The largest single transfer of Guantánamo Bay detainees of Barack Obama’s presidency was announced on Monday, as 15 long-held men departed the infamous detention center.
The transfer, officially announced by the Pentagon on Monday evening, brings the Guantánamo detainee population down to 61.
The United Arab Emirates, a close US ally which has accepted former Guantánamo detainees in the past, took the 12 Yemenis and three Afghan nationals, some of whom the US has held for the 14 years Guantánamo that has served as a detention facility. The Pentagon thanked the UAE for its “humanitarian gesture” and support for shuttering Guantánamo.
Six of the men had first received clearances for transfer in 2010, after a review early in the Obama administration found them eligible to leave Guantánamo and unfit for military prosecution. Their names are Abdel Qadir al-Mudafari, Muhammad Ahmad Said al-Adahi, Abdul Muhammad Ahmad Nassar al-Muhajari, Abd al-Rahman Sulayman, Mohammed Nasir Yahi Khussrof Kazaz and Abd al-Muhsin Abd al-Rab Salih al-Busi.
All are Yemeni, and the administration for years cited instability in Yemen, where civil war continues today, as a reason to halt transfers to the Middle Eastern country.
Obama established a quasi-parole process to expedite transfers from Guantánamo, and between 2014 and 2016 the review system determined that the other nine detainees posed a negligible security risk. Those detainees are Mohammed Kamin, Mahmud Abd Al Aziz al-Mujahid, Saeed Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah Sarem Jarabh, Zahar Omar Hamis bin Hamdoun, Majid Mahmud Abdu Ahmed, Ayub Murshid Ali Salih, Obaidullah, Bashir Nasir Ali al-Marwalah and Hamid al-Razak – also known as Haji Hamidullah, an Afghan in his 50s.
In 2008 two of the three Afghans, Obaidullah and Kamin, were charged with crimes related to terrorism, but those charges were withdrawn. The remaining 13 detainees transferred were held for over a decade without charges of a crime.
Administration officials have said for months that they would speed up detainee transfers this summer, as Obama’s time in office winds down with his promise to close Guantánamo – made on his second day in the White House – still unfulfilled.
The Guardian reported in May that the Obama administration had reached deals with a half-dozen foreign countries to repatriate approximately two dozen detainees.
The 15-detainee transfer is the largest Guantánamo release during Obama’s presidency. While Obama released 10 Yemeni detainees to Oman in January and nine more Yemenis to Saudi Arabia in April, Monday’s transfer eclipsed a December 2009 release of 12 detainees to three countries.
Transfers of larger numbers of detainees in a single round was more typical of the Bush administration, which established Guantánamo as a wartime detention facility in 2002.
With the detainee population at Guantánamo now down to 61, 10 of whom are in some phase of the military tribunals process, Obama is closer to what his administration calls an “irreducible minimum” of detainees: those it deems unable to prosecute but too dangerous to release. Obama’s heralded plan to “close” Guantánamo involves indefinite detention for that cadre, whose number remains undefined.
Yet as he nears the end of his presidency, Obama has shown a willingness to take risks on so-called “forever prisoners”. One of the worst-tortured detainees at Guantánamo, the Mauritanian Mohamedou Slahi, was recently cleared for transfer by the parole-like board. Later this week, the board will consider the case of former CIA black-site detainee Hambali, once considered al-Qaida’s chief operative in south-east Asia. Next week it will hear from Abu Zubaydah, another waterboarding survivor, whom the US no longer believes is a member of al-Qaida.
While Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state and the Democratic presidential nominee, has supported the Guantánamo closure plan begun by Obama, she has not emphasized it on the campaign trail.
In contrast, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, vowed in a Monday speech to keep Guantánamo open as a detention center. Trump has pledged to “load” the Guantánamo population “with some bad dudes”.
Last week Trump said he was comfortable trying Americans accused of terrorism at Guantánamo’s military tribunals, although the Military Commissions Act bars trying American citizens in the commissions.
Lee Wolosky, the US state department envoy charged with securing deals with willing nations for Guantánamo transfers, thanked the UAE in a statement.
“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,” Wolosky said.