By Alexa Potter
Tuesday morning, I attended the Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing for Guantanamo detainee Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al Hajj, a 44-year-old Yemeni detained since September 2004. But it lasted less than ten minutes. That’s because Al Hajj is refusing the participate in the process, contributing to what appears to be a growing trend.
The U.S. government accuses Al Hajj of being “a career jihadist who was closely tied to several senior al Qaeda members, including Osama Bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, and who acted as a prominent financial and travel facilitator for al Qaeda operations, although he may not have had foreknowledge of the plots.”
The PRB is tasked with assessing whether Guantanamo detainees like Al Hajj can be released or transferred to a third country without posing a significant threat to the United States. During his previous hearing before the Board in February 2017, his personal representative said Al Hajj “is actively participating in classes to prepare for his life after Guantanamo,” and “feels he’s capable of working in other cultures since he has learned to work with detainees in GTMO.” Al Hajj’s family said they will support him after his departure from Guantanamo. However, these claims did not sway the Board, as a month later it decided to continue his detention.
Al Hajj has since refused to participate in the PRB process, despite his personal representative’s attempts on thirteen separate occasions to meet with him. Explaining his absence at Tuesday’s hearing, Al Hajj stated “through his Private Counsel that there is nothing more he can do with his case” and cited “that nothing has changed since his last Full Review in February of 2017.”
The subject of the previous hearing, Said bin Brahim bin Umran Bakush, also refused to show up or cooperate with his government-appointed personal representative. With the current state of the PRBs, it is little wonder that detainees are losing faith in the process. None of the detainees reviewed by the PRBs under this administration have been cleared for transfer, and two have been waiting months for a decision. There are still five detainees at Guantanamo who were cleared during the Obama administration. Tellingly, the Trump administration shut down the offices that helped coordinate transfers.
The administration has even raised the prospect of sending captured ISIS fighters to the detention facility. This would be an unmitigated disaster—from a national security perspective as well as a legal and policy perspective.
Instead of looking to grow the prison’s population, the president should work to release those detainees the PRB has cleared. Unless the administration demonstrates that it is providing a meaningful opportunity for detainees to have their cases—and their continued detention—reviewed, more and more detainees may refuse to participate.