Today, after 15 years of conferment at Guantanamo Bay, a Yemeni detainee named Salman Yahya Hassan Mohammad Rabei’i asked the U.S. Government to transfer him from Cuba to a third country.
This parole board like hearing is called a Periodic Review Board (PRB), and was convened pursuant to President Obama’s 2011 Executive Order calling for PRBs to ascertain whether detainees pose a continuing threat to the national security of the U.S. If a detainee does not pose such a threat, he may be repatriated to his home country or transferred to a third country.
Rabei’i had an initial PRB in 2015 in which he appeared in person, and that was followed by a “file review” PRB for which he was not permitted to appear. Today’s PRB was a “full” review.
The PRB was held at Guantanamo Bay, but it was broadcast by CCTV to a secure location at the Pentagon.
I observed the hearing in a modest Pentagon conference room, joined by representatives of the media (Al Jazeera, Courthouse News) and other non-governmental organizations (Judicial Watch, Heritage Foundation, and Human Rights First). Also in attendance was Faisal Sadat, who is a Master of Laws (LL.M.) student at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, who this semester is a human rights law intern at Human Rights Watch. He participated today in his capacity as a representative of the Indiana McKinney Periodic Review Project, which is part of the Law School’s Program in International Human Rights Law.
Who is Rabei’i
Rabei’i was 22 when he arrived at Guantanamo Bay. Allegedly, he was “recruited” by his brother Fawaz to travel to Yemen where he allegedly received al Qaida training. The only other substantive involvement that the U.S. Government levels against him is that he “possibly fought in Tora Bora”.
His special representative, who appeared today in a U.S. Military Uniform, said: “I strongly believe that [Rabei’i] is not a threat to the security of the United States and hope that the Board will agree based on the information we have presented, and even more importantly, on [Rabei’i’s] answers here today”.
His private counsel, Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, contended that upon release, Rabei’i would be a beneficiary of Reprieve’s “Life After Guantanamo” program, “which provides a host of vital support mechanisms that carry our clients through the stages of re-integration”. Sullivan-Bennis said that she had met with members of Rabei’i and members of his family multiple times, that he “has an impressive network of family to provide both emotional and financial support, wherever he is resettled”, and that his education while at Guantanamo Bay and his “meticulously written homework assignments” are evidence that he is “dedicated” – “a trait that will serve him well in application to a new trade and in learning new life skills upon release”.
The hearing commenced about 9:04 and ended at about 9:25. Today’s video feed was fuzzier than in the past, and the audio was also lacking. The audio and visual had definitely been better at other Pentagon PRBs, in this same conference room.
Rabei’i sat at the head of a small white rectangular table that appeared to be in a Guantanamo Bay “trailer” (and not in a Guantanamo Bay courtroom). On the long side of the table to his left sat his personal representative in a U.S. military uniform. Directly across from her, to Rabei’i’s right, sat the linguist. Next to the linguist was the private counsel, sitting closest to the camera.
Throughout the 21 minute hearing, Rabei’i sat with his back rigidly straight, almost perfectly still, with his arms resting on the arms of the chair. He wore a white t-shirt with sleeves that barely covered his elbows. The screen was so fuzzy that it was unclear whether his narrow face sported a closely cropped beard, only a mustache, or no facial hair at all. The hair on his head was full, but not long. The very top of his head was not in the camera frame.
The personal representative and private counsel read their statements in English, and the English was interpreted by an off camera female voice.
Around 9:24, seconds before the hearing was set to end, just after his private counsel finished reading her remarks, Rabei’i began to move. He slowly picked up a sheet of paper or two and flipped it over, and did the same thing again with more paper.
A male off-camera voice called for a 15 minute recess. The Pentagon screens went blank when Guantanamo Bay cut our feed. The “public” session of the PRB was over. In 15 minutes they would commence the PRB’s classified portion which we were not permitted to attend.
The NGOs, the media, and our escort and technician left the secure room. The NGOs and media picked up our cameras and cell phones, and were escorted out of the Pentagon.
Faisel Sadat and I took the Metro from Virginia where the Pentagon is to DC. We are looking forward to two PRBs next week – Tuesday (Election Day) and Thursday). Thus far, Faisel is the only Indiana McKinney representative, besides me, to attend a PRB. Faisel has also attended several Guantanamo Bay Military Commission hearings at Ft. Meade, Maryland, that are also broadcast by CCTV from Guantanamo.
The PRBs are currently being conducted pursuant to President Obama’s Executive Order. There is speculation as to whether the next President will continue or abandon the PRB process.
By George Edwards,
Professor of Law, Indiana University McKinney School of Law
Faculty Director (Founding), Guantanamo Bay Periodic Review Board (PRB) Project
Faculty Director (Founding), U.S. Military Commission Observation Project