Ahmed Al-Darbi: Still Held, the Guantánamo Prisoner Who Was Supposed to Have Been Sent Home Two Weeks Ago


Guantanamo prisoner Ahmed al-Darbi, with a photo of his children, in a photo taken several years ago by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


On Friday, Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi prisoner at Guantánamo, publicly criticized his government for failing to secure his release from the prison on February 20. The  release date had been agreed last October as part of a plea deal he had initially agreed to in February 2014.

In what the New York Times described as “an unusual statement” conveyed through his lawyer, he said, “It’s shameful. Unlike other countries, the Saudi government never even provided me with an attorney all these years.” He added, “And now my own government is an obstacle to my repatriation. What kind of country abandons its citizens in the custody of another government for 16 years? My country won’t take a step that was agreed on four years ago so that I can finally go home. It’s been my daily dream for four years to see my wife and children.”

Under the terms of his plea deal, al-Darbi admitted that he played a part in a 2002 attack by Al-Qaeda on a French oil tanker, the Limburg, off the Yemeni coast, in exchange for a promise that he would be repatriated, after cooperating further with the US, to serve out the rest of his sentence in Saudi Arabia. As I explained in October, when he was given a 13-year sentence, his sentencing didn’t take place before “because it was dependent upon him providing testimony for the trials of other prisoners, testimony that he undertook [last] summer, providing videotaped testimony against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who is on trial for his alleged involvement in the bombing off the USS Cole in 2000, and a deposition in the case of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, another prisoner facing a trial by military commission.”

On the weekend of February 10-11, al-Darbi undertook what should have been his last appearances before the authorities at Guantánamo, as al-Iraqi’s attorneys had the opportunity to  question him on “the truthfulness of his statements and memory,” as Carol Rosenberg described it for the Miami Herald.

“In sworn testimony,” she wrote, al-Darbi, who is now 42 years old, and has been in US custody since 2002, “described morphing from a lying, feces-flinging prisoner with a bad behavior record in the maximum-security Camp Five prison to a cooperating witness now cloistered in Camp Echo, an annex of the prison compound across the street,” where, as a prosecution witness, he has been “rewarded with a comfortable cabin-style lockup where he can garden, paint, exercise, learn English by Rosetta Stone, cook meals for his interrogators and attorneys and watch American comedy TV.”

Rosenberg added that he “has his own kitchen with a freezer stocked with meat and spices,” and noted that al-Darbi agreed with “what sounded like a shopping list” read out by defense attorney Air Force Maj. Yolanda Miller, who stated that the prison authorities provide him “with lamb, rabbit, chicken, shrimp and other halal meat.”

She explained how al-Darbi, a “stout Saudi in a dark blue suit and tie,” added goat to the list “with a grin, adding, ‘I love chicken, and I don’t see any issue with that. I still have it in my freezer until now.’”

She further added that he has “[c]ilantro, cumin and cloves to cook with using a hotplate, blender and microwave in his kitchen; treats like Strawberries n’ Creme Oreos, baklava, Turkish delight and a pecan pie,” and “a garden where he said he was growing what sounded like the ingredients for ratatouille — eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and green pepper,” as well as papaya. Crucially, cooperation had “also earned him monthly phone calls with his Yemeni wife and children, now living in Saudi Arabia.”

When it came to al-Darbi’s deposition regarding Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, one of the last prisoners to arrive at Guantánamo, in 2007, Adam Thurschwell, one of the Iraqi’s defense lawyers, questioned al-Darbi about the early years of his torture and abuse “in an apparent bid to discredit” his identification of al-Iraqi, which involved him leading al-Darbi “through a lurid description of his first year or more in US custody, drawn from sworn court documents,” when he “was beaten, sleep deprived, hung by the wrists, threatened with rape in interrogation then sent to unwanted rectal exams by US military doctors, kept nude and forced to empty other detainees’ feces buckets with his fingers.”

Al-Darbi was also asked about his experiences at Guantánamo, where he arrived in March 2003, and testified that “he was kept in solitary confinement, deprived of sleep and subjected to midnight-to-dawn, no-bathroom-break questioning in an interrogation room stinking of urine and vomit.” Threats at Guantánamo, he said, “included to rape him, to send him to Israel or Camp X-Ray, which supposedly closed a year earlier.” At Guantánamo, he said, “Interrogators had photo copies of pages of the Quran [and] would throw them on the ground with sex photos and pictures of mutilated bodies.”

Rosenberg added that he “looked morose” during his statements, describing it “as a period of helplessness and hopelessness” in contrast to his “more cheerful testimony about his previously unheard of list of special ‘comfort items.’” In further description of what he was provided with in exchange for his cooperation, Rosenberg described how he “has a battery-powered Oral B Pro Health toothbrush, with replacement heads, a Magic Bullet blender, free weights and a spin bike for exercising, and Under Armour T-shirts and athletic socks to wear when he works out in his compound.” Rosenberg noted that al-Darbi added “Nike also” to Yolanda Miller’s list.

Miller proceeded to suggest that al-Darbi’s perks, and his imminent release, were only dependent on him “tell[ing] the government what it wants to hear,” but al-Darbi refused to be led. “What’s requested is the truth and nothing but the truth,” he said.

However, despite the promise that al-Darbi would be released on February 20 to serve the rest of his sentence in Saudi Arabia, the date came and went without any change in his circumstances. Instead, as Charlie Savage described it in the New York Times, “the Pentagon announced he would remain at Guantánamo for the time being.” In a statement, Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, a Defense Department spokeswoman, “said the US government was still waiting for the Saudi government to provide assurances permitting the departure to move forward, but hoped that would happen soon.”

Responding to the disappointing news, al-Darbi said, “I felt like I got hit by a truck. I felt destroyed, physically and morally.” He added, “Instead of being called by my first or last name in my own country, I’m still being called ‘768’ [his prison number], still here in this place.”

Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York (CUNY), who has been al-Darbi’s lead defense counsel since 2008, “appealed to Saudi officials to focus on his client,” as the Times put it. “I understand that senior Saudi officials are preoccupied with other matters,” he said, but added, “It’s still disappointing to read statements by US spokespeople indicating that the cause of delay is the Saudi government. This arrangement has been a long time coming. We expected smooth and timely implementation and hope that both countries are working hard to fulfill the agreement soon.”

Savage noted that, “At the time of Darbi’s plea deal, Saudi Arabia and the United States exchanged diplomatic notes agreeing to the transfer. Under those terms, the process was to begin with him submitting a request to prosecutors, which the United States would then send through diplomatic channels to the kingdom. If Saudi Arabia concurred, the notes said, the kingdom would inform the United States ‘and initiate procedures’ to carry out the transfer at Saudi expense. Or, if it did not concur, the kingdom would ‘promptly’ say so.”

Kassem confirmed that al-Darbi “submitted his transfer request to [the] commission’s prosecutors in August,” and “suggested there was little left to negotiate in terms of the specifics of diplomatic assurances.” As he put it, “The diplomatic notes that the United States and Saudi Arabia exchanged in 2014 reflect the full framework we negotiated for Mr. Darbi’s transfer to Saudi custody. Any additional terms or assurances deemed applicable should be familiar from the many repatriations of Saudis from Guantánamo.”

Savage added, “It remains unclear how long it took for the Pentagon to pass Darbi’s request to the State Department, and when the US Embassy in Riyadh in turn presented it to the Saudi government. A State Department spokeswoman declined to discuss the matter beyond expressing its support for the Pentagon in trying to carry out the transfer under the plea deal, saying the government would not ‘detail private, diplomatic conversations.’”

Savage also made a point of noting that “[t]he unexpected limbo in which Darbi finds himself may have larger consequences for the military commissions system,” explaining that “[h]is fate could encourage — or discourage — other detainees who may consider cooperating and serving as witnesses in exchange for a deal to eventually leave Guantánamo.”

When the news broke that the February 20 deadline had been missed, Kassem spoke to NPR for a feature, telling them, “Frankly, it would make little sense for the US government to renege on a deal with my client after describing his testimony as, quote, ‘unprecedented’ in counterterrorism prosecutions to date. That would virtually guarantee that no one else would cooperate with the US government and its military commissions.”

On that same program, other lawyers and former government officials sung too remind the world that al-Darbi is not the only prisoner whose release has been approved. Five other men, who are not known to have committed any specific crimes, and are, therefore, considerably less significant than al-Darbi, remain held, despite having been approved for release by high-level government review processes established under President Obama — three approved for release in 2009, and two others in 2016.

Here’s the transcript of NPR’s program dealing with these men:

David Welna, NPR: Meanwhile, five other detainees remain in Guantánamo even though members of half a dozen federal agencies had cleared them for release before Trump took office. Chicago lawyer Tom Durkin represents one of them.

Tom Durkin: Our client is stranded there because there’s no procedures from the Department of Defense to secure the release.

David Welna: The last administration’s special envoy who arranged prisoner transfers at the Pentagon has not been replaced. Attorney Shelby Sullivan-Bennis also represents Guantánamo captives who’ve been cleared for release. She says nothing’s happening.

Shelby Sullivan-Bennis: In speaking to embassies of my clients who are cleared, the response is, well, I’m not sure where to go because our country desk doesn’t have anyone to speak to. You know, no one answers the phone. There is no office. What can we do? There’s nothing to do.

David Welna: The U.S. State Department also once had its own special envoy for Guantánamo.

Lee Wolosky: That used to be my office. And my office now really functionally does not exist.

David Welna: That’s Lee Wolosky. He was the Obama administration’s last State Department official charged with finding countries to receive Guantánamo captives whose continued imprisonment was judged no longer necessary.

Lee Wolosky: My job was to move them out after six agencies and departments of the United States government unanimously concluded that a particular individual no longer needed to be in Guantánamo. And there’s no indication that this administration is doing anything to move them out of Guantánamo.

In response, Rear Adm. Edward Cashman, the new commander of the Guantánamo prison, attempted to reassure NPR’s listeners that the last review process initiated by President Obama, the Periodic Review Boards, was still in place, “to make a determination regarding whether or not those detainees represent a continuing threat to US military personnel, US forces, operations, allies, civilians.”

The PRBs are a parole-type process that reviewed 64 prisoners between 2013 and 2016, and approved 38 for release, with all but two being freed before President Obama left office. However, lawyers for eleven of the “forever prisoners” whose ongoing imprisonment was upheld by PRBs, are arguing, in a case currently before there District Court in Washington, D.C., that the PRB process is now toothless under a president, Donald Trump, who has publicly declared his intention not to release any prisoners from Guantánamo.

It is still expected, I believe, that Ahmed al-Darbi will be released, because of the importance of honoring plea deals in the military commissions, but the Trump administration’s position regarding the other prisoners — except for the nine others, of the 41 men still held, who are facing or have faced trials — remains a cause for concern, not just for those of us who want to see Guantánamo closed, but also for the judge, Coleen Kollar-Kotelly, faced with deciding whether Donald Trump has, effectively, sealed Guantánamo shut, closing the door on even the shadow of any sort of due process. In an absurd response, filed on February 16, the deadline set by Judge Kollar-Kotelly, the Trump administration claimed that detention at Guantánamo is not “indefinite” but “indeterminate.”

It is not known when Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling will be delivered, but I fervently hope it won’t be a disappointment.

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 music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, 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.

16 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, providing a round-up of the situation faced by Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi prisoner who agreed to a plea deal at Guantanamo in February 2014, in which, in exchange for testifying in the cases against two other prisoners, he would be repatriated from Guantanamo to serve the rest of his sentence. Last October, he was given a 13-year sentence, and a release date of February 20, 2018 was established, which has not yet been honoured because, according to the US government, it is “still waiting for the Saudi government to provide assurances permitting the departure to move forward,” although al-Darbi’s lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, blamed both the US and Saudi Arabia for the delay to a release that has fundamentally been known about for four years.
    I still expect al-Darbi to be released, because honoring plea deals is important to the beleaguered military commission process, but it remains unforgivable that other prisoners, considerably less significant than al-Darbi, remain held, apparently indefinitely, by a president whose main motivation seems to be to release nobody from this most wretched of prisons.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Angie Graham wrote:

    Honestly Andy these guys are really treated unfairly. Their lives on hold and their loved ones not knowing what is happening. It must be unbearable.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Angie. At least there’s a plea deal in al-Darbi’s case. Imagine those men who aren’t significant enough to be charged, but who are still held because the US claims they pose some sort of a threat – and who constantly have no message of hope to offer their loved ones.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Angie Graham wrote:

    Hi Andy. Being in Limbo with no end in sight must be the worst. Held in Gitmo on an assumption. How is that even allowed? This is just unnecessary cruelty.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Angie. Yes, the reality of open-ended imprisonment is truly horrible, although I fear that most people still don’t recognise that this is what makes Guantanamo such a cruel place.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    But they didn’t respect the deal, didn’t they?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    I think they will respect it, Natalia. The tattered credibility of the commissions will collapse entirely if prisoners who make deals don’t get released. What’s difficult to work out right now is whether the US is telling the truth about the Saudis being the stumbling block to al-Darbi’s release, or if it’s actually their own foot-dragging.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    It is shocking the way they have been treated for so long. Is Reprieve involved with representing Ahmed al-Darbi and the other prisoners affected. I wonder why you can trust any of the US military and then there’s Trump….

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s definitely difficult to work out what’s happening behind the scenes, Lindis. I can imagine Trump blustering about his determination not to release anyone under any circumstances, while others, more coherent, explain to him why plea deals have to be honoured. What a mess.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy he was supposed to leave already

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I know, Natalia, and the date for his departure has been missed by two weeks. Which is why this needs to be mentioned as much as possible. Trump and his administration need to know that what they’re doing – or not doing – is being noticed. Primarily, however, as I note, there will be pressure form those in his own administration and his own party who believe in the military commissions to get al-Darbi’s plea deal honored.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    How many of these “confessions” are sincere? I doubt that many are. I think one would say just about anything to get out of there.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Tashi, most of them have been obtained through torture

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s a very good point, Tashi, and one that is generally worth remembering when it comes to anything that purports to be a truthful confession coming out of Guantanamo.

  15. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, I would agree that the outright lavish treatment Al Darbi has been afforded after acting as a prosecution witness, speaks for itself about the blackmail the US is employing to get otherwise unattainable ‘evidence’ for the few cases it is prosecuting.
    Humanly speaking, would he not have turned over that information when he was so savagely tortured himself, if it were true?
    Such doubts however do not changed the horror of the limbo in which he now is held, even if being moved to a Saudi prison apparently is far from pleasant and he rather won’t have shrimps for dinner there, but at least hopefully family visits …
    As for Saudi Arabia, just saw (on AJE) that London has been plastered with posters peddling MBS’ supposed ‘reforms’ …
    And May & Boris kow-towing to him to get post-Brexit business deals, most of which are arms sales. Boris preaching about ‘innocent lives taken on UK soil’, but no qualms about taking countless innocent lives in Yemen, via UK arms used by the Saudis. Still, you also have vocal opposition against such outrages, which is more than can be said in my country …

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Anna,
    Good to hear from you. I do hope this limbo is resolved soon. It is shameful that there is any delay at all, four years after al-Darbi agreed to his plea deal. Is it the Saudis, or is it a sign of the general contempt for any kind of agreements regarding Guantanamo that exists in the heart of the Trump administration (as, for example, with the poor men approved for release but still held)?
    As for Saudi Arabia, my government’s support for the country and its warmongering is disgraceful, but at least, as you note, there is opposition. Here’s the page for the March 7 protest outside Downing Street: https://www.facebook.com/events/291577594700882/

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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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