On Wednesday, with exactly one year left until the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, two more prisoners were released from Guantánamo, leaving 91 men still held. A third man was supposed to have been freed, but he refused at the last minute.
One of the two men freed, Tariq al-Sawah (ISN 535), also identified as Tariq El-Sawah, who is 58 years old, had gained some notoriety in the past — first as a disillusioned former training camp instructor who had become a welcome informant in Guantánamo, and then as he became seriously overweight, endangering his health. At one point, he weighted 420 pounds, double his weight on arrival at the prison in 2002.
In 2013, as his lawyers sought his release because of his ill-health and his cooperation, I explained how he “had high-level support for his release,” having “received letters of recommendation from three former Guantánamo commanders,” as the Associated Press described it. I stated, “One, Rear Adm. David Thomas, recommended his release in his classified military file (his Detainee Assessment Brief) in September 2008, which was released by WikiLeaks in 2011 … In that file, al-Sawah’s health issues were also prominent. It was noted that he was ‘closely watched for significant and chronic problems’ that included high cholesterol, diabetes and liver disease.”
As I also noted:
There was also a letter from an unnamed official who spent several hours a week with al-Sawah over the course of 18 months, who noted that he had been “friendly and cooperative” with US personnel, and stated, “Frankly, I felt Tarek [Tariq] was a good man on the other side who, in a different world, different time, different place, could easily be accepted as a friend or neighbor.”
Just as important is the fact that, back in March 2010, in an important article for the Washington Post, Peter Finn reported that al-Sawah and another prisoner, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian whose heart-rending memoir, written in Guantánamo, has just been published as a book, even though he is still held in the prison, “had become two of the most significant informants” in Guantánamo. As a result, they were “housed in a little fenced-in compound at the military prison, where they live[d] a life of relative privilege — gardening, writing and painting — separated from other detainees in a cocoon designed to reward and protect.”
What was particularly shocking about this was the refusal of the authorities to reward the men for their extensive cooperation by releasing them. As Finn noted, “Some military officials believe the United States should let them go — and put them into a witness protection program, in conjunction with allies, in a bid to cultivate more informants,” an eminently sensible suggestion that was endorsed by W. Patrick Lang, a retired senior military intelligence officer. “I don’t see why they aren’t given asylum,” Lang said. “If we don’t do this right, it will be that much harder to get other people to cooperate with us. And if I was still in the business, I’d want it known we protected them. It’s good advertising.”
Absurdly, though, al-Sawah was, for a while, punished for his cooperation by being put forward for a military commission trial under George W. Bush, and President Obama’s high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force also recommended him for prosecution in January 2010. It was not until 2013 that he was, instead, made eligible for a Periodic Review Board, set up to review the cases of everyone not already approved for release or actively facing trials (just ten men). His review took place a year ago, and he was approved for release last February.
As the Guardian noted on his release, he was a “former Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood member,” who had traveled to Bosnia in the 1990s, where he began his involvement in militant activities. Mohammed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian President and Muslim Brotherhood member who succeeded the dictator Hosni Mubarak, but was then toppled by the military, had asked for al-Sawah’s return in 2012, but the return of military rule made that unsafe, and arrangements were eventually made for him to be returned to Bosnia, where his ex-wife and his daughter live.
The second man freed is Abdul Aziz al-Suadi (ISN 578), aka Abdul Aziz al-Swidi, who is 41 years old, and the first former Guantánamo prisoner to be taken in by the government of Montenegro. He was one of 30 Yemenis approved for release by the task force in 2010, but placed in a category invented by the task force — “conditional detention” — which required a perceived improvement in the security situation in Yemen for them to be freed, although no clue was given about who would make that decision or how it would be taken. In the end, the entire US establishment has agreed that no Yemenis can be repatriated, and so the “conditional detention” tag has outworn its welcome, and al-Swidi is the 13th of the 30 to be freed in the last few months.
As I described it in an article in September 2010, al-Suadi was one of over 20 men seized in a series of house raids in Karachi, on or around February 7, 2002, from safe houses that appear to have been “part of an impromptu system developed after the fall of the Taliban to help hundreds of Arabs — including trained fighters, recent recruits and civilians — to evade capture by Afghan or Pakistani forces,” as I described it in my book The Guantánamo Files. I also explained:
[He] had been an electrician in Yemen, and stated in Guantánamo that he was recruited for jihad by a sheikh, and was also encouraged by another man “to go to Afghanistan to participate in jihad against the Russians.” The US authorities allege[d] that he arrived in Afghanistan towards the end of 2000, attended al-Farouq and another camp, Tarnak Farms, where, according to an unidentified and possibly unreliable source, he “was identified as having received exclusive instruction on chemical explosives,” and was apparently in the Karachi house for a month before his capture, along with other Yemenis waiting to travel home to Yemen.
For the Guardian, Spencer Ackerman described how, since 2010, he had been “considered to pose a negligible threat to the US,” and one of his lawyers, Erin Thomas, said he “has always asked his attorneys to pursue any educational opportunities open to him.”
As Ackerman described it, she said he “is fluent in English and enrolled in two college-level courses at Guantánamo, in math and in English composition,” adding, “His singular focus has been preparing for a future life outside of Guantánamo.”
Another of his lawyers, David Remes, “called him a ‘fully westernised’ English-speaking man who at Guantánamo studied math by correspondence course at Colorado’s Adams State University,” as the Miami Herald put it. “He consistently got top grades there and was about to take his final exams,” Remes said, declaring that his client was “very happy” days ahead of his departure. “There’s no question that he will adapt to life in his new home,” he added.
The resettlement of these two men takes the total number of men released in January to 16 men, one short of the 17 announced in December. As the Guardian described it, as al-Sawah and al-Suadi left Guantánamo, Mohammed Bawazir (ISN 440), aka Mohammed Bwazir, a 35-year old Yemeni, “abruptly refused to be resettled.”
As I explained in a major article in June 2012, Guantánamo Scandal: The 40 Prisoners Still Held But Cleared for Release At Least Five Years Ago, “In the classified US military files relating to the Guantánamo prisoners, which were released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, Bawazir’s file was a ‘Recommendation for Transfer Out of DoD Control (TRO),’ dated May 30, 2007.” He was again approved for release in 2010, by President Obama’s task force — but as one of the 30 Yemenis placed in “conditional detention.”
His lawyer, John Chandler, told the Guardian he “had traveled to Afghanistan as part of a ‘charitable organization,'” and was “sold to the US for $5,000 by the allied warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, now Afghanistan’s vice-president.” He was also described as “[a] former longtime hunger striker whose forced feeding became an issue in federal court after Bawazir likened it to torture.” He currently weighs just 130 pounds, but at one point weighed just 90 pounds.
However, when it came to leaving Guantánamo after 14 years — to be rehoused in a country “[n]either US officials nor Bawazir’s lawyer would identify … claiming that doing so could jeopardize the country’s willingness to take subsequent Guantánamo detainees,” Bawazir rejected it, “because it meant not being able to be with his family.” As recently as last Friday, according to Chandler, “Bawazir, who is described as ‘mercurial’ and fearing the unknown, had agreed to go there.”
Chandler told the Miami Herald that Bawazir “understood he couldn’t go home to his native Yemen but wanted to go to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia or Indonesia where he had his mother, brothers or aunts and uncles.”
As Chandler also told the Guardian, “It’s a country you and I would be very happy to go have a beer in.” He added, after explaining that “he was disappointed that his client had declined the resettlement offer, not knowing what the future held for Bawazir,” as the Guardian described it, “I told him it was my view after all the work they did to land him a really good spot that he was likely to be there when the Obama administration leaves office next year, and God knows what’s going to happen then.”
Of the 91 men still held, 34 have been approved for release — 24 since the task force made its decisions back in January 2010, and ten via Periodic Review Boards, which have been meeting since November 2013. They have recommended 17 out of 20 prisoners for release — a remarkable 85% success rate for men ill-advisedly described by the task force in 2010 as “too dangerous to release” — but the process is moving with glacial slowness. 44 others are awaiting reviews, or the results of reviews, and without a serious effort to speed up the PRB process it will not be complete by the time President Obama leaves office, even though he promised to complete the reviews within a year when he first approved their establishment in March 2011.
Just ten men, as I noted briefly above, are facing, or have faced trials — to add to the five already prosecuted and freed — a shameful demonstration of the overall lawlessness of Guantánamo, as that total of 15 men represents just 2% of the 779 men — and boys — held throughout the prison’s ignominious 14-year history.
As I am working to demonstrate through my newly-launched Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, 2016 must be the year that Guantánamo is closed for good.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.
See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009 (out of the 532 released by President Bush), and the 144 prisoners released from February 2009 to January 13, 2016 (by President Obama), whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files, and for the stories of the other 390 prisoners released by President Bush, see my archive of articles based on the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; 1 Mauritanian; 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; 13 Afghans (here and here); 3 British residents; 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; 2 Algerians; 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan), repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 —1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani); 4 Uighurs to Bermuda; 1 Iraqi; 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad); 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni; 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody; December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah); 2 Somalis; 4 Afghans; 6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Uzbek to Switzerland; 1 Egyptian, 1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania; 1 Palestinian to Spain; March 2010 — 1 Libyan, 2 unidentified prisoners to Georgia, 2 Uighurs to Switzerland; May 2010 — 1 Syrian to Bulgaria, 1 Yemeni to Spain; July 2010 — 1 Yemeni (Mohammed Hassan Odaini); 1 Algerian; 1 Syrian to Cape Verde, 1 Uzbek to Latvia, 1 unidentified Afghan to Spain; September 2010 — 1 Palestinian, 1 Syrian to Germany; January 2011 — 1 Algerian; April 2012 — 2 Uighurs to El Salvador; July 2012 — 1 Sudanese; September 2012 — 1 Canadian (Omar Khadr) to ongoing imprisonment in Canada; August 2013 — 2 Algerians; December 2013 — 2 Algerians; 2 Saudis; 2 Sudanese; 3 Uighurs to Slovakia; March 2014 — 1 Algerian (Ahmed Belbacha); May 2014 — 5 Afghans to Qatar (in a prisoner swap for US PoW Bowe Bergdahl); November 2014 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fawzi al-Odah); 3 Yemenis to Georgia, 1 Yemeni and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia, and 1 Saudi; December 2014 — 4 Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian to Uruguay; 4 Afghans; 2 Tunisians and 3 Yemenis to Kazakhstan; January 2015 — 4 Yemenis to Oman, 1 Yemeni to Estonia; June 2015 — 6 Yemenis to Oman; September 2015 — 1 Moroccan and 1 Saudi; October 2015 — 1 Mauritanian and 1 British resident (Shaker Aamer); November 2015 — 5 Yemenis to the United Arab Emirates; January 2016 — 2 Yemenis to Ghana; 1 Kuwaiti (Fayiz al-Kandari) and 1 Saudi; 10 Yemenis to Oman.
When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:
Here’s my latest article, about the two prisoners just freed from Guantanamo – an Egyptian sent to Bosnia, where his daughter and ex-wife live, and a Yemeni rehoused in Montenegro, taking the number of men left at Guantanamo to 91. Sadly, another Yemeni, who was supposed to leave, to be rehoused in an unidentified third country, couldn’t face it at the last minute and decided to stay. I hope you have time to read these men’s stories.
Javier Rodriguez wrote:
Great news! Looks like all your hard work is paying off! Prisoners are leaving Guantanamo thick and fast. Hope it continues.
That’s the last of them for now, Javier. A cynic would say that the 17 planned releases – 16 in the end – were timed to deflect any criticism on the 14th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo (Jan. 11), the start of Obama’s last year in office (Jan. 20), and the 7th anniversary of his executive order promising to close Guantanamo within a year (Jan. 22), but it may be more that this was how it all worked out because of the timing of getting Ash Carter to sign off on the releases and for Congress to sit on them for 30 days as they empowered themselves to do.
More releases required, though, that’s for sure – and, in particular, the speeding up of the Periodic Review Boards!
Carol Anne Grayson wrote:
Yes I will refer to your article as had an interesting message re Gitmo from Yemen…
OK, Carol. Do send us a photo for the Countdown to Close Guantanamo, btw!
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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