As President Obama’s terms in office come to an end, eight years after he entered office he has yet to deliver on one of his most prominent campaign promises: to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. He is now poised to leave it to the next administration. Though the prison was opened under President George W. Bush, Guantánamo has in many ways become Obama’s prison, the title of a recent book of essays edited by Jonathan Hafetz, to which CCR’s Guantánamo lawyers contributed. Over the past several weeks, we have posted excerpts from their contributions. Below is our final installment, an excerpt from CCR Senior Staff Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei’s chapter, “Too Dangerous to Release.”
While the government’s reasons for [designating certain men as unchargeable yet potentially forever unreleasable] remain secret, the public allegations against Ghaleb mainly concern his role as a cook in a group allied with the Taliban in its fight against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001. Ghaleb had traveled to Afghanistan that summer before the United States came into the picture. After the U.S. bombing campaign began in October, the group of about 150 men surrendered to the Northern Alliance and subsequently disbanded. That conduct was ostensibly enough not only for the U.S. government, but also for the courts to justify Ghaleb’s perpetual imprisonment. As the district court stated in denying his habeas corpus petition in 2008, “helping to prepare the meals” of the unit’s fighting forces was “more than sufficient” to justify a potential life sentence.
For a long time, it was not clear whether or when the administration intended ot revisit the status of men it was holding in this particular limbo—“forever detainees,” as some called them. In March 2011, President Obama issued an executive order establishing the Periodic Review Board to reevaluate—every three years—these detainees to determine if their detentions were still necessary, ordering initial reviews of the whole group within one year form the date of the order. But by then, Guantánamo’s closure no longer held the same priority for the administration. Congress had just passed new restrictions on detainee transfers, bringing to a grinding halt the administration’s steady stream of releases in 2009 and 2010, and thwarting its plans to close the prison. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was in the process of overturning virtually every habeas win by detainees in the district court, taking any pressure from the judiciary off the administration. And whether because of fear, fatigue, or apathy in light of other domestic crises, the public largely supported, or tolerated, Guantánamo’s status quo. Faced with significant opposition and little incentive to continue the work of resolving the fate of detainees, the administration rationalized its failure to muster the will to press forward by blaming Congress, and turned its attention elsewhere. The promised board reviews, along with every other administration effort to close Guantánamo, went on hold.
When I first met Ghaleb in mid-2011, neither one of us knew quite what to do. Not many fellow attorneys and advocates did. In contrast to the flurry of activity in years past, my visits to the base during that period were quiet, with usually only one or two other legal teams visiting at the same time, if that. My meetings with Ghaleb were similarly muted and followed a predictable script. He would report to me on his diabetes and latest ailments. I would make requests for medical care that would get denied. He would ask me if there was any news on transfers. I would explain about the battle between Congress and the president. He would tell me that it was pointless to go back to the courts. I would review the legal options and agree that they were limited. He would tell me about his fear of dying in Guantánamo. I would struggle with how to make his torment visible and visceral to everyone not in the room with us.
It was not until two years later, in 2013, when detainees’ own quiet desperation finally began to turn the tide. In February of that year, the majority of prisoners went on a hunger strike, which grew into the largest and longest protest in the history of the prison camp. At a White House news conference on April 30, against the backdrop of over 100 men on strike and dozens being forcibly fed with tubes, President Obama was pressed to address the crisis: “I’m going to go back at this. …The idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried—that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.
In September 2013, over 11 years into his imprisonment without charge or any clear end, Ghaleb finally received notice of his periodic board review.
We are happy to announce that, on January 17, 2017, the Department of Defense announced the Ghaleb had been transferred to Oman.
Get the book and read the entire chapter, Obama’s Guantánamo: Stories from an Enduring Prison.