Release of Saudi man after nearly 14 years in US naval prison highlights the plight of 114 other detainees left behind.
For more than a decade, they have been dubbed “too dangerous to release,” the Guantanamo prisoners who the US says have to be detained indefinitely.
“They’ve just gotta be locked up,” Defence Secretary Ash Carter told US troops just a few weeks ago.
Carter acknowledged that “maybe half or so,” could be transferred out of the prison but said “roughly half of them are not safe to release, period.”
Now, the US has just decided another one of those prisoners is in fact not that dangerous.
After being held for almost 14 years without charge or trial, the Guantanamo Periodic Review Board (PRB) moved Yemeni national Mansoor al Zahari (also called Abdul Rahman Ahmed) from the “indefinite” prisoner list – men not charged but not cleared – to the approved-for-transfer category.
The review board was created in 2013 and is well behind schedule. Roughly 50 men classified as “forever prisoners” are still waiting for a chance to have their cases heard.
The success rate of the prisoners’ appeals raises serious questions about the merits of such a classification to begin with.
Fifteen of the 18 cases concluded have been in the prisoners’ favour.
At 36 years of age, Zahari is one of the youngest prisoners still held.
While in prison, Zahari taught himself English in part by using the book Around the World in 80 Days. Now he is learning Spanish.
Zahari took the General Educational Developement Test (GED) curriculum at Guantanamo and he would like to go to college, said his lawyer Beth Jacob.
“Mansoor is interested in cultures and societies other than his own, and would be very happy to be given the opportunity to live in a country such as the Netherlands or Germany.”
The overwhelming majority – more than 80 percent – of Guantanamo “forever prisoners” who have appeared before the parole-like panel have been recommended for transfer from the facility.
The board includes one senior official from each of the six agencies with a stake in US national security, including the Department of Defense and Homeland Security.
Zahari’s recent letters to lawyer Carlos Warner, who also represents him, touch on American culture.
The prisoner likes Game of Thrones, but not the bloody scenes; Shakira, who has a “unique musical voice”; and Taylor Swift, and her “Shake it Off Song.”
The US has said that Zahari was “probably a low-level fighter who was aligned with al-Qaeda, although it is unclear whether he actually joined” them.
“As with many, if not most, of the men still detained at Guantanamo, Zahari’s detention has little to do with any real analysis of his purported conduct, or the basis for those allegations,” said Jacob.
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“But even if you remove the ‘probably’ and ‘unclear’ qualifiers, the charge in that sentence is, at most, that he was a ‘low-level fighter’ – a far cry from being ‘the worst,’ much less ‘the worst of the worst.’
“Whatever it is [the US] thought he did, it is long past time for him to be released from prison.”
Afghan Mohammed Kamin is another prisoner also recently cleared for transfer.
Kamin’s reaction upon hearing the news was: “I cannot tell you how happy I am.
“I sometimes dream of being free, and am so happy; then I wake up in this facility [Guantanamo], and have a different feeling,” according to a press release issued by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents him.
The US had said he was “aligned with several extremist groups” and “helped facilitate their operations.”
This group of men who “supposedly ‘cannot be tried but are too dangerous to release’ is really a null set,” as Shayana Kadidal, a Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Managing Attorney, stated in a press release.
The “most intractable ‘too dangerous to release’ category” is shrinking, as law professor and co-editor-in-chief of Just Security, Steve Vladeck, noted.
Vladeck told Al Jazeera further that it is hard to predict what this “scorecard” means for future hearings, because it could be that the relatively “easier” prisoner cases might be resolved first.
“At a minimum, though, it underscores the extent to which a growing number of detainees don’t meet the Obama Administration’s own standard for continuing military detention, even though they had previously been categorised as ‘too dangerous to release’,” he said.
Vladeck also said it raises the question of why eligible prisoners have had to wait so long to be provided a hearing.
“With every clearance … the government’s foot-dragging looks more and more like it’s trying to forestall the inevitable, even if there are benign reasons for the delay.”
‘Build my future’
The Pentagon did not respond to queries by Al Jazeera about the PRB in time for publication.
Only three “forever prisoners” have not been recommended for transfer.
Moath al Alwi is one of the prisoners who the US “determined that continued law of war detention of the detainee remains necessary” citing Alwi’s previous ties to and “praise for the Taliban” at his hearing.
Alwi had been living in Saudi Arabia, where he said he found life difficult because he was not a citizen of the Gulf state.
So he travelled to Afghanistan so he could live as a “free man.” He was treated well by the Taliban, he said, but never fought against the US.
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When asked about Alwi, Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid said all of the prisoners at Guantanamo should be released “with safeguards.”
He noted further that the Taliban today consider themselves “a nationalist Afghan force not a global jihadist force like al-Qaeda or ISIS,” and the Taliban in recent years have “been open to negotiations with both the Americans and the Kabul government”.
Rashid told Al Jazeera via email: “They are now more politically diverse and some are interested in peace.
“So we can cannot compare [Alwi’s] adulation for the Taliban 15 years ago with now.”
If he is released Alwi wants to start a new life, learn a profession and “build my future.”
Salman Yahya Hassan Mohammed Rabeii, a 36 year-old Yemeni, is the one prisoner still waiting to hear his fate.
“People talk in the abstract about ‘too dangerous’ to release or ‘too difficult to try,’ but they don’t know who is in that pile,” said David Remes, a lawyer who has represented several prisoners in front of the board, including Rabeii, who he says is no threat to the US.
Just one step
A former senior US government official who is personally familiar with many of these Guantanamo cases told Al Jazeera: “Honestly I don’t believe all are too dangerous to release.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak, the former official added, “I am not really convinced… I would want to see their cases heard in court. I would like to see a determination of their status as being ‘too dangerous to release’…determined in court” – in a civilian or military one.
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Being cleared comes with a caveat – it is just one step to getting out.
The designation does not mean of course that the prisoners will be heading home anytime soon.
Just three of those cleared recently through the PRBs have been released – two to Saudi Arabia and one to Kuwait.
One hundred and twelve prisoners remain in Guantanamo, and 53 are cleared for transfer in some form, Alwi is not one of them despite the fact that as he said: “There is no proof that I did anything out of the ordinary that require[s] my incarceration in this place.”