Guantánamo frees 9-year hunger striker to Saudi Arabia


The military freed one of Guantánamo’s most determined hunger strikers to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, a former “forever prisoner” brought here the day Camp X-Ray opened as a suspected bodyguard of Osama bin Laden.

The release, to a Saudi jet on this base’s air strip, left the prison camp population at 114. Now, 52 of the captives are cleared for release to special security agreements with other countries.

Saudi Abdul Rahman Shalabi, 39, was repatriated less than a week after the United States sent a Moroccan home restrained inside a U.S. military cargo plane. The Saudis, however, have a longstanding special arrangement with its ally the United States to fetch their freed captives, sparing them a ride home in shackles.

Shalabi was never charged with a crime at Guantánamo. U.S. forces brought him to this U.S. Navy base on Jan. 11, 2002, the day the Bush administration opened prison operations here, and held him as Detainee 42. His transfer leaves seven of those 20 first-day detainees — dubbed “the worst of the worst” — at the prison.

In January 2010, an Obama administration task force designated him an indefinite detainee — or so-called forever prisoner — considered too dangerous to release but for whom there was insufficient evidence to take to trial. A parole board lifted that designation in June, approving his release in a statement that expressed confidence in the Saudis’ rehabilitation program for Islamic extremists.

It also said Shalabi was committed to improving his health condition, suggesting he had begun eating voluntarily.

Shalabi began his hunger strike in 2005 and was fed a nutritional supplement daily by a tube snaked up his nose and into his stomach, his lawyer told the review board in April. He and another prisoner, who since has been released, maintained the protest longer than any others held at the base. Court records show Shalabi occasionally consumed food but also dropped to as little as 101 pounds.

A leaked May 2008 prison document considered him a suspected member of bin Laden’s bodyguard detail who had trained on suicide operations — a profile attributed to many in the early days at Guantánamo.

In arguing for his release in April, his lawyer, Julia Tarver Mason Wood, told the parole board that the Saudi “is committed to spending his remaining days in peace with his family.”

She added that Shalabi is “a teacher of Islam, which he believes is a religion of peace, not war.”

A Pentagon statement said Defense Secretary Ash Carter notified Congress in advance of the release.

“The United States coordinated with the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ensure this transfer took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures,” the Pentagon statement said.

With the transfer, there are now nine Saudi prisoners. One pleaded guilty to war crimes and is awaiting sentencing. Another is an indefinite detainee. Two are awaiting death penalty trials in the Sept. 11 attacks and USS Cole bombings. Four were at one time considered for war crimes trials and have no release status.

The ninth is former British resident Shaker Aamer, who the Washington Post predicted Tuesday would get the Secretary of Defense’s approval for transfer “in the coming weeks” along with a long held, long cleared Mauritanian captive.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg