The Pentagon disclosed Thursday that it sent two Guantánamo captives to start new lives in the Balkans in its continuing efforts to close the prison camps in southeast Cuba.
But in a strange twist, a cleared Yemeni prisoner named Mohammad Bwazir, 35, declined to leave Guantánamo for a nation that offered him sanctuary and was still at the detention center Thursday, dashing Obama administration hopes of downsizing to 90 detainees this month.
Bwazir’s lawyer, John Chandler, said the slight, sometime hunger striker feared going to a country where he didn’t have family. Chandler declined to say which country offered the Yemeni sanctuary — “It’s a country I’d go to in a heartbeat” — but said Bwazir couldn’t bring himself to board the U.S. military flight early Wednesday that delivered detainee Tariq el Sawah, 58, an Egyptian, to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Yemeni Abdulaziz al Swidi, 41, to Montenegro for resettlement.
“He’s been in Guantánamo so long that he was terrified about going to a country other than one where he had family,” Chandler told the Miami Herald. Bwazir understood he couldn’t go home to his native Yemen but wanted to go to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia or Indonesia where he had his mother, brothers or aunts and uncles.
Chandler likened the man to a character named Brooks in the prison film Shawshank Redemption, who couldn’t handle life outside prison.
“He just didn’t want to go. He just feels like he’ll be OK if he has a family to support him,” said Chandler, adding that Bwazir was unmarried and childless.
All three captives designated for release this week got to Guantánamo in May 2002.
Sawah is the best known. He is a chronically ill, morbidly obese man who in the dwindling days of the Bush administration was considered for a war crimes trial as a suspected al-Qaida explosives trainer. But the Obama administration dropped the charges and U.S. intelligence declared him one of Guantánamo’s most compliant captives, for a time segregated in a site for cooperators. The parole board approved his release 11 months ago.
Swidi, by contrast, was never charged with a crime and cleared to leave so long ago, in late 2009, he didn’t require a parole board hearing.
His lawyer, David Remes, called him a “fully westernized” English-speaking man who at Guantánamo studied math by correspondence course at Colorado’s Adams State University. “He consistently got top grades there and was about to take his final exams,” said Remes, declaring the Yemeni was “very happy” days ahead of his departure. “There’s no question that he will adapt to life in his new home.”
No more captives can leave Guantánamo for at least another month. Bwazir was the last of 17 captives whose releases were approved by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in December. Carter has not sent Congress any other notices since then, according to government officials familiar with the process.
The downsizing meant that of the 91 remaining captives, 34 are approved for release with security assurances that satisfy Carter. Ten others are in military commissions proceedings, and the remaining 47 are indefinite detainees, either categorized as “forever prisoners” deemed too dangerous to release, or as candidates for possible war crimes trials.
The number of those cleared for release ticked up one because, not long before the Pentagon disclosed the transfers, the parole board cleared a Yemeni indefinite detainee, Mustafa al Shamiri, 37.
Shamiri’s case captured the world’s attention because he had been for years incorrectly profiled as a captive of consequence, an al-Qaida facilitator or courier, rather than a run-of-the-mill jihadist. U.S. intelligence downgraded his dangerousness in September, casting him as a victim of mistaken identity who had been wrongfully linked to activities of other extremists with similar names.
“In making this determination, the board noted that the most derogatory prior assessments regarding the detainee’s activities before detention have been discredited,” the national-security board wrote in a brief statement, “and the current information shows that the detainee has low-level military capability.”
Obama administration advocates of closing the prison seek to reach the “irreducible minimum” of captives who can no longer be released and then have those moved to lockups in the United States. Members of Congress have flatly refused the idea, and Republican candidates to succeed Obama have campaigned against closing the detention center.
Like Chandler, the State Department refused to name the nation that had agreed to resettle Bwazir, citing “sensitive diplomatic discussions.”
“I cannot discuss the details of Mr. Bwazir’s decision other to say that, yes, he declined to accept an offer for resettlement in a third country,” said Ian Moss, chief of staff to the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure.
Moss said that Bwazir “remains approved for transfer” but could provide no timeline for when that might happen. “We’ll continue to work to reduce the detainee population and to transfer all the detainees currently approved for transfer — a category that includes Mr. Bwazir,” he said.
Moss would not comment on whether there were other episodes of detainees refusing to leave after nations interviewed them and agreed to offer them sanctuary. In 2009, the Pacific archipelago nation Palau agreed to take 17 Guantánamo prisoners — Uighur Muslims from China — but just six went after some Uighurs declined for fear of the island nation’s proximity to China.
Chandler said he had spoken to Bwazir five or six times since Thanksgiving to try to persuade him to leave Guantánamo. “The guy kept telling me he wanted to go to a place where he had family,” said Chandler, who now has three clients at the prison.
Chandler said that Bwazir left Yemen for Afghanistan to do charity work in 2000 and arrived at the prison in May 2002 as “a very young fellow” who was “pretty emotional.” By 2006, he was a committed hunger striker who in the next two or three years became very depressed and “wanted to die.” Leaked documents show the prison recommended he be transferred by 2008, before Barack Obama took office.
The White House in collaboration with the Pentagon has been preparing a proposal for Congress sought by Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on where the captives might be kept, what it would cost and whether they might more easily challenge their status as Law of War detainees in federal court. The plan envisions them held as military, not federal prisoners in separate lockups maintained by the Pentagon.