Defense Department officials announced that nine Guantanamo detainees were transferred to Saudi Arabia on Saturday. The detainees are originally from Yemen but could not be released earlier because of violence and political instability in Yemen. Eight were cleared for release from Gitmo since at least 2010, and one was approved for release by a review board last year.
The transfer, which brings the number of prisoners remaining at Guantanamo to 80, comes amid President Barack Obama’s renewed effort to close the prison — one of the earliest pledges of his presidency. The Defense Department expressed gratitude to the kingdom in a statement on Saturday.
The United States is grateful to the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,”
The detainees were identified as Ahmed Umar Abdullah Al-Hikimi, Abdul Rahman Mohammed Saleh Nasir, Ali Yahya Mahdi Al-Raimi, Tariq Ali Abdullah Ahmed Ba Odah, Muhammed Abdullah Muhammed Al-Hamiri, Ahmed Yaslam Said Kuman, Abd al Rahman Al-Qyati, Mansour Muhammed Ali Al-Qatta and Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmed Al-Sabri. Obama signed an executive order in the first week of his presidency to close the controversial prison.
The agreement, first raised more than two years ago with Riyadh, was finalized in February after months of negotiations that included talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defense minister and son of Saudi King Salman, and Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. The nine were transferred to Saudi Arabia aboard a U.S. Air Force cargo plane, a sign of their lesser status compared to Saudi citizens, who have been brought back on Saudi royal or commercial flights.
The Guantanamo Review Task Force conducted a “comprehensive review” of the detainees and approved them for transfer after examining “a number of factors, including security issues,” according to a Pentagon news release. Even with this transfer, the majority of those left at Guantanamo are from Yemen. They are also the majority of those left who are approved for transfer: 21 of the 26 detainees.
Part of the reason so many Yemenis remain is due to a congressional ban on repatriating anyone back to Yemen amid the unstable situation there. The United States is also not allowed to transfer detainees to Libya, Somalia and Syria. Late Friday night, a Yemeni human rights activist started to tweet about the transfer of nine Yemenis from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia. Partly out of caution for the military personnel involved in the transfer, the Department of Defense did not announce it until Saturday afternoon.