Brennan Linsley / AP

US releases Gitmo prisoner who staged 9-year hunger strike

Abdul Shalabi, captured in Afghanistan in 2002, will participate in a rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia

A Guantánamo Bay prisoner who waged a nearly nine-year hunger strike while held at the U.S. base in Cuba has been released.

The Pentagon said Tuesday Abdul Shalabi has been sent back to his native Saudi Arabia. The transfer brings the Guantánamo prisoner population to 114. Fifty-two of them are cleared to leave.

Shalabi, 39, launched a hunger strike in 2006 to protest his indefinite confinement without charge. His lawyer says the military tube-fed him daily to prevent him from starving to death.

Upon arriving in Saudi Arabia, Shalabi will take part in a rehabilitation program for fighters.

“The United States is grateful to the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its willingness to support ongoing U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” the Department of Defense said in a statement Tuesday.

“The United States coordinated with the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ensure this transfer took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures,” it added.

Shalabi was among the first prisoners brought to Guantánamo in January 2002. The U.S. military says he was a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and an associate of other senior figures in Al Qaeda. Shalabi was the seventh confirmed release from the facility this year.

Shalabi’s release follows the recent transfer of another prisoner, Abdurrahman Chekkouri, to his native Morroco. The Pentagon announced the transfer Sept. 17. A leaked 2008 Defense Department document posted online by the group WikiLeaks showed that Chekkouri is 47 years old, was sent to the Guantánamo facility in May 2002, was captured by Pakistani forces in December 2001 and was transferred to U.S. custody in January 2002.

But closing Guantánamo has proved difficult for President Barack Obama, who campaigned on the promise of shuttering the facility. Human rights advocates have criticized the indefinite detention without charges of the prisoners held there.

The Obama administration is drafting a plan that would close the detention facility for foreign terrorism suspects by transferring the prisoners to other countries or to prisons in the United States.

The plan is likely to face opposition in Congress, which already bans the transfer of detainees to the U.S. mainland.

"We've seen a number of obstacles erected by Congress intentionally to make this more difficult," White House spokesman Joshua Earnest told reporters last week.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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