US transfers first detainee from Guantanamo Bay under Donald Trump, Pentagon confirms

Ahmed Mohammed al Darbi's departure brings total number of detainees to 40

Ben Fo
Thursday 03 May 2018 00:39 BST
Razor wire tops the fence of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay
Razor wire tops the fence of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay (Getty)

A prisoner at Guantanamo Bay has been sent back to his native Saudi Arabia to serve out the remainder of a 13-year sentence, making him the first detainee to leave the US prison in Cuba since Donald Trump took office.

The Pentagon announced the transfer of Ahmed Mohammed al Darbi in a brief statement on Wednesday. He had originally been scheduled to return home as part of a plea deal no later than 20 February.

Al Darbi pleaded guilty before a military commission at the detention centre in 2014 to charges stemming from an Al Qaeda attack on a French oil tanker. He is expected to serve out the rest of his sentence, about nine years, in a Saudi rehabilitation program as part of a deal that included extensive testimony against others held at Guantanamo

His main lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, said the transfer was the culmination of “16 long and painful years in captivity” by the US at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan, with his children growing up without him and his own father dying.

“While it may not make him whole, my hope is that repatriation at least marks the end of injustice for Ahmed,” said Mr Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who has represented the prisoner since 2008.

Al Darbi was captured at the airport in Baku, Azerbaijan, in June 2002 and taken to the US base in Bagram, Afghanistan. He has testified to being kept in solitary confinement, strung up from a door in shackles, deprived of sleep and subjected to other forms of abuse as part of his early interrogation.

In a statement released by Mr Kassem, who was part of a legal team that included two military officers, al Darbi described what he expected to be an emotional reunion with his family in Saudi Arabia.

“I cannot thank enough my wife and our children for their patience and their love. They waited 16 years for my return,” he said. “Looking at what lies ahead, I feel a mixture of excitement, disbelief, and fear. I’ve never been a father. I’ve been here at Guantanamo. I’ve never held my son.”

Al Darbi, 43, pleaded guilty to charges that included conspiracy, attacking civilian objects, terrorism and aiding the enemy for helping to arrange the 2002 Al Qaeda attack on the French tanker MV Limburg. The attack, which killed a Bulgarian crew member, happened after al Darbi was already in US custody and was cooperating with authorities, according to court documents.

His transfer brings the number of men held at Guantanamo to 40, which includes five who are facing trial by military commission for their alleged roles in planning and supporting the 11 September, 2001, terrorist attack. Another is charged in connection with the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000.

Guantanamo Bay gained notoriety in the years after 9/11 due to reports of mistreatment of prisoners who were held without trial.

In 2014 Barack Obama admitted that “we tortured some folks” and that “we did some things that were contrary to our values”.

Al Darbi could have received a life sentence but instead got 13 years in the plea deal. He provided testimony against the defendant in the Cole attack as well as against a Guantanamo prisoner charged with overseeing attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2006.

Neither case has gone to trial.

General Mark Martins, the chief prosecutor for war crimes proceedings at Guantanamo, said in a February Defence Department memo that al Darbi provided “invaluable assistance” to the US.

“Al Darbi’s testimony in these cases was both unprecedented in its detail regarding Al Qaeda operations and crucial to government efforts to hold top members of that group accountable for war crimes,” Gen Martins wrote.

The agreement to repatriate al Darbi was made under president Barack Obama, whose administration sought to gradually winnow down the prison population with the aim of eventually closing the detention centre. Mr Trump reversed that policy and has vowed to continue using the controversial site.

In a separate statement on Wednesday, the Defence Department said it had sent the White House a proposed set of guidelines for sending prisoners to Guantanamo in the future “should that person present a continuing, significant threat to the security of the United States.” A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to provide any details about the new policy.

Additional reporting by AP

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