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Panel clears Kuwaiti 'forever prisoner' for repatriation from Guantanamo

The Obama administration’s parole board has approved for release from Guantánamo a Kuwaiti man whose lawyers took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court but then lost his federal court challenge.

Fawzi al Odah, 37, was approved for repatriation to his oil-rich emirate on a promise from Kuwait that he would take part in a minimum year-long rehabilitation program, according to a statement released Friday by the Pentagon.

The federal national-security panel also said intelligence officials concluded that Odah had only low-level paramilitary training and lacked a leadership role in al-Qaida or the Taliban.

Odah has been held at the U.S. Navy base prison in Cuba for more than a decade. The military had earlier profiled him as captured in Pakistan in November 2001 after fleeing Afghanistan through Tora Bora.

The recent decision does not mean his release is imminent. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who had a representative on the parole board, must separately evaluate the transfer decision and must notify Congress of whether he approves of the release with a minimum of 30 days’ notice.

Hagel hasn’t done that.

Only six detainees are known to be in the Congressional-notice transfer pipeline — all destined for release to Uruguay no sooner than Aug. 10 under the 30-day notice scenario, according to U.S. officials who discussed Hagel’s notices to Congress on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Odah would come after that. But as of Friday, Congress had not yet received a notice, one Obama administration official said.

But his transfer approval is noteworthy on two counts:

• First, his lawyers were among the earliest and most persistent challengers of President George W. Bush's right to lock him up as an enemy combatant at Guantánamo Bay. He was named a co-plaintiff in two U.S. Supreme Court cases that gave detainees the right to file habeas corpus petitions challenging his detention as unlawful. Once he won the right, Odah’s attorneys then argued his case before a federal court judge and lost their unlawful detention lawsuit in September 2009.

• Second, he hails from Kuwait, whose emir has systematically sought release of all of his nation’s citizens, even after it was disclosed that another subject sent home by the Bush administration in 2005 became one of Guantánamo’s most high-profile recidivists. U.S. critics of Guantánamo releases often cite the case of Abdallah Saleh al Ajmi — who went on to become a suicide bomber in Mosul, Iraq, three years later — as a cautionary tale.

The parole board separately rejected release of the only other Kuwaiti at Guantánamo, Fayez al Kandari, also 37, meaning that as of this week the Pentagon still holds 37 captives as indefinite detainees.

The “f orever prisoners,” as the indefinite detainees are called, were profiled by an Obama Task Force in 2009 as too dangerous to let go but ineligible for trial at the war court. In May, the White House released five of them in a prisoner exchange for a POW held in Afghanistan, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

Bush administration-era prosecutors considered Kandari for prosecution by a military commission, but the Obama Task Force moved him to the category of indefinite detainee. He had been a committed hunger striker at the prison in southeast Cuba, a strike that as of last year drew participation by more than 100 detainees.

At the State Department on Friday, a spokesman said he could not give a time line on how soon Odah or any other could be transferred.

However, “the administration is absolutely committed to reducing the detainee population by transferring those detainees so designated, and to closing the detention facility in a responsible manner,” said Ian Moss of the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure.

So far, the parole panel has heard nine cases and, with the Odah decision, has chosen to release four prisoners from their status as indefinite detainees.

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