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Five Yemeni Guantanamo Detainees Freed as GOP Senators Move to Block Releases

The prisoners were handed to Estonia and Oman a day after Republican senators moved to halt further prisoner transfers abroad.
Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The US is five prisoners closer to emptying and shutting down its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay after releasing the latest handful of detainees — all from Yemen — late Wednesday evening, according to the Defense Department.

Days after the 13th anniversary of the Cuban prison's inception, one of the men, who had been held without charge for close to the entire time the prison has operated, was transferred to the small Baltic state of Estonia. The remaining four were sent to Oman, which shares borders with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.


"The United States is grateful to the government of Oman for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," the Department of Defense said in a statement.

The transfers came the day after Republican lawmakers moved to block further releases of Guantanamo prisoners abroad, arguing that US President Barack Obama's continued execution of a campaign promise to clear Guantanamo before the end of his presidency is threatening the country's national security by sending insurgents back out into the fray.

GOP Senators Are Gearing Up to Fight Obama Over Guantanamo. Read more here. 

Republican Senators John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Lindsey Graham, and Richard Burr proposed new legislation Tuesday that would halt the movement of detainees to Yemen for two years and suspend the transfers of medium or high-risk prisoners abroad for the same amount of time.

"What the administration has been doing is to fulfill really a campaign promise, made by the president, which was to close Guantanamo," Ayotte said. "But if you look at the security situation that we're facing around the world now, now is not the time."

The lawmakers cited a 30 percent recidivism rate of freed prisoners. However, a national intelligence report from September puts the figure of confirmed suspects reengaging in terrorist activists at 19 percent.

The senators also brought up the recent attacks in Paris to highlight the dangers of releasing prisoners into Middle Eastern countries bordering Yemen, especially considering reports the two brothers responsible for the massacre at satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo had allegedly received training in the deserts of Marib, sometimes referred to as "the al Qaeda capital of Yemen."


"Yemen is one of the most dangerous countries that — basically it's a wild, wild west for terrorists right now," Ayotte said.

Guantanamo: Black Out Bay: Watch the VICE News documentary.

Despite the protest, Akhmed Abdul Qadir, who has been held without charge for nearly 13 years, was released to Estonia, while Fadel Hussein Saleh Hentif, Abd Al-Rahman Abdullah Au Shabati, Mohammed Ahmed Salam, and Al Khadr Abdallah Muhammad Al Yafi, who has been detained for 13 years without charge, were transferred to Oman.

The men are the first group to be released in 2015 and add to the list of 33 prisoners transferred to various international locations in 2014. There are 122 detainees remaining at the Cuban prison — a significant drop from 680 in 2003.

Supporters of Obama's aims to shut down the detention center have described the facility as an abnegation of the US' human rights obligations. Protesters in orange jumpsuits and bags over their heads demonstrated outside the White House Sunday on the prison's anniversary.

But alternatives to sending the prisoners overseas have been hotly debated. One such proposal would see prisoners being transferred to a prison on US soil.

"I have never opposed bringing people into America, if you have a maximum security facility run by the military that is away from population centers," Graham said Tuesday.

"The only reason most of these people have not planned another 9/11 at Guantanamo Bay is because they've been in jail," he added. "If you let them out of jail, they'll be on the ground floor planning another 9/11."


Will Cuba now cash 55 years' worth of Guantanamo rent checks? Read more here.

McCain also voiced support for the idea, yet the senators' proposal Tuesday would preclude the movement of any prisoners under such an arrangement for two years. This could be changed in heartbeat, McCain argued, saying: "We can repeal the legislation in a New York minute if [Obama] comes up with a plan."

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which has represented past and present Guantanamo detainees and their families in court cases, welcomed the men's releases Wednesday, but said that the government must step up its review of prisoners and transfers of cleared men "without delay."

"Maintaining momentum in these transfers is of the essence," CCR said in a statement. "To close Guantanamo the right way, all of the remaining prisoners must either be charged or released. There cannot be an 'irreducible' number of men who remain indefinitely imprisoned without charge, whether in Guantanamo or in prisons in the United States."

Senate torture report finds the CIA was less effective and more brutal than anyone knew. Read more here.

VICE News' Jason Leopold contributed reporting to this article.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields