more onerous.

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Published on June 10, 2016

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