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Yemeni 'forever prisoner' asks to leave Guantanamo

ARLINGTON, Va. — A “forever prisoner” at Guantánamo told a federal review panel through his attorney Tuesday that he wants to launch a farming business with other war-on-terror detainees if he’s released to his native Yemen.

Abdel Malik Wahab al Rahabi, 34, was not allowed to speak in the 19-minute portion of his hearing reporters were allowed to see. Instead, his attorney, David Remes, delivered the plea for release in a prepared statement he read with the man, one of Guantánamo’s longest-held prisoners, sitting along side him.

Rahabi, a Yemeni who last saw his 13-year-old daughter as an infant, wants to study and see his child, Remes told an anonymous parole-style panel from six U.S. government agencies. He and four other detainees have also, inside Guantánamo, drawn up a “stunningly detailed” business plan for an agricultural business, Remes said. It’s called “Yemen Milk & Honey Farms Ltd.”

It was the first time that media and human rights groups were invited to observe — via video feed from the prison in southeast Cuba to the headquarters of the Periodic Review Secretariat Arlington, Va. It came amid a period of decreasing transparency at the prison complex that holds 155 captives. Half of the captives there are already approved for transfer or release with security precautions from the prison that President Barack Obama has vowed to close.

Last year, Remes, described Rahabi as such a desperate and determined hunger striker that he would starve to death to leave Guantánamo prison. U.S. troops were force-feeding him at the time. Tuesday, the Yemeni looked fit and at times smiled as he sat through the first 19 minutes of his hearing silently. He wore a white prison camp uniform of a compliant prisoner.

A security profile of Rahabi released on the eve of the hearing said the U.S. believes he was a member of Osama bin Laden’s security detail more than a decade ago. It said he wants to go home to his family in his native Ibb but noted that a brother-in-law there, who was released from Guantánamo in 2007, has since emerged as “a prominent extremist.”

If he is allowed to return to Ibb, a five-hour drive from the Yemeni capital Sanaa, the profile said, he would have “ample opportunities” to join al-Qaida’s franchise in the turbulent Arabian peninsula nation “to reengage.”

Remes wrote in a prepared statement that the Yemeni has quit his hunger strike, is a model prisoner — and wants to study and teach with the support of his father, a tailor, and be reunited with his daughter, Ayesha.

“His whole family, Ayesha most of all, will keep him firmly anchored at home,” attorney Remes said, reading word-for-word from the English statement he said Rahabi approved.

At issue for the anonymous board hearing in his mostly closed session is not whether the man was or was not a jihadist at the time of his capture, or whether U.S. intelligence got it right when it declared him a member of al-Qaida and would-be hijacker.

At issue is whether Rahabi, through two anonymous U.S. military officers assigned to his case and Remes, can make a compelling argument that he’s safe enough to one day send home — or to a lockup in Yemen.

He’s currently held as an “indefinite detainee,” a U.S. category of captive in the war on terror. After Obama was elected, a federal task force designated 48 such captives at Guantánamo, finding them too dangerous to release although for whom there was no evidence to bring them to trial. Two of them have since died.

Five indefinite detainees drew up the proposed agricultural project in a prison-camp business class held inside a communal prison block before the current hunger strike and protest. According to documents filed with the Periodic Review Board, a Pakistani businessman held as a possible candidate for trial at Guantánamo, Saifullah Paracha, taught the class.

In their proposal, the five prisoners use crude prison-camp sketches and handwritten script — both Arabic and English — that envisions a windmill-run farm with cows, sheep, chickens and “10 Honey Bee farming fruit trees, vegetables and flowers.” The Miami Herald obtained a copy stamped “approved by US forces” with date stamps spanning the month of January 2013.

The hearing was the second so-called Periodic Review Board created by the Obama administration and it stuck to a pre-approved script — so much so that an official read that the hearing began at 9 a.m. even though the clock said it was 9:15 a.m., because of a technical delay. The board decided after the first hearing, held last year, that another 30-something Yemeni man was eventually eligible for release.

For Tuesday’s hearing, the Pentagon said, reporters were not allowed to hear the man speak for himself while shackled by an ankle to the floor inside a trailer transformed into a conference room at the prison in Cuba. Instead, the Defense Department would later release a transcript of his remarks once Remes and six different government agencies got a chance to censor his words for national or prison security reasons — as well as for privacy requests by the prisoner.

The hearing also comes days after an Afghan board, which the U.S. helped set up, decided to release 37 other captives held at a Guantánamo-style lockup near Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan — a move the U.S. military criticized as freeing dangerous men who had attacked and in some instances killed U.S. or Afghan forces.

Rahabi was one of 20 captives who arrived the day the detention center opened, Jan. 11, 2002, and was shown in a Pentagon photograph in a cage on his knees. Eleven are still there today.

In October, the U.S. military profiled him as a suspected Bin Laden bodyguard prior to his capture, the reason he was brought to Guantánamo a dozen years ago, who “fought on the frontlines ... and may have been selected by al-Qaida to participate in a hijacking plot.”

Today, there are 46 so-called forever detainees at Guantánamo because two of them have died — one of a suspected suicide, the other of a heart attack. Both were Afghans.

Although a preliminary decision was likely to be made in closed session later Tuesday, the process gives six senior government officials weeks to review the decision of the anonymous members of the Periodic Review Board.

They include the director of National Intelligence, secretaries of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State Department as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. All sides need not agree on the disposition to make a captive eligible for release or transfer.

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