Guantanamo Periodic Review Board Considers Libyan Detainee’s Transfer Status
By Carolyn Tackett
The Guantanamo Periodic Review Board (PRB) met yesterday to determine the transfer status of Omar Khalif Mohammed Abu Baker Mahjour Umar, allegedly a senior member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and close al Qaeda associate. The PRB hearings are designed to assess whether Guantanamo detainees pose a sufficient threat to U.S. national security to justify continued detention, or if they can be cleared for transfer. The board was supposed to finish hearings for all eligible detainees by 2012, but so far it has only reviewed a handful of cases.
Both the Defense Department’s Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) and the inter-agency Guantanamo Review Task Force classified Umar (also referred to as Mr. Khalif in official documents) as a high-level threat to U.S. national security and recommended continued detention. But as we’ve written before, the JTF-GTMO determinations are outdated and unreliable. A federal district court denied Umar’s habeas corpus petition challenging the legality of his detention, finding the government had presented sufficient evidence to establish “his longstanding membership in al-Qaida and the LIFG,” even though Umar never “personally took up arms against U.S. or coalition forces.” Under U.S. law, being a part of al Qaeda, the Taliban, or an associated force is sufficient grounds to detain someone until hostilities end.
Though JTF-GTMO described Umar as “in overall fair health,” he suffers from a number of painful injuries that make life at Guantanamo especially difficult. He has metal pins in his left leg from reconstructive surgery after it was shattered in a 1995 construction accident in Sudan, and his right leg was severed at the knee when he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan in 1998. Umar is blind in his left eye and nearly blind in his right. Severed nerves in his left arm make it painful to use the wheelchair or walker occasionally provided on the Guantanamo cellblock. He described his physical condition as “a prison within a prison.”
In his opening statement to the PRB, Umar’s private counsel explained that his client has great difficulty moving around on his own. “Sometimes, he tries to move by ‘walking’ on his knee and the stump where his right leg once was,” counsel said. “Other prisoners have helped him at times by carrying him… Sometimes, he is too embarrassed to ask fellow prisoners for help reaching a cup of tea… It is hard for him to eat, to shower, and even to use the toilet.”
Umar has been detained in Guantanamo for nearly 13 years without charge. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which the Bush and Obama administrations have used to justify detaining members of the Taliban, al Qaeda, and associated forces, provides the legal framework for his continued detention.
In the detainee profile for the PRB hearing, the government argued it needs to continue Umar’s detention because he has sufficient contacts and military skills to re-engage in terrorist activity. He is accused of attempting to “relay greetings” to Libyans formerly released from Gitmo who could help him take up a position as a terrorist trainer.
Both his private counsel and military-appointed personal representatives emphasized Umar’s peaceful nature and assured the board he does not harbor any anger or ill will toward the United States. They explained Umar simply wants to be reunited with his family, which is prepared to care for him either at home in Libya or in another location the U.S. government deems appropriate. The Defense Department expressed reluctance to transfer Umar to his home region in Libya, arguing it has become an unrestrained foothold for a wide range of extremists.
So far the PRB has held 16 hearings for 15 detainees, with Umar and one other waiting on a decision and 53 still waiting for a hearing. Even with a decision to clear Umar for transfer, there is no guarantee he’ll leave Guantanamo any time soon. There are still 51 cleared detainees held in the prison, some of whom were approved for transfer under the Bush administration.
The Obama Administration, including Defense Secretary Ash Carter, says it’s currently developing a comprehensive plan for congressional approval to complete the PRB hearings, transfer detainees, and ultimately close the Guantanamo detention center. Members of Congress should work together with the administration to ensure the facility is closed as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, to fulfill the promise he made more than six years ago, President Obama must prioritize expediting the remaining PRB hearings and transferring cleared detainees. Without committing the necessary resources, the remaining PRB hearings won’t be completed until 2020.