9 Yemenis released to Saudi Arabia from Guantanamo

By CAROL ROSENBERG | Miami Herald | Published: April 16, 2016

MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — Saudi Arabia took in nine Yemeni detainees from the Guantanamo Saturday  in a breakthrough deal with the at-times stubborn Saudis that left 80 captives at the U.S. military detention center in Cuba.

Among those the U.S. Air Force delivered to Saudi Arabia was hunger striker Tariq Ba Odah, 38, who gained prominence by asking a federal judge to order his release after he fell to 74 pounds despite daily U.S. Navy medical tube feedings.

Cleared for years, Ba Odah, like the others released, could not go back to Yemen because of a White House policy that forbids repatriations to the poor, violent nation south of Saudi Arabia on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

But in a turnabout, the Saudi government agreed to take noncitizens from Guantanamo to its rehabilitation program set up to help Saudi jihadists transition back into society. All nine men have relatives living there, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the deal. Four of them were born in Saudi Arabia to Yemeni parents.

The nine prisoners released this weekend got to Guantanamo in 2002. Several were cleared for release during the George W. Bush presidency. Not one was ever charged with a crime.

The transfer comes a week ahead of President Barack Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with the leaders of Gulf Cooperation Council countries. With Saturday’s transfer, three GCC countries have taken in 34 Yemenis from Guantanamo for resettlement, answering an appeal from Obama during May’s GCC summit at Camp David, according to two U.S. government officials. Twenty went to Oman and five to the United Arab Emirates.

Of the last 80 captives, 26 are cleared for release to other countries with security agreements, although they won’t go anywhere for at least a month. Saturday’s transfer exhausted all the 30-day notices Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter sent Congress of pending transfers.

Mecca-born Yemeni detainee Mashur al Sabri, 38, was among those delivered to the rehabilitation program. During the Bush years more than 100 Saudis from Guantanamo passed through the program, and a few fled the kingdom to Yemen to join with militants of Al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula.

But Sabri’s attorney, Brian Neff, said his client “wants to get married, raise a family and live in peace.” Neff petitioned the Saudi government over the summer to take Sabri, whose release was approved in April 2015 by the Guantanamo review board. “Saudi Arabia is to be commended for stepping up and accepting detainees who have strong ties to the kingdom,” Neff said.

Saudi-U.S. relations have been strained by a number of issues, such as the Iranian nuclear deal, Syria policy and the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen that human rights groups and the United Nations have blamed for an increasing civilian death toll. Meanwhile, , the Obama administration, under pressure from former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., , is deciding whether to declassify 28 pages of a congressional report that detailed possible links between the 9/11 hijackers and Saudi officials in the United States.

For the weekend transfer, Saudi Arabia did not send a jet to fetch the captives, something it has routinely done for its citizens to spare them U.S. military flights in shackles like those that brought them to Cuba. Instead, a U.S. Air Force cargo plane delivered them, and then the Pentagon disclosed the transfer.

The Saudi-born Yemenis released are:

• Mansoor Muhammed Ali Qatta, 34, who got to Guantanamo in June 2002, four months after Pakistani forces captured him in Karachi and sent him to U.S. troops in Kandahar. Afghanistan. Guantanamo’s prison commander recommended his release in April 2008.

• Ahmed Kuman, 36, who got to Guantanamo in May 2002, five months after Pakistani forces arrested him in a mosque and turned him over to U.S. troops in Pakistan.

• Abdul Rahman al Qyati, 40, who got to Guantanamo in May 2002, four months after he was picked up by Northern Alliance forces hiding in a farm near Kandahar airport. By September 2004, the prison was recommending he be sent to a lockup in another country.

• Sabri, who got to Guantanamo in May 2002, four months after Pakistani forces turned him over U.S. troops. The Periodic Review Board concluded a year agothat he was little more than a foot soldier who renounced “extremist ideology” and whose detention was no longer necessary.

The other five were born in Yemen but have family ties in Saudi Arabia:

• Ahmed al Hikimi, 44, who got to Guantanamo the week Camp X-Ray opened as a suspected bodyguard of Osama bin Laden. A 2009-10 federal task force approved his repatriation to Yemen if the security situation improved or release to a rehabilitation program.

• Abdul Rahman Nasir, 36, who got to Guantanamo in June 2002 as a survivor of the November 2001 uprising of the Qala-i-Jangi prison near Mazar-e-Sharif in which CIA officer Mike Spahn was killed. The prison commander recommended release in October 2008.

• Mohammed al Hamiri, 34, who got to Guantanamo in February 2002, a month after Pakistani officials turned him over to U.S. troops. The prison commander recommended his release in October 2008.

• Ba Odah, who got to Guantanamo in February 2002, about five weeks after Pakistani officials turned him over to U.S. troops. He was approved for release by a 2009-10 task force, and emerged as a committed hunger striker who challenged his detention and forced feedings in federal court.

• Ali al Raimi, 33, whose lawyer Erin Thomas said he got to Guantanamo as a teenager “and was cleared for transfer over 10 years ago.” Now, she said, “he longs to finally begin an adult life as a free man” — to marry and start a family of his own. At the U.S. prison, she said, “he kept himself productive with drawing, painting, and sculpture. Ali is interested in pursuing a career in woodworking or another craftsman field.”

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