I was back at the Pentagon today at 7:30 a.m. (Thursday, 21 July 2016) to monitor the Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing during which Yemeni detainee # 1017 asked the U.S. government to release him from the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba prison after being held there for over 13 years, about one-third of his life.
Omar Mohammed Ali al-Rammah, who is referred to as “Zakariya” by his U.S. Government personal representative and “Zakaria” by his private counsel, hopes that the PRB will find that he is not a threat to US national security, and that the U.S. Government will thus release him Guantanamo detainees can either be repatriated to their home country, or resettled in a third country.
Currently, 76 detainees remain at Guantanamo Bay, down from the approximately 780 detainees who have been held at the remote prison since January 2002.
After winding down Pentagon corridors, my escort and I arrived at the non-descript conference room where we would watch live feed direct from Guantanamo. We were later joined by 3 NGO representatives and several military officials.
The PRB was scheduled to begin at 9:00, but Guantanamo informed us that we would be on a 5-10 minute delay. While waiting, we caught the tail end of a Military History Channel show on Gettysburg, and heard details of battle strategy successes and failures, the carnage, and how Gettysburg got its name.
We then watched the beginning of The Wehrmacht: The Turning Point, that shifted us from the American Civil War to World War II.
At 9:06 or so, the Military History Channel was switched to the video-conference platform, and we could see Zakariya, his U.S. Government-appointed personal representative, his private counsel, and a linguist, sitting around a small, rectangular table in what looks like a Guantanamo Bay trailer.
The PRB commenced at 9:08.
The large screen image of the Guantanamo participants was a bit grainy, though I could see the faces of the linguist, he personal representative, and private counsel pretty well. Zakariya sat furthest from the camera, and his image was not as neatly visible, such that it wasn’t clear to me whether he had a closely cropped beard or was clean shaven. (It was clear that he did not have a big, bushy beard as last week’s detainee had.)
Zakariya wore an elbow length white garment, like a classy rounded-neck tunic, with what appeared from a distance to be an emblem or logo on the left breast. His rounded glasses complemented a face that looked young, compared to the faces of some of the detainees I have seen via video at the Pentagon and Ft. Meade, and whom I’ve seen in person at Guantanamo Bay.
Zakariya had three stacks of paper in front of him, and during the hearing he would periodically shuffle the pages. He’d pick up a sheet from one stack and place it in another stack, then later do the same with another sheet, then later shift the paper back to the original or the third stack. At times he sat seemingly patiently, with his hands folded gently on the table-top.
The linguist uttered not a word the entire hearing. The voice of unseen interpreter would at times chime in, with the interpretation being one way – with the non-Arabic speakers speaking to Zakariya.
Zakariya did not speak in the public portion of his PRB, as he is not permitted to do so.
Why? Because everything that Zakariya says is presumed to be classified, and the public is not entitled to be privy to classified information. So, NGOs, media, and others without security clearances cannot hear a detainee speak directly at his PRB. Some detainees appear to authorize their PRB transcripts to be posted on Periodic Review Secretariat’s (PRS’s) website.
After formalities, presented off-camera by male and female voices, the personal representative read his one page Opening Statement. Then the private counsel read her two page Opening Statement.
No PRB member had any questions. The public session ended about 18 – 19 minutes after it began.
Zakariya’s background – early life & leading up to capture
Zakariya was born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but his family is by blood Yemeni.
His personal representative indicated that in the 1990s Zakariya traveled to Bosnia to help protect Muslims there. After being injured, he returned home for a couple of years before traveling to Chechnya to help Muslims there, and then after further training in Afghanistan traveled to the Republic of Georgia. He was captured in Georgia, transferred to Afghanistan for a year, and then sent to Guantanamo Bay. He is approximately 40 or 41 years of age.
U.S. Government’s view of Zakariya’s activities
Zakariya’s personal representative’s comments about Zakariya’s time in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Georgia are consistent with what the Government outlined in an unclassified summary it read into the record at this morning’s PRB. But, the Government version includes specific allegations not mentioned in the personal representative’s statement (or the private counsel’s statements).
The Government’s unclassified statement states that Zakariya was “a trusted but low-level mujahidin facilitator” and he “arranged to acquire fraudulent passports, and sought to acquire weapons, ammunition and other supplies for mujahidin operations in Chechnya”.
No contact with Zakariya’s family; Life after Guantanamo?
In today’s remarks, all sides agreed that Zakariya had had no contact with family since his arrival at Guantanamo Bay, and that he has little formal education. While the Government states that “he has not articulated any plans or hopes for his life after release”, his private counsel stated that “he would like to work in a store, perhaps one selling sweets, or drive a taxi”. Furthermore, the private counsel stated that Reprieve’s “Life After Guantanamo” program “has agreed that Zakaria can participate in that program”, and that two international law firms (including the private counsel’s firm — Kelly, Drye & Warren), “are committed to continuing our work as his lawyers to give him or find for him whatever assistance is needed.”
The U.S. Government Unclassified Summary for Zakariya, that was read into the record today by a faceless female off-camera voice, is here:
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The Opening Statement of Zakariya’s U.S. Government’s Personal Representative and the Opening Statement of Zakariya’s Private Counsel are here:
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What is a PRB?
Today’s hearing is a Periodic Review Board (PRB), and was conducted pursuant to a 2011 Executive Order which has required most detainees to have a “periodic review” of their detention status. Though Zakariya has had similar reviews under now defunct processes, this was 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.
Yesterday, 20 July 2016, the Pentagon released PRB hearing dates for 7 additional detainees, with roughly 2 scheduled each week in August 2016. I was informed that an additional 3 PRBs will be scheduled, and these will be the final “initial reviews” for all of the detainees eligible for PRBs.
PRBs do not assess the defendant’s guilt or innocence, and are not criminal proceedings.
Who else was present at the PRB?
As mentioned, present in the room in which Zakariya sat were his personal representative, his private counsel and a linguist. Four NGO representatives and several military officials could see those four people on two screens in our Pentagon conference room.
Hidden voices announced other people who were present for the hearings, though none of these others who were “present” could be seen by us at the Pentagon. Presumably these others were in virtually attendance, with some of them persona even viewing from a different room at the Pentagon. Some who were present were certainly on sight at Guantanamo Bay.
Others present for the PRB but out of sight 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 will watch remotely in his or her office in the DC area. Also present but out of sight were re the Legal Advisor to the Board; the Case Administrator; a Hearing Clerk; and a Security Officer. And, as suggested, staff at Guantanamo Bay were necessarily present, and also out of sight.
Other information – PRB, Other proceedings
The Government is expected to release additional PRB-related documents over the next couple of days.
FYI, the New York Times has posted 5 documents related to this detainee, and prior reviews for possible release (http://projects.nytimes.com/guantanamo/detainees/1017-omar-mohammed-ali-al-rammah):
- Combat Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) Summary
- Administrative Review Board (ARBs) (3 documents)
- Joint Task Force – Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) Assessment
The Pentagon’s PRB Conference Room
I mentioned in a previous post that I would share a little about the conference room where the PRBs are viewed.
The office suite that contains the conference room has always looked as though no one works there. Maybe its occupants take leave when the PRBs are aired in their conference room.
The suite has large windows commanding a spectacular view of Washington, DC monuments across the Potomac. Inside, 10 leather high-back chairs surround a slender diamond-shaped table, that has a hidden compartment where our “missing” conference call spider telephone was finally found after phone and video-chat messages saying “we can’t find the phone to connect to the PRB”. The rich blue carpet complemented the wood and leather, and even matched the dozen grayish and red low-back chairs lining the walls.
On the walls hand five or six blown up photographs depicting soldiers being greeted by family when coming home, parachuters peering out of a helicopter hovering over a packed Navy football stadium, and other military scenes. In the corner behind the door was a bold, snazzy poster for Armed Forces Day, 21 May 2016, with the slogan “Americas Military – Guardians of Freedom”.
Basically, it was just a regular conference room. But it happened to have a live video connection to one of the most inaccessible, secretive prisons that exists anywhere in the world.