Periodic Review Board Hearings start up at Gitmo this week – but why in Secret?

Although the Pentagon this week will finally start holding review hearings for Guantanamo detainees who remain in indefinite detention and haven’t yet been cleared for release or transfer, those hearings will not be public, Carol Rosenberg reported Friday in the Miami Herald.

President Obama ordered the creation of the “Periodic Review Boards” in March 2011. Two and a half years later, the Pentagon is saying that they haven’t had a chance to work out how to make these hearings open to human rights observers or the media.

The first hearing is scheduled for this Wednesday.

According to Alan Liotta, the Pentagon’s deputy director of detainee affairs, the Pentagon “is committed to beginning the PRB process as expeditiously and transparently as possible,” Liotta wrote to Human Rights Watch counsel Andrea Prasow. But it hadn’t yet devised “procedures for granting press access to certain unclassified portions of the PRB hearings.”

That’s odd, because as Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian pointed out this morning on Twitter, he was able to watch one of the Bush administration-run hearings in 2005.  And as I responded, I was able to observe a whole day’s worth of review hearings at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan in 2011.  The new rules and procedures governing the new PRBs aren’t all that different.  In fact, it’s a whole lot easier to get press and human rights observers to Guantanamo than it was to get them to Bagram.  Already, dozens of them travel there for the military commission hearings every month.

So how can the Pentagon say with a straight face that two years after the president ordered the defense department to create these review boards, it still hasn’t found a way to arrange for them to be observed, even by select members of the press and public who already transfer to Guantanamo regularly?

As Human Rights First has stressed repeatedly, the Pentagon should provide meaningful public access to those PRB hearings. That means that at the very least, observers from non-governmental organizations and representatives from the media should be able to observe the hearings and have access to any documents and transcripts filed, as they do for the Guantanamo military commissions. The PRBs should not rely on secret evidence, and should make public unclassified summaries of all of the evidence presented to the Board, as well as unclassified versions of the Board’s final decisions.  Anything less cannot possibly be viewed as a “transparent” process. 

About the Author(s)

Daphne Eviatar

Director of the Security with Human Rights Program at Amnesty International USA She advocates for US compliance with international law in US national security policy. Follow her on Twitter (@deviatar).