U.S. troops delivered a long-cleared Yemeni detainee to Italy over the weekend, the Pentagon disclosed Sunday, in a downsizing of the detention to 78 or fewer captives.
Fayiz Ahmad Yahia Suleiman, 41, left before dawn Saturday in a transfer not acknowledged by military leaders on the base, suggesting more releases were in the works.
Suleiman got to the crude Camp X-Ray compound in its first week, on Jan. 17, 2002. He was never charged with a crime and was cleared for release in 2009 by an Obama administration task force. But State Department officials had to find a nation to take him in for resettlement because, as a Yemeni, he could not go home.
The Bush and Obama administrations have mostly forbidden repatriations of Yemenis to the violence-wracked Arabian peninsula nation with a powerful post- 9/11 al-Qaida franchise.
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In all his years at Guantánamo, Suleiman never saw an attorney, according to one of his lawyers of record, Jon Sands, an Arizona federal public defender. But Suleiman recently asked to meet, said Sands, who was making plans to travel to the base to see him in August.
Sands said he did not believe Suleiman had any family ties in Italy but declared the country “a good place for anyone. It’s a good place for him, and we hope he can find some peace after his detention at Guantánamo.”
Upon learning of the release, Sands also said: “It’s better than many other locations, and maybe it’s part of the G-exit strategy,” referring to President Barack Obama’s continuing quest to close the detention center. The transfer left at most 29 detainees cleared for release at the base, all but seven of them Yemenis awaiting similar resettlement arrangements.
Pentagon records from 2008 said that the Yemeni was born in Saudi Arabia and at one point worked as an imam at King Abdulaziz Airport northwest of Mecca. Military records show that he was brought to Guantánamo on the belief that Pakistani security forces had captured him in November 2001 as he was fleeing Afghanistan, by way of Tora Bora, and had jailed him for two weeks before turning him over to the U.S. as an al-Qaida suspect.
But the records relied on his identification by one of the prison’s most prolific and frequently discredited informants — a Yemeni named Mohammed Basardah, who has since been released. The Pentagon argued in a federal court unlawful detention case, which was never decided, that Suleiman trained with al-Qaida and knew senior leaders; he claimed he went to Afghanistan in search of a wife.
Saturday’s release was believed to be the first U.S. resettlement deal with Italy for a cleared Guantánamo captive. In 2009, however, the U.S. sent two Tunisian captives for trial, a rare outsourcing for prosecution, and subsequently repatriated at least one of them.
Earlier Sunday, military leaders here briefed visiting reporters at the Detention Center Zone that the prison was detaining 79 captives, all “highly complaint,” meaning none was wearing an orange jumpsuit. Commanders credited overall good relations between captives and members of the up-to 2,200-strong prison staff to a peaceful Ramadan in the camps and the professionalism of the guard force.
They pointedly omitted mention of any ongoing transfers, which become known to the captives as men designated for release are removed from the penitentiary-style Camp 5 and 6 buildings and segregated in a transition site across the street.
At the Pentagon, a statement expressed the gratitude of the United States toward “the Government of Italy for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”
It said both countries collaborated to make sure “this transfer took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”