Egyptian held at Guantánamo goes before parole board

A chronically ill Egyptian prisoner who was brought to Guantánamo a decade ago as a suspected al-Qaida explosives expert went before an inter-agency parole board Thursday and, in the small slice the public was permitted to see, didn’t say a word — and neither did his attorney.

Tariq el Sawah, 57, had at one point been a candidate for a war crimes trial as an alleged supporter and co-conspirator of al-Qaida and was so designated in 2008. But the material support for terror charge prosecutors swore out in the dwindling days of the Bush administration was subsequently ruled illegitimate at war court prosecutions.

Instead, Thursday he could be seen swiveling in an executive chair via video link from a trailer at the U.S. Navy base’s Detention Center Zone in a massive brown T-shirt, flanked by two Air Force officers and civilian attorney Robert Tucker — who presumably helped him plead his case in a closed session.

Sawah has long been identified as one of Guantánamo’s chronically ill, at-risk and morbidly obese captives. According to Pentagon prison camp records released under the Freedom of Information Act, he weighed in at Guantanamo in May 5, 2002 at 215 pounds and had ballooned to 411 pounds in June 2006.

Despite the charge sheet, by September 2008 the prison camps commander was recommending his release, noting he was “closely watched for significant and chronic problems” that included high cholesterol, diabetes and liver disease.

It was not known what he told the board in its secret session. But a public summary of an intelligence report released by the Pentagon at the time of the hearing said he hoped to reunite with family members who live in Egypt, Bosnia and the United States and seemed “unlikely to pursue reengagement.”

It said that while he “openly admits to having taken part in terrorism, there are no indications that he is interested in reengaging in extremist activity.”

The mention of Bosnia refers to his service in the Bosnian Army 1990s, a popular cause with jihadists, before he moved on to Afghanistan and was handed off to U.S. forces in December 2001 with cluster bomb wounds to his legs, apparently from an attack in the Tora Bora region amid the U.S. invasion in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

His lawyers have called him too sick to keep at the prison camps in Cuba following a novel federal court approach by a since released Sudanese prisoner who won a habeas corpus petition using that argument. In fact, military sources say, Sawah is confined to a special compound called Camp Echo opposite the main prison buildings for low-value detainees because of both his health condition and the fact that at some point he was quite cooperative with his captors.

A senior Egyptian diplomat observed the brief, open portion of the proceedings with a knot of reporters and representatives of human rights groups. Egypt has asked for the return of their citizen, who according to Pentagon records was born in the port city of Alexandria, joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a young man, was arrested for a time after the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and went on to become a construction contractor in Greece before being drawn to Bosnia.

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