Two detainees at the Guantánamo prison who were cleared for release during the Obama administration refused to cooperate with authorities arranging their departures and now can’t leave even if they wanted to because the Trump administration has ceased most prisoner releases.
The prison’s commander, Rear Adm. John Ring, disclosed the unusual standoff in remarks to reporters visiting the detention center this week.
Guantánamo today has 40 prisoners, five cleared during the Obama administration. But a combination of military bureaucracy and their refusal to cooperate have left them there, at an annual cost of $11.1 million per prisoner based on 2015 operating costs.
All five are held in a prison complex for low-value detainees with about 20 long-held prisoners. There, captives mostly live in four communal cell blocks where they can share meals and prayers, have art and horticulture classes and play video games.
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“Two of them had an opportunity to get on an airplane and chose not to go. So how bad could it be here?” Ring told reporters.
The State Department had arranged repatriation for an Algerian and Moroccan and resettlement of a Yemeni in an undisclosed Arab country in 2016 as the Obama administration drew to a close. Instead, they found themselves trapped as a Pentagon bureaucracy and a requirement by Congress of 30 days notice in advance of a transfer prevented their release before President Donald Trump took over.
When Trump became president, the State Department closed the office that negotiated repatriation and resettlement deals for Guantánamo detainees and has not pursued release for those cleared in the previous administration.
The other two —Tunisian Ridah bin Salah al Yazidi, 53, and Muideen Adeen al Sattar, 44, a stateless Rohingyan — refused to cooperate with U.S. efforts to send them to other nations.
“It’s not accurate to say they had a chance to get on an airplane and declined,” Lee Wolosky, a New York attorney who negotiated transfer deals as Obama’s last special envoy for the closure of the prison, said Wednesday. He refused to elaborate.
But two Obama-era officials who were aware of the efforts to get them released cast the cases of Yazidi and Sattar as more complicated. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the sensitive diplomatic discussions that sent cleared captives to be resettled in 30 far-flung nations from Uruguay to Kazakhstan.
The officials said some of the prisoners didn’t cooperate with release efforts because they’re mentally ill. One of the two men refused to leave his prison block to discuss options for departing prison life with Pentagon, State Department or foreign envoys seeking to assist in their release, they said. Another who didn’t want to go refused to give enough information to U.S. officials so the International Red Cross could arrange a travel document, said the prison’s cultural adviser, who goes by Zaki.
Ring, who heads prison operations, was asked how it was possible that a captive could veto the wishes of a White House administration that they be sent away. Neither the Pentagon nor the Department of Defense ordered the prison to send guards to force either captive out of his cell and onto a plane, Ring said, “So we didn’t.”
A Defense Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the showdown.
Troops brought Yazidi to Guantánamo on Jan. 11, 2002, the day the prison opened, and Sattar arrived a month later. Both were cleared for resettlement or repatriation in 2009, the first year of the Obama administration, but for years refused to meet with their attorneys.
Lawyers familiar with the cases of the two men said Yazidi appeared to be unable to imagine life outside the prison and no country had agreed to take in the nationless Sattar for what has traditionally been a two-year stay that could lead to asylum or permanent resettlement.
In the George W. Bush administration, the Pentagon released about 540 captives, most to their homelands. The Obama administration sent away about 200 more captives to a combination of repatriations and resettlements, leaving the prison with 41 captives when Trump took office. The Trump administration authorized just one release: The May transfer of admitted al-Qaida terrorist Ahmed al Darbi, to the Saudi rehabilitation center to serve out a war crimes sentence until 2027.
Guantánamo’s 40 remaining prisoners include one convicted war criminal, a Yemeni who worked as Osama bin Laden’s media aide and is serving a life sentence; eight men in pretrial proceedings, including the five alleged 9/11 plotters who are charged in a death penalty case; 26 “forever prisoners” who face no criminal charges but are held as detainees while the war in Afghanistan continues; and the five men whom U.S. government parole-style boards approved to go before Trump took office.
No new detainee has arrived since the Bush administration, but Ring said Tuesday his prison staffed by 1,800 troops and civilians could absorb another 40 captives for a total of 80 prisoners without adding more guards or other personnel.
In other news, the prison’s chief medical officer said there is currently one hunger striker at the prison, using the Pentagon approved language that he was a “non-religious faster.”
Separately, commanders said another low-value detainee was in “disciplinary status,” prison language for being segregated in a cell for all but two hours a day and allowed only two books beside his Quran to pass the time. The prisoner had thrown some sort of liquid at a guard, a once common occurrence at the prison by protesting detainees who collected their feces, urine, and other bodily fluids in a cup and hurled it. Nobody was hurt in the episode, commanders said.
Commanders showcased two new features on the brief prison visit for reporters from the U.S., France and Germany:
▪ A garden inside a $744,000 soccer field for cooperative captives, called Super-Rec, showed prisoners in a horticulture class had managed to grow cotton balls, which an Army captain said they planned to use on art projects the world can no longer see.
▪ A padded cell in the mental health wing of a new $9 million health care facility at the Camp 5 maximum-security prison for low-value detainees. A psychiatrist told reporters that “ramped up,” at-risk patient/prisoners could voluntarily spend 10-20 minutes in the all white padded cell, which had been stripped of toilet, bunk and sink — a sort of mental-health time-out.