35-Year-Old “Karachi Six” Detainee Receives Review Board Hearing
This month’s ninth Guantanamo Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing was conducted this morning for detainee Shawqi Awad Balzuhair. Balzuhair is a 35-year-old Yemeni and has been held at Gitmo since October 2002.
The U.S. government contends that Balzuhair was a “low-level militant” who received basic training at an al Qaeda camp in 2001. He was captured on September 11, 2002, along with five others who later became known as the “Karachi Six.” These men were initially believed to be part of an al Qaeda cell plotting a future attack. The United States now acknowledges that this label more accurately describes the fact that they were arrested together, and the government believes that they were all part of a much larger pool of fighters.
Since arriving at Guantanamo, Balzuhair has been “highly compliant…and has committed a low number of infractions compared to other detainees.” Early on, he cooperated with interrogators and provided information judged to be of a “moderate value.” More recently he has refused to participate in interrogations and admitted to lying in previous sessions. He has protested the injustice of his detention and “expressed hatred toward the U.S.,” though he has not expressed any support or sympathy for al Qaeda.
Given that Balzuhair does not have any vocational training and dropped out of school when he was young, the U.S. government is concerned about his ability to support himself if released. Additionally, the U.S. government believes that his family is unable to offer any financial assistance given the current security situation in Yemen.
Balzuhair’s personal representative countered the government’s assessment, explaining that his family has a savings account already prepared for him and that all members of his family continue to hold down jobs, despite the circumstances in Yemen. She stated that every member of his family has confirmed that they will do whatever they can to support him upon his release.
She also noted that while at Guantanamo, Balzuhair has taken a number of classes in math and English, and has developed strong carpentry skills. Carpentry is a widely valued trade, so his representative asserts that Balzuhair would have no difficulty finding employment wherever he is transferred. Once transferred, Balzuhair would like to find a wife and start a family.
If cleared, Balzuhair would not be able to be repatriated to Yemen. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016 expressly prohibits any cleared detainees to be transferred to Yemen due to security concerns. The Senate and House drafts of the Fiscal Year 2017 NDAA reaffirm the ban, and include a number of other provisions that would make it even more difficult for President Obama to achieve his goal of closing the detention facility before he leaves office.
Despite the fact that the U.S. government acknowledges that Balzuhair was a “low-level fighter,” and not even necessarily against the United States, he has been held at Guantanamo for 14 years without charge or trial. And he is not alone. Contrary to the “worst of the worst” label often assigned to all remaining Gitmo detainees, government officials have admitted that many Guantanamo detainees were handed over by foreign militias and civilians in exchange for bounties, without proper vetting as to whether or not they actually posed a threat. This is likely why, of the 29 PRB hearings held, 22 of the detainees have been cleared for transfer, and why federal courts have decided that in 38 of 59 cases detainees were being unlawfully held at Guantanamo.
Continuing to hold detainees like Balzuhair only serves to further damage our relationships with allies, provide propaganda material for terrorist organizations, and cost the American taxpayer millions of dollars in unnecessary expenses. Human Rights First strongly supports President Obama’s goal of closing the detention facility at Guantanamo before he leaves office, and applauds the recent increase in the rate of PRB hearings.