Panel approves transfer of Saudi engineer from Guantánamo Bay

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. government review panel on Thursday approved the release with security guarantees of a Saudi prisoner from Guantánamo Bay who was captured in Pakistan and held as a suspected bomb-maker.

The decision in the case of Ghassan Abdullah al-Sharbi, who has been detained for almost 20 years, means that most of the 39 detainees at the prison of war have now been cleared for transfer, but must wait for US diplomats to reach agreements. security agreements with countries. ready to welcome them.

Mr. al-Sharbi, 47, was of particular interest to the United States because, according to a US intelligence profile, he had attended flight school lessons in Phoenix with two men who would become hijackers during the September 11, 2001 attacks. He had also earned an engineering degree, attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, and was fluent in English.

The Periodic Review Committee said in a brief statement that Mr. al-Sharbi had unspecified “physical and mental health problems” and that, with rehabilitation and security measures, including travel restrictions, he could be safely transferred to another country.

The council issued the decision less than a week after revealing it had approved the repatriation of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a mentally ill Saudi prisoner believed to be the 20th hijacker planned by al-Qaeda during of the September 11 attacks.

Last Friday, according to people familiar with the process, the Pentagon informed Congress that Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III had signed the Saudi guarantees for security arrangements upon Mr. Qahtani’s return. Certification is required by law at least 30 days before the transfer.

Initial reaction to the decision was mixed. Then on Monday, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, responded to published reports about Mr. Qahtani’s transfer plans by accusing the Biden administration of a ” appalling capitulation to the far left”.

Mr. al-Sharbi, a Saudi citizen, may be able to return home sooner than other exonerated detainees whose governments are considered too unstable or too untrustworthy to strike satisfactory deals with the United States.

Saudi Arabia has taken in about 140 Saudis and Yemenis from Guantánamo in a program created to help rehabilitate men who joined militant jihadist movements in Afghanistan in the years before the 9/11 attacks.

But the council did not specifically recommend that Mr. al-Sharbi be sent to Saudi Arabia. Instead, he asked the host country to monitor his activities, prevent him from traveling and continue to share information about him with US authorities.

Mr. al-Sharbi’s case illustrated the challenges faced by successive US administrations in bringing to justice suspected al-Qaeda foot soldiers at Guantánamo.

For a time he was accused of “providing material support to terrorism” for allegedly helping to build car bomb detonators in the Punjab region of Pakistan that were to be shipped to Afghanistan. He was captured in March 2002 along with a “high-value detainee” known as Abu Zubaydah during a raid in Faisalabad, Pakistan.

But higher courts ruled that the charge of providing material support was unconstitutional before military commissions, rendering him and other low-value prisoners essentially ineligible for trial. He spent years in indefinite detention.

During his early years at Guantánamo Bay, Mr. al-Sharbi was considered a belligerent and unrepentant prisoner. During a hearing in 2004 or 2005 before a military commission, which reviewed his status as an “enemy combatant”, he railed against capitalism, America, homosexuality, Israel and the war in Iraq.

In 2006 he was softer but rejected the authority of the war tribunal to bring him to justice. He brushed off his US military defense attorney in fluent English and derided the proceedings as “same circus, different clown.”

Mr. al-Sharbi has apparently mellowed in recent years. An unidentified US military officer who represented him at a December board hearing said they had “many discussions” about how he would fare after Guantánamo. The US officer said Mr al-Sharbi “could assimilate well in an Arabic-speaking or English-speaking country”.

Sabrina P. Shroff, a federal public defender who represented Mr. al-Sharbi in an unlawful detention case in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., for about a year, wrote to the board that he was not a threat to the nation. United States security. Ms Shroff also said she was ‘so confident in his goodness’ that she would ‘welcome him into my home’ and gave him her New York address.

This is not currently possible because former Guantanamo detainees are not allowed to enter the United States.

“He has no animosity,” Ms. Shroff wrote. “Ghassan often said that he should look forward and the best way to look forward is to have clear eyes and an open and pure heart.”

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