Two Guantanamo Bay prisoners held for nearly 20 years without charge have been approved for release as the Biden administration quietly moves to close the infamous facility before the 20th anniversary of 11 September, according to reports.
The decision to release two Yemeni citizens, first reported by The New York Times, comes a day after Russian president Vladimir Putin criticized the United States’ human rights record for maintaining secret CIA prisons and Guantanamo Bay without any standing in international or US law.
"Going back to the human rights record, the Guantanamo prison is still operating. It doesn’t even start to resemble what is stipulated in the international law or in the US legislation. And yet it exists," Mr Putin told reporters after his meeting with Joe Biden in Geneva.
"Secret CIA prisons across the globe. Including those in the European countries where people were tortured. Is this the great human rights record? Oh, I doubt that."
The White House indicated last week it was using an "under-the-radar" approach to avoid political backlash for closing the detention centre before 9/11, when the US is scheduled to complete its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Following the US and Russia summit in Geneva on Thursday, an Interagency Periodic Review Board disclosed the approved release of Abdulsalam al-Hela, 53, and Sharqawi Abdu Ali al-Hajj, 47, for transfer to another country.
Mr al-Hajj, known as “Riyadh the Facilitator” for helping fighters reach al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was captured in Pakistan in 2002. Mr al-Hela, suspected of having ties to extremist groups and knowledge about terrorist attacks on Western targets, was captured in Cairo in 2002.
They join three men approved for release in May, including the oldest detainee of Guantanamo, Saifullah Paracha, 73, of Pakistan, who was captured in 2003. Uthman Abdul al-Rahim Uthman, 40, of Yemen is the longest-held prisoner after being sent to Camp X-Ray in January 2002. Abdul Rabbani, 54, of Pakistan, was also sent to the prison in 2002.
The 11 detainees now approved for release are still waiting for another country to accept their transfer, with some previously approved waiting for 10 years to have another country agree to terms. The US seeks diplomatic and security arrangements for countries to either continue to jail them, put them on trial, or prevent them from travelling.
The White House is waiting to reach out to Congress to close Guantanamo until transferring a handful of remaining terror suspects to foreign countries, according to a former senior administration official involved in the discussions quoted by NBC News.
"They don’t want it to become a dominant issue that blows up," the official said. "They don’t want it to become a lightning rod. They want it to be methodical, orderly."
The quieter approach comes after the White House launched a review of the prison in February and had considered having the president sign an executive action, according to two sources quoted by Reuters.
The previous detainee released from Guantánamo Bay was by the Trump administration when it repatriated a confessed Qaeda terrorist to Saudi Arabia in May 2018.
Another 17 prisoners, who have hearings scheduled for this year, are held as “law of war detainees”, as noted in the Times coverage, who are prisoners of war declared by the United States after the 9/11 terror attacks. Hearings had been delayed throughout 2020 due to the Covid pandemic.