By Elizabeth Topolosky
Yesterday Guantanamo Bay’s Periodic Review Board (PRB) reviewed the detention status of artist, student, and alleged terrorist Mohammed Ahmad Abdallah al Ansi.
Captured by Pakistani forces in 2001 after the battle of Tora Bora, Ansi has been accused of—but not formally charged with—swearing an oath to al Qaeda and serving as Osama bin Laden’s personal bodyguard. Throughout his detention, he has denied any involvement with al Qaeda, instead claiming that he moved to Afghanistan in 1999 to teach the Koran.
The U.S. government disagrees, pointing out that Ansi would have had trouble teaching because he was unable to speak any of the local languages. It instead maintains that Ansi was recruited by the radical Yemeni scholar Shayk Muqbil al Wadi, and that he received advanced combat training and had been vetted for an aborted Asia-centric attack on 9/11.
In his initial PRB hearing in December 2015, Ansi’s private counsel, Lisa Strauss, disputed the government’s accusations. Strauss, a partner at Bondurant, Mixson, & Elmore, LLP, pointed out that “even the unclassified dossier reflects the uncertainty about [her client’s] past by using words like ‘may’ and ‘probably.’”
This line of argument was absent from today’s hearing. Ansi’s new private counsel, Beth Jacob from Kelley, Drye, & Warren, did maintain several of Strauss’ other arguments, however. Like Strauss, Jacob highlighted Ansi’s artistic skill.
Jacob’s predecessor emphasized the change in the focus of Ansi’s art from pen drawings of “chains, tears, and metaphors for sadness and injustice” that reflected frustration over “typical prison injustices” to peaceful landscapes, which Ansi says “reflect where he longs to travel.” Jacob focused on the practical effects of his skills. “First,” she said, “[his art] will give him something to do and a means of expression in the first days and weeks after his transfer. Second, he will be part of a community of artists, which will provide stability and social contacts. Third, there is the possibility of earnings from his art.”
Both private counsels also underscored the institutional and familial support Ansi would receive upon transfer. Last December Strauss told the PRB that the Carter Center, founded in 1982 by President Carter and his wife, had pledged to support her client upon transfer. A year later, Ansi has gained pledges of support from REPRIEVE’s Life After Guantanamo Project and from Jacob personally. “Of course,” Jacob told the Board, “I stand ready to assist using my firm’s network of contacts and resources if necessary.”
Ansi’s family in Yemen, including five siblings whom Jacob describes as “educated, married, and hold[ing] responsible jobs,” also submitted documents to both PRB hearings indicating they can support him post-transfer, despite ongoing unrest in the region.
All Ansi’s representatives, military and civilian, have emphasized his academic progress and cooperation with guards. The facilities at Guantanamo Bay offer a number of educational opportunities, and Ansi, like many of his fellow detainees, has thrown himself into his studies. Per his military representative in 2015, Ansi has a “record of outstanding academic performance” and has taken classes in mathematics, science, English, Spanish, life skills, computers, health, and art. During his full review, his military representative spoke of his enrollment in small business and accounting classes. Jacob said her client hopes to find a construction job should his transfer be approved.
Ansi has also learned how to manage his chronic health condition through diet, exercise, and medication while at Gitmo.
Although the government has acknowledged Ansi’s good behavior, saying he has been a “mostly compliant” detainee and “a leader among…the more moderate detainees…assum[ing] a role as a mediator between different groups since 2011,” it rejected his initial petition for transfer. The board cited “significant derogatory information” regarding Ansi’s activities in Afghanistan and a “lack of candor resulting in an inability to assess the detainee’s credibility and…future intentions” as its reasons for the denial.
Focusing on multiple pledges of support from family and internationally-recognized institutions alike, a non-violent and mostly cooperative detention record, and a new education and skill set under his belt, Ansi’s team presented a solid case for clearance. Ultimately, however, only time will tell if the PRB will approve Ansi’s transfer out of the detention system that cost Americans over $445 million in 2015 alone to maintain.