The Pentagon disclosed Monday that it had sent 15 detainees from Guantánamo to the United Arab Emirates this weekend, part of an ongoing, dramatic downsizing that could see the prison population dip to fewer than 50 war prisoners in Cuba by summer’s end.
The 12 Yemeni and three Afghan men sent to the Emirates range in age from 36 to 66. Most arrived at Guantánamo when they were in their early 20s a dozen or more years ago. None was ever convicted of a crime, although the Bush-era prosecutor briefly swore out charges against two of the Afghans in cases that the Obama war crimes prosecutor never pursued.
A single U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane whisked the 15 captives from the remote outpost Saturday night, administration sources said, in the largest single transfer of the Obama administration. It reduced the detainee population to 61.
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The transfer left 61 captives at the war prison, 20 of them cleared for release with security assurances that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
Now, 20 of Guantánamo’s last 61 detainees await resettlement or repatriation through agreements that satisfy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter — and the so-called State Department “closer” predicted that most of those 20 will be gone soon.
“We expect to substantially complete our mandate to repatriate or resettle all approved-for-transfer detainees in the coming weeks,” said Ambassador Lee Wolosky, soon after the Defense Department disclosed the release.
In Congress, Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California criticized the release even before the Pentagon announced it. “In its race to close Gitmo, the Obama administration is doubling down on policies that put American lives at risk. Once again, hardened terrorists are being released to foreign countries, where they will be a threat,” said Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Four of the Yemenis, including the oldest, Mohammed Khusruf, 66, were represented by human rights attorney David Remes, who said “they were never a threat to the United States and that the U.S. should never have held them.
“The U.S. took 14 of the best years of their lives from them without cause,” Remes added. “I am confident that they will restart their lives and put Guantánamo behind them.”
Another of his clients was brought to the crude Camp X-Ray compound in southeast Cuba the day the detention center opened, Jan. 11, 2002. Mahmud al Mujahid, 36, became the first so-called “forever prisoner” cleared by the parole-style board that President Barack Obama set up to evaluate the detainees’ dangerousness.
The 12 Yemeni and three Afghan men sent to the Emirates range in age from 36 to 66. Most arrived at Guantánamo when they were in their early 20s.
The State Department issued a statement of gratitude toward the UAE in assisting the Obama administration, declaring closure of the prison at Guantánamo Bay a “shared goal” with “our friends and allies.”
“The continued operation of the detention facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists,” said Wolosky, who was recently appointed to the rank of ambassador.
The State Department has transferred 55 detainees to 13 countries in the past 11 months.
The 12 Yemenis included Mujahid, who was for years profiled as a suspected Osama bin Laden bodyguard; Zahir Hamdoun, 36; Majid Ahmed, 36; Bashir al Marwalah, 37; Saeed Sarem Jarabh, 38; and Ayub Murshid Ali Salih, 38. These six men were cleared for release through the interagency Periodic Review Board process.
The other six Yemenis were cleared for release by 2009, if not earlier, to security arrangements like those negotiated with Abu Dhabi: Khusruf; Abd al Muhsin Salih al Busi, 37; Abd al Rahman Sulayman, 37; Mohammed al Adahi, 54, Abdel Qadir al Mudhaffari, 40; and Abdul Muhammed al Muhajari, 46.
All three Afghans were cleared through the Periodic Review Board process. They are: Haji Hamdullah, in his 50s; Obaidullah, 36; and Mohammed Kamin, 38. Kamin and Obaidallah, who has only one name, were briefly charged in military commissions cases in 2008 before the war crimes prosecutor withdrew the cases.
Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire called the release “reckless.” She said the Pentagon’s own unclassified reports on the captives sent to the Gulf show they “are among the worst terrorists who could jeopardize our national security and the lives of our troops.”
Attorney Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights said that Hamdoun, a former “forever prisoner,” was “happy and hopeful” in a telephone call with his lawyer just before his release. “Despite the tiresome political fear-mongering around every detainee transfer,” Kebriaei said, “the reality is that men like Mr. Hamdoun want nothing more than to put this wretched chapter behind them and try to move on.”
The U.S. is not repatriating Yemenis and routinely resettles them in third countries willing to provide rehabilitation and other support. The last Afghan repatriation was in December 2014. In July, Wolosky testified at a congressional hearing that a captive would not be sent back to “a place like Afghanistan unless the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff concurs in a transfer,” suggesting Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman, opposed repatriation of the three former Guantánamo detainees.
All three Afghans, never convicted of crimes, were cleared through the parole board process. Two were briefly charged at the war court.
Administration officials, who spoke on condition they not be identified, said the Emirates have a residential reintegration program that restricts the men’s movements and evaluates them for future living in a type of halfway house. The Obama administration already had sent five Yemenis to the Emirates in November. Family visits are permitted, an official said, although it was not known if any of the five men sent there last year had received any.
With 14 former CIA prisoners secluded in a secret site at Guantánamo called Camp 7, the weekend transfer left the last 47 “low-value detainees” scattered across three of four lockups capable of holding about 350 captives.
At Guantánamo Monday morning, spokesman Navy Capt. John Filostrat said the prison staff had yet to consolidate the captives of Camps 5 and 6. Other low-value detainee sites include a crude expeditionary hospital and associated psychiatric ward, as well as a lockup of wooden huts called Camp Echo, where cleared captive Mohamedou Slahi has been kept for years.
Camp Echo is also the site of a bunkhouse-style building where the military has said it segregates cleared detainees two to seven days before their transfer. The detention center recently began showing visiting reporters the site, and did so last Saturday afternoon.