In 2001, Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed al Sawah, a veteran of the war in Bosnia who’d joined up with al Qaeda in Afghanistan, landed in U.S. custody. Injured by a cluster bomb in the Afghan mountains, Sawah sought medical help from a local Afghan who turned him over to the Northern Alliance instead.
Al Sawah has been at the Guantanamo Bay detention center ever since. On Thursday, he’ll have his first opportunity in more than six years to make his case for transfer out of there.
The 57-year-old Sawah is now morbidly obese, suffering from “elevated cholesterol, diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and chronic low back pain with sciatica,” according to documents produced by Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), which recommended he be transferred out of the prison back in 2008. His weight has reportedly ballooned at times to 420 pounds – in part, it seems, because Guantanamo interrogators used fast food and ice cream to entice him to turn over information.
Indeed, Gitmo officials say Sawah provided a wealth of information to US authorities about al Qaeda – “150 first-rate information reports,” according to one former military intelligence official. By that point, he told interrogators, “he’d had it” with fighting. A 2008 military document said Sawah was so disillusioned with his old life that “he has denounced Islam and is now an atheist.” Sawah became such a useful and well-known informer that Guantanamo officials in 2008 said he no longer posed a significant threat to the United States if released because he’d be such an obvious target for revenge by al Qaeda.
Like many of the prisoners there, Al Sawah has had a strange odyssey at Gitmo. In 2008, a secret panel recommended he be transferred out of the prison. Instead, a U.S. military commission that December charged him with conspiracy and material support for terrorism. Those charges (which are likely no longer legally sustainable in a military commission) were eventually dropped. Like the vast majority of the 122 remaining Guantanamo detainees, al Sawah now remains in legal limbo: he’s never been tried or convicted of any crimes, but he’s been in the prison now more than 13 years. The Egyptian government requested his return in 2012.
On Thursday, Sawah will have a Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing before U.S. authorities, who will once again consider his release.
Sawah’s hearing is only the 11th such PRB hearing to be held since President Obama created the first semi-public review board hearings by executive order back in March 2011. Intended to review all cases of indefinite detainees at Guantanamo, the board has operated at a glacial pace. U.S. officials say that’s because it doesn’t have enough dedicated staff to conduct investigations more quickly.
The resumption of PRBs on Thursday is a good sign, but it’s only the beginning. The Obama administration needs to hold another 55 PRBs over the next year – approximately one per week – to review all remaining cases by the end of 2015. Given the challenge it’s faced in transferring even cleared detainees out of the Guantanamo prison to other countries (particularly when the U.S. Congress continues to refuse to accept any on U.S. soil) finishing those reviews this year is essential to closing the prison by the end of President Obama’s term.
When Obama took office in 2009, his plan to close Guantanamo was among his first priorities, announced with much fanfare in the oval office as he signed an executive order to close the facility within the year. The president was flanked by some three dozen retired generals and admirals who had urged the move.
But his cautious approach left open the opportunity for Congress in 2010 to slap onerous restrictions on transferring detainees out of Guantanamo, including a complete ban on transferring detainees to the United States. That increased the challenge.
Still, closing Guantanamo remains possible, and critical. “The prison is a symbol of torture and justice delayed,” wrote those same 38 retired military leaders to the Senate in 2013, backing an initiative to help close the prison that had bipartisan support. “More than a decade after it opened, Guantánamo remains a recruiting poster for terrorists, which makes us all less safe.”
President Obama said himself in a 2013 speech that Guantanamo “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.” He reiterated his commitment to close it in his State of the Union Speech on Tuesday.
To his credit, Obama has redoubled his efforts, transferring 33 detainees to 11 different countries in the last year. 54 detainees already cleared for release remain.
Dealing with the 55 awaiting review by PRBs is equally important. Many, like Sawah, are aging in poor health and may pose little actual risk of harm at this point. Any conceivable national security benefit to continuing to imprison them indefinitely at Guantanamo is far outweighed by the stigma to the United States of continuing indefinite detention in an offshore facility for suspects never accused of committing any crime.
Congressional hawks are trying once again to stop the president’s momentum and prevent him from shuttering the prison and keeping his promise, citing faulty “recidivism” statistics that exaggerate the risks these men pose, purely to incite fear. This is despite previous support for closing the prison by some Republican senators, including John McCain, who has unfortunately co-sponsored the new legislation.
The administration should not be deterred by Washington politics. As John Bellinger, legal advisor to the State Department during the Bush administration, wrote recently, Obama should continue moving toward shutting down the prison – a goal that’s long had support from both sides of the aisle. As Bellinger himself says, “Guantanamo serves as a recruiting tool for terrorists and continues to damage (whether deservedly or not) America’s global reputation (whether tattered or not) for commitment to rule of law. It also complicates our diplomacy with allies, including with regard to counter-terrorism cooperation. Even President Bush, Bellinger notes, recognized that Guantanamo had become “a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.”
A robust and well-resourced PRB system to review the remaining detainees must now be a priority.