Guantanamo Bay prisoner released in surprise Trump U-turn
Confessed al-Qaeda member Ahmed al-Darbi has been sent to Saudi Arabia, where he may remain for the rest of his 13-year sentence
The Trump administration has made its first major move related to inmates in the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, surprising observers by doing the opposite of the president’s proclaimed intention: instead of bringing in new detainees it has transferred a prisoner from the island to Saudi Arabia.
The unexpected news came in a Pentagon announcement that it had completed the transfer of Ahmed al-Darbi, 43, a confessed al-Qaeda member who pleaded guilty in 2014.
According to McClatchy news service, the prisoner was picked up by a Saudi government plane on Tuesday night and taken to a detention centre in the kingdom where he is likely to remain until he has finished his full 13-year sentence in 2027.
Al-Darbi’s removal reduces the total number of Guantanamo detainees to 40, down from about 780 men who have been held at the controversial site since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2002.
Trump made much of his intention to restock Guantanamo on the 2016 campaign trail, and was scathingly critical of his predecessor Barack Obama’s failed attempt to close the detention centre. In January, Trump signed an executive order telling the Pentagon to keep the prison camp open and produce within 90 days a base policy review.
Defence Secretary James Mattis handed over the policy on Wednesday, saying it would give “warfighters guidance on nominating detainees for transfer to Guantanamo detention should that person present a continuing, significant threat to the security of the United States”.
Though it has not been made public, reports suggest that it is vaguely worded and changes existing policy relatively little.
So far, no new detainees have arrived at Guantanamo. But the Trump administration has followed the president’s ideological bent and dramatically slowed procedures related to the civil rights of existing inmates and has also closed Obama’s Office for Guantanamo Closure.
In a statement reported by The New York Times, al-Darbi attacked the fact the base still exists outside the checks and balances of the judicial system: “My words will not do justice to what I lived through in these years and to the men I leave behind in prison. No one should remain at Guantanamo without a trial. There is no justice in that.”
Al-Darbi was captured in 2002 in Azerbaijan. He admitted being involved in al-Qaeda attacks in the Arabian Peninsula and acted as a government witness in other cases.
Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the civil rights group Reprieve, said: “While it is always welcome when someone leaves Guantanamo, this just shows that the only way to get out now is to plead guilty, whether it is coerced and involuntary or not.”