Saudi Arabia on Saturday took in nine Yemeni detainees from Guantánamo, a breakthrough deal with the at-times stubborn oil kingdom that left 80 captives at the downsizing U.S. military detention center in Cuba.
Among those the U.S. Air Force delivered to Saudi Arabia was 5-foot-4-inch hunger striker Tariq Ba Odah, 38, who gained prominence by asking a federal judge to order his release after he shriveled to 74 pounds despite daily U.S. Navy medical tube feedings.
Cleared for years, Ba Odah, like the others released, could not go back to Yemen because of a White House policy that forbids repatriations to the poor, violent nation south of Saudi Arabia on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
But in a turnabout, the Saudi government agreed to take non-citizens from Guantánamo to its rehabilitation program set up to help Saudi jihadists transition back into society. All nine men have relatives living there, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the deal. In fact, four were born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents.
“Only good fortune allowed Mr. Ba Odah to survive Guantánamo,” his lawyer Omar Farah said Saturday. “It certainly was not because of any intervention by the White House, which watched Mr. Ba Odah cling to life in the final stages of his hunger strike, rather than expedite his release and access to emergency medical care. I am confident the Saudi government will do better by him.”
I am confident the Saudi government will do better by him.
Tariq Ba Odah’s lawyer, Omar Farah
The nine prisoners released this weekend got to Guantánamo in 2002. Several were cleared for release during the George W. Bush presidency. Not one was ever charged with a crime.
The transfer comes a week ahead of President Barack Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council countries. With Saturday’s transfer, three GCC countries have taken in 34 Yemenis from Guantánamo for resettlement, answering an appeal from Obama, according to two U.S. government officials, during May’s GCC summit at Camp David. Twenty went to Oman and five to the United Arab Emirates.
With Saturday’s transfer, three GCC countries have taken in 34 Yemenis from Guantánamo for resettlement this year — 20 to Oman, 5 to the United Arab Emirates and now 9 to Saudi Arabia.
Of the last 80 captives, 26 are cleared for release to other countries with security agreements, although they won’t be going anywhere for at least a month. The Saudi transfer exhausted all the 30-day notices that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter sent to Congress of pending transfers.
Mecca-born Yemeni detainee Mashur al Sabri, 38, was among those delivered to the rehabilitation program this weekend. During the Bush years more than 100 Saudis from Guantánamo passed through the program, and a few fled from the kingdom to Yemen to join with militants of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
But Sabri’s attorney, Brian Neff, said his client “wants to get married, raise a family and live in peace.” Neff petitioned the Saudi government over the summer to take Sabri, whose release was approved in April 2015 by the Guantánamo review board. “Saudi Arabia is to be commended for stepping up and accepting detainees who have strong ties to the kingdom,” Neff said, predicting that Sabri would “sail through” the Saudi rehabilitation “with flying colors” in a couple of months and join his family in Mecca.
The latest transfer comes at a delicate time.
Saudi-U.S. relations have been strained by a number of issues, from the Iranian nuclear deal and Syria policy to the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen that human rights groups and the United Nations have blamed for an increasing civilian death toll. Meantime, the Obama administration, under pressure from former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, is deciding whether to declassify 28 pages of a congressional report that detailed possible links between the 9/11 hijackers and Saudi officials in the United States.
The transfer leaves 26 cleared captives among the 80 prisoners held by the Pentagon in Cuba.
For the weekend transfer, Saudi Arabia did not send a royal or commercial jet to fetch the captives, something it has routinely done for its citizens to spare them U.S. military flights in shackles like those that brought them to Cuba. Instead, in a signal of the Yemenis’ second-class status, a U.S. Air Force cargo plane delivered them, and then the Pentagon disclosed the transfer.
The Saudi-born Yemenis released:
▪ Mansoor Muhammed Ali Qatta, 34, who got to Guantánamo in June 2002, four months after Pakistani forces captured him in Karachi and sent him to U.S. troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Guantánamo’s prison commander recommended his release in April 2008.
Four of the nine Yemeni prisoners taken to Saudi Arabia on Saturday were born in the oil kingdom to Yemeni parents.
▪ Ahmed Kuman, 36, who got to Guantánamo in May 2002, five months after Pakistani forces arrested him in a mosque and turned him over to U.S. troops in Pakistan.
▪ Abdul Rahman al Qyati, 40, who got to Guantánamo in May 2002, four months after he was picked up by Northern Alliance forces hiding in a farm near Kandahar airport. By September 2004, the prison was recommending he be sent to a lockup in another country.
▪ Sabri, who got to Guantánamo in May 2002, four months after Pakistani forces turned him over to U.S. troops. The Periodic Review Board concluded a year ago he was little more than a foot soldier who renounced “extremist ideology” and whose detention was no longer necessary.
The other five were born in Yemen but have family ties in the kingdom:
▪ Ahmed al Hikimi, 44, who got to Guantánamo the week Camp X-Ray opened, as a suspected bodyguard of Osama bin Laden. A 2009-10 federal task force approved his repatriation to Yemen if the security situation improved or release to a rehabilitation program.
▪ Abdul Rahman Nasir, 36, who got to Guantánamo in June 2002 as a survivor of the November 2001 uprising of the Qala-i-Jangi prison near Mazar-e-Sharif in which CIA officer Mike Spahn was killed. The prison commander recommended release in October 2008.
▪ Mohammed al Hamiri, 34, who got to Guantánamo in February 2002, a month after Pakistani officials turned him over to U.S. troops. The prison commander recommended his release in October 2008.
▪ Ba Odah, who got to Guantánamo in February 2002, about five weeks after Pakistani officials turned him over to U.S. troops. He was approved for release by a 2009-10 task force, and emerged as a committed hunger striker who challenged his detention and forced feedings in federal court.
▪ Ali al Raimi, 33, whose lawyer Erin Thomas said he got to Guantánamo as a teenager “and was cleared for transfer over 10 years ago.” Now, she said, “he longs to finally begin an adult life as a free man” — to marry and start a family of his own. At the U.S. prison, she said, “he kept himself productive with drawing, painting, and sculpture. Ali is interested in pursuing a career in woodworking or another craftsman field.”