Biden administration transfers first detainee out of Guantanamo



A US military guard tower stands on the perimeter of the detainee camp September 16, 2010, in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. There are now 39 detainees left after the transfer of prisoners on July 19, 2021. // Getty Images, John Moore

For the first time since President Biden took office, the Biden administration has transferred an inmate from the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to Morocco, signaling a renewed effort to reduce the population of the controversial prison – and maybe close it completely.

The transferred prisoner, 56-year-old Moroccan citizen Abdul Latif Nasser, was cleared for release by a parole board in 2016, but was held in Gitmo for another five years. In total, he spent 19 years in Guantánamo without being charged, making him one of Gitmo’s so-called forever prisoners under indefinite detention.

Nasser’s transfer was approved towards the end of the Obama administration, which had pledged to shut down Guantánamo, but President Trump took office before Nasser could be released. His arrival at the White House essentially ended the prisoner transfer process, with Trump promising instead to “charge [Guantánamo] with bad guys. “

But the Biden administration has quietly started picking up where Obama left off by releasing additional prisoners for transfer and, now, sending one home.

“We are extremely relieved,” said one of Nasser’s attorneys, Thomas A. Durkin of Chicago, who has represented him for more than a decade. “There have been some pretty dark hours here and we didn’t think it would ever happen which is a pathetic statement about our justice system, but we are very grateful that he was released.”

Nasser’s transfer to his home country leaves 39 men imprisoned at Guantanamo, up from nearly 800 since the prison opened in 2002. The majority of the remaining detainees – around three-quarters – are also “forever prisoners” detained without charge or trial. Ten of them have been cleared for release by the Guantanamo periodic review board, as was Nasser, but the United States has yet to find a country willing to accept them, subject to guarantees. of security.

The Obama administration official who oversaw the transfers of prisoners from Guantanamo, Lee Wolosky, told NPR it was high time to restart this process.

“We are really in a different world from 2001 when the 9/11 attacks took place and 2002 when Guantánamo was opened,” Wolosky said. “The Al-Qaida base in Afghanistan no longer exists and the threat environment has just fundamentally changed, so it is really time to wrap up this chapter in our history and move on.”

The Biden administration should “finally prosecute the individuals we can prosecute … and we should free those we are not going to charge,” Wolosky added. “I would like to note that we have still not been able to bring the 9/11 conspirators to justice, which is, frankly, a national embarrassment.”

Nasser’s release comes as further signs indicate that a change in political approach is underway at Gitmo. Earlier this month, the military tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Army Brig. General Mark Martins, who is also overseeing the criminal case against the five men accused of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, made a surprise announcement that he would retire in September. And the lead defense lawyer in the 9/11 case, Marine Brig. General John Baker will retire in November.

Nasser, whose story was the subject of a series of Radiolab podcasts, landed in Morocco early Monday morning, was being held in a Casablanca police station, will join his family in the coming days, and will work in the cleaning company of his brother’s swimming pool, according to his lawyers.

Durkin, one of Nasser’s attorneys, said he had not yet spoken with Nasser since his release, but had spoken to Nasser’s brother by phone.

“It was just one of those great moments in the life of a lawyer, where the person on the other end of the phone is just ecstatic,” Durkin said. “Having said that, it’s a tragedy that he’s out there for 19 years without ever being charged. Not just a tragedy; it’s a huge dark spot for this country, as far as I am concerned.”

In an interview with NPR, another lawyer for Nasser, Bernard Harcourt, a professor at Columbia Law School, called Nasser’s release a “really important first step” in the Biden administration’s stated goal of shutting down the prison. Guantánamo.

However, in a statement, Nasser’s lawyers added: “There is little point in celebrating the release of a man detained for nineteen years without ever being charged with a crime, the last four of which were the collateral damage of the Trump administration and the zealous Republican The crude hawks policy of the War on Terror. If this was a wrongful conviction in Cook County, it would be worth $ 20 million. Nonetheless, we applaud the Biden administration for causing no further harm. “

Some Republican senators continue to oppose the closing of the Guantanamo prison and the release of its prisoners, saying they remain a threat to the United States.

Still, Wolosky, the former special envoy for Guantánamo under President Obama, said that “in the future I would expect to see more agreements of this kind”, especially regarding prisoners already authorized to be released.

“These are the easiest for the Biden administration to take back the old deal, dust it off … and close these deals after an unfortunate four-year delay under the Trump administration,” Wolosky added.

For Guantanamo prisoners not facing criminal charges but not yet cleared for release, State Department officials are likely to begin negotiations with other countries willing to take them, subject to security measures. .

For indicted prisoners, including the five accused of 9/11, these cases could be settled – like guilty pleas in exchange for a life sentence – as a cheaper and more effective alternative to going to trial. and incur the death penalty.

In May 2018, a prisoner was transferred out of Guantánamo by the Trump administration, but this was part of an agreement the prisoner made in which he agreed to plead guilty and testify against a fellow inmate in exchange for being sent to Saudi Arabia to finish his sentence there; it was not part of a larger effort to reduce Guantanamo’s prison population.

“So in some ways,” Wolosky said, “that one doesn’t really count as a transfer that was made as a political decision, as opposed to the implementation of a legal deal.”

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