US transfers 15 detainees from Guantanamo to UAE

Move signals Obama's determination to close controversial facility before he leaves office

The Pentagon says 15 inmates from Guantanamo prison have been transferred to the UAE, part of President Barack Obama's plan to shut down the US detention center in Cuba.

WASHINGTON • Fifteen Guantanamo Bay detainees have been transferred to the United Arab Emirates, the largest such release in years, the Pentagon has announced.

This brings the remaining population of the detention centre down to 61. Since the Sept 11, 2001, attacks, about 780 inmates have been housed in the United States military-run facility.

According to a US State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, 12 of the men are from Yemen and the other three are Afghans.

The Pentagon has previously struggled to find a third country to take Yemeni detainees, given that they cannot go home because of the civil war in their nation.

"The United States is grateful to the government of the United Arab Emirates for its humanitarian gesture and willingness to support ongoing US efforts to close" Guantanamo, the Pentagon said in a statement.

Once transferred, inmates are usually freed, subject to supervision and rehabilitation programmes.

Amnesty International welcomed the announcement as a sign that US President Barack Obama is serious about closing the controversial facility before he leaves office.

One of those transferred was an Afghan called Obaidullah, who had allegedly hidden landmines in 2001. He was detained for 14 years without trial.

Monday's announcement represents the largest transfer of prisoners under the Obama administration.

"The continued operation of the detention facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists," Mr Lee Wolosky, the US Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, said in a statement.

"The support of our friends and allies - such as the UAE - is critical to our achieving this shared goal."

Mr Obama urgently wants to close the facility before he leaves office at the start of next year, but he has been continually thwarted by Republican lawmakers.

Still, the US has in recent months accelerated the rate at which detainees who have been approved for transfer are released from the facility. Mr Obama wants to send the rest, deemed to be the most dangerous, for incarceration in the US - but that is an extreme long shot given the Republican opposition.

In February, the President presented US Congress with a new closure plan for Guantanamo. He said the detention centre serves only to stoke anti-US resentment and fuel recruitment of Islamic militants.

Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte recently renewed calls to keep Guantanamo open and published an unclassified report on 107 current and former detainees that she said highlighted their terrorist pasts.

November's election will likely help to determine the future of the notorious prison, as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has vowed to fill Guantanamo with "bad dudes" should he win the White House.

To date, just 10 of the detainees face criminal trial, including the "9/11 Five" - led by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - who are accused of plotting the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'US transfers 15 detainees from Guantanamo to UAE'. Print Edition | Subscribe