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June 14, 2016

Latest Afghan Gitmo Detainee Receives Initial Review

By Molly Wooldridge 

This morning the Guantanamo Periodic Review Board (PRB) convened to discuss the case of Haroon al-Afghani, an Afghan national who has been imprisoned at Guantanamo since June 2007. 

According to the U.S. government, al-Afghani served as a commander of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), an Afghan militant group, and allegedly organized and led attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. The United States also claims that al-Afghani worked as a courier for al Qaeda, provided logistics support to al Qaeda and HIG fighters, and probably collaborated on operational matters with leaders of other anti-coalition groups. Despite these allegations, the United States has never brought charges against him.

In his opening statement to the board, al-Afghani’s personal representative emphasized that al-Afghani does not hold extremist beliefs. He stated that from the way al-Afghani talks about his daughter and her education, it is “very apparent that he does not possess hardline extremist ideals.” Al-Afghani’s personal representative further detailed the role that his large, supportive family would play in his transition upon release. He also noted the various educational and personal enrichment opportunities that al-Afghani has taken advantage of while detained at Guantanamo, including courses in English, nutrition, and art. 

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, al-Afghani’s private counsel, emphasized that unlike many other detainees, al-Afghani has not had the benefit of private counsel for the majority of his detention at Guantanamo, and until recently has had to rely on his family to vie for his welfare. Sullivan-Bennis also reiterated that al-Afghani has a large and supportive family, and that he is eager to return to his wife and daughter. His sense of responsibility to support his wife and daughter motivates his drive for a better life. 

If the PRB clears al-Afghani for transfer, he would prefer to go to a country in Europe, although he is open to any country. Al-Afghani’s personal representative suggested that al-Afghani would have no problem integrating wherever he is sent.

A number of countries in Europe, including Britain, France, Spain, and Germany, have accepted Guantanamo detainees in the past. A detainee is only transferred once the Department of Defense and the destination country have come to a specific agreement regarding the security precautions in place to ensure the detainee does not pose a security risk. Since these more stringent transfer requirements were implemented when President Obama took office, the recidivism rate of Gitmo detainees has dropped to 4.9 percent from 20.9 percent under the Bush Administration.

Despite claims that the remaining detainees are “the worst of the worst,” 30 of the 80 remaining detainees have been cleared for transfer by the relevant U.S. military and intelligence agencies, and the PRB process has shown that many detainees are not an unmanageable threat to the United States. Continuing the PRB hearings is an essential part of closing Gitmo, and the Defense Department has vowed to finish all initial hearings by fall 2016 as part of President Obama’s continuing efforts to close the detention facility.

As Obama has noted, and national security leaders agree, the prison damages U.S. influence around the world, is a massive waste of taxpayer funds, has bolstered terrorist propaganda. However, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017 passed in the House and Senate includes provisions that would make it impossible to close Guantanamo before the next administration.  Human Rights First strongly urges President Obama to veto the NDAA if those provisions are not removed before the bill reaches his desk.