The US Department of Defense announced on Saturday that nine Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were transferred from the controversial offshore detention facility to Saudi Arabia.
Among the prisoners being transferred is Tariq Ba Odah, whose eight-year hunger strike led to intensified scrutiny of the treatment that Guantanamo's detainees are subject to.
Ba Odah was arrested by the Pakistani army in 2001 near the Afghan border and turned over to US officials, who brought him to Guantanamo.
According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Ba Odah doesn't know why he was picked up by Pakistani authorities. His lawyer contends that he has never been charged with a crime. He was 23 then. Now Ba Odah is 36. The Guantanamo Review Task Force, which President Obama established shortly after he took office, unanimously approved Ba Odah's release in 2009.
But last year, attorneys from the US Justice department blocked the legal request to release Ba Odah on the basis of his poor health. Ba Odah stopped eating solid food in 2007, and has been force-fed by nasal tube twice a day ever since. In 2015, he weighed just 75 pounds, and the force-feeding ceased being an effective way to deliver nutrients.
"His body appears unable to properly absorb calories or micronutrients," his lawyer Omar Farah said at the time. Ba Odah has spent most of his time in Guantanamo in solitary confinement because of his "non-compliant' behavior.
The New York Times reported that one of the reasons he was not released until now is because US officials were concerned that other detainees would see hunger striking as an effective path to release.
Seven of the other prisoners named in today's announcement were also cleared for release since 2009 by the Review Task Force. The ninth, Mashur Abdullah Muqbil Ahmed Al-Sabri, was cleared by a review board last year.
The other prisoners released today are: Ahmed Umar Abdullah Al-Hikimi; Abdul Rahman Mohammed Saleh Nasir; Ali Yahya Mahdi Al-Raimi; Muhammed Abdullah Muhammed Al-Hamiri; Ahmed Yaslam Said Kuman; Abd al Rahman Al-Qyati; and Mansour Muhammed Ali Al-Qatta.
"As directed by the president's January 22, 2009 executive order, the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force conducted a comprehensive review of these cases," the Department of Defense said in a statement on Saturday. "As a result of those reviews, which examined a number of factors, including security issues...[the detainees] were unanimously approved for transfer by the six departments and agencies comprising the task force."
Because of the ongoing and bloody civil war in Yemen, the men aren't able to return to their home countries. Instead they will be settled in Saudi Arabia.
"The United States is grateful to the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility," the statement adds. " The United States coordinated with government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures."
Omar Farah, an attorney who represented both Tariq Ba Odah and Muhammed Abdullah Muhammed Al-Hamiri, said the "government played Russian roulette with Mr. Ba Odah's life for more than a year."
"Mr. Ba Odah's transfer today ends one of the most appalling chapters in Guantánamo's sordid history," he said. "Now that Mr. Ba Odah is finally free, we are hopeful that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will provide him the sophisticated medical care he desperately needs."
Saturday's release brings the Guantanamo prisoner population to 80. Another 26 cleared men are expected to be released in the coming months. At its peak, the Guantanamo prison population was 697 in 2003.
Obama's promise to shutter the detention center has been stymied by a Republican-controlled congress since he took office. Closing Guantanamo was once perceived as a bipartisan moral imperative. Now, it's a hot button and divisive political issue.
In February, Obama submitted a newly designed plan to close the military prison to Congress — a last ditch effort to make good on the promise he made to the voters who elected him in 2008. The UN and other rights groups have consistently condemned some of the practices used by guards at the prison, which includes sleep deprivation and forced-feeding.