One of the longest-held prisoners at the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay was sent home to Kuwait on Wednesday, the first release based on the determination of a review panel that has been re-evaluating some men previously classified as too dangerous to release.
Fawzi Al Odah had been told his release was imminent, but didn’t know the date until shortly before he boarded the flight back to his country from the base in southeast Cuba, his lawyer, Eric Lewis, said.
The 37-year-old Al Odah had been the focus of an arduous battle to secure his release that had the support of his government. Lewis, who spoke to him about a week before the departure, said the prisoner just wanted to get on with life.
“There’s no bitterness, there’s no anger,” Lewis said. “There’s just excitement and joy that he will be going home.”
Al Odah faces a minimum of one year at a militant-rehabilitation centre on the grounds of a Kuwaiti prison under the transfer agreement. Lewis said that after six months Al Odah will be eligible to leave for part of the day to work or see family.
His transfer brings the detention centre population to 148 and is the first since May, when President Barack Obama angered Congress by trading five Taliban prisoners for captive Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl without notifying lawmakers.
The release of Al Odah was criticised by US Senator Kelly Ayotte, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a chief proponent of keeping the prison open. The New Hampshire Republican called it “yet another dangerous example of the Obama administration’s misguided motivation to empty and then close Guantanamo rather than protect the national security interests of the US”.
Al Odah had been at Guantanamo since February 2002, one of the first prisoners brought to the base on suspicion of links to Al Qaida or the Taliban. The Obama administration has pledged to keep trying to close the facility, which opened in January 2002, and additional releases are expected in the coming months, so Al Odah’s record as the longest-held detainee to be released isn’t likely to stand long.
His father, Khalid Al Odah, said in several interviews with the Associated Press over the years that his son was only a teacher in Afghanistan who had been wrongly turned over to the US authorities in exchange for a bounty.
“Sometimes my wife calls my other son Fawzi. Other times I wake up in the middle of the night and find her sleeping in Fawzi’s room,” the father said in a 2005 interview. “It’s an unbearable sadness most of the time.”
The Kuwaiti government hired high-profile lawyers and lobbyists to push for the release of a dozen of its citizens at Guantanamo, an effort set back when one carried out a suicide bomb attack in Iraq in April 2008.
An Obama administration task force charged with evaluating all the prisoners at Guantanamo placed Al Odah and another Kuwaiti among a group slated for indefinite “law of war detention”. The men in this group can’t be prosecuted, typically because there is not enough evidence, but the government considers them too dangerous to release.
The administration also set up a Periodic Review Board that has been slowly re-evaluating the prisoners with parole-style hearings to determine if some can be released as part of an overall effort to eventually close the detention centre.
In July, the board determined that Al Odah had most likely undergone terrorist training in Afghanistan and may have fought alongside Al Qaida or the Taliban. The board, however, decided he had only a low level of training, did not have a leadership position in either group and could be released under certain conditions. The board has cleared a handful other detainees but they have not yet been released.
The board determined that Faez Al Kandari, the last remaining Kuwaiti at Guantanamo, should still be held. His military lawyer, Air Force Lt Col Barry Wingard, said on Wednesday that he saw no immediate prospects for the release of his client.