The U.S. military on Wednesday sent home a long-held captive who was cleared for release six years ago, and the government of Mauritania said he was reunited with his family on Thursday.
The transfer reduced the number of war-on-terror prisoners here to 113. Of them, 53 are approved for release, with security assurances, to other countries.
Ahmed Ould Abd al Aziz, 45, was among the least known detainees. He spent more than 13 years in U.S. military custody and was never charged with a crime. His leaked 2008 prison profile says he got to Guantánamo on Oct. 28, 2002, four months after Pakistani security officials captured him and his wife at a suspected al-Qaida safehouse in Karachi.
Attorney Clive Stafford Smith, who represented the Mauritanian, said Aziz plans to work as a copy editor at a newspaper run by his brother-in-in the West Africa sub-Saharan nation. He has a wife and 15-year-old son, the attorney added.
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“While it’s great that Ahmed is home with his family, it’s 14 years late, and long after he was cleared,” he said. “His release was only delayed because he, an innocent man, routinely protested his mistreatment.”
Although approved for repatriation since 2009, the transfer was repeatedly delayed at the Pentagon by officials wary about letting him go, most recently in April after the detention center notified the Pentagon that Aziz had declared his intent to join ISIS once he was repatriated. Advocates of his transfer argued that menacing mouthiness should not be a factor on whether a detainee gets out of Guantánamo.
A U.S. military cargo plane carrying the captive departed this remote base Wednesday. But the Pentagon withheld disclosure of the mission until Thursday, citing security needs. Soon after, a Mauritanian government statement credited diplomatic efforts to free Aziz, who had, “thank God, rejoined his family.”
Sources with knowledge of the arrangement said that while former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would not sign off on the transfer, the current Pentagon chief, Ash Carter, did — more than 30 days ago — and then notified Congress of the pending release.
Denver lawyer John Holland, also one of Aziz’s attorneys, called the release “far too long in coming.”
He said the Mauritanian “spent six long years in detention after being unanimously approved for release. The delay has been agonizing for him and his family. Fortunately, his family has a strong support network in place and ready in Mauritania to help Mr. Aziz reintegrate into normal life.”
The transfer leaves just one Mauritanian at the prison — Mohamedou Ould Slahi, 44. Slahi is among Guantánamo’s best known, current captives as the author of “Guantánamo Diary,” now published in 20 countries, about his cruel treatment by interrogators seeking to tie him to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Slahi, likewise, has never been charged with a crime although a federal task force recommended in January 2010 that he be considered for trial. Then, two months later, a federal judge ordered him released as unlawfully detained. The Obama administration appealed that release order, and his case awaits reconsideration at the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
The Mauritanian government statement said officials were similarly working for Slahi’s release.
Aziz’s release comes at the same time as another prisoner awaits transfer to Britain. Carter notified Congress last month that he was approving the transfer of Shaker Aamer, meaning he could leave any day because the 30-day transfer notice has expired.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement released before dawn Thursday that Aziz was released “in accordance with statutory requirements” and coordinated “appropriate security and humane treatment measures” with the Mauritanian government.
“The United States is grateful to the Government of Mauritania for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility,” the Cook statement said.
Verbatim | Pentagon statement
The Department of Defense announced today the repatriation of Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz from the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay to the Government of Mauritania.
As directed by the president’s Jan. 22, 2009, executive order, the interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force conducted a comprehensive review of this case. As a result of that review, which examined a number of factors, including security issues, Aziz was unanimously approved for transfer by the six departments and agencies comprising the task force.
In accordance with statutory requirements, the secretary of defense informed Congress of the United States’ intent to transfer this individual and of his determination that this transfer meets the statutory standard.
The United States is grateful to the Government of Mauritania for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. The United States coordinated with the Government of Mauritania to ensure this transfer took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.
Today, 113 detainees remain at Guantánamo Bay.