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May 19, 2016

Guantanamo Review Board Considers Detainee of 13 Years

By Adelma Jakupovic

The Guantanamo Periodic Review Board (PRB) conducted its 42nd hearing this morning, for detainee Jabran al Qahtani. Senior officials from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State, the Joint Staff, and the Office of the Director of National Security reviewed al Qahtani’s history, his level of compliance in detention, and his future plans to determine whether he will be cleared for release.

Al Qahtani is a 39-year-old Saudi national. He was captured by Pakistani authorities in 2002. The U.S. government described him as a self-radicalized electrical engineer who traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan in 2001 to fight against U.S. forces. He allegedly stayed in al Qaeda safe houses and a senior al Qaeda commander purportedly chose him to receive explosives detonator training in Pakistan. The government asserts that al Qahtani learned to “construct circuit boards for radio-remote controlled improvised explosive devices” with the intention of teaching bomb-making techniques to operatives fighting U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. He denies these allegations.

Al Qahtani’s private counsel explained that he was young and ignorant when he was swept away by a movement he did not understand, believing he was defending Islam from crusaders led by the United States. According to his private counsel, “His understanding of battle at that time came from story books,” and he had no prior training or experience with combat or military affairs.

The government claims that while al Qahtani has been mostly compliant with guard personnel, he failed to cooperate with interrogators. He has not been straightforward about his expertise in electronics and made contradictory statements about his affiliation with al Qaeda. Al Qahtani allegedly expressed his support for the Taliban and an interest in rejoining the fight against the United States and its allies. However, his private counsel noted that this was his misguided attempt to “puff himself up” as tough and dangerous to fit in with the other detainees.

Al Qahtani spent his time at Guantanamo learning about art, computers, and English, and his instructors commended his studious nature and ability to work with others. His personal representative explained that becoming exposed to people from different cultural and religious backgrounds allowed him to better understand and appreciate their unique perspectives and traditions. The skills he acquired during his detention, along with his formal education in Saudi Arabia, will likely provide him with credentials for employment if he is released.

The government noted that if al Qahtani returns to Saudi Arabia, he may seek out prior associates who could reintroduce him to terrorism. However, his private counsel assured the board that he deeply regrets his past actions and is ready to move forward. Al Qahtani wants to get married, find a job, and start a family. He would like to return to Saudi Arabia to reconnect with his family, but he is open to any country willing to accept him, preferably an Arabic-speaking country. He agreed to participate in a rehabilitation or reintegration program wherever he is transferred.

Al Qahtani’s family is willing to support his reintegration into society. In the statements his private counsel provided, his brothers and sisters described him as humorous, patient, and moderate. While they acknowledged that they were dismayed by his past actions, they are excited at the possibility of his release, stating that it would “return the smile and happiness to every member of his family.” They hope that he will be given another chance to serve his home, family, and community.

Today, 80 detainees remain at Guantanamo. With the end of his term fast approaching and his campaign promise to close Guantanamo still unfulfilled, President Obama must work to transfer the 27 detainees already cleared for release. He also needs to ensure that the 32 other eligible detainees rapidly have their detention evaluated by the PRB. As of today, six hearings are scheduled.

See Human Rights First’s blueprint “How to Close Guantanamo” for a detailed outline of how the administration can close Guantanamo before President Obama leaves office.