Five Guantanamo detainees have been flown to Europe for resettlement, the Pentagon announced Thursday, in the largest release of former terror suspects in years.
Three Yemenis sent to Georgia and a Yemeni and a Tunisian delivered to Slovakia were among the longest-held prisoners at the detention center for terror suspects at the U.S. naval base in Southern Cuba.
Georgia, a former Soviet republic, and Slovakia, a member of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, are now U.S. allies and accepted the released prisoners as a favor to the Obama administration, which has been trying to downsize and close the Guantanamo camps since the president took office in 2009. More longstanding U.S. allies have been reluctant to take in men the Pentagon has branded as dangerous terrorists for more than a decade, nor do they want to be seen as legitimizing a detention practice widely condemned in the democratic world.
Obama pledged to close Guantanamo with his first executive order and launched a massive case-by-case review during his first year in office to determine which of the foreign detainees could be prosecuted, which posed no danger to U.S. or allied security and should be released or transferred, and which should remain imprisoned due to credible fears they would resume terrorist activity if sent home.
But Congress acted to prevent the transfer to U.S. federal courts of those to be tried for war crimes and also imposed restrictions on transfer of detainees for resettlement abroad. Those restrictions were eased a year ago and the administration’s plans to relocate unthreatening prisoners have gathered pace in recent weeks.
Most of the 143 prisoners still at the offshore detention facility are Yemenis who cannot be repatriated to their home country because of concerns they could be tortured or executed by a government fighting a radical insurgency known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The four Yemenis sent abroad this week on a U.S. military transport were the first from that country to be resettled in more than four years. The Tunisian’s transfer was also complicated by uncertainty about his fate if sent back to his homeland.
In a Defense Department news release, the prisoners sent to Slovakia were identified as Tunisian Hisham Sliti, 48, and Yemeni Hussain Almerfedi, 36. The three Yemenis sent for resettlement in Georgia are Salah Mohammed Al Thabbi, 42; Abdel Ghalib Hakim, 36; and Abdul Khaled al Baidani, 31.
Thabbi, who was born in Saudi Arabia, had been cleared for release a decade ago but held at the prison after authorities determined he was a Yemeni citizen.
The five prisoners delivered to Georgia and Slovakia were among the nearly 800 swept up by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the first year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Some of those arrested after the U.S. invasion had gone to Afghanistan to join Al Qaeda’s plots against Western “infidels,” while others were hired by the terrorist group to perform tasks such as driving and food preparation and left no evidence of having been involved in their employer’s violent extremism.
A Pentagon spokesman said the receiving countries provide assurances that the men will not be allowed to engage in conduct that could pose a danger to national or international security.
“Before we make a decision and transfer any detainee, we assure there are adequate steps that the host country will take to ensure any security threats are mitigated and also that the former detainees will be treated in a humanitarian manner,” said Army Lt. Col. Myles Caggins.
With the latest releases, there are now 74 prisoners at Guantanamo who are eligible for transfer and awaiting resettlement. Another 36 have been designated for continued detention without charge. There are 23 who have been slated for prosecution and 10 either are facing trial by military commission or have already been convicted or sentenced.
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Times staff writer Lauren Raab contributed to this report.