Final Obama transfer leaves 41 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay

A view of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on May 5, 2012 from a base hilltop.
A view of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on May 5, 2012 from a base hilltop. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

On the last full day of Barack Obama’s presidency, the Pentagon Thursday delivered four cleared Guantánamo prisoners to the Persian Gulf — leaving 41 war-on-terror captives for incoming President Donald Trump and his vastly different vision of U.S. detention operations in Cuba.

Three men were sent to the United Arab Emirates — Russian Ravil Mingazov, 49, Afghan Haji Wali Muhammed, 50, and Yemeni Yassin Ismail Qasim, 37, the Pentagon said. Saudi Arabian Jabran al Qahtani, 39, was repatriated to the Saudi Kingdom in the same mission.

All four arrived at the remote prison in 2002. And all were approved for release last year by the inter-agency Periodic Review Board that Obama set up in a final push to, if not close the prison, thin its population to what the White House called an “irreducible minimum.”

Obama bitterly blamed congressional politics for restrictions that forbade trials and detention of the alleged terrorists inside the United States, thwarting his closure ambition. “History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to bring it to a responsible end,” he wrote in a two-page letter to Congress on Thursday.

MORE NEWS: Obama’s two-page letter on his last day in office made another pitch for prison closure

The 41 remaining prisoners include 10 men charged at the war court; 26 indefinite detainees known as “forever prisoners”; and five cleared men, including two whose repatriation deals stalled at the Department of Defense.

Lawyers for Moroccan Abdul Latif Nasser, 51, and Algerian Sufiyan Barhoumi, 43, went to federal court in failed attempts for judicial orders to airlift them off the base, too.

Based on the 2015 budget, the cost to keep a prisoner at Guantánamo is now $10.85 million.

Morocco had agreed to repatriate Nasser, according to a court filing. But his transfer package arrived on Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s desk too late to provide Congress with the 30-day statutory notice that would have let Nasser go before Obama left office. Diplomats negotiated a deal for the repatriation of Barhoumi in sufficient time, according to an official with knowledge of the deal, but Carter chose not to approve it based on unspecified objections.

Obama, who took office with 242 captives, left Trump 41 detainees from 13 countries, not one of them captured by U.S. troops, a Miami Herald study has found.


In response to Obama’s eight-year-long, unrealized campaign to close the prison, Trump vowed during his election campaign to “load it up with some bad dudes.” Trump also tweeted during his transition for a halt in detainee transfers, a request that the White House rejected.

Obama argued until his very last day in the Oval Office that the prison was a costly recruiting tool for al-Qaida and its offspring. Based on a $445 million 2015 budget, it now costs $10.85 million to house a captive for a year. Trump remarked during the campaign that a $40-million-a-month price tag was outrageous, and that as president he would reduce operating costs considerably.

MORE NEWS; What will President Trump do with Guantánamo?

On Thursday, the detention center had a staff of 1,650 awaiting those “bad dudes” — 40 troops and civilians per captive — although prison spokesman Navy Capt. John Filostrat said further staff reductions were anticipated.

The detention center now has 41 prisoners representing 13 nationalities and a dedicated staff of 1,650 troops and civilians.

The three men delivered to the United Arab Emirates were never charged with a crime across their years in Cuba. The Emirates earlier accepted 20 captives, Yemenis and Afghans, to its residential rehabilitation program for the Obama administration.

Mingazov, an ethnic Tatar and former ballet dancer, had unsuccessfully sought through his lawyers to be released to England, where he has a teenage son living in Nottingham.

In May 2010, a federal judge in Washington ruled for his release — finding no evidence to justify detaining him — a decision the Obama administration contested. Then in July the parole board also approved his release, noting that the last Russian at Guantánamo had gotten along well with the guards and had not “espoused any anti-U.S. sentiment that would indicate he views the U.S. as his enemy.”

His lawyer, Gary Thompson, called him “a man of peace, eager to embark upon this new chapter in his life. We are so happy for Ravil and his family.”

Qahtani, however, was briefly charged at the George W. Bush-era war court as an alleged member of a Faisalabad, Pakistan, based bomb-making cell. The possibility of prosecution collapsed after a civilian appeals court ruled that the charge of providing material support for terrorism was not a legitimate war crime.

In clearing the way to his repatriation, the Periodic Review Board recommended in November that Qahtani be sent home to rehabilitation and possible prosecution. Barhoumi, the Algerian whose repatriation deal was stalled, was captured at the same time as Qahtani. He similarly saw his war court case dropped — meaning that the only way he could face U.S. charges would be in federal court, something Congress systematically forbade for any Guantánamo prisoner during the Obama era.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

Additional reading

▪ Letter to White House from lawyer for stranded Moroccan here.

▪ President Obama’s letter to Congress here.