The U.S. sent four cleared Yemeni captives from Guantánamo to Saudi Arabia, including a prisoner who previously backed out of an offer to resettle in Europe, the U.S. and Saudi governments announced Thursday.
None of the four men was ever charged with a crime across 15 years of U.S. military custody. The transfer left 55 captives at the detention center at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba — 19 cleared for release to security arrangements and 36 indefinite detainees in the war on terror, 10 of them charged with war crimes.
With this week’s transfer, the Saudis have accepted 13 Yemeni citizens from Guantánamo to the Kingdom’s rehabilitation program.
Mohammed Bwazir, 36, balked at an offer of resettlement in Montenegro in January 2016, saying he wanted only to go to a nation where he had family. This week, he got his wish and was sent to the Saudi rehabilitation program along with three other Yemeni captives with close kin in the Kingdom: Mohammed Abu Ghanem, 41, Salem bin Kanad, 41, and Abdullah al Shibli, 39.
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Ghanem, profiled as a probable bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, arrived at the detention center the day Camp X-Ray opened and was photographed on his knees in an iconic Pentagon-issued image. His transfer leaves just two of those first 20 captives at the prison.
Ghanem was captured in Pakistan, apparently having fled the battle of Tora Bora, according to leaked U.S. intelligence profiles, while the other three were captured by U.S.-allied Afghan forces and turned over to the U.S. military in Afghanistan early on in the invasion.
Bwazir captured international attention a year ago by refusing a resettlement offer. The Yemeni was shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles when he backed out at the ramp of a U.S. military C-17 cargo plane bound for Montenegro from the Guantánamo airstrip on Jan. 20, 2016. The Yemeni “made it clear that, ‘I do not want to leave. I want to go back to my cell,’” said the warden at the time, Army Col. David Heath. “So that’s what we did.”
Bwazir’s lawyer, John Chandler, said the man was anxious about going to a non-Arabic speaking country with no family support. But when the attorney spoke to the prisoner at Guantánamo last week, Bwazir had no such reluctance. His mother, brother and uncle live in Saudi Arabia, Chandler said, and “he was thrilled.”
The Atlanta-based attorney described his Muslim client as “like a Christian kid at Christmas. He was very excited. He told me there would be no problem getting on that plane, that if they took off the cuffs he’d run onto it.”
Saudi Arabia was “where he wanted to go,” Chandler added. “It’s just sort of astonishing to me that the kid held out for a year and he’s going to a decent place, a very decent place.”
More transfers are expected to Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Italy and possibly again to Saudi Arabia in an Obama administration effort to downsize the detention center to around 40 captives by the time President-elect Donald Trump takes office Jan. 20.
The Pentagon noted that two of the captives sent to the Saudi rehabilitation program — Ghanem and Kanad — were cleared by the interagency Periodic Review Board. The other two were approved for transfer by 2010 by a federal Task Force that President Barack Obama ordered set up Jan. 22, 2009, to evaluate the captives’ files and find a way to close the controversial detention center.
“The United States is grateful to the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its humanitarian gesture, and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility,” a Pentagon statement said. “The United States coordinated with the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”
The U.S. has repatriated more than 100 Saudi nationals from Guantánamo, starting in the Bush years. The Saudi government, however, only recently agreed to take Yemeni citizens with Saudi relatives at the Kingdom’s rehabilitation program. The first nine went there in April.
Conspicuously missing from the list released by the Saudi Kingdom was their one cleared national at Guantánamo.
The Periodic Review Board said in October that Jabran Qahtani, 39, should be repatriated to possible prosecution and definite rehabilitation. At one point Qahtani was charged at military commission in a since-abandoned foot soldier case alleging he was part of a Pakistan-based bomb-making cell.