A Kuwait aircraft lifted off from this remote Navy base with a long-held captive before dawn Wednesday, sealing the first repatriation of a former so-called “forever prisoner” whose dangerousness was downgraded by a U.S. government parole board.
Fawzi al Odah, 37, was held for nearly 13 years at Guantanamo, starting off in the crude outdoor prison of barbed wire and chain-linked fences called Camp X-Ray. He was never charged with a crime.
His release was the first since President Barack Obama’s controversial May 31 transfer of five Afghan Taliban prisoners to the custody of Qatar in exchange for U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a war prisoner of a Taliban affiliate.
It also came on the heels of midterm elections roiled by debate over Obama’s Guantanamo closure ambitions. In Kansas, for example, incumbent GOP Sen. Pat Roberts campaigned for reelection on a pledge to prevent relocation of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, a prison for U.S. military criminals.
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The transfer left 148 detainees at Guantanamo – 79 of them, like Odah, approved for release with security assurances. Of the other prisoners, one is a convicted war criminal and six others are in pretrial proceedings in prominent al-Qaida death-penalty cases.
Odah, though never charged, was among the more high-profile prisoners across his years at Guantanamo Bay because his name appeared on Supreme Court cases and his father was dogged in campaigning for his release.
“We are a very, very tight family,” Odah’s father, Khalid, told the Witness to Guantanamo project, adding that his wife left their eldest son’s bedroom untouched throughout his long absence.
The father, a former Kuwaiti Air Force officer, said his son was a school teacher in a region near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border before he was captured by bounty hunters and handed over to the Americans.
The U.S. military considered him to be a member of al-Qaida who was captured in Pakistan after fleeing Afghanistan through the Tora Bora mountains in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
A federal task force set up in 2009 to evaluate Guantanamo’s prisoners declared him too dangerous for release. But examination this summer by a Periodic Review Board drawn from federal national security agencies concluded he was neither an al-Qaida leader nor highly trained. The board approved him in July for repatriation on a promise from Kuwait that he would take part in a minimum yearlong rehabilitation program.
With Odah’s departure, only one Kuwaiti remains at the prison, Fayez al Kandari, also 37. The parole board upheld his status as an indefinite detainee in July.
Reporters at Guantanamo were kept far from the airstrip for Wednesday’s transfer. But a spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Myles Caggins III, said the aircraft departed at about 5:30 a.m.
Kuwait had long sought the return of all its citizen detainees at Guantanamo. So much so that the emir personally asked Obama and President George W. Bush before him to release them. When Odah went before the parole board this summer, a senior Kuwaiti diplomat attended a closed-circuit viewing of the public portion of the hearing.
Odah’s lawyers were among the earliest and most persistent challengers of Bush’s right to lock him up as an enemy combatant at Guantanamo Bay.
He was named a co-plaintiff in two U.S. Supreme Court cases that gave detainees the right to file habeas corpus petitions challenging their detention as unlawful. Once he won the right, Odah’s attorneys then argued his case before a federal judge and lost their unlawful detention lawsuit in September 2009.
He was a sometime hunger striker. In 2005, his lawyers went to federal court in a bid to get a civilian judge to intervene in his conditions of confinement.
Among other things, his lawyers asked for telephone calls with family to ease his depression, something that the Pentagon at that time was mostly forbidding. That decision was referenced in a war court filing where lawyers for former CIA captive Abd al Rahim al Nashiri are this week seeking video calls with family for mental health purposes.
In Odah’s case, the judge declined to intervene. But the military eventually allowed the International Red Cross to set up phone calls between families and low-value detainees like Odah.
Military intelligence in 2008 suspected that Odah had links to Osama bin Laden; the al-Qaida founder’s son-in-law and sometime spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith; and a group of followers of a radical Muslim cleric in London – apparently all based on other captives’ interrogations at Guantanamo in the first years.
Abu Ghaith was convicted of terrorism charges by a New York jury in March – a year after Jordan extradicted him to the United States. Around the same time, British authorities deported the cleric to Jordan for trial.
Meantime at Guantanamo, U.S. intelligence backed away from its earlier profile of Odah, who was held as prisoner number 232. A risk assessment in March said: “We lack confidence in statements from other detainees that KU-232 was closely associated with Osama bin Laden or belonged to an al-Qaida cell in London.”
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