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Secret Guantanamo prisoner transfer halted by war on Gaza: Report

The Biden administration has not released a tentative date for eleven Guantanamo detainees awaiting repatriation
Activists in orange jumpsuits, representing men being held at US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, participate in a protest in front of the White House on 11 January 2023 in Washington, DC (Alex Wong/AFP)

A transfer of eleven Guantanamo detainees to Oman was scheduled for October 2023, when Hamas's attack on southern Israel halted the process, US officials have now acknowledged after American TV broadcaster NBC published the news on Monday. 

Last October, the Biden administration planned and nearly executed the resettlement of eleven detainees who had been cleared for transfer by national security review panels. The detainees to be released are of Yemeni origin or have ties to the country and are being held at the military prison without having been charged with crimes. 

A military cargo plane was reportedly already on the runway at Guantanamo Bay, at the eastern end of Cuba, when the mission was called off, according to security officials, and the plane took off without the group. 

Usually, such detainee movements are kept secret until completed, but the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to NBC, acknowledged the aborted mission.

According to the NBC account, the transfer was held up amid concerns raised by members of Congress, primarily Democrats close to President Biden, about the "political optics after the Hamas' attack on Israel". 

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Since the war in Gaza began in October, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have repeatedly attacked ships off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea, which the US and coalition partners continue to counter-attack with air strikes.

White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson called Oman "a trusted partner" on Monday night, emphasising the close cooperation "on a range of topics" between Oman and the US, "including on the rehabilitation of Guantanamo detainees”.

Middle East Eye asked the White House National Security Council for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

22 years of Guantanamo

None of the eleven Yemeni prisoners set to be repatriated have ever been charged with crimes and the detainees have not yet received any information regarding an alternative transfer date.

The transfer would have brought the population at Guantanamo to below 20 for the first time since it began operating in January 2002.

Since 2002, 780 detainees have been held at the facility. About 750 detainees have been transferred through repatriation or resettlement, mostly in secret military operations.

Of the 30 that remain today, only eleven have been charged with war crimes in the military commissions system. Of those, ten are awaiting trial and only one has been convicted. In addition, three detainees, Guantanamo's so-called "forever prisoners", are being held in indefinite law-of-war detention and are neither facing tribunal charges nor being recommended for release. 

One of them is "Abu Zubaydah", a Saudi-born Palestinian man who was detained at CIA "black sites" for over four years. Last September, he filed a lawsuit against two psychologists who helped conceive the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques which have been widely condemned as torture.

Torture methods employed against Zubaydah included waterboarding him up to 83 times in one month, forced nudity, sleep deprivation and confinement to a coffin-size box.

A Yemeni citizen named Mansoor Adayfi had his Yemeni passport restored in May last year after having spent 14 years in US captivity in Guantanamo Bay without having been charged with a crime. 

The eleven detainees, whose release to Oman has been cancelled, belong to a group of 16 detainees who are being held in law-of-war detention but have been recommended for transfer with security arrangements to another country.

Biden is now the fourth US president that human rights groups have pressed to shutter the notorious detention facility. Under Obama, efforts to close Guantanamo were made, but in vain. Obama did, however, manage to reduce the population from 245 to 41 detainees. 

At the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep Guantanamo open. The Biden administration has revitalised the process to close the facility but has not succeeded so far. Under his presidency, 10 detainees have been released. 

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