A Yemeni man being held as a “forever” war prisoner at Guantánamo made a secret plea for freedom in the first session of the Obama administration parole board seen as a step toward closing the war-on-terror prison camps in Cuba.
Mahmud al Mujahid, 33, donned a white tunic to argue by video feed from the prison Wednesday to the so-called Periodic Review Board meeting in Washington, D.C.
“The detainee was allowed to speak, uncensored, except for when his counsel interrupted him,” according to an account furnished Friday by Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, who did not himself watch the proceeding but spoke with participants.
Dozens of other Guantánamo captives held as indefinite detainees or never charged with a crime are expected to get similar hearings. The next is scheduled for Jan. 28. Wednesday’s hearing was held without reporters or other independent observers allowed to watch. The Pentagon has said it has not yet devised a way for that to happen.
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Mujahid got to Guantánamo the day Camp X-Ray opened, Jan. 11, 2002, as a suspected bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, making him among the longest-held prisoners.
Early Saturday, his lawyer, David Remes, said the Yemeni told the panel that, after nearly a dozen years at Guantánamo, he prefers “to go to a Western country but was amenable to going back to Yemen if that would cause him to be released earlier,” Remes said.
“His objective is to leave Guantánamo.”
Delegates from six federal agencies listened to the captive and then questioned him with the aid of two linguists via closed-circuit feed from a secret location in the Washington, D.C., area, Breasseale said They represented the Director of National Intelligence, departments of Justice, Homeland Security and State as well as the Pentagon and, separately, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Breasseale said a transcript of certain portions of the hearing would be released “soon” but not necessarily contain the captive’s comments.
“Detainees’ private counsel have the option of removing statements by the detainees they represent,” Breasseale said, “They may not in any way otherwise alter the transcripts.”
Remes would not say whether he would invoke the censorship option, but said Mujahid took part for about 75 minutes of what he described as a 90-minute hearing with one ankle chained to the floor out of view of the Washington-based review panel.
During the Bush years, military review panel members met the detainee face to face in a trailer set up as a hearing chamber at Guantánamo. Reporters were allowed to watch, just feet away from the captive whose ankle shackles were plainly seen padlocked to a bolt on the floor beneath his seat.
For this one, Breasseale said, Mujahid spoke into a camera and got to see board members ask questions on a video monitor.
“Panel members asked many questions regarding the detainee’s statement and his subsequent comments,” the Pentagon spokesman said. “All questions and answers were spontaneous.”
President Obama ordered his administration to set up the board in March 2011. The process is run by a retired Navy admiral who in July began notifying civilian lawyers that the file reviews were under way.
Guantánamo on Friday held 164 captives, 13 of them on hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention. Of the 164, 84 have already been cleared to go to other countries once the Obama administration overcomes congressional obstacles and negotiates bilateral security agreements for each transfer. Most of the cleared men are Yemeni, like Mujahid.
Nine others have been convicted of war crimes or are facing charges.
The rest are likely to get these review boards.
For the prison, Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat refused comment on any aspect of the hearings. He did not respond to a request for a photograph of the hearing chamber.
Once the Pentagon figures out how to let reporters watch the proceedings, Breasseale said, the viewing will be limited to “opening statements” but not the exchanges between the panel and the captive.
At Human Rights Watch, counterterrorism counsel Andrea Prasow, who was allowed to watch U.S.-run Detainee Review Board hearings in Afghanistan, condemned the secrecy.
“Holding hearings in secret does little to dispel the notion that Guantánamo is still a law-free zone,” she said by email Friday.
“It’s high time Obama owned his decisions about Guantánamo, whether it his acceptance of indefinite detention without trial, or a decision to release someone.”
Filostrat would not disclose what kind of facility the prison used for the hearing. But Breasseale reported it was held without any of the chronic communications problems and interruptions experienced at Guantánamo’s $12 million war court compound, called Camp Justice.
For Wednesday,’s hearing Breasseale said, the video feed “worked from beginning to end,” from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with “no faults or failures in transmission.” Remes said the video feed broke once, briefly, and lasted only 90 minutes between the board and the hearing chamber. He said the board may have continued its work after the portion involving the prisoner and his lawyer ended.