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Life After Guantanamo: The Rehabilitation Program for Kuwait's Released Inmate

What does post-Gitmo rehab look like?
Photo by Michelle Shephard/Reuters

On Wednesday morning, a Kuwaiti man was discharged from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he had been held without trial for 13 years. The US Department of Defense gave scant detail of the release, confirming only that 37-year-old Fouzi Khalid Abdullah al-Awda had been transferred to the custody of the Kuwaiti government.

Anonymous officials later told the New York Timesthat al-Awda will live in Kuwait and complete a yearlong "rehabilitation program."


But what does post-Gitmo rehab look like?

In interviews with VICE News, al-Awda's attorney Eric Lewis confirmed that his client was transferred to the al- Salam Rehabilitation Center. A discrete unit within Kuwait's high-security Central Prison, al-Salam was set up by the Kuwaiti government in 2009 - at a cost of some $40 million — to receive Guantanamo inmates and reintegrate them back into society.

Al-Awda will take part in a yearlong "reintegration" program, designed by doctors from Kuwait's Royal College of Psychiatrists, which involves psychological evaluation, medical care, exercise, and religious counseling. Lewis said that the counseling is meant to ensure that released detainees "are not misunderstanding Islam" in a way "that could lead to improper actions."

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The entrance to the al-Salam rehabilitation center in Kuwait. (Photo via Facebook)

Lewis said Kuwaiti doctors developed the rehabilitation program, but "the Americans reviewed what was going on."

"You can't take somebody away for 12, 13 years… and then say, 'Okay, now you're home' and assume there is no problem," said Lewis. "The US government wanted security assurances with respect to repatriation and reintegration."

In 2008, another ex-Guantanamo detainee from Kuwait, Abdallah Salih al-Ajmi, travelled to Iraq and blew himself up in a suicide attack.

But there is no set model for how ex-Guantanamo detainees are released back into society, and countries that have received ex-inmates have not widely shared their procedures for the reintegration process.


"The US has never to my knowledge set forth uniformed standards for countries to abide by," Lt. Col. Barry Wingard, attorney for another Kuwaiti Guantamano detainee, Faiz Mohammed Ahmed Al Kandari, told VICE News.

The al-Salam rehab program will begin with a full-time residency at the Central Prison. Gradually, al-Awda will be able to receive his family for visits and make weekend trips home. The final stage will be outpatient care.

Even then, al-Awda will be the subject of "constant security surveillance," according to Kuwait's Minister of the Interior. Lawyers say that al-Awda will be required to surrender his passport and check in weekly with local police. His "internet usage, religious instruction, social networks, and financial affairs" will also be monitored, as will his visits to local mosques.

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According to secret files released by Wikileaks, Kuwaiti officials announced in September 2009 that the al-Salam Rehabilitation Center was "100 percent completed and ready to begin receiving the four remaining Kuwaiti Guantanamo detainees." The officials reportedly stressed that Kuwait was willing to abide by American security requirements - despite the fact that it had "not received any information clearly and legally implicating any of the four detainees in terror activities."

Al-Awda "finally realized that he could not continue to perpetually remain frustrated and angered by his long and indefinite detention. He needed to let that mindset go."


Leaked US government documents reveal lengthy discussions between American and Kuwaiti officials regarding the al-Salam program.

A confidential file dated September 26, 2009 reveals that a US government interagency delegation visited Kuwait for a tour of al-Salam. American Ambassador Daniel Fried reportedly expressed hope that "other countries in the region would set up a rehabilitation center of the same caliber."

But in another secret document from a few weeks earlier, an American official expressed concern "that the Salam Center did not appear to be built in a way to prevent violent extremists from fashioning weapons from materials readily at hand," such as cords and bathroom fixtures. A Kuwaiti interior minister promised to look into the matter.

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Al-Awda had been held at Guantanamo since 2002. A secret 2008 Department of Defense report alleged that he was "a member of al Qaeda," and "an associate" of Osama bin Laden. It explained that al-Awda attended "militant training" in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and "participated in hostilities against US and coalition forces." The report indicated that he was, "likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests, and allies."

Six years later, the US government's language has become decidedly more tempered. In an unclassified summary of evidence dated March 19, 2014, al-Awda is said to have "probably attended terrorist training and possibly fought alongside the Taliban and al-Qa'ida." The summary notes that American officials "lack confidence" in claims that al-Awda was closely associated with bin Laden, or a member of a London-based al-Qaeda cell.


In July 2014, Guantanamo's Periodic Review Board determined that al-Awda no longer posed "a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States."

Meanwhile, al-Awda - who has a degree from the University of Kuwait, and formerly worked as a social worker and educator - has also changed. In his early years of his detention, he had a track record of disciplinary infractions. He would get angry and upset, shouting, throwing food and acting out. He participated in a hunger strike. But over time, those incidents petered out. In July, the Period Review Board cited "positive changes in the detainee's behavior while in detention."

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His lawyers told the board that al-Awda "finally realized that he could not continue to perpetually remain frustrated and angered by his long and indefinite detention. He needed to let that mindset go."

Today, al-Awda is eager to return home and get married. His lawyers told the Periodic Review Board that his mothers and sisters are on the hunt "for the right woman."

Al-Awda is the first prisoner to be released from Guantanamo since the "Taliban Five" were controversially swapped for US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He is also the first inmate to be released since the government instituted a revamped system of parole board hearings at Guantanamo to consider whether detentions were still justified on national security grounds.

Of the 88 Guantanamo detainees released since January 2009, six are "confirmed of reengaging," according to a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

US President Barack Obama first promised to close the detention camp in 2008. Six years later, 148 prisoners remain.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart