TEN GUANTÁNAMO PRISONERS arrived in Oman today, a move that leaves fewer than 100 men held in the island prison.
The transfer follows President Obama’s pledge Tuesday night to “keep working to shut down the prison at Guantánamo,” a promise he has highlighted in the past three State of the Union addresses.
The move means that 14 people have left the prison in 2016. On Monday, Mohamed al Rahman al Shumrani was sent to his native Saudi Arabia, almost exactly 14 years after he first arrived in Guantánamo. Last week, one Kuwaiti man was sent home and two Yemeni men were resettled in Ghana.
The names of the men transferred to Oman are Fahed Abdullah Ahmad Ghazi, Samir Naji al-Hasan Muqbil, Adham Mohamed Ali Awad, Mukhtar Yahya Naji al-Warafi, Abu Bakr Ibn Muhammad al-Ahdal, Muhammad Salih Husayn al-Shaykh, Muhammad Said Salim Bin Salman, Said Muhammad Salih Hatim, Umar Said Salim al-Dini, and Fahmi Abdallah Ahmad Ubadi al-Tulaqi. They are all Yemeni.
Of the 93 men left in the prison, 34 have been cleared for transfer, provided the Obama administration can find countries to take them in. Seven are currently facing charges before the military commission — including the five accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks — and three have been convicted and are serving or awaiting their sentences.
The rest of the men are in limbo waiting on Periodic Review Boards, an interagency process that the Obama administration designed to evaluate the status of Guantánamo’s “forever” prisoners. These were men that the government had originally designated too dangerous to release, but could not charge with a crime. The review boards are meant to determine whether the government believes they still pose a threat to the United States.
Many advocates and lawyers for the detainees believe that the late start and slow pace of these reviews has been a major hold-up in the process of moving detainees out of the prison.
“The way to close Guantánamo is to get people off the indefinite list,” said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law. “The way to do this is to speed up the Periodic Review Boards. It’s right in front of your eyes.”
The reviews — or PRBs, in Gitmo lingo — were established in 2011. Among other things, the interagency boards consider whether the detainee has a family or other support system, or job possibilities, and the extent to which he has reformed or renounced any extremism — something akin to a parole hearing. Last fall, Abdul Rahman Ahmed, a Yemeni prisoner, submitted a letter to his review board explaining how in his 13 years at Guantánamo, he had learned English, was taking Spanish classes, and had completed courses for his GED; although, he noted, “We are not able to get a certificate.” His testimony included evaluations from his instructors and a painting of a vase of flowers. (He was approved for transfer in November, but remains in Guantánamo.) In the case of another detainee, Mustafa al-Aziz al-Shamiri, the PRB determined that he had been held for 13 years as a result of a mistaken identity. The government has not yet announced if he is approved for transfer.
The first PRB didn’t take place until 2013, two years after the process was established, and to date there have been 25 hearings. The advocacy group Human Rights First has calculated that if the reviews continue at this pace, the hearings would not be finished until late 2019.
“In order to close Gitmo the administration is going to have to drastically increase the pace of these reviews,” said Raha Wala, a senior counsel at Human Rights First.
Jonathan Hafetz, a law professor at Seton Hall University, represents Mohamedou Slahi, a prisoner since 2002 who became a bestselling author last year with his memoir, Guantánamo Diary. Slahi asked a federal court in Washington, D.C., to force the government to give him a PRB hearing. In December, the judge ruled that the court did not have that authority, but last week, Hafetz says Slahi was informed that he was now eligible for a review. A Defense Department official confirmed to Al Jazeera last week that all of the remaining detainees not facing military commissions charges would now be eligible. (The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.)
“Whether or not they really intend to give them a PRB promptly is another question,” said Hafetz.
Once prisoners are cleared for release, the problem remains of where to settle them. With yesterday’s transfers, Oman has taken a total of 20 former Guantánamo inmates, none of whom were citizens of Oman. Most of the remaining men are from Yemen, and the Obama administration does not intend to send them back to the chaos of civil war in that country. In the most recent defense-spending bill, as in years past, Congress barred the Obama administration from bringing detainees to the United States (as well as specifically preventing transfers to Yemen, Somalia, Syria, or Libya).
Recent reports have suggested that the Pentagon has intentionally stymied progress on Guantánamo (something Pentagon officials deny). Advocates see that foot-dragging at work behind the slow-moving review boards as well.
The Obama administration also still has to present a plan to Congress for how it intends to actually close the prison and deal with any remaining detainees who cannot be transferred to other countries.
“Time is running out, and Obama has made Gitmo central to his legacy,” said Hafetz. “And while Congress is to blame for much of the current situation, Obama will bear considerable responsibility as well. There’s a disconnect with what the president eloquently says in speeches and what actually goes on, on the ground, in the world of Guantánamo.”