Guantanamo Lawyer Says Reviews Ring Hollow

WASHINGTON (CN) — Hassan bin Attash marked 15 years of detention without charges at Guantanamo Bay this month. The Yemeni captive was nowhere in sight, however, as a parole board for the prison camp turned to his case Tuesday in a 3-minute hearing.

Bin Attash was also a no-show at his first such hearing in 2016 — absences that defense lawyer David Remes said speaks to bin Attash’s belief that the review proceedings are a charade. 

In past years, Remes traveled to the military base in Cuba every six to eight weeks, representing as many as 18 detainees at once. With bin Attash, that roster today is down to six. Prosecutors say bin Attash was born in 1982, making him the youngest of Guantanamo’s 40 remaining detainees. But Remes said his client is even younger, about 34. 

“The place is like a ghost town, except these guys aren’t ghosts,” Remes said of the prison complex that once held more than 700 men.

It was 2011 when the Obama administration set up the Periodic Review Board at Guantanamo to weight the continued detentions of people whom lawyers and human rights organizations call “forever prisoners” held without charge or trial. The 9/11 defendants in military commission proceedings — one of whom is Walid bin Attash, a brother of Hassan — are not entitled to such reviews.

But after 23 hearings since the election of President Donald Trump, not one detainee has been cleared to return to his home country or a third country.

In an interview, Remes noted that bin Attash closely tracks American media coverage and is cynical about his chances of release, having learned early on that Trump vowed no Guantanamo detainees would be freed under his watch.

Remes told the review board in 2016 that he had never once observed extremist views from bin Attash. “If circumstances allowed, I would have him as a guest in my home,” Remes said.

Each month, Remes sends his client compilations of Guantanamo-related news coverage. Bin Attash, who knew no English when he arrived at Guantanamo, will yellow-highlight words he is unfamiliar with to later look up in the dictionary, the lawyer noted.

An unclassified government profile on bin Attash says he served as a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden. Reciting the U.S. allegations against bin Attash at today’s hearing, a government official said the detainee held close ties to senior al-Qaida leaders and supported plots against the United States as an explosives expert before his capture at an al-Qaida safe house, alongside suspected senior al-Qaida operative Ramzi bin al-Shibh.

But Remes emphasized that the government has a history of deriving evidence from statements “created” under torture.

“You can’t believe a single word,” Remes said.

A federal habeas petition alleges that the U.S. and its agents tortured bin Attash for two years after capturing him in Pakistan when he was just 17. The interrogations of bin Attash while in Jordanian custody allegedly lasted up to 12 hours per day.

Remes said the board views any attempt to counter the government narrative during the hearing as a failure to come clean on the part of the detainee — with language like “lack of candor” or “deceptiveness” common in unfavorable board decisions — adding that defense lawyers have no information on how the government compiles the compendium of allegations presented to the board.

“All of that is just a black hole,” Remes said. “But what the board gets is this picture produced by this process of synthesizing government intelligence and the board says ‘OK, this is the detainee.’”

Andrea Prasow, acting director for Human Rights Watch in Washington, noted in an interview that the board fails to address the lack of corroboration for the government’s allegations against Guantanamo’s forever prisoners.

“The government post-9/11 did a very successful job of scaring people, of teaching Americans to hate the other … under the Trump administration a lot of that has expanded,” Prasow said. 

Both Prasow and Guantanamo defense lawyer Neil Koslowe said in interviews that board proceedings often work to the detainee’s disadvantage. 

Katie Taylor, deputy director for Reprieve, a legal advocacy group, said the board was designed to prompt false confessions. 

“If the detainees see the pressure to make up or to basically cop to allegations with the idea that that’s what it takes to get out, then that can be quite damaging,” Taylor said in an interview. 

The “amorphous allegations,” Taylor said, can change from one board review to the next, and admitting guilt risks habeas corpus applications pending in federal courts and future resettlement opportunities.

Remes said it remains unclear which Arab country would open its doors to bin Attash. 

“I do think he’s certainly a perfect candidate for transfer to a country like Oman where former detainees … have married, have children, have jobs, have rebuilt their lives and are thriving,” Remes said. 

The United Nations regards indefinite detention as torture because of the severe mental and physical toll it takes on detainees. Still, the Trump administration has refused to free even the five detainees cleared for release by the board under President Barack Obama. 

Prasow described the “unfathomable” limbo status of these five men and detainees like bin Attash still under board evaluation as “antithetical” to the American justice system. 

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