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Nine more Guantánamo Bay prisoners released as population dwindles to 80


As Barack Obama prepares to visit Saudi Arabia, the Saudi royal family has taken custody of nine longtime Guantánamo Bay detainees, bringing Obama closer to his goal of shuttering the infamous detention facility.
US officials on Saturday described the nine detainees, all Yemenis, as possessing close family ties to Saudi Arabia. Some, one official said, are “practically Saudis”.
The transfer puts the residual Guantánamo detainee population at 80, the lowest it has been in its 14-year history.
The transfer also clears another statistical milestone for the administration. There are now more detainees approved to leave Guantánamo, 26, than there are so-called “forever detainees”, the term lawyers use to describe those whom the administration has insufficient evidence to charge but claims are too dangerous to release.
There are 22 “forever prisoners”, who are expected to remain confined even if Obama succeeds in his goal of closing the Guantánamo detention center.
They are joined by 32 men in some stage of the long-stalled military tribunals process, although 22 of those have been referred for prosecution and not yet charged.
Perhaps the most high-profile of the detainees released to Saudi Arabia is Tariq Ba Odah, a persistent hunger striker and critically ill man who was never charged with a crime.
US Justice Department officials, backed by the Pentagon, had launched an unusual secret legal bid to prevent Ba Odah, who was cleared for transfer in 2010, from challenging his continued detention in court.
Ba Odah’s weight had dwindled to under 75lb. His transfer prevents the administration from having to address the fallout from his long-expected death inside Guantánamo Bay.
Ba Odah’s attorney, Omar Farah of the Center for Constitutional Rights, accused the US of playing “Russian roulette” with Ba Odah’s life and called its treatment of Bah Odah “one of the most appalling chapters in Guantánamo’s sordid history”.
In a statement, Farah said the fact Ba Odah survived captivity “is not so much a cause for celebration as it is a reckoning that ought to remind the White House of the cost of elevating politics over the life and liberty of a human being”.
Although Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia next week, US officials said the timing of the transfer was a coincidence.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, was described as taking a “personal” interest in getting the Saudis to accept Guantánamo detainees during his five trips to the country as the top US diplomat. Kerry’s envoy for closing Guantánamo, Lee Wolosky, has pressed the Saudis on accepting Yemeni detainees from Guantánamo during at least two trips to Saudi Arabia, officials said.
US officials said some of the remaining 42 Yemenis at Guantánamo possess Saudi relatives or ties to the country, but said it was premature to address whether the Saudis would continue to take Guantánamo detainees.
Multiple officials declined to address why the Saudis agreed to accept these nine detainees, all of whom will go through Saudi Arabia’s “rehabilitation” program to reintegrate former jihadists – an effort that has earned plaudits for helping to reduce al-Qaida’s influence in the deeply conservative Muslim country.
One of the detainees, Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmed al-Sabri, was cleared for transfer by the administration’s quasi-parole board for Guantánamo Bay detainees in April 2015. The other eight were cleared in 2010 by a multi-agency review early in the Obama administration.
Aside from al-Sabri and Ba Odah, the other men released on Saturday to Saudi Arabia are Ahmed Umar Abdullah al-Hikimi, Abdul Rahman Mohammed Saleh Nasir, Ali Yahya Mahdi al-Raimi, Muhammed Abdullah Muhammed al-Hamiri, Ahmed Yaslam Said Kuman, Abd al Rahman al-Qyati, and Mansour Muhammed Ali al-Qatta.
The transfer comes during a difficult time for US-Saudi relations, which have been strained ever since Obama’s decision to seek a diplomatic resolution regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The longtime Iranian enemy in Riyadh, sharply critical of the nuclear accord, has also criticized Obama for perceived lassitude in ousting Iranian proxy Bashar al-Assad in Syria, an effort that now appears moribund due to Russian intervention to bolster Assad.
But the US has also materially supported a devastating Saudi aerial bombing campaign in Yemen, which has featured attacks on hospitals and other civilian facilities, earning widespread humanitarian criticism.
The latest irritant in the strained relationship is a congressional effort to declassify a 28-page section of a 2002 congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks that a senior former US senator, Bob Graham, has long said suggests a Saudi tie to some of the 9/11 hijackers.
According to the New York Times, the Saudis have told legislators to expect economic retaliation should the declassification occur.
This article was amended on 18 April 2016. An earlier version referred to a congressional effort to declassify 28 pages of the 2004 9/11 Commission report; the 28 pages are actually from a 2002 congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks.