A Mauritanian citizen held at Guantanamo Bay for 13 years despite never being accused of a crime and being cleared for release years ago by the U.S. government was finally repatriated to his home country, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
Ahmed Ould Abdel Aziz, 45, was told in 2009 by an inter-agency review task force created by the Obama administration that it no longer believed that he needed to be detained in the U.S. prison camp. Yet there he remained, along with 53 other detainees who have also been cleared for release, out of a total 113 who remain at the controversial detention facility.
"While it's great that Ahmed is home with his family, it's 14 years late, and long after he was cleared," one of his lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith said. "His release was only delayed because he, an innocent man, routinely protested his mistreatment.”
The U.S. government has not said why, despite after being cleared for release in 2009, his repatriation has been repeatedly delayed. He is the 14th detainee to have been released this year by the Obama administration.
Despite presenting no charges or evidence to date, the U.S. has claimed that Aziz had ties to Al-Qaeda when it picked him up, but Aziz has denied any involvement with violence or alleged terrorist activities.
Aziz was in Afghanistan to teach Arabic and the Quran, according to his lawyers at the time of his capture. In June of 2002 he was swept up in a Pakistani intelligence raid in Karachi, Pakistan, according to his lawyers. Aziz was taken into custody along with his pregnant wife. He was sold for bounty, his lawyers say, and then transferred to U.S custody at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, before being transferred to Guantanamo on Oct. 28, 2002.
Mauritania, a sparsely populated West African country is one of the least developed nations in the Sahel region, but also a chief U.S. ally in the regional security issues. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz ceased power in a military coup in 2008 and was elected president in 2009 and re-elected in 2014 — the majority of the opposition parties boycotted the later elections.
Mauritania under Abdel Aziz highly regards its relationship with the U.S., and it is virtually guaranteed “they will abide by the letter of the (prisoner) transfer agreement” with the U.S., said Nasser Weddady, a Mauritanian-American activist and expert on the African country. He believes the now former Guantanamo prisoner Aziz will be under mild surveillance and generally treated well as long as he keeps a relatively low profile.
Still, no one in Mauritania believes Aziz was or is Al-Qaeda, said Weddady. Meanwhile, civil society groups in Mauritania public have been supportive of the prisoners and there is “popular anger about Guantanamo,” Weddady said. “They believe these men have been unjustly locked up” by the U.S. and successive Mauritanian governments “did zilch to help them.”
Two others Mauritanians have or are being held at Guantanamo Bay: Mohammad Lameen Sidi Mohammad, who was repatriated in 2007, and Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the author of the bestselling memoir Guantanamo Diary, who remains imprisoned and who — according to Pentagon and Senate investigations — was tortured by U.S. officials under Bush administration orders.
For Aziz, the road to freedom has been a long and frustrating.
Moazzam Begg, who was also held at Guantanamo by the U.S., said Aziz was very concerned about his wife during his time at the facility. She is an Indian national and the violent past and tense relationship between Pakistan and her country “added another layer of fear” for Aziz, Begg told Al Jazeera.
Talking was forbidden, but the two were able at times to have whispered conversations at Bagram. Once Aziz wrote a simple phrase in French on a piece of paper, "I am very sad these days and I miss my family,” Begg recalled.
His lawyers remember presenting Aziz with a letter alerting him of his new cleared-for-transfer status. “He was so grateful. He was so hopeful, they remembered.”
Fourteen years later and after finally achieving that result he expected five years ago, one of his lawyers, John Holland, says his dream now is simple: to return to his family and be a good father.