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December 16, 2016

The End of an Era: 2016’s Final PRB Hearing

By Elizabeth Topolosky

Yesterday the Periodic Review Board (PRB) conducted its final hearing of 2016, likely the last of the Obama Administration. The hearings, which review the detention status of suspected terrorists held in Guantanamo Bay, are a central part of the Defense Department’s Close Guantanamo PlanDespite the PRB's shortcomings, the hearings have become a beacon of hope for detainees who otherwise face the prospect of endless detention without charge or trial.

Represented only by his assigned military personal representative, 36-year-old Uthman Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Uthman once again petitioned the PRB to clear him for transfer.

Uthman, originally from Yemen, was captured in 2001 while attempting to flee from Afghanistan to Pakistan. The U.S. government alleges that Uthman fought alongside al Qaeda, possibly against Coalition Forces, at the Battle of Tora Bora and served as one of Osama bin Laden’s body guards. Uthman continues to deny these allegations and maintains that he was in Afghanistan to teach Islamic law.  

Per his former private counsel David Remes, Uthman’s family in Yemen and Saudi Arabia are affluent and would have the means to sustain him until he could reintegrate into society. Remes argued Uthman could reintegrate quickly because he was a “successful designer and manufacturer of men’s and women’s clothing” before his capture.

Despite a low number of non-violent infractions since arriving at Gitmo, the government denied Uthman’s first appeal for transfer in May 2016, citing a lack of candor and statements the government says indicate that he remains sympathetic to extremist causes.

The personal representative departed slightly from her predecessors’ arguments, which emphasized familial support, genial personality, and plans for the future. Instead the representative acknowledged the difficulties Uthman has had due to his extended detention and hinted that her client would be more forthcoming about his past activities.

Under his “cordial and friendly” personality, she admitted, Uthman “comes across as if he is saddened by his years spent [in Guantanamo].” “When you speak with him, time seems to have stood still. His responses flow over the years unlike thinking in the here and now…. I would ask how he felt about something and his answer would be his feelings from thirteen years ago.”

But Uthman may have been affected by more than his detention: “As we prepared for this board, I realize his past would scar the view his family may have about him. But, he knows that in order to be able to create a future, he must account for his past behavior.” “Today,” the representative declared, “he will tell you that past candidly but also show you he is no longer the same person.”

Uthman’s representative also talked about the future. Previous plans to develop sesame oil and roadside food cart businesses transformed into an ice cream business. This plan, the representative stated, could be conducted in any country because “everyone loves ice cream.” She made clear that although her client is willing to attempt reintegration anywhere, he would prefer to be transferred to an Arabic culture, because “it would just be easier to assimilate.”

Another factor likely contributing to this preference is Uthman’s lack of English fluency. Although he “has worked hard to attend classes and answers [the representative] in English during meetings…he still has not mastered English.” Regardless of his reasons, the personal representative said, “he has no intentions to re-engage... he just wants to begin his life and see his family.”

Beyond the hearing’s potential impact on Uthman, his family, friends, and counsel, it also marks a likely turning point in policy and history.

The new president-elect, Donald Trump, has publicly stated that he not only intends to keep Gitmo open, but to expand the number of people held there. If he follows through on these statements, he will be reversing the policies of both the Obama and late Bush Administrations.

Given that Trump has been vocal about reducing federal expenditure, he should take note that expanding detention programs at Gitmo would not only be, as military leaders agreetactically costly, but also extremely expensive. Any money saved by foregoing updates to Air Force One would pale in comparison to this financial sinkhole, which costs Americans over $7.5 million per detainee per year to maintain.