Four prisoners from the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are to be repatriated to Afghanistan, the Defense Department said.
Shawali Khan, Khi Ali Gul, Abdul Ghani and Mohammed Zahir were to be released as part of an effort by President Barack Obama to accelerate transfers and close the facility. An interagency task force reviewed their cases to determine whether the prisoners met the standards for release and examined issues including security before unanimously approving the transfers.
“The United States coordinated with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures,” the Defense Department said in a statement. It also informed Congress.
The detention center on U.S.-held territory still holds 132 prisoners, the department said.
With a little more than two years left in his presidency, Obama is still working to fulfill his campaign promise to close the prison, which President George W. Bush began using to hold suspected and accused terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Finding countries willing to take in fighters who may still have terrorist tendencies has been a difficulty, as has opposition from U.S. lawmakers.
All of today’s released prisoners are natives of Afghanistan, according to the website WikiLeaks, which has been criticized by the U.S. government for posting secret data leaked by insiders.
Zahir, born in 1953, was considered a veteran high-level member of Taliban intelligence as well as a weapons smuggler, according to documents posted on the WikiLeaks website and identified-as-secret memos from the Guantanamo facility to the U.S. Southern Command in 2008.
Those documents also said Ghani, born in 1972, was assessed to have been a member of a Taliban-aligned militia unit established by an Afghan warlord to assassinate, kidnap and ambush U.S. and Afghan officials and military forces. Both were described at the time as posing a high risk if released.
Today’s statement follows the transfer of six suspected terrorists earlier this month to Uruguay for resettlement. It was the largest transfer of Guantanamo detainees since 2009 and the first to South America.
Saying Guantanamo drew international criticism of U.S. detention policies and interrogation practices, Obama campaigned for president in 2008 promising to close the facility. On Jan. 22, 2009, Obama issued an executive order to shut the prison, which he later backed away from as congressional opposition mounted.
Congress reaffirmed a ban on closing the prison in the annual defense authorization measure it sent to Obama last week.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers have opposed prosecuting alleged terrorists in U.S. courts, saying civilian courts provide too many protections and they should instead be treated as enemy combatants. They also have warned that previously released detainees have rejoined terrorist groups and taken part in attacks on Americans.
The detention center is part of a naval base in Cuba that the U.S. has held since 1903. While the Castro regime in Cuba has long demanded that it be turned over, the Pentagon indicated that this week’s move by Obama to normalize relations with the island nation won’t affect the base in the near term.
“I’m comfortable telling you that it’s just way too soon in the process for any decisions or for any specific initiatives to be discussed,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Defense Department spokesman, told reporters yesterday.