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Prisoner released as protests mark Guantánamo anniversary

Protests mark 14th year of prison that opened on Jan. 11, 2002

The U.S. Department of Defense on Monday announced that another prisoner had been released from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, even as the internationally condemned facility also attracted worldwide protests on the 14th anniversary of its opening.

After the U.S. Secretary of Defense signed off on his transfer, Mohammed al-Shimrani was on his way home to Saudi Arabia from the base on Monday. He was cleared for repatriation and a stay at a Saudi rehabilitation center by the Periodic Review Board (PRB), a high-level interagency review board, on Sept. 11, 2015.    

“Mr. al-Shimrani looks forward to participating in the Saudi reintegration program, reuniting with his family and establishing a peaceful and productive life in his home country,” his lawyer Martha Rayner said. With his release, 103 prisoners remain, and 44 are cleared for transfer; of them, 13 are expected to be released this month.

Former Guantánamo detainees Moazzam Begg, Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Ruhal Ahmed meet Shaker Aamer outside the U.S. Embassy in London, with member of Parliament John McDonnell, before a vigil, Jan. 11, 2016.

The news of the repatriation came as former British hostages came together for the first time and protested outside the U.S. Embassy in London to call for the prison’s closure. “We want justice. We want these people to go home,” said Shaker Aamer, only recently released despite being cleared for transfer since 2007. “If they did something, OK, tell us what they did. If they did not do something, they need to be going home tomorrow — not after one month, not after one week, no, tomorrow. Because you have nothing against them.”

And on the anniversary of the first prisoners arriving at the island prison, protesters rallied in front of White House, calling for Guantánamo to be shuttered. Among them was the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents several Guantánamo prisoners. “It's not enough for President [Barack] Obama to say he tried, but that Congress and other obstacles are preventing him from closing Guantánamo,” Aliya Hussain of the center said in a news release. “There are more than 40 men, cleared for release, who could go home today, yet they continue to languish as the prison enters its 15th year. The president has real choices in front of him. Now is the time for him to take meaningful action. The clock is ticking.”

Meanwhile, legal groups and nongovernmental organizations protested in Nouakchott, Mauritania, demanding the release of “Guantánamo Diary” author Mohamedou Ould Slahi, the country’s last citizen held in the prison.  

And in front of the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay, the man at the center of a U.S federal legal battle was set to undergo nasogastric feeding to protest the ongoing force-feeding that reports say hunger strikers experience in Guantánamo. Abu Dhiab, one of six prisoners transferred to Uruguay in 2014, sued the U.S. demanding the release of videos that show him being forcibly removed from his cell by armed guards and force-fed. The legal battle is ongoing, but U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler has ruled favorably toward Dhiab’s side

“The world should see the tapes of how I was forcibly removed from my cell on countless occasions and how I was force-fed during the times I was on hunger strike, which began in 2007,” Dhiab told Al Jazeera, adding that he has not fully recovered physically from his time in Guantánamo and that he continues to need crutches to walk.

United Nations and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) experts too were among those urging Washington to end impunity. “The United States must clean up its own house — impunity only generates more abuses,” the group — which included the UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez — said in a news release.

“Everyone implicated, including at the highest level of authority, must be held accountable for ordering or executing extraordinary renditions, secret detention, arbitrary arrest of civilians and so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in the name of combatting terrorism,” they said.

All Guantanamo prisoners who are currently not facing military commission charges, but who are not cleared for transfer, have received notice that they will be granted a PRB hearing, a Pentagon official told Al Jazeera. 

Al Jazeera understands that this includes so-called “high-value" detainees including Abu Zubaydah, Hambali and Muhammad Rahim al Afghani — but that none of the prisoners have been told of their particular hearing date yet.

In the meantime, al-Shimrani will be dealing with his newfound freedom, albeit via the Saudi re-integration program. It is not an easy journey. “The men who are being released from Guantánamo have now been cut off from society for more than a decade. They need more than just mental and physical rehabilitation, they also need help reintegrating back into society,” said Mustafa Alani, Senior Adviser and the Director of the National Security and Terrorism Studies Department at the Gulf Research Center.

Alani has first-hand knowledge of programs in Saudi Arabia for Guantánamo prisoners, and said that Saudi authorities seek to enable them financially, helping them to find jobs and other work that “respects their dignity” — or to help them get married, he added. “I think this policy is really successful” because their re-settlement into a society “changes the calculations,” he said. These men are all adults now, and they need a reason to live — and there are different routes to help with that, he said.

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