This morning, Ismael Ali Faraj Ali Bakush (ISN 708), who is a Guantanamo Bay detainee from Libya, pleaded to a group of U.S. officials that he is not a threat to U.S. national security, and he should be repatriated to Libya or resettled in a 3rd country. Bakush is around 47 or 48 years of age, and has been held at Guantanamo Bay for a month shy of 14 years. Today he argued for his freedom from the prison, where he has lived for almost a third of his life.
This hearing, which is called a Periodic Review Board (PRB), was conducted pursuant to a 2011 Executive Order which has required most detainees to have a “periodic review” of their detention status. Though Bakush has had similar reviews under now defunct processes, this is his “initial review” (or “initial PRB”) under the 2011 procedure.
If a detainee is cleared for release after his initial review, he would have no additional hearings. If he is not cleared for release he would have a “file review” every six months. If he remains uncleared, he would have a “full review” every three years.
About 60 the 76 men remaining captive at Guantanamo are entitled to PRBs per the rules, and about 55 have had an initial review. Many who have had initial reviews were subsequently cleared for release, and many of those have actually been released post-initial review.
PRBs do not assess the defendant’s guilt or innocence, and are not criminal proceedings.
Getting to the PRB hearing; the other observers
Bakush’s initial review today was likely similar to the 55 or so initial reviews held since the 2011 Executive Order was implemented in 2013. Today’s PRB was my first, having multiple times been denied permission to observe. I had some sense of what to expect, having read reports from media and non-media representatives who had viewed earlier PRBs, but I also believe that the more qualified people who observe the proceedings first hand, the greater the transparency.
I was up early to take the Metro from DC to the Pentagon, which is where PRB observation takes place now, rather than its earlier viewing location at a Virginia building near the Pentagon. It was suggested that we arrive at the Pentagon not long after 7:00 a.m., to be certain that all security and other formalities would be completed so we could adjourn to a special conference room before the 9:00 scheduled PRB start.
When I was at the Pentagon a few months ago, the new Visitor Entrance was under construction, and it was cramped and unwieldy to gain access to the mammoth facility. The new Visitor Entrance is markedly updated and spacious, with significantly more x-ray machines and other security measures in place. Though no clear signage instructed visitors to the appropriate queues (e.g., no sign for the uniformed military personnel line or the “other” line), it was still quite easy and quick to be processed – at least at that hour on a Thursday morning.
After clearing security, I entered into the Visitor Waiting Area (after another guard made certain that I still had the Visitors Badge that had been handed to me just a few yards before I passed through the airport-like metal detectors), where I was soon joined by what appeared to be contractors, uniformed military personnel, a high school group, an ROTC group, a group of dozens of Japanese military personnel clad in crisp white uniforms, and others – waiting to be escorted into the Pentagon proper.
Two representatives from the Periodic Review Secretariat (PRS) came to collect the 5 non-media observers, and we all processed into the main complex and walked down multiple hallways in the Pentagon maze. Though I know the names of our escorts, and the name of the offices that housed the conference room where we observed, out of an abundance of caution, I will not provide details of them.
The 4 other observers consisted of a an undergraduate intern from a different DC-based organization, a person who had graduated from law school a year or so ago and was working for a DC-based organization, an investigator from a DC-based organization along with that person’s undergraduate intern. I did ask myself about the observer selection process, taking into account the rounds of application submission / denial / application supplements I went through to get cleared for 2 specific hearings only.
Coincidentally, I knew one of the other observers from another organization with which she had been previously affiliated.
We observers and our military escorts snaked our way down multiple, high-ceilinged corridors in the complex, passing pale nondescript doorways and archways that led to seemingly reinforced entry points into high-security areas. We arrived at the door of an office that looked like a typical government office like those I had seen in any number of other Departments or Agencies – standard desks and chairs, file cabinets and computers, and clutter.
Off to the side of that office was a door leading into what I would learn was the conference room where we would observe the hearings. Before reaching that conference room door, we had to relieve ourselves of our electronic devices – phones, laptops, iPad, Fitbit – anything with an on / off switch. We placed all of our items on a table.
Several of us went on a Starbucks run, down to the Pentagon’s expansive restaurant area. It was like any other Starbucks, except that while standing in line our group could not fiddle with our mobile phones, as we had already been liberated of them. It gave me a chance to become reacquainted with the young lawyer observer whom I had met before.
Getting situated in the hearing room
After refreshments, we winded our way back to the nondescript office. It was almost 9:00, the time for the PRB to begin.
We filed past the table that held our electronics, and entered the conference room. We sat around a conference room table that seemed to have just enough seats for the 5 observers, our escorts and a couple of other Department of Defense people who joined us, both uniformed and non-uniformed.
The observers all were required to sign another document (in addition to the Ground Rules we previously signed), this one swearing that we knew the rules related to SCIFs — sensitive compartmented information facilities – and that we were complying with those rules, including not having recording devices in our possession. Another reminder to us to double-check our pockets for extra mobile phones, etc.
This conference room was very small, packed with the conference table and chairs, and lots of other equipment occupying almost every square inch of the room’s real estate, including, as I recall, the walls.
There was a big screen on one wall, positioned such that almost no one in the room had a natural, straightforward view of it. I chose a seat from which at least I didn’t have to turn my body to see the screen.
As 9:00 got closer, the Observers shared small talk. Others in the room sat quietly doing their jobs related to the technical aspects of the hearing, or maybe perhaps observing the observers–I’m not sure.
The Guantanamo side of the camera – the PRB begins
Initially I sought to absorb the environment of the room, but I also focused on signing the SCIF form and exchanging pleasantries with fellow observers (Have you attended a PRB before? You’re a college junior – do you plan to go to law school? What issues are you working on as a summer intern at your organization?)
All of a sudden, we began to hear distant voices over the web-shaped speaker nestled in the center of the conference room table. Audio checks.
Almost precisely on time, the screen came to life. We could see a small, barren-walled claustrophobic room in which sat a very small rectangular table with 3 chairs, which was surrounded by 3 men.
For all PRBs the detainee is physically in Guantanamo Bay. During the hearing, he sits at the head of the rectangular table on the Guantanamo Base, flanked by a linguist who sat at a place setting on one side of the table. The linguist sits directly across from the detainee’s Government-appointed personal representative. Seated on 3 sides at the end of a rectangular table, the arrangements would have been suitable for a shared meal among the 3, or board games. Had Bakush had private counsel, perhaps that person would also have sat at the table.
A video camera is pointed towards the three sitting at the Guantanamo table. The camera faced Bakush head on, and captured the right side of the face of the linguist’s and the left side of the face of the personal representative. The linguist and the personal representative had to turn their heads slightly to see and speak directly into the camera.
At 9:08, a few minutes past the appointed hour, the hearing began.
Eyes naturally gravitated to the focus of the hearings – on Bakush. He appeared hunched forward over the stack of white papers on the table, dressed in white gown flannel-like top that may have been local to Libya. His full, long, seemingly dark beard appeared to touch the table as he leaned forward. The screen appeared to be a little fuzzy, so I cleaned my glasses. The screen was still fuzzy, with the faces a bit blurred.
Bakush’s facial expressions appeared not to change dramatically throughout the 13-minute hearing. It was impossible to know whether he understood what was being said or read, as virtually the entire hearing was conducted in English, and I do not know if he understands English. He waived reading of the unclassified government document in Arabic.
Was Bakush emotionless during the PRB? Was he detached or interested? It is impossible to know what was going on in his mind, and it does not do justice to try to read what could be made out of his expressions, his mannerisms, or his posture.
As documents were being read into the record in English, Bakush from time to time would flip through white papers sitting in front of him on the table. I do now know what, if anything, was written on those sheets, or what language any text might have been. Perhaps those pages contained his own personal statement that he would read into the record later? The observers were not permitted to stay in the room while he, through his own mouth, made his personal plea for release from Guantanamo.
A distant voice was heard listing out the titles / roles of various people who were present at the hearing, either at Guantanamo in the hearing room, or elsewhere.
Others present for the hearings included members of the “Board” itself that conducts the PRBs, and that consisted of one representative each from the Departments of Defense, State and Homeland Security; the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Presumably each of those representatives watched remotely in his or her office in the DC area. Also present for the hearing were the Legal Advisor to the Board; the Case Administrator; a Hearing Clerk; and a Security Officer, though it is not clear where these individuals were located at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere.
The PRB hearing itself
The PRB hearing itself lasted a total of about 13 minutes. The clock on the wall had a time different from the time announced by the distant voice piped in through the speakers, and those times were different from the time on my watch. I didn’t catch the precise number of minutes. I thought I would be able to see the time on the transcript, but the Pentagon posted a notice indicating that Bakush requested that the public transcript of his hearing not be posted online.
Suffice it to say that the hearing was very short.
After the roll call of attendees that began the hearing, a voice said something like this — “This board is called to order. This board is convened to determine whether continued law of war detention is warranted for detainee [Ismael] in order to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States.” [Quote based on notes and was not verified as the transcript was not available on the PRS website online after the hearing.]
The first document read into the record, in English, was the Government’s Unclassified Statement. It was read by a woman who did not appear on camera. It answer the question of who does the U.S. Government believe Bakush is and what does the U.S. Government believe Bakush did. Essentially, the Statement summarized reasons that the U.S. believed that Bakush poses a continuing threat to U.S. National Security.
Government views on “Who is Bakush”?
First, it should be noted that the allegations that the government made against Bakush in its unclassified summary are not criminal charges. That is, the government has not levied any criminal charges against him in the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Military Commissions. These allegations related to the Government’s assessment as to whether Bakush is a threat to US national security and whether he should be released from detention.
The unclassified summary document alleges that Bakush alleges in definite terms that Bakush “was a Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) explosives expert who trained al-Qaida members”, and he “developed close relationships with several al Qaida leaders and provided explosives training to LIFG and al Qaida operatives, including some who later conducted attacks in Kuwait and Morocco”.
A number of other allegations against Bakush were couched in more tentative terms, such as “probably” – he “probably” “associated with and provided operational support to” key al Qaida figures. He “probably” was in Afghanistan from 1991 – 1994, and again starting in 1998.. He “probably helped” al Qaida, and “communicated regularly with prominent” al Qaida figures, including “possibly” Abu Zubaydah and “probably” senior al Qaida leader Abu Faraj al-Libi. However, using stronger language, one allegation was that he “almost certainly” “plotted to kill Libyan leader Moammar Qadhafi”
The full text of the Government’s Unclassified Statement follows:
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Bakush’s Government Appointed Opening Personal Statement
Bakush’s U.S. Government-Appointed Personal Representative, dressed in fatigues, said in his Opening Statement that he was “presenting “Bakush’s case this morning”. He said that Bakush had “been cooperative and receptive while meeting with me”, and that Bakush “is eager and excited to begin a new chapter in his life.” He said that Bakush “has learned to be more opened minded [sic], tolerant and accepting to others while living in a communal living setting”, and that Bakush “believes that his communal living arrangement allows him more opportunities to gain exposure for himself to other detainees’ cultural and religious backgrounds”, and as a result, Bakush “now respects and values the opinions of others from various cultural backgrounds”.
The Personal Representative said that he “was not able to contact [Bakush’s] family, but understand from our discussions that his mother has properties that would enable her to offer [Bakush] financial support. His cousin is employed and is also willing to help [Bakush] financially”. It was not mentioned why the Personal Representative was unable to contact Bakush’s mother, to find out firsthand about the “properties that would enable her to offer [Bakush] financial support”, or could not contact the employed cousin who “is also willing to help [Bakush] financially. Would it be practicable to release Bakush based on his being able to receive family assistance, if the Personal Representative is unable to contact these family members?
The Personal Representative spoke about how Bakush “enjoys watching and playing many sports such as soccer and swimming”, has taken classis in health and life skills, and enjoys cooking for others. Bakush “would like to work in the restaurant industry”. He looks forward to having his own family, and to raising children of his own. He would prefer to live in an Arabic speaking country, but “is willing to relocate to a country that provides him opportunities for a successful future”. He is “willing to participate in a rehabilitation or reintegration program as well”.
Then, the Bakush’s US Government-Appointed Personal Representative of Bakush read the Personal Representative’s Opening Statement, the full text of which follows:
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The following document appeared on the PRS website following the hearing, and indicates that Bakush requested to not have his own written PRB statement published to the website:
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The following document appeared on the PRS website following the hearing, and indicates that Bakush requested to not have the transcript of his PRB published to the website.
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FYI, the New York Times has posted http://projects.nytimes.com/guantanamo/detainees/708-ismael-ali-farag-al-bakush/documents/115 documents related to this detainee, and prior reviews for possible release:
- Combat Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) Summary
- Administrative Review Board (ARBs) (3 documents)
- Joint Task Force – Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) Assessment