By Andy Worthington, December 16, 2013
Today the Pentagon announced that two Guantánamo prisoners -- Saad al-Qahtani and Hamoud al-Wady -- have been released to Saudi Arabia.
The Obama administration is to be commended for releasing these two men, as it shows a commitment to the promise to resume releasing prisoners from Guantánamo that President Obama made in May, after a two and a half year period in which just five prisoners were released, even though over half of the more than 160 prisoners held in total were cleared for release in January 2010 by a high-level, inter-agency task force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009. These releases bring the prison's total population to 160 prisoners, of whom 80 have been cleared for release.
The release of prisoners had largely ground to a halt because Congress had imposed onerous restrictions on the Obama administration, requiring certifications to be made guaranteeing that no released prisoner would be able to take up arms or engage in terrorism against the U.S. -- promises that were extremely difficult, if not impossible to make.
It must be noted, however, that a waiver had been included in the legislation, allowing President Obama to bypass Congress if he regarded it as being "in the national security interests of the United States." However, the president chose not to use the waiver, preferring not to spend political capital on Guantánamo when it would have brought him short-term political discomfort through criticism by Republicans, even though he has repeatedly stated that keeping Guantánamo open harms America's national security interests.
Nevertheless, after a prison-wide hunger strike awakened -- or reawakened -- the world's media to the plight of the Guantánamo prisoners, and international bodies including the U.N. and the European Parliament criticized Obama's handling of Guantánamo, there was renewed progress from the administration. The president not only promised to resume releasing prisoners; he also dropped a ban on releasing Yemeni prisoners (who make up two-thirds of the prisoners cleared for release but still held), which he imposed in January 2010, after a failed airline bomb plot that was hatched in Yemen, and appointed two envoys to work towards the release of prisoners and, it is to be hoped, the eventual closure of the prison -- Cliff Sloan at the State Department and Paul Lewis at the Pentagon.
In addition, the Senate Armed Services Committee, under the leadership of Sen. Carl Levin, who had been instrumental in securing the waiver in the legislation relating to Guantánamo (the annual National Defense Authorization Act), introduced changes to the legislation making it less arduous to release prisoners, which, it seems, will be authorized by Congress in the very near future.
Crucially, these changes not only show the growing influence of lawmakers who understand that Guantánamo's continued existence is toxic to the values that America professes to hold; they also reassure the president that he can now count on support from Congress that he was unable to count on before, something that is clearly of great importance to him.
Since President Obama's promises on Guantánamo in May, six prisoners have now been released. Two Algerians were released in August, and two others were released just two weeks ago, although the administration was criticized by lawyers and human rights activists for the release of these two men -- Djamel Ameziane and Belkacem Bensayah -- because they did not want to return to the country of their birth, and had legitimate fears that they would face persecution, from the government and/or from militant Islamists, if they did so.
There are no such fears with Saad al-Qahtani and Hamoud al-Wady, who have been waiting for many long years for the administration to resume releases to Saudi Arabia -- and, in al-Wady's case, to send home someone mistakenly listed throughout his imprisonment as a Yemeni, when he is, apparently, a Saudi national.
The story of Saad al-Qahtani
The story of Saad al-Qahtani (ISN 200, also identified as Said Qahtani), who was born in 1978, was told by his lawyer, Patricia A. Bronte, in "11 Years and Counting: Profiles of Men Detained at Guantánamo," a document put together by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, and submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in March this year, as supporting documentation in the case of Djamel Ameziane.
Bronte explained how al-Qahtani, who arrived at Guantánamo on January 16, 2002, just five days after the prison opened, "is bright, engaging, and speaks at least six languages fluently." She added that, during his nearly 12 years of imprisonment, "he taught himself to speak, read, and write English," and that his "extraordinary language skills and his ability to mediate disputes between prison staff and other prisoners" made him "a favorite among his guards and interrogators."
She also described his upbringing, noting that he was brought up by his mother and grandmother in Khamis Mushayt, in the south west of the country, along with his five brothers and sisters, after his father died when he was eight years old. However, both his mother and grandmother died in November 2007. At that time, as Bronte explained, the prisoners "were not allowed to speak with their families by telephone or videoconference," and, as a result, his mother died without having seen her son or having heard his voice for the last five and a half years of her life.
As Bronte described it, Saad al-Qahtani "is not and has never been a threat to the United States or its allies," and only traveled to Afghanistan "because he was curious about the Taliban government (recognized by his home country as legitimate), and because he wanted to help the Afghan people, who had endured decades of war." She added that the only time he fought anyone was "when he intervened to stop Taliban soldiers from beating an Afghan truck driver."
After the U.S.-led invasion, in October 2001, al-Qahtani, who had no interest in the fighting, "made his way to Pakistan, went to the first police station he could find, and asked for help in returning home," as Bronte described it, but, instead, he was turned over to U.S. forces, who took him to their brutal prison at Kandahar airport and then on to Guantánamo.
According to Bronte, "Within the first year of his imprisonment, United States and Saudi authorities determined that Saad did not belong in Guantánamo." Civilian advisors recommended his release in 2008, as did President Obama's Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2009. Bronte also explained that Saudi government officials told him and his family in the spring and summer of 2012 that his repatriation was imminent, and the guards told him the same thing. However, although he refused to complain about "the harsh and degrading treatment" he endured in Kandahar and at Guantánamo, he had "suffered from depression and insomnia for several years," and, earlier this year, was "sinking into despondency over the repeatedly broken promises to release him from Guantánamo."
It may be that al-Qahtani was not freed in 2009 because he had briefly met Abu Zubaydah, the alleged "high-value detainee," seized in Pakistan in March 2002, for whom the CIA’s torture program was initially developed. As I explained in an article in 2010:
Zubaydah’s case reveals the true horror at the heart of the "war on terror," because, despite being waterboarded 83 times and held in secret CIA prisons for four and a half years, he was not a senior al-Qaeda operative at all, and was, instead, the mentally troubled gatekeeper of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan.
However, although the U.S. authorities have steadily distanced themselves from making grand claims about Zubaydah, al-Qahtani’s brief association with him has probably counted against him in Guantánamo. In his [Combatant Status Review] Tribunal in 2004, he said that he didn’t know that Zubaydah was allegedly involved with al-Qaeda, and asked, "just because somebody stays at someone’s house, who may not be the best person in the world, does that make the people who stayed at that house bad people?"
In his tribunal, where it was stated that he had briefly served as a Taliban guard before fleeing to Pakistan, he pointed out that he was in Afghanistan before 9/11, and told the tribunal members, "Even if you say I am right or wrong, I don’t think I did anything wrong. At the time I didn’t think I did anything wrong, and I still don’t. I didn’t do anything illegal or bad to anyone. I want you to understand this."
The story of Hamoud al-Wady
Less is known about the second man to be freed, Hamoud al-Wady (ISN 574, also identified as Hamood Abdulla Hamood), who is 48 years old, although, as I explained in an article in 2010, he stated in Guantánamo that he went to Afghanistan for jihad because he swore that he would do so if his wife bore him a child, but once he was in Afghanistan he said that the "picture about the fight in my head" -- which he conceived as a fight between Muslims and Communists, as it had been in the conflict between North and South Yemen -- was incorrect, and his supposed enemies were all Muslims.
He said that he then undertook humanitarian work with an Arab who explained that "not everybody comes to Afghanistan for fighting," and then fled to Pakistan after the U.S.-led invasion began, staying at the house of a Pakistani whose phone number he had been given in Afghanistan, where he was arrested. "I did not plan to go to that particular house," he explained. "I had only the telephone number and I did not know if it belonged to a house or something else, a shop, for example."
Some indication of quite how long generally insignificant prisoners have been deprived of their liberty at Guantánamo can be gleaned from an Associated Press report in September 2007 about the reviews that took place at the prison in 2006. This was the second round of military reviews known as the Administrative Review Boards (ARBs), which followed the first reviews, the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), in 2004-05.
In that article, written after the AP secured the transcripts of the ARBs through a Freedom of Information Act request, it was noted that al-Wady, who was mistakenly described as an Afghan, told his panel, "I am entering the fifth year. I want to see American justice. Where is it?" In response, the AP noted that the military officer heading the panel merely told him that the review board was his opportunity to "clear up some of the allegations that have been presented to us."
Al-Wady and al-Qahtani were in their 12th year of detention by the time their release finally came. But while the Obama administration is to be commended, there are still 80 other men in a similar situation, and two-thirds of those men are Yemenis. If any of these men have strong connections to Saudi Arabia, it may be acceptable for them to be freed there, but if not they need to be returned home to Yemen -- and, for that, President Obama needs to find more courage than he has summoned up to date.