Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
One of Guantánamo Bay’s “forever prisoners” has finally gone home.
The Biden administration has repatriated Abdul Latif Nasser, 56, back to Morocco, according to a statement from the Department of Defense on Monday. Nasser had been held in the U.S. military prison since 2002, though he was never charged with a crime and never received a trial. As one of the prison’s longest serving detainees, Nasser remained at Guantánamo despite being recommended for release in 2016.
“We have waited nearly 20 years so long for this moment and finally our prayers have been answered. To know that my brother has returned to Morocco fills me with happiness I cannot even describe,” Nasser’s brother, Mustafa Nasser, told VICE News. “The last five years, since he was cleared for transfer but kept in Guantánamo by President Trump, have been the hardest of all.”
Although former President Donald Trump stalled the transfer process for detainees significantly during his term, VICE News reported in June that Nasser and other Guantánamo detainees said conditions at the prison had worsened under President Joe Biden. “How can it be that we are waiting for Biden to come, and it has become so much worse than when Trump was president?” Nasser told VICE News through his lawyers at Reprieve U.S., an international human rights organization that represents several of the remaining detainees at Guantánamo.
Nasser, along with detainees Asadullah Haroon Gul and Ahmed Rabbani, described deteriorated conditions at the prison, with halted communication between the inmates and the guards, broken toilets and lightbulbs, and a slowdown in medical treatment.
“I do not know how long I will survive. Only God knows.”
“Any medicine that is needed, it takes months. Problems with the electricity, etc., takes a long time to fix it,” said Rabbani, who was tortured by the U.S. and has his name appear in the U.S. Senate Report on Torture at Guantánamo. Rabbani was never charged with a crime.
“It is not easy to get the appropriate medication in Gitmo. It is sad that I am not allowed to see my medical records, which are classified,” said Gul, who has been detained for 14 years. “I do not know how long I will survive. Only God knows.”
As a result of the poor conditions and the lack of movement from the Biden administration, many of the inmates engaged in a hunger strike, they said.
“We used to pray for Biden to come and be the president for the United States,” Nasser then said. “A lot of things are happening that haven’t happened in 19 years.”
The Department of Defense disputed their accounts. “There are no changes in treatment of the detainees at the Naval Station Guantánamo Bay detention facility under the current administration,” Michael L. Howard, spokesperson for the Department of Defense, then told VICE News. “There are no current or ongoing individual or unified hunger strikes among the detainees.”
Now, with Nasser’s release, about half of the 39 detainees remaining at Guantánamo are held in “Law of War detention.” Ten others have been recommended for transfer and this could be the first step of getting more people out.
Still, those that are there told VICE News in June that they were continuing to suffer. “I think to die in Gitmo is better than to stay alive—it is a lonely life and prolonged detention is prolonged hopelessness,” said Gul at the time. “Life here is like a nightmare.”
Biden has indicated he wants to close the prison by the end of his first term, though critics say that goal doesn’t currently seem likely.
“This transfer cannot make up for the two decades of his life that Abdul Latif has lost, held prisoner without charge, but we welcome his return to Moroccan soil at long last,” Katie Taylor, the deputy director of Reprieve, told VICE News. “Other transfers of prisoners cleared for release must follow without delay.”
Mark Maher, one of Nasser’s lawyers at Reprieve U.S., felt similarly. “I am overjoyed to know that Abdul Latif has finally been released. But that joy is tempered by the knowledge that he will never get back the 19 years he spent imprisoned, all based on false allegations after being sold to America for a bounty,” Maher told VICE News. “While nothing can truly right this wrong, his release is a step in the right direction, and I hope it is a signal that the Biden administration will continue to release the uncharged men who have suffered for so long.”
“It’s been 25 years since I smelled Morocco. Things like the smell of mint. Or the sea. I have been here so long, able to hear and smell the ocean from my cell, but never able to set foot in it.”
After training at an al Qaeda camp, Nasser was captured while fighting the U.S. in Afghanistan. In 2016, before he was approved for release to Morocco, he told the interagency panel through a military official that “he deeply regrets his actions of the past.”
Upon returning to Morocco, police took Nasser into custody to investigate possible terrorism ties. But Nasser’s family just hopes to celebrate his return home soon. “In two days time the family will gather to celebrate Eid-al-Adha,” said his brother, Mustafa Nasser. “It is my greatest wish that my brother Abdul Latif will be free to join us.”
In 2017, Nasser told his lawyers at Reprieve of his longing to return to Morocco. “It’s been 25 years since I smelled Morocco,” he said at the time. “Things like the smell of mint. Or the sea. I have been here so long, able to hear and smell the ocean from my cell, but never able to set foot in it.”