Guantánamo parole board clears ‘quite pleasant,’ now former Yemeni ‘forever prisoner’

Shawqi Awad Balzuhair in a photo from his 2008 prison profile provided by WikiLeaks to McClatchy.
Shawqi Awad Balzuhair in a photo from his 2008 prison profile provided by WikiLeaks to McClatchy. File photo

The Guantánamo parole board Monday cleared a Yemeni “forever prisoner” whose military advocate introduced him to the panel on Memorial Day as a “quite pleasant” captive who gets along with both fellow detainees and the prison guard force.

Shawqi Awad Balzuhair, 34, was captured in Pakistan on Sept. 11, 2002, and got to the prison in southeast Cuba on Oct. 28, 2002, where he was profiled for a time as “an al-Qaida operative who planned to participate in terrorist operations targeting U.S. forces in Karachi, Pakistan, and possibly inside the United States.”

A January reassessment essentially took that back. It said Balzuhair “was probably awaiting a chance to return to Yemen when he was arrested at the Karachi safe house.” U.S. intelligence concluded he “was a low-level Yemeni militant who traveled to Afghanistan in mid-2001, received basic training at an al-Qaida camp, and served on the front lines before 9/11.”

A brief statement from the six-member board said U.S. intelligence reassessed Balzuhair to be “a low-level fighter” who behaved at the prison, didn’t express “support for extremist ideologies” or have “extremist ties.”

Like most detainees, an unnamed U.S. military officer told the panel, Balzuhair “is hoping to start his life after GTMO [Guantánamo] by finding a wife. He knows that he will have to work hard and he is willing to do so, with the help of his family and the active goals he is striving towards such as learning new skills.”

It made no recommendation on where he should be sent. But, as a Yemeni, he would likely require third-country resettlement. Yemen, wracked by war, has a potent offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s terror group, al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Now it will be up to diplomats at the State Department to find a nation to take him in for resettlement with security arrangements that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

“Early in his detention,” the January profile said, “he provided information of moderate value about the activities of al-Qaida leaders; however, he has also admitted to lying to interrogators based on his allegation of mistreatment and rarely participates in interrogations, suggesting he sees little value in cooperating.”

It was not known what the Yemeni told the board to get his indefinite detention status lifted. At his request, the Pentagon said, no transcript was released of his portion of the May 31 hearing.

The Pentagon announced the decision the same day it revealed that, over the weekend, it had released three other cleared captives to the custody of Italy and Serbia. Between the releases and the Periodic Review Board decision, Monday ended with 28 of Guantanamo’s 76 captives approved for release with security arrangements.

Ten others are in military commissions proceedings, leaving the rest as either indefinite detainees under the Law of War, known as forever prisoners, or on a list as potential candidates for trial.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg