Will Trump release a Saudi prisoner from Guantanamo?

by Courtney Kube /  / Updated 

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WASHINGTON — On the campaign trail Donald Trump said he wanted to keep the detention center at Guantanamo Bay open and "load it up with some bad dudes." But President Trump may actually oversee a slight decrease in the population.

Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Haza al-Darbi, a 42-year-old Saudi citizen who has been held at the U.S. military detention center in Cuba since 2002, could be transferred to Saudi Arabia in coming days.

In 2014 al-Darbi pleaded guilty to planning a 2002 terrorist attack on the MV Limburg, a French oil tanker, off the coast of Yemen that killed one crewmember.

As part of his deal, al-Darbi waived his right to a trial and agreed "to cooperate fully and truthfully with the Government." The cooperation includes "providing complete and accurate information in interviews, depositions, and testimony wherever and whenever requested."

The agreement stated that al-Darbi would be transferred to Saudi Arabia "after completing four years in United States custody following the acceptance of my plea."

Al-Darbi's plea was accepted Feb. 20, 2014, almost exactly four years ago.

The prosecution has indicated that it feels al-Darbi has held up his end of the bargain. During an Oct. 13, 2017, hearing, the government prosecutor, Air Force Capt. Matthew Hracho, said al-Darbi had "cooperated extensively with the United States government in providing information about other al Qaeda members," saying that "the accused told the truth" and that his testimony is "valuable" to the prosecution in military commission cases.

Asked whether al-Darbi will be released by the deadline next week, Defense Department spokesperson Cmdr. Sarah Higgins responded: "Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Haza al-Darbi's pretrial agreement provides that, upon completion of all conditions, he may request to serve out any remaining portion of his sentence to confinement in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These conditions, which are not in al-Darbi's control, have not been finalized. He will continue to remain at Guantanamo until all details have been concluded."

Ramzi Kassem, the civilian attorney for al-Darbi, declined to comment.

Before he was detained in 2002, al-Darbi worked for Abd al Rahim al-Nashiri, the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing. The October 2000 attack killed 17 U.S. sailors when an explosive-laden boat rammed into the U.S. Navy destroyer in Aden harbor.

As part of his agreement, al Darbi testified about Nashiri's role in the 2000 USS Cole attack.

Keeping Gitmo Open

No other Gitmo detainee has a plea deal with the military commission that specifies release, but five other detainees were cleared for release by Periodic Review Boards under the Obama administration.

That doesn't mean the Trump administration will release them. "There are no indications that they are going to be released," said Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University.

Last month Trump signed an executive order to keep the detention center at Guantanamo Bay open, reversing the Obama administration policy to draw down the population of the controversial prison.

This comes as the Trump administration faces the challenge of repatriating hundreds of foreign fighters from prisons in Syria to their home nations.

At its height, Guantanamo held more than 700 prisoners. President George W. Bush released more than 500, and President Barack Obama released almost 200. There are currently 41 detainees.

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