Guantanamo Review Hearings Continue, but Too Slowly

Tomorrow, we’ll see the latest hearing in the slow-moving Periodic Review Board (PRB) process at the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The process, created by President Obama in 2011, reviews the cases of detainees designated for indefinite detention or possible prosecution to determine if they’re a continuing threat to the United States or if they could be transferred. Most of the detainees have been in prison for more than a decade without charge or trial, and the PRB process is meant to provide a fairer, more intensive consideration of their cases, but its slow speed has frustrated this purpose.

The detainee up for consideration this week is Yemeni Mashur Abdallah, Muqbil Ahmed al Sabri, at Guantanamo since 2002. In the past he was deemed a continuing threat to the United States but declared unfit for trial for reasons the government has never explained. Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), the military group that runs the prison, assessed that al Sabri was an active member of al Qaeda and received weapons training from the organization. Based on this information, in 2007, JTF-GTMO recommended that al Sabri remain detained.

But as we have explained, the JTF-GTMO detainee assessments are inherently problematic because they’re based on incomplete, outdated, and inaccurate information. A lot of the information in the assessments is contradictory, and several federal courts have considered the information too unreliable to be used in habeas cases. Even senior JTF-GTMO staff cautioned that the information was unreliable and needed to be “adequately verified through other sources before being utilized.”

JTF-GTMO assessments include information obtained through torture, which is notoriously unreliable, and information that otherwise came from fellow detainees, who have an incentive to make false statements to curry favor with their captors. Indeed, some of the information in al Sabri’s file was provided by detainees Abu Zubaydah and Abu Faraj al-Libi, both tortured by the CIA.

Al Sabri brought a habeas case, only to have the D.C. District Court side with the government. The district court found that the government showed by a preponderance of the evidence that he was fighting against the United States and therefore legitimately detainable. In 2010, the Obama Administration assembled the Guantanamo Review Task Force, which performed more thorough detainee assessments. It also recommended al Sabri’s continued detention.

But the PRB hearing is not about al Sabri’s past conduct; it’s to determine whether he remains a threat. If the PRB finds that he is no longer a threat, he will be cleared for transfer, and given that al Sabri is Yemeni, he would most likely be transferred to a third country instead of home to Yemen (given its unclear security situation), like many of his fellow Yemeni detainees.

Regardless of the PRB’s decision on al Sabri, it’s clear that the PRBs aren’t moving along the way they were meant to. In his executive order creating the PRB process, President Obama intended all reviews to be completed by March 2012, but they didn’t even start until 2013. The PRBs have held 13 hearings for 12 detainees, and so far this year, they’ve managed only one review per month and only one decision. If the hearings continue at this pace, the reviews won’t be completed until 2020.

One problem is the lack of resourcing. The White House should ensure that the interagency process has sufficient resources to expedite the PRBs—otherwise the delay threatens President Obama’s goal of closing the prison at Guantanamo by the end of his presidency. Human Rights First will be observing al Sabri’s PRB hearing tomorrow, and will report back on the result. In the meantime, for more information on the PRB process check out our fact sheet.

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Published on March 2, 2015

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