(New York) – The United States government’s release of two Libyan detainees from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to Senegal on April 4, 2016, shows meaningful progress on closing the prison, Human Rights Watch said today. The Senegalese government has shown leadership and compassion in agreeing to resettle the detainees, both of whom were held at Guantanamo for years, in violation of international law.
“President Barack Obama has less than a year in office to erase the stain of Guantanamo that taints his human rights legacy,” said Laura Pitter, senior US national security counsel at Human Rights Watch. “These and other announced transfers bring Obama closer toward his goal of closing the prison.”
The two detainees resettled to Senegal are Salem Abdul Salem Ghereby, 55, and Omar Khalif Mohammed Abu Baker Mahjour Umar, approximately 44. Both are Libyan nationals who were held for nearly 14 years without charge or trial. In 2009, an interagency task force determined that Ghereby did not pose a significant security threat to the US, clearing him for release from Guantanamo. A different interagency body, a Periodic Review Board (PRB), cleared Abu Bakr in 2015. Both are alleged to have joined the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organization opposed to the then-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, in the 1990s. Years after Ghereby and Abu Bakr were detained by the US, the LIFG split into two factions, one of which was allegedly aligned with international terrorist organizations.
“Senegal’s decision to welcome the two Libyans will help heal the harm the 14 years of unjust detention at Guantanamo has caused them,” Pitter said. “Senegal has made an important humanitarian gesture by offering these men the chance to start a new life.”
On President Obama’s second day in office in 2009, he promised to close the Guantanamo detention center within one year. That goal has proved elusive due to the administration’s lack of commitment and obstruction from Congress, Human Rights Watch said. However, as Obama approaches the end of his second term, his administration has shown greater commitment to closing the facility. In the past three months, 18 detainees have been released, and media reports indicate that approximately a dozen more transfers are scheduled for the next few weeks.
Congress has blocked the administration from moving Guantanamo detainees to the US for any purpose – trial, detention, or resettlement. And some members have opposed Obama’s efforts to change the law barring transfer of the detainees to the US. Accordingly, the only option for many detainees is to be sent home – often impossible due to instability or the risk of torture or persecution – or to be resettled in third countries. This is the second transfer of Guantanamo detainees to a West African nation in the past few months. Ghana showed similar compassion and commitment to human rights in taking in two former Yemeni Guantanamo detainees in January 2016. Roughly two dozen other countries have also resettled Guantanamo detainees, including Germany, Uruguay, Ireland, and France.
A total of 89 prisoners remain at Guantanamo, 35 of whom have been cleared for release, while another 44 await review by the military Periodic Review Board. Of the remaining 10 detainees, seven currently face charges before the fundamentally flawed military commission system and another three have been convicted. Half of the eight convictions obtained in the commissions have been overturned.
The Periodic Review Boards were established by executive order in May 2011 to review whether certain detainees met the US government’s standard for release. But the boards did not start reviewing cases until November 2013. Since then, the board has cleared 20 of the 25 detainees who have come before it for review. Though the boards determine whether a detainee can be released under US standards, under international law, detainees should have been prosecuted or released years ago.
Any detainees whom the administration plans to prosecute should face charges in federal courts rather than in the military commissions, Human Rights Watch said. However, transferring detainees who have not been charged or convicted to the US for continued detention would just prolong the unlawful practice of detention without charge, but on US soil.
“Despite progress in recent months, the administration will need to quicken the pace of transferring detainees to home or third countries if Obama is to fulfill his promise of closing Guantanamo by the end of his term,” Pitter said.