A Kuwaiti aircraft lifted off from this remote Navy base with a long-held captive before dawn Wednesday, sealing the first repatriation of a former so-called “forever prisoner” whose dangerousness was downgraded by a U.S. government parole board.
Fawzi al Odah, 37, was held for nearly 13 years at Guantánamo, starting off in the crude outdoor prison of barbed wire and chain-link fences called Camp X-Ray. He was never charged with a crime.
His release was the first since President Barack Obama’s controversial May 31 transfer of five Afghan Taliban prisoners to the custody of Qatar in exchange for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a war prisoner of a Taliban affiliate.
It also came within a day of midterm elections that were roiled by debate over Obama’s Guantánamo closure ambitions. In Kansas, for example, incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Roberts campaigned on a pledge to prevent relocation of Guantánamo detainees to the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth. He won as the Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in eight years.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The transfer left 148 detainees at Guantánamo — 79 of them, like Odah, approved for release with security assurances. A U.S. Defense Department official predicted that as many as a dozen of them could be released in coming months.
“Fawzi bears no ill will against the United States despite his long incarceration,” said his attorney, Eric Lewis. “He wants to get on with his life.”
Odah, though never charged, was among the more high-profile prisoners because his name appeared in Supreme Court cases and his father doggedly campaigned for his release.
“We are a very, very tight family,” Odah’s father, Khalid, told the Witness to Guantánamo project, adding that his wife left their eldest son’s bedroom untouched throughout his long absence.
The father, a former Kuwaiti Air Force officer, said his son was a school teacher in a region near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border before he was captured by bounty hunters and handed over to the Americans.
The U.S. military considered him to be a member of al-Qaida who was captured in Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan through the Tora Bora mountains in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
A federal task force set up in 2009 to evaluate Guantánamo’s prisoners declared him too dangerous for release. But examination this summer by a Periodic Review Board drawn from federal national security agencies concluded he was neither an al-Qaida leader nor highly trained. The board approved him in July for repatriation on a promise from Kuwait that he would take part in a minimum yearlong rehabilitation program.
Reporters at Guantánamo were kept far from the airstrip for Wednesday’s transfer. But a spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Myles Caggins III, said Odah “walked on the plane under his own power” for its 5:30 a.m. departure. Caggins described the captive as “unassisted and healthy.”
Kuwait had long sought the return of all its citizen detainees at Guantánamo. So much so that the emir personally asked Obama and President George W. Bush before him to release them. When Odah went before the parole board this summer, a senior Kuwaiti diplomat attended a closed-circuit viewing of the public portion of the hearing.
Odah’s attorneys were among the earliest and most persistent challengers of Bush’s right to lock him up as an enemy combatant at Guantánamo Bay.
He was named a co-plaintiff in two U.S. Supreme Court cases that gave detainees the right to file habeas corpus petitions challenging their detention as unlawful. Once he won the right, Odah’s attorneys then argued his case before a federal judge and lost their unlawful detention lawsuit in September 2009.
He was a sometime hunger striker. In 2005, his attorneys went to federal court in a bid to get a civilian judge to intervene in his conditions of confinement.
Among other things, his attorneys asked for telephone calls with family to ease his depression, something that the Pentagon at that time was mostly forbidding. That decision was referenced in a war court filing where attorneys for former CIA captive Abd al Rahim al Nashiri are this week seeking video calls with family for mental health purposes.
In Odah’s case, the judge declined to intervene. But the military eventually allowed the International Red Cross to set up phone calls between families and low-value detainees like Odah.
Military intelligence in 2008 suspected that Odah had links to Osama bin Laden; the al-Qaida founder’s son-in-law and sometime spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, and a group of followers of a radical Muslim cleric in London — apparently all based on other captives’ interrogations at Guantánamo in the first years.
Abu Ghaith was convicted of terrorism charges by a New York jury in March — a year after Jordan extradited him to the United States. Around the same time, British authorities deported the cleric to Jordan for trial.
Meantime at Guantánamo, U.S. intelligence backed away from its earlier profile of Odah, who was held as prisoner No. 232. A risk assessment in March said: “We lack confidence in statements from other detainees that KU-232 was closely associated with Osama bin Laden or belonged to an al-Qaida cell in London.”
▪ “Fawzi is delighted to be going home to reunite with his family and we will be delighted to see him. He is grateful to the government of Kuwait and so many others who have been working for his release.” Khalid al Odah, chairman of the Kuwait Family Committee.
▪ “We are grateful to Special Envoy Sloan and Special Envoy Lewis for their constructive engagement with the government of Kuwait in designing a framework that will allow Fawzi to return home with a strong and secure foundation for his reintegration.” Attorney Eric Lewis, Fawzi al Odah’s lead counsel.
▪ “On July 14, a Periodic Review Board consisting of representatives from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State, the Joint Staff and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence determined continued law of war detention of [Odah] does not remain necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States. As a result of that review, which examined a number of factors, including security issues, [Odah]was recommended for transfer by consensus of the six departments and agencies comprising the Periodic Review Board.”
“The United States is grateful to the government of Kuwait for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. The United States coordinated with the government of Kuwait to ensure this transfer took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.” Department of Defense
Miami Herald reporter @CarolRosenberg tweets live from Guantánamo.