The United States released five more Yemeni detainees from the prison camps in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, on Wednesday to far-flung locations — four to the Arabian Sea nation of Oman, and a fifth to Estonia in Northern Europe — in continuing transfers that have stirred protest from Congress.
A day earlier leading Republicans, notified in advance of the transfers, called a Capitol Hill news conference to seek more restrictions on the release of detainees at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba, which as of Wednesday numbered 122 prisoners.
“The decision to transfer a detainee is made only after detailed, specific conversations with the receiving country about the potential threat a detainee may pose after transfer,” said Paul Lewis, the Pentagon’s special envoy for Guantánamo prison closure, in announcing the latest release.
All five freed detainees got to Guantánamo in the prison camps’ early days. None was ever charged with a crime and all had been cleared for transfer for years. But, as Yemenis, they could not go home because U.S. officials feared they would be lured to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group that Wednesday claimed responsibility for last week’s attack on the French satire newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
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But the announcement that four other long-held Yemeni captives in their 30s and 40s had gone to Oman came as a surprise. The nation shares a border with both Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
But it’s a stable, steadfast U.S. ally that has been so far spared militant Muslim violence, and lately emerged as a pivotal partner in U.S. diplomacy with Iran. It hosted high-level nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran late last year.
Just Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry met the ailing 74-year-old leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, in Munich where he was receiving medical care. Kerry met with Omani Foreign Minister Yussef bin Alawi in Oman’s capital, Muscat, on Nov. 9.
Abdulwahab Alkebsi, an expert on Yemen at the Center for International Private Enterprise in Washington, D.C., described Oman as one of the more stable countries in the Arab World with a vast desert between it and neighboring Yemen.
Socially, he said, “Oman will be a better place to reintegrate into life than Latin America or Europe,” with a common language, stable economy, educational and business opportunities that provide a better quality of life than impoverished Yemen.
From a security standpoint, he said, it has “highly trained and intrusive security systems like any other Arab country” that could keep tabs on the men.
Not one of the 780 detainees held at Guantánamo during the detention center’s 13-year existence was an Omani. They came from 48 other nations. This is the first time Oman and Estonia have agreed to take in cleared Guantánamo detainees.
This week’s transfer left 54 cleared captives among the prison’s 122 detainees, 47 them Yemeni. The other remaining captives include 10 men with war crimes cases, one of them already convicted; 35 so-called “forever prisoners” deemed too dangerous to release; and 23 men once considered candidates for trial who are on a list to plead their case for release before a U.S. national security parole board.
While the transfer missions were underway, but not publicly disclosed, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina described President Barack Obama’s release policy as a result of “delusional thinking.”
“The best I can say about him is, he’s unfocused,” Graham said on the FOX News Channel’s s On the Record program Wednesday night. “The war on terror has reached a lethal phase, and it is insane to be letting these people out of Gitmo to go back to the fight.”
Those released Wednesday were identified as:
▪ Khadr al Yafi, 44, held as detainee 034. He got to Guantánamo on Jan. 16, 2002 and, like many Yemenis there was considered at one point to be a possible Osama bin Laden bodyguard. But by April 2007, a prison camp assessment approved his release.
▪ Abd al Rahman Abdullah Abu Shabati, 32, held as detainee 224. He got to Guantanamo Feb. 9, 2002. The detention center recommended the Defense Department release him by January 2007
▪ Fadil Husayn Salih Hintif, in his 30s or 40s, was held as detainee 259. He was approved for release by January 2007. He got to Guantánamo on April 26, 2002 where, according to prison records, military intelligence considered him a potential threat because the model of Casio watch he wore was used in improvised explosive devices.
▪ Mohammed al Khatib, 34, held as detainee 689, was approved for release in 2009 by an Obama administration national security task force. He got to Guantánamo June 19, 2002 and also wore a Casio watch. Pakistani security forces captured him in Faisalabad, Pakistan, according to his prisoner profile, in a raid that swept up a prized CIA captive called Abu Zubaydah. Guantánamo intelligence analysts at one point considered capture that day a threat indicator, too, although many of the men sent to Guantánamo from the Faisalabad raid have since been freed.
▪ Qader, 31, held as prisoner 690 went to Estonia. Among the youngest of Guantánamo’s detainees, he arrived at age 18 on June 19, 2002 and was likewise captured in the Faisalabad raids, according to his prison profile provided to McClatchy newspapers from the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Wednesday’s transfers were the first since the U.S. sent five captives to Kazakhstan for resettlement on Dec. 30, a trip that was delayed by a day because a U.S. Air Force C-17’s mechanical problems.
That trip cost $1,646,500, said Air Force Col. Linda Pepin, chief of public affairs at the U.S. Transportation Command. The figure included $110,500 to scramble a second C-17 from an air base in Charleston, S.C., to complete the mission, aerial fueling, contractor support and maintenance, she added.
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“In accordance with statutory requirements, the secretary of defense informed Congress of the United States’ intent to transfer these individuals and of his determination that this transfer meets the statutory standard.” Read the full Defense Department statement on the Estonia transfer here, and the Oman transfer announcement here.
“The United States is very grateful to our partners, Estonia and Oman, for these humanitarian gestures, and appreciates the generous assistance of both governments as the United States continues its efforts to close the detention facility at Guantánamo.” Ian Moss, spokesman for Guantánamo issues, Department of State
“Each of these five individuals was unanimously approved for transfer nearly five years ago by six departments and agencies. The decision to transfer a detainee is made only after detailed, specific conversations with the receiving country about the potential threat a detainee may pose after transfer and the measures the receiving country will take in order to sufficiently mitigate that threat ... We take our obligation to assess the security risk of detainees seriously prior to transfers; as a result, more than 90 percent of detainees transferred during the Obama administration live quietly around the world.” Paul Lewis. special envoy for Guantánamo closure, Department of Defense
“Instead of working with Congress to develop common-sense policies to enable our national security personnel to detain and interrogate terrorists, this Administration continues to irresponsibly release detainees from Guantánamo Bay.” Richard Burr, Republican, North Carolina
“This legislation would prevent this administration from transferring the most dangerous detainees to other countries and would prevent detainee transfers to Yemen-the headquarters of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and one of the most dangerous countries on earth.” Kelly Ayotte, Republican, New Hampshire
“Oman is a safe, stable and culturally appropriate country for the men to make new lives in, and we hope to see many more transfers there in the near future.” Center for Constitutional Rights, press release