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US sends 2 Saudis home from Guantanamo

The United States sent two long-ago cleared Guantanamo detainees to Saudi Arabia over the weekend, the latest move in renewed efforts to empty the prison camps that President Barack Obama ordered closed in 2009.

The Pentagon identified the two men as Saad Muhammed Husayn Qahtani, 35, and Hamood Abdulla Hamood, 48. Neither had ever been charged with a crime, and both returned as Saudi nationals.

The transfer reduced the prison camps population to 160 as the White House presses forward with two death-penalty proceedings on the base. Five men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 terror attacks are due back at the Guantánamo war court Tuesday.

The transfer also followed by less than two weeks the Obama administration’s repatriation of two Algerian captives whose lawyers said they resisted return to their homeland for fear of persecution because they fled their country in the 1990s to escape a civil war between the military and Muslim militants.

In this instance, according to government sources, the Saudi repatriations, carried out in a secret operation Saturday night, were voluntary. Each man was deemed eligible for transfer, “subject to appropriate security measures,” by a federal task force that studied the captives’ files in 2009.

Separately, Sudan’s news agency reported the last two Sudaneses captives at Guantánamo should be repatriated later in the week.

Qahtani and Hamood were among the last 11 Saudi citizens at the prison from an all-time high of about 135, at one time the second-largest nationality of captives at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba after Afghanistan, which had more than 220 nationals among the 779 captives.

Yemenis at one point accounted for more than 100 but the figure has fluctuated as some captives at times thought to be Yemeni turned out to have Saudi citizenship. Hamood, for example, was held for years as Yemeni prisoner 574. He got there in June 2002.

The Bush administration released most of the Saudis back to the kingdom between May 2006 and November 2007 in groups of 13 or more. They left aboard Saudi Airways jetliners that fetched them from the remote Navy base, rather than having them sent home hooded and shackled aboard U.S. military transport. The Saudi government sent an aircraft for Saturday night’s transfer too, according to a U.S. government official.

The Saudis sent home in 2006 and 2007 were put through a Saudi-designed rehabilitation program that sought to rid them of radical Islamic ideology and resettle them, with mixed results.

Some fled Saudi to Yemen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, and joined with Al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula — the post 9/11 franchise blamed for a series of suicide bombings and attempts including thwarted underwear bomber’s bid to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas 2009.

This latest repatriation reflects the Obama administration approach of small-scale transfers with individual diplomatic deals designed to fashion specific solutions for a released detainee.

“The U.S. has made real progress in responsibly transferring Guantánamo detainees despite the burdensome legislative restrictions that have impeded our efforts,” Paul Lewis, the Defense Department special envoy assigned to close the Guantánamo prison camps, said in a prepared statement.

“The United States coordinated with the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ensure that these transfers took place with appropriate security assurances and in a way that is consistent with our humane treatment policy,” he added.

At the State Department, Lewis’ counterpart Clifford Sloan issued a statement early Monday calling the weekend transfer “an important step on the road to closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”

Two of the Saudi citizens still at Guantánamo are charged as alleged war criminals facing death-penalty proceedings: USS Cole case defendant Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, born in Mecca, and 9/11 case defendant Mustafa al Hawsawi. And two other Saudi captives still at the Navy base prison are named Qahtani, both at one point considered for prosecution at the base’s military commissions but neither currently facing charges.

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