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Freedom by PowerPoint: A Guantanamo 'Forever Prisoner' Seeks Transfer

Detainee Ali Ahmad Mohamed al-Razihi asks to go home to Yemen

A soldier stands near the wall around Camp V, part of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
March 20, 2014 2:02 PM ET

A Guantanamo detainee who was captured in 2001 and has never been charged with a crime asked a federal review board on Thursday to let him go home. The detainee, Ali Ahmad Mohamed al-Razihi, said through military-appointed personal representatives that he wished to return to his hometown in Yemen for an arranged marriage and to help run his father's fruit and vegetable business. The personal representatives submitted a PowerPoint business plan to show that Razihi intended to live a peaceful civilian life in Yemen.

In 2011, the Obama administration called for a restarting of the process to determine whether prisoners at Guantanamo scheduled for indefinite detention without charge could in fact be transferred out of the prison, pending sufficient security measures in the receiving country. These periodic review boards (or PRBs) only began last November, though, and as of Thursday had seen three of the 45 detainees scheduled to be held but not charged with a crime. Notably, one of those detainees, Abdel Malik al-Rahabi, was re-assigned indefinite detention status – a tool that President Obama regularly criticized as a candidate.

Read stories from inside Guantanamo Bay, the world's most infamous jail

The review was broadcast via video-teleconference to a nondescript Department of Defense building in Virginia, where six members of the media were allowed to view it, along with several representatives from human rights organizations. The board – which is an administrative, not legal authority – included representatives from the Departments of State, Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Because the board is not a legal body, it cannot determine whether Razihi's continuing detention is lawful. Rather, it claims to make a more narrow determination as to whether – as an unseen facilitator speaking for the government put it – Razihi constituted a "continuing, significant threat to U.S. national security."

Unlike at the two previous PRBs, Razihi declined to be represented by a trained lawyer, and apparently chose instead to speak through military-appointed representatives, who are not lawyers. "Today, we will present our case without the aid of a private counsel, and this is at the request of Ali," said one of his unnamed representatives. "[M]y client would like to show that he fully trusts the support and guidance of his military personal representatives."

The decision to proceed without legal representation was disconcerting to some observers, however. "It's troubling that that's being presented as a way to look better before the PRB," said Alka Pradha, a counterterrorism counsel at the U.K.-based human rights organization Reprieve who was present for the video-conference.

What happens to justice in a perpetual war?

The unclassified portion of the hearing, which lasted 28 minutes, included allegations by the government that "prior to his capture in December, 2001, [Razihi] almost certainly joined and trained with al Qaeda." The government further alleges that he "almost certainly provided logistical support at al-Qaida guesthouses and, according to detainee reporting of questionable credibility, possibly served as a bodyguard for Usama bin Ladin." One Guantanamo detainee who claimed Razihi was a body guard for bin Laden later "recanted the allegation." According to a government filing, Razihi "consistently has denied involvement with al-Qaida or any other extremist group."

Razihi said through his representatives that there are three elements to his plan to live as a civilian in Yemen. First, he wants to get married to a bride his father has apparently arranged for him. Second and third, he wants to "work on his education" and "expand his father's fruit and vegetable business." The two representatives worked with him on a "business strategy PowerPoint to better illustrate his ideas to the board" – one example of how prisoners who haven't been charged or convicted of a crime must navigate the unique legal regime at Guantanamo.

After the 28-minute presentation, members of the board were allowed to ask questions, though none did.

According to Defense Department spokesperson Todd Breasseale, 16 members of the media requested to attend the video-conference, but only seven – drawn by lottery – were allowed. In contrast, when Osama bin Laden's son-in-law unexpectedly testified in his civilian (rather than military) trial in lower Manhattan on Wednesday, the court opened an extra room to accommodate the spillover from increased media interest.

There are currently 154 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay.

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