Saturday 18 January 2020

15 prisoners removed from Guantanamo Bay in largest detainee transfer under Obama

The now-closed Camp X-Ray at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base - the Pentagon announced 15 prisoners were released to the UAE (AP)
The now-closed Camp X-Ray at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base - the Pentagon announced 15 prisoners were released to the UAE (AP)

Fifteen prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre were sent to the United Arab Emirates in the single largest release of detainees during the Obama administration.

The transfer of 12 Yemeni nationals and three Afghans to the UAE comes amid a renewed push to reduce the number of detainees held at the US prison in Cuba that President Barack Obama aims to close.

The Pentagon says 61 detainees now remain at Guantanamo, which was opened in January 2002 to hold foreign fighters suspected of links to the Taliban or the al-Qaida terrorist organisation.

During the Bush administration, 532 prisoners were released from Guantanamo, often in large groups to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

The latest batch of released prisoners had been held without charge at Guantanamo, some for over 14 years. They were cleared for release by the Periodic Review Board, comprised of representatives from six US government agencies.

The UAE successfully resettled five detainees transferred there last year, according to the Pentagon.

Lee Wolosky, the State Department's special envoy for Guantanamo's closure, said the US was grateful to the UAE for accepting the latest group of 15 men and helping pave the way for the detention centre's closure.

"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," he said.

Mr Obama has been seeking to close Guantanamo amid opposition from Congress, which has prohibited transferring detainees to the US for any reason. The administration has been working with other countries to resettle detainees who have been cleared for transfer.

Naureen Shah, Amnesty International USA's director of national security and human rights, said the transfers were a "powerful sign that President Obama is serious about closing Guantanamo before he leaves office".

Ed Royce, a Republican from California who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticised the administration for recent releases, portraying the freed detainees as "hardened terrorists". 

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence says 5% of Guantanamo prisoners released since Mr Obama took office have re-engaged in militant activities and an additional 8% are suspected of doing so. That compares with 21% confirmed and 14% suspected during the Bush administration.

According to Amnesty, one of the Afghans released to the UAE alleged that he was "tortured and subjected to other cruel treatment" while in US military custody.

The man, identified only as Obaidullah, was captured by US special forces in July 2002 and allegedly admitted to acquiring and planting anti-tank mines to target US and other coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan.

In clearing him for transfer, the review board said he has not expressed any anti-US sentiment or intent to re-engage in militant activities. However, a Pentagon profile from last year also said he provided little information and they had little "insight into his current mindset".

One of the Yemeni men sent to the UAE was identified as Zahir Umar Hamis bin Hamdun, who the Pentagon alleged travelled to Afghanistan in 1999 and after training at a camp acted as a weapons and explosives trainer.

A Pentagon profile from September 2015 said he expressed dislike of the US, which it identified as "an emotion that probably is motivated more by frustration over his continuing detention than by a commitment to global jihad".

PA Media

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