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Guantánamo prisoner repatriated to Saudi Arabia after 21 years without trial

The closed Camp X-Ray, shown in 2019, in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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The Pentagon said Wednesday it had repatriated a longtime inmate from the U.S. prison in Guantánamo Bay to his home country of Saudi Arabia, as the Biden administration moves closer toward its stated but complex goal of shuttering the detention facility in Cuba.

The Defense Department said in a statement that Ghassan al-Sharbi, 48, was returned after consulting with Saudi Arabia to ensure it could meet “the requirements for responsible transfer.”

Sharbi was charged in 2009 with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. The United States alleged that Sharbi had traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan in August 2001 to receive terrorism training at a camp operated by al-Qaeda.

Sharbi, who is fluent in English and took undergraduate courses for two years in Arizona, according to court records, translated and taught English to al-Qaeda terrorists, the United States alleged. However, the charges were dropped in 2013, and Sharbi was never brought to trial. Still, he remained imprisoned at the facility — established by President George W. Bush during the war on terrorism and for critics a symbol of post-9/11 U.S. excess — for more than two decades after his detention in March 2002.

The transfer was recommended in February 2022 by a review board, which stipulated that Sharbi be subject to a “comprehensive set of security measures including monitoring, travel restrictions and continued information sharing.”

The Saudi Embassy in Washington and the Saudi Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Pentagon said it notified Congress in September of the pending repatriation.

The announcement came after the Defense Department said late last month that it had repatriated two other Guantánamo inmates, brothers Abdul and Mohammed Rabbani, to Pakistan.

No escape from Guantánamo: Life after release is its own kind of prison

Sharbi’s release leaves 31 detainees at Guantánamo, the Pentagon said, the majority of whom are eligible for transfer.

The Defense Department thanked Saudi Arabia “and other partners” Wednesday for their support in the United States’ “efforts toward a deliberate and thorough process focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing the Guantánamo Bay facility.”

In January, a coalition of dozens of human rights, criminal justice reform and anti-discrimination organizations sent a letter to President Biden urging him to prioritize shutting down the detention facility, saying it “entrenches racial divisions and racism more broadly, and risks facilitating additional rights violations.”

The signatories included the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“We urge you to act without delay,” the letter said, “and in a just manner that considers the harm done to the men who have been detained indefinitely without charge or fair trials for two decades.”