Kuwaiti leaves Guantánamo as US elections cast cloud over the prison

Fawzi al-Odah freed, with more detainees cleared for release, but Republicans have questiioned efforts to close facility

Photo of Fawzi al-Odah, 36, is shown in Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in 2007 was released in 2013.
Courtesy of defense lawyer Barry Wingard / AP

A Kuwaiti prisoner headed home from Guantánamo Bay on Wednesday morning, hours after the midterm election results put the U.S. Senate in the hands of Republican legislators who had vowed to stop the Obama Administration from closing the controversial detention facility.

Fawzi al-Odah, 37, is schedule to arrive in Kuwait Thursday, more than 13 years after he left his country to do humanitarian work and teach the Koran in Afghanistan. For more than a decade, the U.S. claimed to have evidence showing that al-Odah had been associated with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, charges the detainee has always denied. He was cleared for transfer in July following a Periodic Review Board (PRB) hearing.

“We lack confidence in statements from other detainees that (al-Odah) was closely associated with Osama bin Laden or belonged to an Al-Qaeda cell in London,” the PRB ruling said.

Once back in Kuwait, al-Odah plans to marry, start a family and work alongside his father, according to what he has told his family and lawyers.

“We are very happy,” said his father, Khalid al-Odah, a retired Kuwaiti Air Force colonel and businessman. The whole family is “thrilled and excited.” 

In Kuwait, al-Odah will be kept under observation at a military hospital for about a week before being transferred to a rehabilitation center, where it is expected that he will undergo a one-year rehabilitation process, according to his father.

If al-Odah makes “progress” after six months, he will be allowed to work and be with his family during the day and return to the center at night. And if al-Odah is released, he will be monitored for an additional three years, which will include surveillance of his Internet use, his religious instruction, social network and financial activity. He will also be required to surrender his passport and will be unable to travel outside the country, according to his father and statements made by his legal team

Al-Odah has said he was arrested by Pakistani authorities on November 18, 2001, when he was trying to leave Afghanistan through the Tora Bora mountain area, after the U.S. military campaign to oust the Taliban began. According to legal documents, he said he fell victim to local warlords and security forces, which were handing over Arabs to claim bounty being offered by the U.S. He arrived in Guantánamo on February 13, 2002, but had expected a brief stay. A letter to his parents dated a few months later assured them that the Americans were investigating his case and he would be found innocent and sent home. 

In total, 12 Kuwaitis have been held in Guantánamo. All but one, Fayiz al-Kandari, have been released. The U.S. has ordered al-Kandari’s continued detention because the PRB, comprising officials from U.S. government agencies, believes he “almost certainly retains an extremist mindset and had close ties with high-level Al-Qaeda leaders in the past."

Protesters dressed in orange prison outfits and black masks attend a demonstration outside the US embassy in Kuwait City on May 2, 2012, calling for the release of Kuwaiti prisoners Fawzi al-Odah and Fayez al-Kandari (portrait)
Yasser Al-Zayyat AFP / GettyImages

Al-Kandari’s legal team disputes that assessment, saying it is not based on any evidence that has been made public. His lawyer, Retired Lt Col. Barry Wingard, wrote via email that his client was being held on the basis of “rumor,” and that the PRB ruling showed the hypocrisy of the Guantánamo detention system: “I'm afraid of you even though I can't prove you did anything,” wrote Wingard. “Because of that, I'm doubly afraid you might do something to me in the future since I punished you in the first place.”

Khalid al-Odah, who established the Kuwait Family Committee to assist the 12 Kuwaiti Guantánmo prisoners and their families, said he would continue to fight for al-Kandari’s freedom. He was among the first to challenge the George Bush Administration decision to send prisoners to Guantánamo and deny them due process. And he fought two Supreme Court cases on their behalf, the second of which saw the justices rule that Guantánamo prisoners have a constitutional right to challenge their detention in U.S. Federal Court.

Tom Wilner, a lawyer who represented al-Odah and al-Kandari during several years of their detention, said after al Odah’s release: “These men have been imprisoned not because of anything they did, or any threat they pose to the United States, but because of demagoguery on one side of the political aisle in the United States and the lack of courage on the other side to stand up to it and do what is right.” The result, he warned, was that Guantánamo “continues to be a symbol of American hypocrisy and a recruiting tool for terrorists around the world.”

Before Tuesday’s election, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. McKeon had called on Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to immediately suspend all transfers, citing claims – not supported by data from the Office of Director of National Intelligence – that former Guantánamo prisoners were fighting alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

Hagel said some prisoners had returned to the battlefield, but that closing Guantánamo was clearly in U.S. interests. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey added that those cleared for transfer “pose a low risk to our national security and that their ability to become recidivists is mitigated.”

The PRB was established in 2011 to reexamine the cases of prisoners previously marked for indefinite detention. It has approved the release of five prisoners, and has decided to continue to hold four others. 

Al-Odah’s release leaves 79 of Guantanamo’s 148 prisoners currently cleared for transfer.

A few years ago at Khalid al-Odah’s house in Kuwait, another former Guantánamo detainee, Abdulaziz al-Shammari, told Al Jazeera of the moment in November 2005 when he was released and Fawzi al-Odah was left behind.

“The day I was to be released, I want to see the guys to say farewell,” al-Shammari said. “I saw Fawzi. (He) came down from the bed and hugged me and I could not help myself, I cried. Fawzi hit me playfully and said, ‘Get a grip, you are leaving.’ He said ‘No, don’t let (the Americans) see you cry.’ And that is the last time I saw him.” 

Tuesday, it was al-Odah’s moment to bid farewell to al-Kandari.

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