U.S. releases Guantánamo convict to Saudi Arabia in first transfer of Trump era

Ahmed al Darbi poses for the International Red Cross in this undated photo at Guantánamo provided to the Miami Herald by his attorneys.
Ahmed al Darbi poses for the International Red Cross in this undated photo at Guantánamo provided to the Miami Herald by his attorneys.

The U.S. military on Wednesday sent home to detention in Saudi Arabia an al-Qaida terrorist who has admitted to war crimes and testified against other al-Qaida fighters, the first transfer in or out of the Guantánamo detention center in the Trump administration.

Pentagon officials confirmed the airlift of Ahmed al Darbi, 43. His release drops the population at the prison to 40 inmates.

The last release was in the final hours of the Obama administration, when the Pentagon sent four detainees, none of whom had been convicted, to resettlement in Persian Gulf nations. President Barack Obama had wanted to close the detention center, but failed to achieve that aim. In contrast, President Donald Trump campaigned on a pledge to keep it open and "load it up with some bad dudes."

Also Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis notified Trump that the Pentagon had drafted advice for U.S. forces on proposing new prisoners for the war-on-terror detention center at this Navy base in southeast Cuba.

Darbi, a Saudi citizen, was captured in Baku, Azerbaijan, and handed over to the U.S. military in Afghanistan in 2002. He pleaded guilty in 2014 and was sentenced to 13 years with no credit for time served. He could be freed from Saudi detention in 2027.

Darbi "will serve out the balance of his 13-year sentence in Saudi Arabia," Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Sarah Higgins said, disclosing the transfer. "He has waived his right to appeal."

A Saudi aircraft fetched Darbi late Tuesday night, McClatchy has learned. The kingdom has consistently sent its own planes to repatriate its citizens rather than have them transported in shackles and goggles aboard U.S. military cargo aircraft.

In sworn testimony, Darbi described himself as a years-long, committed jihadist who became enough of an al-Qaida insider to turn prosecution witness and identify Osama bin Laden's inner circle in photos beamed inside the court. He was convicted for his role as, essentially, a procurer for navigational equipment, including a boat, to be used in al-Qaida missions attacking commercial ships in and around the Arabian Peninsula waters.

Ahmed al Darbi poses for the International Red Cross in this undated photo at Guantánamo provided to the Miami Herald by his attorneys.

He also testified that he had been tortured in U.S. custody — kept in solitary confinement or strung up from a door in shackles, deprived of sleep and subjected to midnight-to-dawn, no-bathroom-break questioning in an interrogation room stinking of urine and vomit. In one documented and notorious episode, when Darbi cried out to Allah in pain, a subsequently court-martialed U.S. soldier serving as an interrogator pulled out his own penis, put it close to Darbi's face and declared, “This is your God.”

After his conviction at Guantánamo, he got a a comfortable cabin-style lockup across the street from the other general population prisoners, that came with privileges. He gardened, painted, worked on his English, watched "Arrested Development” and had a refrigerator stocked with fresh food that let him cook meals for his interrogators and attorneys.

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As part of his guilty plea, the Pentagon prosecutor agreed that, in exchange for truthful testimony, he would return to his homeland on Feb. 20, 2018 to serve out his prison sentence in a Saudi rehabilitation center for captured jihadists. But the deal was done during the Obama administration when the State Department had an office to negotiate transfers, and the Pentagon said it was hung up on details in U.S.-Saudi diplomacy. The Trump administration closed the Office for Guantanamo Closure at the department.

Darbi called the delay "shameful" in a statement to The New York Times.

“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.”

Darbi was a brother-in-law to Khalid al Mihdhar, one of the Saudi hijackers aboard American Airlines 77, the passenger plane that hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. In 1998, when they were already devoted al-Qaida members, Mihdhar and Darbi married Yemeni sisters in a ceremony in Sanaa, Yemen, not unusual in the terror movement run by Osama bin Laden who orchestrated arranged marriages of followers with women from his ancestral homeland.

Darbi's volunteer attorney, Ramzi Kassem, said Wednesday evening that Darbi should see his wife and two children on "his first or second day back in Saudi Arabia. This will be his first time seeing them in the flesh in over 16 years. It will be his very first time holding his son," who was born after Darbi was taken into U.S. custody.

Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who has been the Saudi's lead defense counsel since 2008, said Darbi got permission to take home artwork he had done at Guantánamo, "notwithstanding the Department of Defense’s new policy to hold captive not only the prisoners but their art as well."

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In contrast, Kassem said: "The Saudi counseling program for returning prisoners features art therapy quite prominently. The artwork produced there is proudly displayed by Saudi authorities, with no threats to burn or destroy it, to my knowledge."

Carol Rosenberg: , 305-376-3179@carolrosenberg