Pentagon Denies Reports That Two Guantánamo Prisoners Were Released to Mauritania


I’m sorry to report that claims that two prisoners were released from Guantánamo to Mauritania on Friday have apparently proved to be false. I was alerted to the story by a Mauritanian friend on Facebook on Friday night, and checked out two Arabic news sources that were cited — here and here. These seemed plausible, and so I wrote the first English language report and published it at 4am GMT.

I then found out that the purported release of the men had been announced in a French language news report at 1.11am GMT, and had also been discussed, at 9.33 am, by AFP. The Associated Press ran with the story at around 4pm, under the heading, “Mauritania receives 2 prisoners from Guantánamo, according to support group,” and stated that Hamoud Ould Nabagha, chairman of the Support Committee for Guantánamo prisoners said that Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, both held at Guantánamo, had been returned, along with El Haj Ould Cheikh El Houssein Youness, who had been held at Bagram in Afghanistan.

Within an hour of that report being published, a revised version appeared, quoting Army Lt. Col. Joseph Todd Breasseale, a US Defense Department spokesman, stating that, as the AP put it, “No detainees have been transferred from Guantánamo since October last year.”

I am extremely saddened to hear that the news has turned out to be untrue, as we need to hear about President Obama fulfilling the promises he made last week to resume the release of prisoners from Guantánamo. The reported release of Mohamedou Ould Slahi was surprising news, as he was not included in the 86 prisoners cleared for release by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force in 2009, and some Republicans believe him to be significant terror suspect, even though that theory ought to have been laid to rest when Slahi had his habeas corpus petition granted by a US judge in 2010. Slahi’s successful habeas petition was later vacated on appeal by judges in the court of appeals in Washington D.C., but they had their own agenda designed not to deliver justice but to prevent prisoners from ever having their habeas corpus petitions granted.

However, if Slahi’s release was politically unlikely, the release of Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz was not — and it remains the case today, despite the Pentagon’s smug assertions that its population of 166 prisoners remains intact, and that no one has been released since October, when Omar Khadr was flown back to Canada.

No prisoner has been released as a result of the task force’s deliberations since August 2010, when two men were given new homes in Germany. That is a shameful statistic for President Obama to have to contemplate, and it should be a grim reminder to Pentagon officials too, and to those working at Guantánamo, because, as I noted above, 86 of the 166 men being held were told, over three years ago, that US had no desire to carry on holding them forever, or putting them on trial.

The stories of the majority of these men are, sadly, not well known to the general public, despite my best efforts at making them available over the last seven years. I plan to focus on the stories of some of the cleared men in the months to follow, but for now I’d like to leave you with a few details about Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz. One of the 86, he should have been released, and his story deserves to be more widely known.

Born in 1970, and seized in June 2002 in a house raid in Pakistan, Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz is a cultured, educated and witty man, who has now lost a quarter of his life in Guantánamo. He speaks fluent English, as well as French and Arabic, and was cleared for release over three years ago by the inter-agency task force that President Obama established when he took office in 2009. Like many of the prisoners, he has a child, born after his capture, he has never seen.

In October 2008, Reprieve, the legal action charity whose lawyers represent — and have represented — dozens of prisoners at Guantánamo over the years, noted that, at that point, after “over six years’ imprisonment without charge or trial,” he “despair[ed] of ever being released — or of receiving a fair trial.” During a visit, he told Reprieve’s director, Clive Stafford Smith, that he feared for his sanity. He explained what happened to him in the brief time he was allowed out of his cell. “When I am outside”, he said, “I am nonplussed. I begin to forget the nature of my former life.”

As Clive Stafford Smith also noted:

Ahmed is held in the prison’s notorious Camp 6, which is a copy of a maximum-security prison block on the US mainland. The difference, of course, is that the facility on the US mainland contains prisoners who have been tried and convicted of crimes. “This place is a sarcophagus”, Ahmed explained, “designed for preserving mummies or keeping innocent prisoners in total isolation for centuries.”

In parting, then, my reporting of the release of these two prisoners was an honest mistake. What excuse, however, does the Obama administration and the Pentagon have for not releasing Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz and the 85 other prisoners cleared for release?

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — 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 four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, “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 and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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12 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Waris Ali wrote:

    Yeah was on a bit of a high and then quite low once it was confirmed they weren’t released

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    GD Kitty wrote:


  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Ferrari wrote:

    Thanks for clearing that up, Andy.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Waris, GD and Elizabeth. I think a campaign to “Free Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz” would be useful right now!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Elizabeth Pickett wrote:

    I’m still working on the Canadian child soldier, Omar Khadr. Yes, the US finally forced Canada to take him back – and now he’s incarcerated here instead and has been moved from one penitentiary to another because of threats to his life. But I’ll do my best to participate.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Elizabeth. I too share your concern about Omar Khadr, as I’m sure you know, and will be writing something soon about his long, slow road to freedom – and the latest news about his prison transfer.

  7. Mark Erickson says...

    I too, had a thrill to read the initial reports. However, I should have known Slahi will never be released voluntarily. No one with such a high profile and clear record of torture will be. The good news is that Slahi’s remanded case will be reheard by a DC District court this year. (from the end of the Slate introduction to Slahi’s memoirs excerpt:

    Also, Obama is finally working on appointing judges to the 3 vacancies on the DC Appeals Circuit. Of course, they will be put through the GOP media killing machine and might not get Senate confirmation. But that’s the best we can do at this point.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Mark. Wow, so it “only” takes two and a half years, and counting, to get a successful habeas petition that is vacated reheard. Such swift justice!
    As for planned judicial appointees, yes, you’re right, of course, that Republicans have dealt a terrible blow to the functioning of the judiciary, although it hasn’t been great to see Obama’s general response – walking in the other direction! How often he does that …

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Fadua Mohana wrote:

    How can these things happen and go unpunished??? The fundamental problem in relation to human rights today is not so much to justify them, but to protect them.

    Thank you so much Andy.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    And thank you for caring, Fadua.

  11. arcticredriver says...

    I have further bad news about the Bagram captive who was repatriated.

    Youness is wanted in Mauritania for his alleged involvement in an Islamic extremist attack in June 2005 … security officer said Youness will stand trial for the premeditated murder and membership in a terrorist organization.

    If Slahi and al-Aziz can also look forward to a trial in Mauritania, and it is one that accepts “evidence” assembled by US security officials then it would not be in the interests of either general public safety or of those specific men, to return them for a show trial.

    Can Youness expect a genuinely fair trial?

    Mr Slahi lived in Canada, for a while. While it is extremely unklikely the Stephen Harper government would offer him a home, it would probably be a safer home for him than Mauritania. I didn’t realize that he had a BSc in EE. Heck Canada needs EE grads.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. Michelle Shephard has just written about him for the Toronto Star, stating:

    [He] was reportedly captured in a joint operation between Pakistan and the U.S. in September 2011. A White House spokesperson called him a “senior Al Qaeda operative.”

    Aside from the significance of the transfer, it is interesting to note the difference as to how things operate and the level of scrutiny (and politics) in Afghanistan, as opposed to Guantanamo. Andrea Prasow, Human Rights Watch’s senior counterterrorism counsel, argues that this case highlights the double standard. Why, she asked in an email to the Star, does Congress restrict Guantanamo transfers, when commanders in Afghanistan are “exercising their traditional authority to decide to release someone?”

    States Prasow: “The fact that Congress has attempted to limit that authority with respect to detainees, some of whom have been held for over a decade and who have no battlefield to return to, demonstrates how political and removed from reality Guantanamo has become.”

    As for Slahi, getting him out of Guantanamo is going to be quite a task. Regarding Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, however, there’s no case against him for anything (not that there is against Slahi, but you know how his case has been politicized), so he should be put on a plane tomorrow.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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