U.S. sends two Guantánamo prisoners home to Sudan

Ibrahim Idris, is escorted off a U.S. military plane by U.S. Air Force troops after his release from Guantanamo Bay, upon his arrival at the airport in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013.
Ibrahim Idris, is escorted off a U.S. military plane by U.S. Air Force troops after his release from Guantanamo Bay, upon his arrival at the airport in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The U.S. military on Wednesday sent two prisoners back to their native Sudan, the north African nation where Osama bin Laden built the base of his al-Qaida organization before he was sent into exile in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials identified the freed captives as Noor Uthman Mohammed, 51, and Ibrahim Idris, 52. Each man found his pathway to freedom from Guantánamo through the courts. Noor pleaded guilty to war crimes in 2011 in exchange for a promise of release. Idris, who was never charged with a crime, spent much of his 12 years at the prison’s psychiatric ward until his lawyers won his release.

The transfer followed by four days the voluntary repatriations of two long-ago cleared prisoners to their native Saudi Arabia. It left the prison camp population at 158.

It was the third release this month, and the most complex. Congress has blocked transfers from Guantánamo to nations designated by the United States as a “state sponsor of terror.” Sudan is on the list.

A federal court, however, ordered Idris’ release after his volunteer American lawyers argued in an unusual court filing not that he was innocent but that he was too ill — an obese, schizophrenic, diabetic man who mostly refused his psychiatric medication — to present a danger to the United States or its allies.

Idris, captured in Pakistan, was brought here as a suspected Bin Laden bodyguard the day the prison camps opened, Jan. 11, 2002. The Obama administration chose not to defend his detention. Judge Royce Lamberth’s Oct. 4 release order trumped Congressional restrictions.

“We are delighted that the government has complied with Judge Lamberth’s order ... and that he has finally been allowed to return to Sudan,” said attorney Jennifer Cowan of the New York firm Debevoise & Plimpton, which had worked on his release for years.

“We have been very concerned about his well-being and hope that being at home with his family helps to improve his health.”

The other Sudanese captive, who got to Guantánamo in May 2002 and goes by Noor, got out through an exemption for war-court plea deals adopted by Congress.

Noor’s was among the few foot soldier cases the Pentagon chose to prosecute at Guantánamo, perhaps best known for the company he kept not the deeds he did. In a February 2011 plea deal he admitted to being a small-arms and artillery weapons instructor at an Afghan training camp in the 90s.

But he was captured in Faisalabad, Pakistan, after the 9/11 attacks at the same safehouse as a prized war-on-terror captive Zayn Abdeen al Hussain — better known as Abu Zubaydah, who would be waterboarded 83 times by the CIA in a bid to break him. A prosecutor screened a video of an anti-American rant by Abu Zubaydah at Noor’s sentencing hearing to argue guilt by association in setting his punishment.

Defense lawyers countered with Noor’s account of the way U.S. troops treated him at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan prior to his August 2002 transfer to Guantánamo -- painful shackling, blasts of hot and cold, deafening music, and being left naked in sight of female soldiers.

His jury of U.S. military officers sentenced him to the maximum 14 years imprisonment, only to learn that a secret plea deal would expire his sentence this month, provided he cooperated with prosecutors with testimony against others. It was unclear from the court record if that ever happened.

Sudanese authorities signaled that the transfer was coming over the weekend in a rare disclosure that rattled U.S. officials who argue that, because of a continuing threat from al-Qaida, such repatriation missions should be done in secret. The State Department’s special envoy for Guantánamo closure, Cliff Sloan, visited Khartoum in October to arrange the transfers, a meeting that was reported by Sudanese media.

“The United States coordinated with the Government of Sudan regarding appropriate security measures and to ensure that these transfers are consistent with our humane treatment policy,” a Pentagon statement said.

The Bush and Obama administrations now have sent five convicted war criminals home from Guantánamo.

So-called Australian Taliban David Hicks and Bin Laden’s Yemeni driver Salim Hamdan went home during the Bush years. The Obama administration released Omar Khadr to a prison sentence in Canada, where he remains and before Noor this week sent Ibrahim al Qosi back to Sudan last year. That left just one prisoner, Ali Hamza al Bahlul, also a Yemeni, confined to the prison’s Camp 5 corridor that segregates convicts.

A second convicted war criminal, Majid Khan, was being held in a separate undisclosed location at the prison camps, segregated from ordinary prisoners. Khan pleaded guilty in 2012 to conspiring with al-Qaida and in a deal that postpones his sentencing to 2016.

Noor and Idris were the last two Sudanese of a dozen men from the nation where Osama bin Laden ran his fledgling al-Qaida movement until 1996, when he left to Afghanistan with some of his followers from Khartoum. As of Wednesday, the 158 captives at Guantánamo came from 22 countries, according to prison camp records.

Related stories from Miami Herald