News that eleven more detainees have been released from Guantánamo comes during a resurgence of rumors that the Bush administration is seeking to close the prison, with the New York Times reporting discussions to "overhaul the procedure for determining whether detainees are properly held by granting them legal representation at detention hearings and by giving federal judges, not military officers, the power to decide whether suspects should be held." The intention, we are told, is to find a way to move the most dangerous detainees to the mainland.
These discussions are clearly a response to fears within the administration that the imminent Supreme Court showdown over Guantánamo may lead to the detainees "winning ... even more power to challenge their detention," but it remains apparent that closing the prison is far easier said than done. Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey has, for example, indicated that his goal would be to shut down Guantánamo "because it's hurting us," and because it has "given us a black eye," but he too has conceded that there is "no easy solution" to the thorny question of what to do with the detainees.
According to the latest statistics cited by officials, the administration still intends to pursue war crimes trials against "80 or more" of the detainees, and regards another "120 or fewer" as too dangerous to repatriate. Leaving aside, for now, the lawless arrogance of the administration's intention to hold these 120 men indefinitely, without charge or trial, because of unchallengeable military assertions that they are a threat to American security, severe difficulties remain in repatriating the others. In dozens of cases, these are men who have been cleared for release for at least two years, but who are still held either because of fears that they will be subjected to torture (or worse) if returned to their home countries, or because of an inexplicable inertia on the part of the US authorities.
Inertia certainly seems to have played a part in the delayed release of the eight Afghans who were part of the latest batch of freed detainees. Only one - Izatullah Nasrat - has been identified, but he was cleared after the first round of reviews (which mostly took place in 2005), and, even with these latest releases, another eight Afghans remain in Guantánamo, who have been cleared for at least nine months. The unconscionable delay in releasing these men becomes more marked when Nasrat's story is looked at more closely.
A tribal leader in Paktika province, in southeastern Afghanistan, Nasrat supervised the collection of weapons from his people, as requested by the Americans and the government of Hamid Karzai, and was responsible for guarding them in a compound. Betrayed by a rival, who told a false story about him to the US forces, he was then arrested and sent to Guantánamo, along with his father, Haji Nasrat Khan. The tribal leader until illness left him virtually housebound, Khan was seized after asking what had happened to his son, and was released in August 2006, when he was 72 years old.
When it comes to the other three detainees just released - the last three Jordanians in Guantánamo (out of a total of eight) - another disturbing truth becomes apparent: that, despite its talk of justice, the administration also bases its decisions about who to release on political maneuvering. This was revealed earlier this year, when an analysis of the 32 Saudi detainees released in July and September uncovered the significant revelation that none of them had been cleared by a military review board, and it seems to have played a part in the sudden release of the three Jordanians, only one of whom, Osama Abu Kabir, had actually been cleared for release. I can only wonder whether King Abdullah has been granted a favor in exchange for cooperation over Iraq or the doomed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or, more worryingly, over the proposed war with Iran.
31 years old at the time of his capture, Osama Abu Kabir was one of the clearest examples of a naïve, would-be jihadist who never so much as raised a finger against the Americans. A driver by occupation, who also sold clothing with his wife from their home, he told his review board that he had travelled to Raiwind, in Pakistan, for the annual conference of the vast global missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi (regarded as a front for terrorism by the US authorities, despite having several million members), and had then spent a month preaching, when he was suddenly converted to the idea of jihad because of "the emotion and the excitement from the Afghani people" at a demonstration that he came across unexpectedly. "They were all holding up signs, had writing on T-shirts," he said. "It was their love that I had seen. I can explain it to you, but you won't understand how I felt that day." He did, however, explain that, despite this conversion to the spirit of jihad, he never took up arms, "never met anyone from the Taliban, al-Qaeda or any other group," and was captured by the Northern Alliance in Jalalabad, where he fled after arriving in Kabul two days before the city fell, and imprisoned for four and a half months in Kabul before being handed over to the Americans.
The other two men had not even flirted with the idea of militancy. Ahmed Sulayman, who was 40 years old at the time of his capture, was seized by bounty hunters in Pakistan, eager for the reward - $5000 on average - that was offered by the Americans for al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects. Also a member of Jamaat-al-Tablighi, which he pointedly described as a "relief organization" that "does not have any evil; it just does missionary work and calls people to Islam," he worked for the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), a Saudi charity that is also regarded by the US authorities as a front for terrorism. Sulayman described the IIRO as an organization which "helps poor people, immigrants and orphans and feeds people during Ramadan and Eid ul-Adha," and while the prisoners in Guantánamo were being subjected to the most spurious allegations about the charity - which, it should be noted, is not actually blacklisted by the US - the IIRO was providing relief packages to the victims of the 2004 tsunami in south east Asia and to some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Pakistan that were affected by the 2005 earthquake.
Clive Stafford Smith, the legal director of Reprieve, which represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees, visited Sulayman's family in Jordan in 2005, and explained that the charity worker, who has nine brothers and nine sisters, was working for the IIRO as a teacher, and had "moved his family to a tiny village near Peshawar, a four-hour walk from the nearest main road, to help teach the poorest of the poor there." He reported that he "was so much liked that when he fell ill with meningitis, the locals paid for his hospital bills and refused repayment from his family," and he also stated that during the US-led invasion Ahmed continued with his work, but that "One morning, he left home for work, and simply did not come back. His wife worried that the meningitis had recurred and called around the hospitals. Six months later, the family received news that Ahmed was in Guantánamo."
25-year old Ibrahim Zeidan was the victim of even more ambitious kidnappers. After traveling to Afghanistan in 2000, using money he had saved from his job as a house painter, to visit his brother, who was teaching the Koran and Sharia law in Khost, he stayed in Afghanistan until the US-led invasion, when he was captured by a group of Afghans, who imprisoned him, tortured him and demanded a ransom for his release from his family. Clive Stafford Smith, who also visited his family in Jordan, stated that Zeidan was actually working in Kabul for a Saudi charity at the time of his capture, and was kidnapped before the war even reached the city. The gang who abducted him "apparently hoped for a far larger return than that offered by the US," because he was working for "a well-heeled Saudi charity," and rang his family demanding a ransom of $150,000, telling them that "his organs would be removed one by one" if they didn't pay. Although the family ran an appeal in a Jordanian newspaper and raised several thousand dollars, there was no way that they could raise the money demanded by the gang, but after eight months, according to Zeidan, he managed to escape from his prison, but was then captured in Jalalabad, in July 2002, by government officials who handed him over to the Americans.
There are, sadly, more grim tales to be told about these men - in particular, about the treatment they received in US custody in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, as discussed in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison - but it seems more relevant, for now, simply to highlight the circumstances of their capture. The depressing conclusion to be drawn from these stories is that, despite the rumors that the US administration is hoping to close Guantánamo, it is still holding men without charge or trial who should never have been imprisoned in the first place, let alone losing years of their life in an experimental prison of extraordinary bleakness and inhumanity.