The United States sent two long-cleared Guantánamo detainees to Saudi Arabia over the weekend, the latest move in renewed efforts to empty the prison that President Barack Obama ordered closed in 2009.
The transfer reduced the prison population to 160 as the Pentagon pressed forward with two death-penalty proceedings on the base.
At the war court Monday, lawyers for the men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were studying a judge’s sealed ruling that appeared to let the five defendants talk about what the CIA did to them in years of secret custody before they got to Guantánamo.
According to the ruling, said attorney James Connell, defense attorneys like himself are forbidden from divulging classified CIA information, but the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, said the Sept. 11 defendants’ “thoughts and memories” are their own.
“This ruling is an important step forward in accountability for torture,” said Connell. “The real question is whether the prison will allow the prisoners to communicate with foreign government officials, medical care providers, human rights authorities and media.”
A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment on whether the ruling meant, for example, that the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, would be able to describe in open court his 183 rounds of waterboarding, who he believed interrogated him or in what country — information that so far had been considered subject to censorship as state secrets.
Similarly, the military would not say if Pohl’s ruling had implications for the clandestine world of the prison where former CIA captives are kept here, Camp 7, a site so secret its location is classified.
Connell, the Pentagon-paid lawyer for Ammar al Baluchi, accused of helping some of the Sept. 11 hijackers with their travel and finances, spoke after a four-hour closed hearing that excluded the public and the alleged terrorists so lawyers and Pohl could work out what part of this week’s proceedings could be held in public.
Tuesday, the lawyers will argue a defense motion that seeks to have the case thrown out over a “defective referral.”
Hot-button issues involving possible CIA revelations to the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” and whether the judge will impose a protective order to preserve any remnants of the agency’s secret prison network were pushed off until next year.
At the prison, the weekend transfer suggested a new momentum in the move toward emptying the camps of at least some of the 80 captives that were cleared to leave years ago.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration sent two Algerians home on condition they be “subject to appropriate security measures.” The two Saudi men went back with the same conditions.
The next to go, according to Sudan's news agency, could be the last two Sudanese captives at Guantánamo.
Qahtani and Hamood were among the last 11 Saudi citizens at the prison from an all-time high of about 135, at one time the second-largest nationality of captives at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba after Afghanistan, which had more than 220 nationals among the 779 captives.
Yemenis at one point accounted for more than 100 but the figure has fluctuated as some captives at times thought to be Yemeni turned out to have Saudi citizenship. Hamood, for example, was held for years as Yemeni prisoner 574. He got there in June 2002.
Qahtani was held as Saudi prisoner 200. He got to Guantánamo on Jan. 16, 2002, in the earliest days of the makeshift prison at Camp X-Ray — and celebrates his 35th birthday Tuesday, according to his lawyer, Patricia Bronte, a Chicago attorney.
He was cleared for release by a Bush-era review board in 2008, according to Bronte, a year after his mother died without him ever arranging a Red Cross telephone call.
“He wants to rejoin his family and resume his education, then get a job,” Bronte said Monday morning. “He should be highly employable, he speaks English and several other languages fluently and is very, very smart and personable.”
The Bush administration released most of the Saudis back to the kingdom between May 2006 and November 2007 in groups of 13 or more. They left aboard Saudi Airways jetliners that fetched them from the remote Navy base, rather than having them sent home hooded and shackled aboard U.S. military transport. The Saudi government sent an aircraft for Saturday night’s transfer, too, according to a U.S. government official.
The Saudis sent home in 2006 and 2007 were put through a Saudi-designed rehabilitation program that sought to rid them of radical Islamic ideology and resettle them, with mixed results.
Some fled Saudi to Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, and joined with Al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula — the post 9/11 franchise blamed for a series of suicide bombings and attempts including the thwarted underwear bomber’s bid to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas 2009.
This latest repatriation reflects the Obama administration approach of small-scale transfers with individual diplomatic deals designed to fashion specific solutions for a released detainee.
“The U.S. has made real progress in responsibly transferring Guantánamo detainees despite the burdensome legislative restrictions that have impeded our efforts,” Paul Lewis, the Defense Department special envoy assigned to close the Guantánamo prison camps, said in a prepared statement.
“The United States coordinated with the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ensure that these transfers took place with appropriate security assurances and in a way that is consistent with our humane treatment policy,” he added.
At the State Department, Lewis’ counterpart Clifford Sloan issued a statement early Monday calling the weekend transfer “an important step on the road to closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”
Two of the Saudi citizens still at Guantánamo are charged as alleged war criminals facing death-penalty proceedings: USS Cole case defendant Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, born in Mecca, and 9/11 case defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi. And two other Saudi captives still at the Navy base prison are named Qahtani, both at one point considered for prosecution at the base’s military commissions but neither currently facing charges.