Guantánamo

Guantánamo’s 9-year hunger striker asks to go home

This screengrab from a Guantánamo public affairs handout video shows the chair used to strap in and force-feed hunger-striking detainees. It is in this instance parked inside a cell at the Behavioral Health Unit, the military’s name for the prison’s psychiatric ward.
This screengrab from a Guantánamo public affairs handout video shows the chair used to strap in and force-feed hunger-striking detainees. It is in this instance parked inside a cell at the Behavioral Health Unit, the military’s name for the prison’s psychiatric ward. Department of Defense

A man held captive as a suspected Osama bin Laden bodyguard since the day the prison opened at Guantánamo went before a multi-agency parole board Tuesday seeking release to his native Saudi Arabia to marry, finish college and join his brothers in business.

Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 39, has been described as Guantánamo’s longest-running hunger striker. “He has been on a peaceful but long-term hunger strike since 2005,” according to a statement released by his lawyer, Julia Tarver Mason Wood.

And he appeared slim in a video feed of the proceedings. He had a full beard and wore a white tunic top and skullcap, according to a Pentagon official who watched a portion.

A three-paragraph U.S. intelligence profile released by the Pentagon on the eve of his hearing said al-Qaida may have considered using Shalabi for a suicide attack but in all his years at the prison camps in Cuba he has provided interrogators with “no information of value.”

The assessment said Shalabi “probably continues to sympathize with extremists,” but has not had any contact with them outside of Guantánamo, leaving an open question of whether he would, as the intelligence agencies call it, “reengage.”

U.S. forces brought Shalabi to the U.S. Navy base in Cuba on Jan. 11, 2002, the day Camp X-Ray opened. He has never been charged with a crime. In January 2010 an Obama administration task force designated him an indefinite detainee — or so-called Forever Prisoner — considered too dangerous to release but for whom there was insufficient evidence to take to trial.

In seeking a change of status, his lawyer, Wood, said the Saudi is willing to participate in the kingdom’s rehabilitation program, a U.S. requirement of transfer, and “is committed to spending his remaining days in peace with his family.”

Wood added that Shalabi is “a teacher of Islam, which he believes is a religion of peace, not war.”

She noted that Shalabi’s Saudi nephew was successfully repatriated from Guantánamo in 2007 to their family, which has a real estate and construction firm. That would Shalabi’s first choice, Wood said, but he “is open to being resettled in another country if that would expedite his transfer out of Guantánamo.”

A U.S. Navy officer who was assigned to help Shalabi prepare for Tuesday’s hearing also defended Shalabi’s long-running hunger strike as a legitimate protest — rather than an act of “noncompliance,” as some in the U.S. military define it.

“It is important to emphasize that hunger striking is not an illegal act, but rather a non-violent and peaceful means of protesting camp conditions and continued detainment,” said the officer whose name is withheld from public disclosure.

Wood added that Shalabi “has largely cooperated with the enteral feedings he has been provided on a daily basis over the last nine years” — something prison staff have at times confirmed to the Miami Herald through the years. Even at the height of the prison’s long-running hunger strike, according to various military sources, Shalabi would voluntarily submit to shackling for escort to a restraint chair and sometime chug a can of Ensure nutritional supplement rather than receive it through a tube snaked up his nose and into his stomach.

It was not known what the board asked Shalabi or what he told them at Tuesday’s hearing. That portion is held out of public view, with the captive at a video-teleconferencing facility in Guantánamo’s Detention Center Zone, and board members questioning him via a closed-circuit feed from the Washington, D.C., area.

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