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The First Detainee Since the Bowe Bergdahl Swap Just Left Guantanamo

Fawzi al-Odah, who the US government says traveled to Afghanistan to join extremists shortly after 9/11, will enter a rehabilitation center.

by Jason Leopold
Nov 5 2014, 9:45pm

Jason Leopold/VICE News

A low-level Guantanamo detainee who has been held for nearly 13 years at the detention facility was transferred to Kuwait Wednesday morning, the first detainee release since the "Taliban Five" were transferred in a swap for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, a former prisoner of war.

The transfer of al-Odah, 37, to a rehabilitation center in Kuwait comes less than 24 hours after Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in eight years. (The Department of Defense gave Congress 30 days advance notice of al-Odah's transfer as required by law.) In the lead-up to the contentious midterm elections, several Republican lawmakers called for a moratorium on the administration's efforts to release additional Guantanamo detainees, claiming that they would likely join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.

"I have said it before and I'll say it again, releasing terrorists from Guantanamo Bay endangers our soldiers abroad and our security at home," said Republican Representative Lynn Westmoreland on Monday. "When will the Obama administration realize that releasing Guantanamo prisoners gives terrorists a second chance?"

recidivism report issued in September by the Office of Director of National Intelligence said that six of the 88 detainees who were released from Guantanamo since President Barack Obama took office in 2009 were confirmed to have re-engaged in terrorism. 

Obama may find it much more difficult now to follow through on his promise to release cleared Guantanamo detainees now that the balance of power in the Senate has shifted to Republicans. Lawmakers could add a provision to an annual Defense spending bill prohibiting the transfer of any detainees from Guantanamo.

Al-Odah's transfer is significant in that he is the first detainee released after a revamped Guantanamo parole board, made up of senior officials from various government agencies, reviewed his case and determined that he no longer pose a threat to US national security. Previously, al-Odah was considered a "forever detainee," meaning he was either too dangerous to release or the government did not have enough evidence to prosecute him. The board has reviewed the cases of 10 "forever detainees" since it got back to work last year.

"In making this determination, the Board noted the detainee's low level of training and lack of a leadership position in al Qaeda or the Taliban," the board, formerly known as the Periodic Review Board, concluded on July 14. "The Board considered the detainee's personal commitment to participate fully in the Government of Kuwait's rehabilitation program and comply with any security measures, as well as the detainee's extensive family support."

Al-Odah's father, Khalid, was a pilot in the Kuwaiti Air Force who received military training in the US. The board recommended al-Odah spend at least one year in a militant rehabilitation program in Kuwait. The Al-Salam Rehabilitation Center was built by Kuwait years ago specifically for al-Odah and another Kuwaiti detainee at Guantanamo, Fayiz al-Kandari, who the parole board recently determined could not be released because he still poses a threat.

According to his Guantanamo file leaked by Wikileaks, the government claimed al-Odah traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 to join the Taliban or al Qaeda. Al-Odah said he was there to do charitable work and tried to escape the country after the US invasion following the 9/11 attacks. He was captured in Pakistan and sold to US forces for a bounty.

His transfer back to Kuwait Wednesday was lauded by human rights groups. The Center for Constitutional Rights, whose attorneys represent numerous Guantanamo detainees, said the "fear mongering over transfers reached a fever pitch over the last weeks leading up to the election."

"But perhaps now we can look at the facts: 148 men now remain at Guantanamo, 79 of them have been cleared for release for years, and the vast majority are from Yemen, suffering collective punishment for their nationality. That is classic arbitrary detention," the organization said in a statement. 

CCR noted that al-Odah was among the first group of detainees who challenged the legality of their indefinite detention before the Supreme Court, which issued a landmark decision that said Guantanamo detainees have habeas corpus rights.  

According to Defense Department documents obtained by VICE News earlier this year, all Guantanamo detainees who are released from the detention facility as "departing detainees" receive a "travel package" consisting of "a Koran in the detainee's language, a blanket, clothing, and several personal care items."

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold