A Saudi captive who remains stranded at the Guantánamo Bay wartime prison even though he was supposed to have been repatriated last month under the terms of a plea deal is accusing his government of dragging its feet.
“It’s shameful,” the captive, Ahmed al Darbi, said in an unusual statement conveyed Wednesday through his lawyer. “Unlike other countries, the Saudi government never even provided me with an attorney all these years.”
Darbi added: “And now my own government is an obstacle to my repatriation. What kind of country abandons its citizens in the custody of another government for 16 years? My country won’t take a step that was agreed on four years ago so that I can finally go home. It’s been my daily dream for four years to see my wife and children.”
A spokeswoman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Charged before a military commission, Darbi agreed in February 2014 to plead guilty to terrorism-related offenses involving a 2002 al-Qaida attack on a French-flagged oil tanker. Under the pretrial agreement, if he cooperated, he was to go home after four years to serve the remainder of his sentence in Saudi custody.
Last fall, Darbi was sentenced to 13 years in prison. In a document jointly prepared by prosecutors and the defense, the government agreed he had fulfilled his end of the deal, including providing testimony against two other detainees that was “unprecedented in similar counterterrorism prosecutions to date.”
But on the date by which he was to have left — Feb. 20 — the Pentagon announced he would remain at Guantánamo for the time being. In a statement at the time, Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. government was still waiting for the Saudi government to provide assurances permitting the departure to move forward, but hoped that would happen soon.
When he learned he would not be going home on Feb. 20, Darbi said: “I felt like I got hit by a truck. I felt destroyed, physically and morally.” And, referring to his detainee number, he added, “Instead of being called by my first or last name in my own country, I’m still being called ‘768,’ still here in this place.”
The unexpected limbo in which Darbi finds himself may have larger consequences for the military commissions system. His fate could encourage — or discourage — other detainees who may consider cooperating and serving as witnesses in exchange for a deal to eventually leave Guantánamo.
On Wednesday, Higgins said the United States was still awaiting word from the Saudis.
Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York who has been Darbi’s lead defense counsel since 2008, appealed to Saudi officials to focus on his client.
“I understand that senior Saudi officials are preoccupied with other matters,” he said. “It’s still disappointing to read statements by U.S. spokespeople indicating that the cause of delay is the Saudi government. This arrangement has been a long time coming. We expected smooth and timely implementation and hope that both countries are working hard to fulfill the agreement soon.”
At the time of Darbi’s plea deal, Saudi Arabia and the United States exchanged diplomatic notes agreeing to the transfer. Under those terms, the process was to begin with him submitting a request to prosecutors, which the United States would then send through diplomatic channels to the kingdom.
If Saudi Arabia concurred, the notes said, the kingdom would inform the United States “and initiate procedures” to carry out the transfer at Saudi expense. Or, if it did not concur, the kingdom would “promptly” say so.
Kassem said Darbi submitted his transfer request to commissions prosecutors in August. The lawyer also suggested there was little left to negotiate in terms of the specifics of diplomatic assurances.
“The diplomatic notes that the United States and Saudi Arabia exchanged in 2014 reflect the full framework we negotiated for Mr. Darbi’s transfer to Saudi custody,” he said. “Any additional terms or assurances deemed applicable should be familiar from the many repatriations of Saudis from Guantánamo.”
It remains unclear how long it took for the Pentagon to pass Darbi’s request to the State Department, and when the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh in turn presented it to the Saudi government.
A State Department spokeswoman declined to discuss the matter beyond expressing its support for the Pentagon in trying to carry out the transfer under the plea deal, saying the government would not “detail private, diplomatic conversations.”