Salman Rabei’i’s New PRB Defense Strategy
By Elizabeth Topolosky
Less than a year after his first Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing, this morning 37-year-old Salman Yahya Hassan Mohammad Rabei’i once again found himself before a panel of top officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Justice, and State, as well as from the Offices of the Director of National Intelligence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This time, however, the Yemeni detainee was accompanied by a new defense team that has flipped the script on his defense strategy and distanced itself from Rabei’i’s original counsel.
Although he has never been charged with a crime, in today’s hearing government representatives alleged that Rabei’i worked with al Qaeda and is suspected of fighting against coalition forces at Osama bin Laden’s Tora Bora mountain complex before his capture there in 2001. According to the government, Rabei’i was introduced to the extremist group through his brother, Fawaz Yahya Hassan Rabei’i, and participated in at least “basic extremist training.” Fawaz was killed in a shootout with Yemeni police in 2006 after escaping from a Sanaa prison with eleven other al Qaeda operatives. He had been convicted of facilitating the 2002 attack on the Limburg oil tanker and sentenced to death.
On June 19 2016, the PRB ruled that Salman should not be released, citing the government’s continued suspicions that members of the Rabei’i family are involved with or sympathetic to extremist causes. The PRB was also concerned with his reluctance to provide government officials with the details of his plans for his post-release life as justification for its decision. The ruling came despite acknowledgement from both sides that throughout his many years in captivity, Rabei’i cooperated with Gitmo authorities, outside of a short period from late 2015 to May 2016 when, according to the government, “his behavior changed…due to frustration over his Periodic Review Board status.”
Now Rabei’i has been granted a second shot to argue that he does not pose a “continuing significant threat to the security of United States,” and should be cleared for transfer. Although Executive Order 13567, which established the PRB process in 2011, only requires full review of a PRB ruling for continued detention every three years, the board elected to cut Rabei’i’s wait time down by over a year and half.
Rabei’i’s new defense team, which includes private counsel Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, an attorney with REPRIEVE U.S., distanced itself from its predecessors. Rabei’i's personal representative noted that the detainee “deeply regretted following the bad advice he was given by others during his initial board.” She went on to say that Rabei’i “has no intention of wasting your time, or another opportunity to show that he really does not pose any threat to anyone and that he does not harbor any extremist beliefs or ideology.”
These sentiments were markedly different from Rabei’i’s prior hearing, which focused on Salman’s desire to provide for his family rather than what support the family could offer him. Sullivan-Bennis described meeting with one of Rabei’i’s sisters, who currently lives in the United Kingdom: “[Rabei’i] has five siblings living stable, peaceful lives in three different countries. In the words of his sister, ‘he has five moms…anything, anything he needs, he will have it.’” Sullivan-Bennis also emphasized that her client “will have nothing to do with anyone who shows any signs of extremist beliefs, even if that person were to be a member of his own family.”
Sullivan-Bennis also promised that after his release, Rabei’i would be entitled to receive institutional support from REPRIEVE’s “Life After Guantanamo” program, which has already successfully assisted in the resettlement of several Gitmo detainees. Per Sullivan-Bennis, REPRIEVE “work[s] closely with the State Department and host governments on transition plans for clients; …serve[s] as an ongoing point of contact for local authorities; and …facilitate[s] financial support and referrals for needs ranging from job placement to mental health care.”
Whether this new defense strategy will be enough to win Rabei’i his freedom remains to be seen. It is no secret that defense teams at Gitmo face an uphill battle, with protective orders preventing counsel from communicating effectively with their clients, outdated technology, and the government potentially monitoring confidential attorney-client conversations. But as the defense overhaul has shown, Rabei’i and his new team are ready to rise to the challenge.