15 Guantanamo detainees sent to UAE in major transfer

Published 10:34 am Tuesday, August 16, 2016

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Fifteen prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center were sent to the United Arab Emirates in the single largest release of detainees during the Obama administration, the Pentagon announced Monday.

The transfer of 12 Yemeni nationals and three Afghans to the UAE comes amid a renewed push to whittle down the number of detainees held at the U.S. prison in Cuba that President Barack Obama aims to close.

The Pentagon says 61 detainees now remain at Guantanamo, which was opened in January 2002 to hold foreign fighters suspected of links to the Taliban or the al-Qaida terrorist organization. During the Bush administration, 532 prisoners were released from Guantanamo, often in large groups to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

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The latest batch of released prisoners had been held without charge at Guantanamo, some for over 14 years. They were cleared for release by the Periodic Review Board, comprised of representatives from six U.S. government agencies.

The UAE successfully resettled five detainees transferred there last year, according to the Pentagon. In July 2008, the seven-emirate nation also repatriated UAE citizen and Guantanamo prisoner Abdulah Alhamiri at the same time that Afghanistan and Qatar each accepted one prisoner a piece.

In the United Arab Emirates, the state-run WAM news agency had no reports on the Guantanamo transfers on Tuesday and UAE officials declined to immediately comment on the Pentagon announcement.

The United Arab Emirates is a major regional military ally for the U.S., as it hosts American military personnel targeting the Islamic State group with airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Dubai’s Jebel Ali port is the most frequently visited by ships of the U.S. Navy outside of America.

Lee Wolosky, the State Department’s special envoy for Guantanamo’s closure, said the U.S. was grateful to the United Arab Emirates for accepting the latest group of 15 men and helping pave the way for the detention center’s closure.

“The continued operation of the detention facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists,” Wolosky said.

It’s unclear what has happened to prisoners the UAE previously took in, though it’s widely believed they undergo some sort of government-monitored rehabilitation. Of those already taken in, there have been no complaints of maltreatment, said Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the British-based advocacy group Reprieve, which represented one of the Yemenis released.

“From what we’ve learned, they’ve been treated pretty well,” he told The Associated Press. “They’ve been banned from traveling and any meaningful communication. … They’ve actually been OK. Arabic is the main language and its pretty close to home.”

Obama has been seeking to close the detention center amid opposition from Congress, which has prohibited transferring detainees to the U.S. for any reason. The administration has been working with other countries to resettle detainees who have been cleared for transfer.