Most Gitmo detainees still face a long path to freedom

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schacter: Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was still in Germany today, resting at a US military hospital there. He's just starting his recovery after five years being held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His release has been all over the news along with the five Taliban prisoners freed by the US to secure Bergdahl's freedom. Those five men were detainees at the US facility in Guantanamo. But what about the nearly 150 detainees still at Gitmo? What's their status? Pardiss Kebriaei is a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights. She represents two men who've been held it Gitmo now for over a decade and three who've been freed and moved to other countries. Miss Kebriaei, one of your clients was just cleared by the Gitmo review board. What does that mean?

Pardiss Kebriaei: That's right. My client, Galib al-Bihani, who's a Yemeni who'd been held or who has been held without charge at Guantanamo since 2002 was just approved for transfer by the Obama administration's new review board. What that should mean is that he leaves Guantanamo, that approval for transfer means actual transfer and release. What it should not mean is simply a change in administrative status for him to move from one box of detainees to another.

Schacter: Does moving from one box to another change anything? Is one box "more free" than the other?

Kebriaei: It's a necessary step for release, so Mr. al-Bihani had been designated by a prior review task force in 2009 and 2010 for indefinite detention. That was the determination that he wouldn't be charged - there wasn't evidence to change him with a crime for wrong doing - but he was, quote-unquote, "too dangerous to release." So that category of detainees that he was in was highly problematic. It is a good thing that he'd been moved into the category of people who can be transferred out, but ultimately it will be meaningless unless he is actually released.

Schacter: What did your client, Mr. al-Bihani, do?

Kebriaei: The government said that he was part of a group that it said was associated with the Taliban. It said that he was a cook, an assistant cook for that group. It never alleged that he fired a weapon. It never said that he was alleged in any actual act of violence or terrorism.

Schacter: Part of the problem now, though, is that there's nowhere for your client to go. Shouldn't Yemen take him back in?

Kebriaei: Yemen has said officially - it actually submitted a statement saying that it would be willing to accept him. Mr. al-Bihani's position is actually that he wants to go to a third country. He wants a new start in life. He wants to rebuild somewhere else, so he - if he had his choice - would be resettled.

Schacter: Now you did represent three guys who have left Gitmo. Where did they go and do you know what's become of them?

Kebriaei: Yes. So in 2009 and 2010 I represent a Syrian father and son. One was resettled in Portugal, another was resettled in Cape Verde, and they're among the success stories that we don't hear about. I had another client who was repatriated to Yemen. My understanding is he's rebuilding his life without incident. The sky did not fall. He's back in his country and he's with his family. So we need to be aware of the hundreds of cases of people who are just rebuilding quietly and silently and anonymously without incident.

Schacter: How do your clients now feel? The ones who are still in Gitmo. Are they a bit more positive than they were?

Kebriaei: I think they are now cautiously optimistic, some of them. I think a year ago the situation was very different. Most of the men at Guantanamo went on hunger strike because they felt their situation was absolutely bleak. Many of them now do feel that there is at least some attention back on Guantanamo and the key is really to keep that going.

Schacter: I've got a personal question for you, if you don't mind. What do your colleagues, and not in the Center for Constitutional Rights, but lawyers in the United States, feel about what you're doing? The folks in Guantanamo Bay are not exactly thought fondly of by most Americans.

Kebriaei: I think there continues to be a great misunderstanding of who is at Guantanamo, who has been at Guantanemo, simply because we continue to struggle with bringing the facts out. Everything our clients say is presumptively deemed classified. It has go to through a government clearance process in order for us to bring anything out to the public. Journalists like yourself are not allowed access to the men directly. You're not allowed access to the base of even a guided press tour. This concept of just holding people forever on a remote island prison in perpetuity I think raises the question of what are we doing and how can that be sustainable?

Schacter: Pardiss Kebriaei, thank you so much.

Kebriaei: Thank you very much for having me.