PRB Hearings Continue While Guantanamo Detainees Sit on the Sidelines
By Julia McKay
This past Tuesday, the Guantanamo Periodic Review Board (PRB) held a hearing for detainee Mohammed Abdul Malik Bajabu, a 45-year-old Kenyan citizen held there for more than twelve years. Although the personal representative for Abul Malik was present, the detainee himself declined to attend. His absence didn’t come as a surprise, considering that many Guantanamo detainees have opted out of the process.
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 continues to pose a “significant” threat to the United States or if he’s eligible to be transferred to a third country.
The PRB has reviewed Abul Malik’s case on multiple occasions, each time determining through its non-judicial administrative process that continued detention is appropriate. The government alleges that he developed close ties with al-Qaeda in East Africa and had relationships with senior members. The government also alleges that he participated in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002. Detainees under PRB review, like Abul Malik, have not been charged with a crime, and they have no opportunity to rebut the government's supposed evidence against them.
During Abul Malik's his initial review by the PRB in May 2016, his personal representative argued that Abdul Malik was a willing participant in the PRB process and was eager to reunite with his family. The statement also claimed that his experience running small businesses would help him find employment in any country he was transferred to.
This latest hearing lasted only a few minutes and no new information was shared. Abul Malik’s personal representative stated that the detainee had attended five of their last thirteen scheduled meetings, but that during their last meeting in January, he said he would no longer participate in the process because PRB had not yielded any positive results for detainees recently.
Indeed, the PRB’s systemic problems have only worsened under the Trump administration. No new detainees have been approved for transfer since he took office, and the five who have already been cleared remain at Guantanamo. The Trump Administration has dismantled the office responsible for overseeing detainee transfers, making it all but impossible for the PRB to function properly, turning it into a rubber stamp for continued detention. In this context, it is clear why Abul Malik and other detainees have declined to cooperate.
The breakdown in the PRB process is additionally problematic as it’s the primary system in place to reduce the number of detainees held at Guantanamo who will not be tried in the military commissions. The detention center at Guantanamo Bay has cost the United States dearly both in terms of our international standing and money. The existence of the facility is a continued reminder of our failure to live up to our convictions. Violent extremists still use the prison as a recruiting tool, and it is more difficult to criticize repressive governments as they can deflect our concerns with evidence of our own human rights violations. In addition, the “most expensive prison on Earth” costs more than $445 million in 2015, and the price tag is only projected to rise as the needs of the aging detainees far outstrip the facility’s capacity.
Although a path towards reducing or ending detention at Guantanamo is sorely needed, Tuesday’s hearing demonstrates that the PRB process as it currently stands is incapable of playing that role. Unless major reforms are made and transfers are allowed for those cleared by the process, the PRB will continue to be an empty exercise.