'Low-level Yemeni militant' held for 14 years at Gitmo to be released

Shawqi Awad Balzuhair had ben held without charges at Guantanamo Bay for more than 14 years.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
In this June 27, 2006 file photo, reviewed by a U.S. Department of Defense official, U.S. military guards walk within Camp Delta military-run prison, at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, Cuba.

Guantanamo Bay has released Shawqi Awad Balzuhair, whom the US described as a "low-level Yemeni militant" earlier this year after holding him without charges since October 2002. The US has sent Mr. Balzuhair to the West African nation of Cape Verde for resettlement.

With the latest release, the total number of prisoners at Gitmo has dropped to 59. Of those, 20 still being held have already been approved for release and are awaiting for the proper negotiations before being be sent home.

Established by the George W. Bush administration in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the military prison in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, has remained open despite President Barack Obama's campaign promises to close the site.

As prisoners trickle out of the facility in the final days of his administration, the future of those prisoners remains more uncertain than ever. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to keep the facility open, and many critics worry that many of the human rights concerns associated with Guantanamo Bay will be reignited under his administration. Many prisoners have also expressed worries about their future under Mr. Trump in a prison already heavily criticized by the international community.

Balzuhair had been imprisoned at Guantanamo without trial for over 14 years, according to the New York Times. After his capture, US intelligence officials initially pegged him as a member of the "Karachi Six," an Al Qaeda cell suspected of planning terrorist attacks. In January of this year, however, officials released a report reevaluating Balzuhair's threat level, identifying him instead as a "low-level Yemeni militant" trying to return home at the time of his arrest, with any connections to the Karachi Six being heavily exaggerated during his capture.

While the report does say he received Al Qaeda training prior to 9/11, it also says that he has "not expressed or demonstrated any sympathy or support for al-Qa'ida, its global ideology, or other radical Islamic views," and that he does not have connections to any extremists currently at large.

Despite his low level of threat being established in January, Balzuhair has not been released until now due to the diplomatic difficulties associated with his country of origin, Yemen. Because of the ongoing civil war, the United States does not send prisoners to Yemen, meaning that any Yemini prisoners have to be released to a third country involved in the delicate negotiations, a significant obstacle in the already highly complex process of releasing prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. Balzuhair is the second Gitmo detainee to be released to Cape Verde in this manner.

Despite the diplomatic complexities and opposition at home, the Obama administration has been stepping up its efforts to release the next 20 detainees approved for transfer in the coming weeks before Trump's nauguration.

"That's difficult work, but that's work that we've been doing for almost eight years now," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told the New York Times. "And that's work that will continue at least through January 20th. After that, the president-elect’s team will have to decide how they want to handle that situation."

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 200 FBI agents have reported abusive treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Of the 779 people held at the prison, only one has ever been transferred to a federal court for prosecution, and most have been held without charge despite posing little or no threat to the United States.

The president-elect has said he would keep the facility and bring in new prisoners to Gitmo, which the Obama administration had suspended. Trump has also indicated that he might be open to bringing back waterboarding as an interrogation technique at facilities like Guantanamo Bay, which critics say is a torture technique and therefore a violation of both US federal law and the Geneva Conventions.

David Remes, the lawyer of one of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay says that his client and fellow prisoners are worried about the upcoming Trump administration.

"He said that many detainees thought that it was the end of the world and felt terrible and that many detainees asked for tranquilizers, sleeping pills, because they were so distraught," he told CBS News, describing the mood at Guantanamo Bay on election night.

Trump and many of his supporters have brushed off criticism of their stance the facility open, even though many of the remaining detainees are no longer considered dangerous by the US government.

"Holding the men at all was a deep injustice and a lasting stain on the US. These men shouldn't have been in Guantánamo in the first place," Remes said in August. "It's one thing to prosecute detainees for attacks on the U.S.... It is quite another thing – and contrary to the values the US says it is committed to – to hold men for many years, who are accused of no crime."

This article contains material from the Associated Press.

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