The Arabian Sea nation of Oman has taken in eight Yemenis and two Afghans from Guantánamo, the Pentagon said Tuesday, including several men cleared for release for years who were mistakenly profiled as captives of consequence.
U.S. officials anticipated that there would be more releases in coming days — over the objection of President-elect Donald Trump — that could reduce the detention center population to 41 captives. That would leave a prison population of 10 men charged with war crimes, 26 indefinite detainees known as “forever prisoners” and five men who were cleared for release but had no countries that could provide security guarantees that satisfied Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
A Pentagon statement did not explain why the Department of Defense chose to wait to identify the 10 men for more than a day after the Sultanate of Oman announced it had taken them in as “temporary” residents “in consideration to their humanitarian situation.”
But those named included two men who had been cleared for release as far back as 2009, plus eight men approved for release by an inter-agency parole-style Periodic Review Board between May 2014 and late last year.
All had been held in U.S. military custody for at least 14 years.
Just one of the men was charged with a crime at Guantánamo — Afghan Abdul Zahir, 44 — who was ultimately ordered released after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that he had been confused with another Afghan who shared the same nickname.
In what his military defense attorney Air Force Col. Sterling Thomas called an exceptional outrage, suspicious chemicals seized at the time of Zahir’s capture as a suspected bomb maker turned out to be salt, sugar and petroleum jelly. The Afghan’s photo on his 2008 prison profile — provided to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks by former soldier Chelsea Manning — shows him sticking out his tongue at his captors.
Another, Yemeni Mustafa al Shamiri, 38, was likewise mistaken for another man with a similar name for most of his years at Guantánamo — a suspected al-Qaida courier or trainer — until U.S. intelligence concluded he was a run-of-the-mill jihadist.
A third, Ghaleb al Bihani, 37, gained some prominence as a sickly Yemeni who learned to practice yoga in his cell as an escape from the daily grind of prison life. “We are relieved that his ordeal is finally over,” said his attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei. “After having lost a third of his life in Guantánamo, what he needs now is support for a real chance to rebuild. We are hopeful that he will have that opportunity in Oman.”
His also cleared older brother, Tawfiq, who was captured in Iran and turned over to Afghan, then U.S. troops, remained behind.
There was no immediate explanation of Oman’s reference to their stay being temporary. But U.S. diplomats have in the past negotiated transfers to security arrangements that withhold travel documents from freed captives for a specific time period, in some instances two years.
The Afghans — Zahir and Bostan Karim, 46 —are the only non-Yemenis taken in by Oman, which shares a border with Yemen and is said to have a special rehabilitation and reintegration program. Oman previously took in 20 captives from Guantánamo in three transfers in 2015 and 2016.
The other cleared Yemenis sent to Oman were Muhammed al Ansi, 41, Muhammed Ahmad Said Haydar, 38, Salman Yahya Hassan Mohammed Rabei’i, 37, Walid Said Bin Said Zaid, 38, Musab Omar Ali al Madhwani, 37, and Hayl al Maythali, 40.
Madhwani and Maythali were held for years as suspected members of a cell called The Karachi Six until the parole board downgraded their dangerousness. U.S. intelligence analysts decided these men were not part of a terror cell awaiting activation in Pakistan’s largest city at the time of their capture, Sept.11, 2002, but six low-level fighters captured in common circumstances trying to get home to Yemen.
Trump tweeted two weeks ago asking for a cessation in transfers, a request the Obama White House has rejected.
A Pentagon statement declared the United States’ gratitude to “Oman for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. The United States coordinated with the government of Oman to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”
It added: “Today, 45 detainees remain at Guantánamo Bay.”
Zahir’s lawyers said in a statement soon after the Pentagon disclosed the Afghan’s release that the husband and father of three sons “hopes to reunite with family and recover from the mental and physical trauma suffered during his 14 years of unlawful imprisonment by the United States government.”
The lawyers said that Zahir impressed his legal team — the Air Force lieutenant colonel and civilians Bob Gensburg and David Sleigh of Vermont — “with his prolific poetry, kind nature and resilient spirit.”