President Obama vowed to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but has struggled against congressional resistance and a slow-moving review process, exemplified by the strange case of Haroon al-Afghani, reports Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
There has long been a Kafkaesque quality to the plight of some Guantanamo Bay detainees who faced indefinite incarceration without charge or a chance to defend themselves at trial, but one of the most mysterious cases involves Haroon al-Afghani, who has been locked up since 2007 without a trial or legal representation.
Al-Afghani was originally passed to the U.S. military by local Afghan forces under questionable circumstances. According to public reports, his wife and young daughter now live in a refugee camp, but not more is known about him.
Last week, the Afghan prisoner pleaded his case — for the first time during his nine-year lock-down — to Guantánamo Bay’s version of a parole board, the Periodic Review Board (PRB). He was represented at the classified hearing by U.S. attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, who met him for the first time shortly before the June 14 hearing.
Sullivan-Bennis is a member of Reprieve, a public interest human rights law firm founded to “provide free legal and investigative support to some of the world’s most vulnerable people … those victimised by states’ abusive counter-terror policies – rendition, torture, extrajudicial imprisonment and extrajudicial killing.”
Sullivan-Bennis said, “very little is known to the world about Haroon, and Guantánamo’s secrecy laws currently ban me from filling in the blanks. … I can say that the bright-eyed, chatty young man I met … is not allowed to meet me alone for more than ten minutes before government representatives forcibly remove him from the room.”
I spoke with Sullivan-Bennis in a Flashpoints radio interview on June 15, after al-Afghani’s first appearance in nine years before the PRB. What she didn’t say in this context is definitely as important, if not more important, than what she was allowed to say in public or before the PRB. The hearing itself was remote from Guantánamo, where the lawyer and her client were located. The PRB representatives conducted the hearing via videoconference from Washington.
Dennis Bernstein: Why don’t you just begin a little bit by giving us as much background, telling us as much as you can possibly tell us under strict national security restrictions. Tell us something about who this man is and how he was captured.
Shelby Sullivan-Bennis: Haroon’s story is quite the untold mystery and we’re hoping that with this hearing it will become more public. Some of the documents will be published. And we’ll be able to know a bit more about him.
Unfortunately, because of American secrecy laws regarding Guantánamo, I’m only able to say what has already been made public, which is predominantly from the Al Jazeera article. With regard to how he was captured and who he is, I can say that he is a delightful young man, who is funny and sweet and kind. And I was very grateful to have the opportunity to be the person standing beside him when he had no one else.
DB: And you just met him right?
SSB: I did, I met him last week.
DB: Last week. And he’s been rotting at Guantánamo, well, he’s been pretty busy, I understand, but he has been there nine years without any hearing or representation whatsoever.
SSB: Exactly. It sounds like quite the odd, tragic story and it really is. He is, as far as I understand it, the only prisoner at Guantánamo who did not have counsel over the course of all of those years. I know, personally, from having spoken to other attorneys that he did reach out for support but because of capacity issues none were able to provide that support. So I was glad to be there when he needed someone for his hearing.
DB: So it took him nine years to get representation?
SSB: Yeah, you know, what I really think did the trick was that there was the imminence of this hearing, and we all know how important it is. So, you know, when people receive letters from detainees — which actually come quite often — asking for support for their case, many detainees have multiple attorneys.
Sometimes those are pushed to the side, but when something as important as this — and we know the administration is intent on releasing as many men as possible — it’s very important to all of us that they have the representation required, so I think that was the impetus.
DB: But, what took so long? He just couldn’t get representation?
SSB: Yep. I know for a fact that he had reached out to multiple attorneys and asked for support but a lot of the attorneys that are quite well known down here have multiple cases, and are quite overloaded themselves. I think he just sort of fell through the cracks, as unfortunate as that sounds.
DB: And, again, how was he captured?
SSB: From what we understand from public documents, he was handed over by Afghan forces. He was basically found with six others who had affiliations with organizations with whom the U.S. government was displeased, to say the least.
DB: What was his treatment like at Guantánamo?
SSB: That is something I can’t speak to but I hope to be able to in the next couple weeks. We at Reprieve are working at different mechanisms to get some of our notes cleared and made public. But I’ll tell you, it’s quite the battle. So hopefully we’ll have that information soon.
DB: So he hasn’t been able to speak to you about his treatment or you can’t talk publicly based on secrecy law?
SSB: The latter.
DB: The latter. So, you know how he was treated but you can’t talk to us about it yet?
DB: Can you say if it was good or bad?
SSB: I can’t. I’ll tell you one thing from my understanding: no one who has lived the life of these men, held captive here for all these years, would ever describe their treatment as good.
DB: Was he ever fasting or a hunger striker or force fed? Or you can’t say?
SSB: That’s another thing I can’t say.
DB: And these are all based on secrecy laws?
SSB: Right, secrecy laws that apply strictly to those in Guantánamo, and not to other detainees around the United States. It’s certainly not something that we, as Americans, who enter courtrooms for traffic tickets and other affiliated things, are accustomed to, but it’s quite the different kind of justice here at Guantánamo. And I’m unable to say anything of substance until specific censors have cleared all of my notes.
DB: The censors…so how does that work? You have to give over all your notes and they search them for possible national security breaches?
SSB: Yeah, […] I think they would term it classification review. So they essentially get to read everything that my client and I talk about privately. And they sift through it and they decide what parts of it are secret and which parts they can declassify. Because everything that a Guantánamo detainee says, no matter how trivial, is presumptively secret.
DB: And was he able to communicate with his family on some kind of regular basis?
SSB: From what I understand from what his family has told various news outlets, they are able to communicate with him. But they had quite some time even figuring out where he was to begin with.
DB: So he was just snatched and for years they didn’t know where he was?
SSB: Yep. That is also my understanding from the Al Jazeera article, and a few others who have spoken to his family members. His family, from what I understand from public source information, lives in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and I think resources are limited. And, of course, when the U.S. government kidnaps you, they don’t send a letter to your family telling you that they’ve done that.
DB: Do you know, can you say whether he was […] interrogated, water boarded, anything like that?
SSB: I can’t say any of that.
DB: You know but you can’t say, right?
SSB: Right. […] What I can say is that he’s not mentioned in the executive summary of the torture report that came out in 2014. But that does not mean, from everything that I know, that the man was not tortured. That just means it did not make it into the summary.
DB: By the way, when you said hello, were you able to shake hands and touch him?
SSB: Yes, I can tell you from all physical observations, in my opinion he’s quite open, and we shook hands. He was gregarious, and really a pleasure to just be around for the several hours, over the last week that I spent with him.
DB: And he did not waste a lot of time. He, apparently, has educated himself, he speaks five languages now?
SSB: Right. That’s true.
DB: And he’s got several degrees?
SSB: From what I understand he has a degree in economics. In my public statement it’s a two year degree, but he’s quite educated. And that comes across in all conversations, it comes across in his demeanor, and the comments that he makes. He speaks more languages than I do, by far. He’s an impressive man, and it’s unfortunate that he hasn’t had the proper representation that he needed. And I think that if he had, he would have been out of here much sooner.
DB: Would you tell us a little bit more about your impressions, having met him recently? And [the] things that come to mind, as you think about […] what’s happened in the last couple of days, in the hearing today.
SSB: What I can tell you from all these classified meetings are my part in them, and the words that I say are not presumptively secret. So I can tell you that I did discuss what has happened in Orlando with Haroon. I can tell you that he looked quite sympathetic. I shared with him that many of my very closest friends are gay, and could very well have been there that night.
And sometimes, you know, when I speak to clients they have one reaction, maybe slight discomfort depending on who they are, how comfortable they are with me. But Haroon is quite open and caring, and he wears his heart on his sleeve, as far as my opinion goes. […] I’m limited in what I am able to tell you.
DB: You can tell us, he has a great desire to return to his family. That’s the center of his life, and the center of his focus in terms of returning home, right?
SSB: It is, absolutely.
DB: How can you explain that to us? What gave you that sense that this was…somebody who was sincere and wanted to return to being a loving father?
SSB: Yeah, so again, I’m limited in what I am able to say, but I know that he, from what I understand and from, as my statement reads, he feels extremely guilty for having left his family. Even though it’s clearly not his doing, that he left. They are struggling to survive without his financial, emotional and other support. And I think that that is his main and only desire.
As many of the others you are seeing right now, people are actually getting out of Guantánamo, and they never thought that they would. So the tides are changing. And people are sort of acknowledging that and feeling quite hopeful for once, in the last 14 years, Haroon, nine. And I think that optimism is really spreading and sort of carrying a wave of folks being excited, frankly, about the prospects of returning home to their families, after all these years.
DB: Does he understand why he was captured and imprisoned?
SSB: It’s hard to really say that any of us understands that. I think the U.S. government has a different take on how they should handle these matters, and others. I can tell you that from everyone that I’ve spoken to, all of my clients, none of them think that the way to handle a national security investigation is to illegally kidnap, render and torture a person, and bring them to their country, keep them captive for 14 years, without charge or trial.
DB: Is that what happened to him?
SSB: It is our professional opinion that everyone who was brought to Guantánamo was illegally captured, rendered, tortured and brought here without due process. Yes.
DB: So, it might be safe to assume he was brutalized and tortured, although you can’t say that he was, based on…even if you know that from talking with him.
DB: Any scars on his body? Or you can’t talk about that? You know, if someone was tortured or beaten or you know, they would have some scars. But if he did, you couldn’t talk about that.
SSB: I can actually speak to his physical appearance. But I have many clients who been tortured, who were named in the torture report, who don’t have visible scars from my perspective, sitting across the table from them. You know, it’s been nine years. None of them look very well. It’s quite a dreary place to be stuck without access to anything or anyone. But no, I did not see any scars.
DB: And why did it take so long to find out about this guy? Nine years.
SSB: To be honest, I again, I think he really managed to slip through the cracks of busy schedules and popular attorneys. And by popular, I mean that term respectfully. Some of the most popular attorneys here are popular because they are the best to their clients. They do the best for them, and their clients understand that.
I think what happens when people aren’t already aligned with someone … so Haroon arrived, as we know, late in the game in 2007. Everyone already had an attorney.The rush for attorneys to come down to Guantánamo and pick up a brand new case had past several years ago. So he arrived, and the ball was already rolling, essentially. So for attorneys to be approached by Haroon for support, […] the circumstances were such that they already had multiple clients and they had had them for a few years and their hands were full.
So I think because he got here late, because the attorneys whose names I’m sure were going around the camp at that time were quite overloaded with work, that he sort of got pushed to the way side. And it wasn’t until a very important opportunity in his case [when] this hearing came up that it really got anyone’s attention.
DB: Back to the hearing …, did he speak in the hearing, or did you do all the speaking..?
SSB: He did, he spoke.
DB: And can you say what he said?
SSB: I can’t. I’m sorry.
DB: Were you impressed by what he said?
SSB: Yes. Ever since I’ve met him I’ve been quite impressed by what he said.
DB: Were you before a judge? Or who heard this hearing?
SSB: The Periodic Review Boards are conducted in front of a six-member panel, with representatives from all the national security affiliated agencies; Department of State, CIA, Joint Chiefs of Staff … you know, the whole gamet. And so there are six members and they’re in D.C.[…]
The [other] lot of us — being the detainee (my client), myself, and either one or two personal representatives who are government military people, who are essentially advocating for the client with me–we all sit in Guantánamo and sort of beam ourselves in, Star Trek style. And the board is conducted in that way.
DB: You mean, you fly in and you fly out.
SSB: Oh no, sorry, so […] we’re in Guantánamo and they’re in D.C. And we’re doing this telecommunications panel.
DB: Is there anything else you think might help us understand the context of this situation that I forgot to ask you?
SSB: I can’t think of anything right now. But what I am excited to say is that, as my notes will eventually be cleared, we are looking into opening a habeas case for Haroon, which would enable further access, greater access to him. And I’m really excited for his story to get out there. One, because it hasn’t been told, and two, because it’s quite a good one. He’s an extraordinary person, and I am hopeful and optimistic, and frankly excited for the world to get to know who Haroon is.
DB: Beautiful. I want to thank you so much for joining us Shelby Sullivan Bennis. The non-profit law firm is Reprieve?
SSB: It’s Reprieve, yep.
DB: And where are you all based?
SSB: Reprieve is actually in multiple places. The base of it is in London. I work in Reprieve west, which is the New York branch. We have affiliated offices in Pakistan, the Netherlands and a few other places with fellows. So we’re quite all over.
DB: Well, we thank you for taking the time out. And we wish you the best and your client the best. Nine years without representation in Guantánamo, away from your family and all the other things that could have happened that you can’t talk about are just extraordinary, horrific and you gotta say I’m not sure what America is anymore. But it seems like it would be un-American. Thanks for being with us.