The U.S. military has delivered a long-held, mistakenly profiled Yemeni captive from Guantánamo to resettlement in the African archipelago of Cape Verde, downsizing the detention center to 59 captives, the Pentagon said Sunday.
Shawqi Awad Balzuhair, 35, was among a series of one-time “forever prisoners” whose dangerous status was downgraded by the U.S. intelligence community in recent years.
The release left 59 captives at the U.S. Navy base prison in Cuba, 20 of them approved for release.
In July the interagency Periodic Review Board called him a “low-level fighter” who was probably trying to get home to Yemen at the time of his Sept, 11, 2002, capture in Pakistan — not a would-be terrorist waiting in an al-Qaida safehouse for assignment as part of “The Karachi Six.”
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Balzuhair has been held at Guantánamo as Detainee 838 for more than 14 years, and was never charged with a crime.
“Shawqi is a private man who seeks anonymity upon his release,” said his attorney Angela Viramontes, a federal public defender in Riverside, California. “He looks forward to having a wife, children and a job, the experiences most young men hope for that Shawqi has yet to experience.”
A U.S. Air Force cargo plane took Balzuhair from this base on Friday morning. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter provided Congress with notice of his “intent to transfer this individual and of the secretary’s determination that this transfer meets the statutory standard,” a Pentagon statement said.
By law, Congress must be notified at least 30 days before a transfer and that happened, Pentagon spokeswoman Army Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson said Monday. “The transfer of Shawqi Awad Balzuhair, from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to the Government of Cabo Verde, occurred no earlier than 30 days after submission of the certification required by Section 1034 (a)(1) of the FY2016 NDAA (Public Law 114-92),” Henderson said by email.
Now there are 59 captives and a staff of around 1,700 soldiers and civilians at the detention center that President Barack Obama sought to close and President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to repopulate with prisoners. Now, 20 captives are cleared for release, 10 are charged with war crimes and 29 are “forever prisoners,” long-held captives considered too dangerous to release but ineligible for war-crimes trial.
Leaked prison records show Balzuhair was born in Hadramawt, Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland. But longstanding U.S. policy has forbidden the return of most Guantánamo captives to the turbulent Arabian Peninsula nation with a civil war and powerful al-Qaida franchise.
Cape Verde, a predominantly Roman Catholic island nation of about 550,000 people, sits on a volcanic archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa. A CIA World Factbook estimate put the Muslim population at 1.8 percent in 2010.
The Yemeni is the second Guantánamo captive taken in by the former Portuguese colony off the coast of Senegal for the Obama administration.
In July 2010, Cape Verde accepted never-charged captive Abdul Nasser Khantumani, now in his mid-50s, 11 months after his son Muhammed was sent from Guantánamo to resettlement in Europe. The elder Khantumani is still in Cape Verde, his lawyer Pardiss Kebriaei said recently, and the son is still in Portugal. They have never been reunited after Guantánamo. Nor has Abdul Nasser’s wife, Muhammed’s mother, been allowed to join her husband.
“It was cruel of the United States to resettle Muhammed and his father apart. It is long past time for the family to be reunited,” said Kebriaei, who told their story in a 2015 article in Harper’s magazine.
Balzuhair’s release was the first since the Obama administration repatriated “Guantánamo Diary” author Mohamedou Ould Slahi to Mauritania in mid-October, and the first since Trump was elected.
At the White House Wednesday, press secretary Josh Earnest said work was underway for transfers “that will continue at least through Jan. 20,” Obama’s last day in office.
“We’re going to continue to do the difficult, diplomatic spade work that’s necessary to transfer as many of those detainees as possible that have been cleared for transfer by the national security experts who are viewing their case files,” he said.
“After that, the president-elect’s team will have to decide how they want to handle the situation.”