Guantánamo parole board OKs release of obese Egyptian captive

Tariq el Sawah in a photo from his Guantánamo prison assessment provided to McClatchy Newspapers by the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks organization.
Tariq el Sawah in a photo from his Guantánamo prison assessment provided to McClatchy Newspapers by the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks organization.

A national security parole board has approved for release a long-held, chronically ill, morbidly obese Egyptian captive who was once considered a candidate for a war crimes trial.

A Periodic Review Board decision released Wednesday said Tariq el Sawah, 57, was “one of the most compliant detainees at Guantánamo” and had no more ties with extremists.

“The Board considered the detainee’s change of ideology and renunciation of violence,” the short statement said, “as well as his recognition of his health status and his efforts to improve it.”

The decision means that as of this week, 55 of Guantánamo’s 122 captives are approved for release or transfer from the detention center where most have been held without charge or trial for more than a decade. Unlike Sawah, however, who’s an Egyptian, most come from Yemen, a place where the Obama administration currently won’t send cleared prisoners.

Release for Sawah, however, is not necessarily imminent, said Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, the Pentagon’s spokesman for detainee policy. Now, the State Department starts negotiating his circumstances of transfer to another country. Once a deal is negotiated, it would be up to the new Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, to sign off on it and send a 30-day notice to Congress.

Sawah went before the board last month with a written statement seeking repatriation or to be reunited with family in Bosnia or the United States. But, at his request, the board did not disclose what he told them to be designated for release.

In 2008, in the dwindling days of the Bush administration, a prosecutor swore out out a charge of providing material support for terrorism — alleging he was an al-Qaida explosives trainer — a charge subsequently ruled illegitimate at war court prosecutions.

Sawah has long been identified as one of Guantánamo’s chronically ill, at-risk captives, in part because of his obesity. According to Pentagon prison camp records released under the Freedom of Information Act, he weighed in at Guantanamo in May 5, 2002 at 215 pounds and had ballooned to 411 pounds in June 2006.

Even before the war crimes prosecutor swore out the charges, the prison camps commander had recommended his release, noting he was “closely watched for significant and chronic problems” that included high cholesterol, diabetes and liver disease.

Representatives of six different U.S. government divisions sit on the board that considers the potential post release dangerousness of a captive: The departments of Defense, Justice, State, Homeland Security as well as the military’s Joint Staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Sawah’s case is different than the other 10 so far considered by the Periodic Review Board, who were all so-called “forever prisoners” —held without possibility of trial or release under the law of war. In 2009, an Obama Task Force, however, categorized the Egyptian as potentially eligible for trial.

A public summary of an intelligence report released by the Pentagon at last month’s hearing said he hoped to reunite with family members who live in Egypt, Bosnia and the United States and seemed “unlikely to pursue reengagement.”

It said that while he “openly admits to having taken part in terrorism, there are no indications that he is interested in reengaging in extremist activity.”

The mention of Bosnia refers to his service in the Bosnian Army in the 1990s, a popular cause with jihadists, before he moved on to Afghanistan and was handed off to U.S. forces in December 2001 with wounds to his legs, apparently from an attack in the Tora Bora region amid the U.S. invasion in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

His lawyers have called him too sick to keep at the prison camps in Cuba following a novel federal court approach by a since released Sudanese prisoner who won a habeas corpus petition using that argument. In fact, military sources say, Sawah is confined to a special compound called Camp Echo opposite the main prison buildings for low-value detainees because of both his health condition and the fact that at some point he was quite cooperative with his captors.

A senior Egyptian diplomat observed the brief, open portion of the proceedings with a knot of reporters and representatives of human rights groups.

Egypt has asked for the return of their citizen, who according to Pentagon records was born in the port city of Alexandria, joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a young man, was arrested for a time after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and went on to become a construction contractor in Greece before being drawn to Bosnia.

Follow @CarolRosenberg on Twitter