Guantánamo sends Moroccan prisoner home

Younis Chekkouri was featured in a video animation of the hunger strike at the U.S. Navy base created by the Guardian newspaper in October 2013.
Younis Chekkouri was featured in a video animation of the hunger strike at the U.S. Navy base created by the Guardian newspaper in October 2013. Miami Herald screengrab

The Obama administration sent home a long-cleared Moroccan captive from Guantánamo Bay on Wednesday, a rare release from the U.S. military prison in Cuba at a time when Congress is considering expanding restrictions on such transfers.

Younis Chekkouri, 47, was taken to Guantánamo 13 years ago as a suspected militant from the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group in Afghanistan. He was approved for release in 2009 and never charged with a crime.

I was left to rot here in Guantánamo Bay. Life now has no taste

Younis Chekkouri

U.S. forces delivered Detainee 197, as Chekkouri was called, to the North African nation on Wednesday, but didn’t announce it until Thursday after his London-based legal firm, Reprieve, issued a statement of concern about his welfare. Reprieve said it was unaware of Chekkouri’s exact whereabouts but believed he had not seen a local lawyer “in apparent violation of Moroccan law.”

At the Pentagon, Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross expressed gratitude on behalf of the United States to Morocco “for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”

“The United States coordinated with the government of Morocco to ensure this transfer took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures,” Ross said in a statement.

It was the first release since the U.S. sent six Yemenis to Oman in June, demonstrating Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s go-slow approach to transfers while the administration scouts U.S. sites that could hold Guantánamo captives for indefinite detention and war crimes court trials.

115 captives remain at the prison, 52 cleared for release

The release reduced Guantánamo’s detainee population to 115 captives. Of them, 53 are cleared for release. The rest include 30 indefinite detainees known as “forever prisoners,” 10 captives at various stages of war crimes proceedings, and 22 others who have not been charged with crimes and await review by a national security parole panel.

Reprieve has portrayed Chekkouri as a lovesick captive with a digestive problem that he managed with a homeopathic cure called black seed — until the prison forbade defense attorneys and Red Cross delegates from bringing food to detainee meetings. He also had a fondness for hotcakes and Egg McMuffins from the base McDonalds, according to one of his attorneys, Alka Pradhan.

Last year, Reprieve published a ​love ​letter​​ he wrote his wife on Valentine’s Day.

“​I dare not believe I will ever see my sweetheart again,” he wrote.​ “I was left to rot here in Guantánamo Bay. Life now has no taste.”

Chekkouri’s leaked 2008 U.S. military intelligence profile said Pakistani troops captured him in late 2001 after he fled Afghanistan through the Tora Bora mountains. He was turned over to U.S. troops as a suspected foreign fighter then sent to the U.S. base in Cuba May 1, 2002.

A federal task force concluded he could be released “subject to appropriate security measures” six years ago. That was after, according to his profile, an episode in which he threatened to kill a guard.

U.S. military records show that his brother Redoune was also held at Guantánamo as Radwan Shakouri, Detainee 499. He was released in July 2004.

In early 2013, Chekkouri was among the majority captives at the prison who took part in a hunger strike. He was featured declaring, “I am sacrificing myself,” in a British newspaper’s graphic video animation of Guantánamo’s practice of force-feeding captives.

In an April 2013 sworn statement, Reprieve attorney Clive Stafford Smith called Chekkouri “one of the most compliant prisoners in Guantánamo Bay,” a “very, very depressed” non-violent Sufi, a Muslim ascetic, who “desperately misses his wife and family.”

Chekkouri blamed the protest on a guard force effort to search the prisoners’ individual copies of the Quran for contraband, which the captives consider desecration.

But he resumed eating after the military adopted a strategy of segregating hunger strikers in single-cell lockdown. He feared the isolation, his attorneys said.

That same summer, U.S. diplomats including Special Envoy Cliff Sloan visited Morocco to arrange for the repatriation, according to a government official with knowledge of the deal but without permission to discuss it.

The freed captive’s brother was also held at Guantánamo until July 2004

​Chekkouri had for a time resisted repatriation, fearing he would be subjected to persecution, if not abuse, in his native Morocco for suspected ties to a movement whose goal was to topple the country’s royalty and install an Islamic state. On Wednesday, he went home voluntarily, the official said.

Ross said in his statement that Carter had notified Congress before the release “that this transfer meets the statutory standard.”

The U.S. designated the movement, the Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain, or GICM, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2005 but revoked the designation in May 2013 after a report that said, “Much of GICM’s leadership in Morocco and Europe have been killed, imprisoned, or is awaiting trial.”

Chekkouri’s departure leaves one Moroccan detainee at Guantánamo Bay — “forever prisoner” Abdul Latif Nasir, 50.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg