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September 20, 2019

Guantanamo Periodic Review Board Hearings Fail to Meaningfully Review Detention

By Julia McKay 

This Tuesday the Periodic Review Board (PRB) held a hearing for Guantanamo detainee Mohammed Ahmad Rabbani. Rabbani is a 49-year-old Pakistani citizen who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia. He has been held at Guantanamo for fifteen years, but he has never been charged with a crime. In keeping with a recent trend among Guantanamo detainees in the PRB process, he refused to appear at his hearing. Rabbani’s personal counsel, Clive Stafford Smith, also declined to attend. 

President Obama established the PRB by executive order in 2011 to review the cases of Guantanamo detainees not charged under the military commission process. Its goal is to determine whether a detainee poses a “continuing significant threat” to the United States or if he’s eligible to be transferred to a third country. But in recent years, the PRB process has become defunct, serving only to rubber-stamp the government’s requests for continued detention. Even before the recent breakdown, the PRB suffered from inadequacies, including a structure that does not permit detainees to rebut the government’s evidence against them. 

Government documents allege that Rabbani was a travel and financial facilitator for al Qaeda leaders Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged masterminds of the 9/11 and USS Cole attacks respectively. The government claims that Rabbani played a supporting role in al Qaeda operations, including an attack in the Strait of Hormuz, and that he ran al Qaeda guest houses with his brother Abdul Rahim Ghulam Rabbani in Karachi, Pakistan. Rabbani apparently undertook hunger strikes in the past, which the government classifies as “noncompliant” behavior, but the documents also note that these strikes were likely “to protest his separation from his brother.” 

What the government documents leave out is that  Rabbani was captured in a case of mistaken identity; he was mistaken for al Qaeda leader Hassan Gul, a fact that U.S. authorities discovered one day after his arrest. Rabbani was nonetheless rendered to a CIA black site where he was tortured. 

In July 2018, Rabbani wrote an op-ed that was published in the Los Angeles Times. In the piece, Rabbani says that he was a taxi driver, not a violent extremist, when he was apprehended by Pakistani forces and sold for a bounty to the CIA. The assertion that he is being falsely imprisoned is deeply troubling considering the harsh treatment he faced in US custody. In the op-ed he explains the torture that he suffered, writing, “my hands were shackled overhead for days on end. Do you have any idea how painful that is, with your shoulders gradually dislocating?” Rabbani’s description of his treatment is corroborated by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s torture report, which mentions him several times. Rabbani was tied down by guards and force fed while on hunger strikes and can no longer consume solid food. 

The PRB provides no meaningful opportunity for Rabbani or any detainee to rebut the government’s assertions, making it clear that the hearings do not provide detainees with a complete or fair consideration of their cases. This inadequacy is compounded by the fact that no new detainees have been approved for transfer since President Trump took office, and five men who were previously cleared remain at Guantanamo, despite the government’s finding that they need not be detained. The Trump administration has also dismantled the State Department office responsible for overseeing detainee transfers, making it all but impossible for the PRB to function properly. In this context, it is clear why Rabbani and other detainees have refused to cooperate.

The United States must seriously evaluate whether the continued detention of those held at Guantanamo is necessary to mitigate a “continuing significant threat.” Tuesday’s less-than-five-minute hearing, during which Rabbani would have had no opportunity to meaningfully defend himself against the government’s accusations, is inadequate and unjust.