Emptying Guantánamo: Obama to Release 17 or 18 Prisoners Before Trump Takes Over


Muieen Abd al-Sattar, a stateless Rohingya Muslim, who is not one of the men who will be released before President Obama leaves office, despite having been approved for release in 2009. The photo is from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $3000 (£2400) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo into the new year.


Excellent news from Guantánamo yesterday, as Charlie Savage, in the New York Times, confirmed what those of us seeking the prison’s closure had hoped — that the majority of the 22 men approved for release (out of the 59 men still held) will be freed before President Obama leaves office.

Because of requirements put in place over many years by a hostile Congress, the Pentagon must notify Congress 30 days before a release — a “transfer” — is to take place, and the deadline for securing releases before Obama leaves office was therefore this Monday, December 19. By late in the day, officials told the Times, the administration had secured homes for 17 or 18 of the remaining prisoners, who, crucially, will be sent to Italy, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Gulf countries have all taken prisoners in the last two years — almost all of them Yemenis, for whom third countries had to be found because the entire US establishment is unwilling to repatriate Yemenis based on fears about the security situation in their homeland. Four were sent to Oman in January 2015, another six in June 2015, and five were sent to the UAE in November 2015. Another ten were sent to Oman in January 2016, and another 12 were sent to the UAE in August 2016 (with three Afghans, whose repatriation had been prohibited by Congress, based on fears about them ending up taking up arms against US forces). In addition, another nine Yemenis were sent to Saudi Arabia in April 2016.

Italy’s involvement came about because, as Charlie Savage explained, “When Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy visited the White House in October for a state dinner, he made a commitment to President Obama: Italy, which resettled a Yemeni detainee from Guantánamo Bay last summer, would take one more person on the transfer list. But before the deal was completed, Mr. Renzi resigned. So a day after his successor, Paolo Gentiloni, formed a government on Dec. 14, Secretary of State John Kerry called to congratulate Mr. Gentiloni — and to urge him to follow through on the commitment, according to an official familiar with the negotiations. Mr. Gentiloni agreed, leading a rush to finalize the details and paperwork.”

Of the 22 men currently approved for release, seven were approved for release in 2009 by the Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama set up shortly after taking office for the first time, to review the cases of all the prisoners he inherited from George W. Bush, while the other 15 were approved for release by the latest review process, the Periodic Review Boards, which began in 2013. The PRBs were set up to review the cases of 41 men regarded as “too dangerous to release” by the task force, even though it was acknowledged that insufficient evidence existed to put them on trial, meaning that they were largely prisoners of innuendo, and 23 others later joined them, men who had been recommended for prosecution by the task force, until the basis for prosecutions at Guantánamo largely collapsed under judicial scrutiny.

126 men were approved for immediate release by the task force, and just two of these men remain — Ridah al-Yazidi (ISN 038), a Tunisian, and Muieen Abd al-Sattar (ISN 309), listed as being from the UAE, but actually a stateless Rohingya (part of the persecuted Indo-Aryan Muslim population of northern Myanmar). Sadly — shamefully — neither of these men will be freed before Obama leaves office.

Charlie Savage stated that officials told him that no country had offered al-Sattar a home, while the administration was “reluctant to repatriate” al-Yazidi, along with Sufyian Barhoumi (ISN 694), an Algerian, and Abdul Latif Nasir (ISN 244), a Moroccan, both approved for release this summer by PRBs, “for reasons having to do with their home countries,” reasons that, it should be noted, should have been resolved before now.

Sadly, both Muieen Abd al-Sattar and Ridah al-Yazidi are two of Guantánamo’s least known prisoners.

Al-Sattar’s classified military file, released by WikiLeaks in 2011, indicates that he was born in Dubai in 1974, although the UAE does not recognize him as a citizen. He has a Pakistani passport, and it seems that he lived in Mecca most of his life, where he taught at the Private Holy Koran School. In Guantánamo, he explained that a Syrian whom he had met in Karachi during a visit in September 2001 had persuaded him to travel to Afghanistan as a missionary, but he was evidently unhappy with this man, and told a tribunal at Guantánamo “that if he saw [him] again, he would be very upset with him and would want to do him physical harm for getting him into so much trouble.”

Al-Yazidi, born in January 1965, had apparently been living in Italy since the 1980s, before traveling to Afghanistan, where he reportedly served with the Taliban, but little information has emerged about him at Guantánamo. Although the task force approved him for release in 2009, when Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald researched his case for an article last January about the prisoners who were on the first flight into Guantánamo in January 2002, she was obliged to speculate that, in theory, he “could go home — unless he or the State Department fears sending him there.” Asked about this, his attorney, Brent Rushforth, said, “I just don’t know.” He revealed that he “met al-Yazidi only once in 2008,” and since that time he “has refused calls and invitations to other meetings.”

As Rushforth described it, “He’s certainly mysterious as far as I’m concerned; I just haven’t been able to communicate with him.”

The identity of the fifth man who may or may not be leaving has not been revealed, but he is obviously one of the remaining 18 men approved for release. Five of the 18 are Yemenis approved for release by the task force in 2009, but, with 25 others, held in what was nebulously described as “conditional detention” until it was decided that the security situation in Yemen had improved — or, as it turned out, until Obama decided to send them to third countries instead, beginning two years ago.

The other 13 were approved for release by PRBs: another eight Yemenis approved for release between May 2014 and December 2016, three Afghans, approved for release between June and September this year, a Russian, Ravil Mingazov, approved for release in July, who cannot be safely repatriated, and a Saudi, Jabran al-Qahtani, who may be repatriated to face prosecution in his home country. See my definitive Periodic Review Board list on the Close Guantánamo website for further information.

Responding to the news of the planned releases from Guantánamo, Elisa Massimino, the president of Human Rights First, said, as the New York Times put it,  that “even though it appears likely that failing to fulfill his vow to close the Guantánamo prison will be part of Mr. Obama’s legacy, it was still ‘incredibly important’ that his administration did not let up on the effort to get out those men who were deemed transferable.”

“In terms of gradations of immorality, holding people for years who we have no national security interest in detaining is unconscionable,” Massimino said, adding, “This is not just about a campaign promise.”

The New York Times also spoke to Lee Wolosky, the State Department special envoy for Guantánamo closure since July 2015, who said that even if Donald Trump “fills the prison back up, he does not consider his efforts to have been in vain.”

“Looking at these cases on an individualized basis was the right thing to do legally and morally,” Wolosky said. “A number of detainees the United States government unanimously decided years ago it no longer needed to detain were finally and responsibly released from U.S. custody. That is irreversible, regardless of what policy the next administration pursues.”

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’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). 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.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the great news, reported in the New York Times yesterday, that 17 or 18 prisoners – mostly Yemenis, and all approved for release either by the Guantanamo Review Task Force in 2009, or in the last few years via the Periodic Review Boards – will be freed from Guantanamo before President Obama leaves office, going to Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Italy. Sadly, 4 or 5 men approved for release will still be held – including Muieen Abd al-Sattar, pictured here, a stateless Rohingya – and we may well need to pressurize Donald Trump to release them, as well as keeping pressure on him to close Guantanamo.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Apologies for posting so late, my friends. It’s Christmas season, so the social events are piling up and eating into my writing time! Off to Scotland for a week on Friday, so I will mostly be quiet here and on the website, but expect some Countdown to Close Guantanamo photo action on Christmas Day! In the meantime, enjoy this mostly good news. I expected to hear it, but it’s great to have it confirmed.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Beverly Hendricks wrote:

    Merry Christmas, Andy. Thanks for all the good you do.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Beverly. Merry Christmas to you too!

  5. Scott says...

    The number is now officially 19.

    Salman Rabaie, Yasin Ismail, and Mohammed Ansi made it just in time. Thank goodness. They were smart enough to be honest with the PRB the second time they appeared. It’s too late for the other detainees though. For example, Khaled Qasim, Suhayl Sharabi, and Sanad Kazimi lost their file reviews which proves they are incorrigible.
    I’m not surprised about the Tunisian or Burmese. Neither detainee has fought for their release, Tunisia is considered a war zone, and the Burmese has threatened babies according to his leaked file.

    As for the Moroccan and Algerian, Carol Rosenberg told me in an e-mail that officials told her that their home countries refused to accept them. All four non-Yemenis are now undesirables.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the updated information, Scott.

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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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