Guantánamo

Saudi Arabia fetches former ‘forever prisoner’ from Guantánamo

Restraints in the medical facility at the U.S. Navy base at Guantånamo Bay, Cuba, on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014 in this photo approved for release by the U.S. military.
Restraints in the medical facility at the U.S. Navy base at Guantånamo Bay, Cuba, on Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014 in this photo approved for release by the U.S. military. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The U.S. military released to Saudi Arabia this week a captive who was held at the U.S. prison camps in Cuba for a dozen years, categorized as a “forever prisoner,” but was never charged with a crime.

A Saudi plane fetched Muhammed Zahrani, 45, on Friday, downsizing the detainee population at Guantánamo to 142. Days earlier, the U.S. sent five other Arab captives to resettle in Europe.

The United States disclosed the transfer of the Saudi citizen Saturday morning once Zahrani was back in his homeland.

The sudden spurt in transfers — the Saudi was the 13th prisoner released this year — has unsettled some in Congress as the Pentagon works toward President Barack Obama’s goal of closing the detention center in southeast Cuba.

“What the Obama administration is doing is dangerous and, frankly, reckless,” the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Buck McKeon, said after Thursday’s transfer.

“If just one U.S. soldier loses their life over these transfers, we will have failed in our duty to the American people,” McKeon said. “Until we can assure the terrorists stay off the battlefield, they must stay behind bars.”

Obama has said that Guantánamo serves as a recruitment tool for extremists, and that it is damaging to the nation’s international standing, unnecessary for national security, expensive and inefficient.

Paul Lewis, the Pentagon’s special envoy for Guantánamo detention center closure, said this year’s releases followed “a rigorous process in the inter-agency to review several items including security review prior to any transfer.”

Zahrani got to Guantánamo on Aug. 5, 2002, and had been held as an indefinite detainee — he was never accused of engaging in war crimes or terrorism, but a 2010 federal task force declared him too dangerous to leave the prison. He was considered to be a follower of Osama bin Laden and devoted to al-Qaida.

On Oct. 3, a national security parole board downgraded his dangerousness and endorsed his repatriation, citing his “candor with the board about his presence on the battlefield, expressions of regret and desires for a peaceful life after Guantánamo.” It also noted that Saudi Arabia has a rehabilitation program, he was a well-behaved prisoner and that his family isn’t tied to at-large extremists.

It is not known what he told the board during his May 5 video conference between Guantánamo and Washington, D.C., because, at Zahrani’s request, both his remarks and written submission were under seal on the parole board website.

Two U.S. military officers who were assigned to help advocate for his release called him “a middle-aged, ailing man who desperately wants to return to Saudi Arabia” to receive national healthcare, go through the country’s detainee rehabilitation program and “start over.”

The officers also said that, based on an intelligence estimate of Zahrani’s dangerousness, he was less of a threat on paper than five Taliban prisoners sent to Qatar in May in exchange for the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was being held as a war prisoner by a militia in Afghanistan.

Zahrani was the second captive whose status was changed by a national security review, called a Periodic Review Board, to go home. Earlier this month, a Kuwaiti jet fetched former forever prisoner Fawzi al Odah, 37, for a rehabilitation program in his Persian Gulf nation.

Leaked prison documents show Pakistani security forces seized him in Lahore in May 2002, along with Guantánamo hunger striker Abu Wa'el Dhiab, a Syrian who was cleared for release years before Zahrani and awaits resettlement in Uruguay.

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Full statements

“In the past three weeks, the Department of Defense has transferred seven detainees. These transfers include both the first Yemenis since 2010 and two transfers involving detainees made eligible by the Periodic Review Board process. A total of 13 detainees have been transferred this year. This strikes a responsible balance and reflects the careful deliberation the Secretary of Defense brings to the transfer process, and follows a rigorous process in the inter-agency to review several items including security review prior to any transfer.” ▪ Paul Lewis, Guantánamo Closer, Department of Defense

“As long as detainees are rejoining the battlefield, these transfers must stop. I have written to Secretary Hagel expressing my frustration and great concern over a new swell of recidivism. If just one U.S. soldier loses their life over these transfers, we will have failed in our duty to the American people. What the Obama Administration is doing is dangerous and, frankly, reckless. They have chosen many times to put politics above national security. It’s time they stop playing with fire and start doing what’s right. Until we can assure the terrorists stay off the battlefield, they must stay behind bars.” ▪ Buck McKeon, chairman House Armed Services Commtitee

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