Senegal said Monday it has taken in for resettlement two cleared Libyan detainees from Guantánamo, a transfer that reduced the prison camp’s census to 89.
Senegal’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the two men were granted “asylum ... in accordance with the relevant conventions of international humanitarian law, also in the tradition of Senegalese hospitality and Islamic solidarity with two African brothers who have expressed interest in resettlement in Senegal after their release.”
It noted that one of the men granted asylum was “handicapped.”
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Of the remaining captives, 35 are approved for release. More releases are expected later this month, including a long-term, long-cleared hunger striker.
The Pentagon identified those released as Salim Gherebi, 55, and Omar Khalif, 44. They got to the U.S.-military-run detention center in Cuba in May and August 2002, respectively. Pakistani forces captured them separately, then turned them over to U.S. troops who transferred them to Afghanistan before Guantánamo. Neither man was ever charged with a crime.
Gherebi looks forward to being reunited as soon as possible with his family, including a 15-year-old daughter whom he has never met in person, his attorney Rick Wilson said. His wife is Pakistani but she and their three children have been living in Libya with the Gherebi family.
Senegal became the 28th nation to give sanctuary to Guantánamo detainees at the behest of the Obama administration.
Gherebi “was also very interested in being in a country where Islam was practiced,” Wilson said. So in that regard Senegal fits the bill.
The former French colony in west Africa south of Mauritania has a dominant Muslim population. Of the 779 captives the Pentagon acknowledges it held at Guantánamo, none was from Senegal. This is the first time Dakar is giving sanctuary to a former Guantánamo detainee.
Senegal disclosed the weekend transfer on the occasion of Senegal’s 56th Independence Day following a military parade in the capital Dakar. The Defense Department soon followed with confirmation, but a spokesman declined to say whether, or how much, the Obama administration was paying in resettlement costs.
Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, the Pentagon’s spokesman for Guantánamo matters, said Monday night that the U.S. “provides limited financial support to foreign governments to offset costs associated with a detainee’s settlement” on a “case by case basis.” Ross would not elaborate but said Congress is furnished those details “in accordance with statutory requirements.”
The West African transfer left 89 captives at Guantánamo, 35 of them approved for release.
In Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry called the arrangement a “humanitarian resettlement” in a statement of gratitude for Senegal’s “generous assistance” in helping Obama administration efforts to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay.
Senegal is considered a strong ally of both the U.S. and France. In 1991 it was the only sub-Saharan nation to send a contingent to participate in Operation Desert Storm, the U.S.-led allied war that ousted Iraq from Kuwait. Dakar also has participated in many international peacekeeping and observers missions, including as part of the African Union Mission in Darfur, Sudan. It also sent forces to Chad, the Congo and the former Yugoslavia as well as in Haiti from 2003-08.
“This significant humanitarian gesture is consistent with Senegal’s leadership on the global stage,” Kerry said in a statement. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook also called it a “significant humanitarian gesture” at a midday news conference.
Cook left unanswered a reporter’s persistent questions on whether the two former captives were transferred to Senegalese prison sentences. He said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was satisfied with the security arrangements.
Before Gherebi’s capture, the Libyan was a grade school science teacher. But it was too soon to know “exactly what he will do,” Wilson said. “His primary concern is his family — seeing them and being with them. The same for them. They are very anxious.”
Gherebi was approved for transfer in 2009 by a task force that examined Guantánamo’s Bush administration era files. Khalif, described by his lawyer as a sickly amputee, was approved for release in August by the Periodic Review Board.
“I’m unsure why a man with only one eye left, one leg, one fully functioning arm, and whose only supposed crime was to oppose the Gadhafi dictatorship was not freed years ago,” said Khalif’s lawyer, Ramzi Kassem. “Now, he looks forward to receiving proper medical care for his ailments and starting the long process of rebuilding his life after more than a decade at Guantánamo.”
Dakar sent troops to Operation Desert Storm and peacekeepers to Haiti.
Khalif has no right leg below the knee from a 1998 landmine accident in Afghanistan, and a left leg held together by metal pins from a 1995 construction site accident in Sudan, according to his attorney. Khalif is blind in his left eye.
The board called Khalif a cooperative captive with a “significantly compromised health condition” and a history of “mediating concerns raised between other detainees and guard staff.”
“While the Board acknowledges the detainee’s past terrorist-related activities and connections, it found that the risk the detainee presents can be adequately mitigated,” the panel said.
In June, Kassem told the parole-style board that Khalif “has led a tumultuous life.” A devout Muslim, he fled the dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi in 1995 first for Sudan and then for Afghanistan, and though in custody since 2002, he “harbors no ill will towards the United States.”
“His chief concern when he was a free man was with the Gadhafi regime, and that regime no longer exists,” said Kassem, a professor at CUNY Law School whose legal clinic represents Khalif.
The Periodic Review Board made up of national security delegates recommended his transfer to an Arabic-speaking country “with the ability to provide structured, inpatient medical care to adequately address his physical and mental health needs.”
The transfer leaves two Libyans still among Guantánamo’s 89 detainees. It was the first release since the Obama administration sent two cleared captives to Europe Jan. 20. A third man, a Yemeni detainee, declined sanctuary in an undisclosed southern European nation that day, refusing on the U.S. Navy base airstrip at the door to an Air Force cargo plane.
Gherebi’s name appeared on one of the earliest habeas corpus petitions for a Guantánamo detainee, in southern California in 2003, because at the time he had a brother living there. A federal court ruled it did not have jurisdiction and sent it the next year to the Washington court, where the lawfulness of his detention was never decided.
A Defense Department statement Monday morning said Carter notified Congress of the plan to transfer the two men “in accordance with statutory requirements.”
“The United States coordinated with the Government of Senegal to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures,” the Pentagon added.