Parole board clears last Kuwaiti at Guantánamo

Fayez Kandari, posing for the International Red Cross, in this undated Guantánamo photo.
Fayez Kandari, posing for the International Red Cross, in this undated Guantánamo photo.

A national security parole board has decided that the last Kuwaiti prisoner at Guantánamo can be released to a mental health rehabilitation program in his home country on the Persian Gulf.

Ahead of his July hearing before the Periodic Review Board, a U.S. military profile described Fayez Kandari, 38, as “a Kuwaiti al-Qaida recruiter and propagandist who probably served as Osama bin Laden’s ‘spiritual adviser.’ ”

But a decision posted on the Pentagon’s website Thursday said the six-member panel representing U.S. intelligence and other agencies concluded Sept. 8 that he could go home to an inpatient rehabilitation program and “robust security measures to include monitoring and travel restrictions.” The rehab program, it noted, should last at least a year “to achieve the necessary progress in his mental and behavioral health in order to reintegrate him with his family and society.”

The decision, released on the same day the Pentagon disclosed it sent a Moroccan detainee home, raised to 53 the number of captives cleared for release with security assurances among Guantánamo’s 115 detainees. With Kandari’s new status, 30 captives are held as “forever prisoners,” deemed too dangerous to release but ineligible for trial by military commission due to insufficient or tainted evidence.

The board said that Kandari had behaved at the prison in Cuba by avoiding “negative influences” since a July 12, 2014 review that concluded he should remain a law of war detainee at Guantánamo, or “forever prisoner.” The board statement also expressed satisfaction with Kandari’s “willingness to examine his religious beliefs.”

It is not known what Kandari told board members to persuade them to lift the indefinite detainee status because, at the prisoner’s prerogative, both his written statement and the unclassified transcript of the session were not released to the public.

Kandari was an active participant in the widespread hunger strike that swept through the prison in early 2013. He was being force-fed in April 2013, his lawyer said at the time, because the 5-foot, 6-inch man had withered to 108 pounds and had the waist of a small child.

The U.S. believes that Afghans captured Kandari about three months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as he was coming down the Tora Bora Mountains toward Pakistan. He was handed over to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which sent him to the prison camps in Cuba on May 1, 2002. Briefly, during the Bush administration, he was considered a candidate for a war crimes tribunal before the Pentagon prosecutor dropped the case.

The Kuwaiti’s lawyer says the Guantánamo captive was a ‘kid,’ on a charity mission, not an Osama bin Laden spiritual adviser

Kandari’s lawyer, Barry Wingard, who got the case as an Air Force Reserves officer, on Thursday called the military’s claims of association with bin Laden “completely unproven” and “ridiculous” that the al-Qaida leader “would seek a kid in his second year of religious study as his adviser, propagandist or significant recruiter.”

The Kuwaiti was in Afghanistan “performing charitable undertakings” at the time of the U.S. invasion in late 2001, Wingard said, and was captured trying to head home “to return to his studies.”

“I have yet to see anything tangible or admissible in a real court that ties him to any crime,” the attorney added.

I have yet to see anything tangible or admissible in a real court that ties him to any crime.

Barry Wingard, defense attorney

It also is not known how swiftly the Kuwaiti government, in keeping with past practice, would dispatch a jet to fetch him from the base. First, Obama administration officials must prepare a departure packet for the signature of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who in turn is required to give Congress 30 days notice that the transfer complies with legislative restrictions.

The last Kuwaiti to leave Guantánamo was Fawzi al Odah. He was cleared July 14, 2014 and allowed to go four months later.

A report Wednesday on the government-run Kuwait New Agency, KUNA, quoted the emirate’s ambassador to Washington since June 2001, Sheik Salem Abdullah al Jaber al Sabah, as crediting contacts by the emir with Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in achieving Kandari’s release decision.

U.S. officials may be anxious about a Kuwaiti transfer because a Bush administration return produced one of Guantánamo’s best known cases of recidivism. Abdallah Saleh al Ajmi was returned to Kuwait in 2005 and went on to become a suicide bomber in Mosul, Iraq, three years later. At least seven Iraqis were killed in the attack.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg