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Guantanamo: US releases Saudi engineer after 21 years of detention

Ghassan al-Sharbi remained imprisoned for years, even after charges were dropped
Activists in orange jumpsuits, representing the men who are still being held in Guantanamo Bay, participate in a protest in front of the White House on 11 January 2023.
Activists in orange jumpsuits, representing the men who are still being held at Guantanamo Bay, participate in a protest in front of the White House, on 11 January 2023 (AFP)

Ghassan al-Sharbi, an American-educated engineer who spent 21 years imprisoned in Guantanamo without trial, has been released by the US government and sent to his home country of Saudi Arabia.

The Periodic Review Board, a US government review panel, approved Sharbi, 48, for release in February 2022 and determined that Sharbi “was no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the national security of the US”.

He was cleared for transfer but diplomats had been working to make security agreements with countries willing to take him in. In September 2022, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin notified Congress of the US's intent to transfer Sharbi to Saudi Arabia.

“The US appreciates the willingness of the Kingdom of Saudi of Arabia, and other partners to support ongoing US efforts toward a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing the Guantanamo Bay facility,” a statement by the US Defence Department said.

Sharbi was first targeted because he had studied at an aeronautical university in Arizona and had attended flight school with two of the al-Qaeda highjackers in the 9/11 plot. He was captured in Pakistan in 2002 for allegedly helping to build car-bomb detonators that were to be shipped to Afghanistan.

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Military prosecutors tried to put him on trial, and he was charged with “providing material support for terrorism”.

However, US courts ruled that the material support charge was not a recognised war crime at the time of his alleged actions, and the charges were dropped in 2008 without ever going to trial. Despite this, his release had not been approved and the US continued to keep Sharbi imprisoned as an enemy fighter. 

Sharbi has become the fourth Guantanamo detainee to be transferred out in recent weeks. Just a few weeks ago, two Pakistani brothers, Abdul and Mohammed Rabbani, were freed and returned home after being held at Guantanamo Bay for 20 years.

Last month, Majid Khan, a Guantanamo detainee who spent 16 years in the prison and completed his sentence nearly a year ago, was released and transferred to Belize. 

Currently, there are 31 detainees that remain at Guantanamo Bay.

According to the Defence Department, 17 are eligible for transfer, three are eligible for a Periodic Review Board, nine are involved in the military commissions' process, and two detainees have been convicted in military commissions.

Many legal experts have said the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay have been an "abject failure" and have called on the US government to put an end to the proceedings, which have for decades been stuck at the pre-trial stage.

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