WASHINGTON — The United States has transferred six lower-level detainees from the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where each had been held for more than 13 years, the military announced early Saturday. The departures, to Oman, were the first from the prison in six months and reduced the inmate population there to 116 prisoners.
The six men are all Yemenis and have each been held since early 2002 in indefinite detention without trial under the laws of war. In January 2010, a six-agency task force unanimously recommended that they be transferred, if security conditions could be met in the receiving country. But because of the political upheaval and security chaos in Yemen, they remained stranded until now.
The break in the six-month lull in transfers does not appear to signal the start of any flurry of releases. According to officials familiar with Guantánamo policy, no further transfers are imminent, and the weekend releases were not a new decision but a leftover piece of a deal negotiated last year, when Oman agreed to accept 10 men. Four Yemeni detainees were resettled in Oman in January.
Still, the six transfers represent a milestone for the administration: When President Obama took office in 2009 — and vowed to close the prison within a year, a policy goal that he has failed to achieve — there were 242 detainees at the prison. After this transfer, fewer than half of that number remain.
Mr. Obama’s plan to close the detention facility at Guantánamo, which he has criticized as costly and a potent symbol for anti-American propaganda, involves bringing the remaining detainees into the United States for trial or continued wartime detention in a different prison.
Many Republicans and some civil libertarians oppose that plan. Congress has outlawed bringing any detainees onto domestic soil.
On Saturday, Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, was among several Republicans who criticized the transfers and the relative secrecy with which they were carried out.
“Despite the high terror threat to our country, the president continues to open the jail cells at Guantánamo Bay, giving potential terrorists the ability to return to the fight,” Mr. McCaul said in a statement. “The president needs to be up front with the American people, rather than have the release of dangerous detainees buried in a Saturday news dump.”
The latest transfers come as Congress is debating the annual defense authorization bill, which continues the ban on bringing detainees onto domestic territory, as well as a series of restrictions lawmakers have imposed on transfers. The House has passed a version of the bill that would tighten limits in a way that could in effect stop any more releases, including blocking the departure of the 51 men waiting on the transfer list, about 43 of whom are Yemeni.
The Senate is considering a bill developed by the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, John McCain, Republican of Arizona, that would instead call for an up-or-down vote in both chambers of Congress on whether to approve an administration plan for moving the remaining detainees to a prison on American soil.
It is not clear what circumstances would generate sufficient political support in Congress, especially among the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, to approve any such plan. The White House argues that Congress should simply drop the restrictions.
The Senate bill would also let the military temporarily bring a detainee into the United States for medical treatment. The cost and difficulty of transporting specialized medical equipment and doctors to the prison has been an issue of recurring concern as the detainee population ages. The House bill contains no such provision.
Both bills, however, would impose a ban on transferring any detainees to Yemen. Under both the Bush and the Obama administrations, executive branch officials have been reluctant to repatriate Yemenis because of the continuing upheaval there even as similar detainees from other countries were sent home. As a result, the bulk of the remaining detainees on the transfer list are Yemenis.
Late last year, the Obama administration began resettling Yemenis elsewhere, a process that continued with the weekend transfers to Oman.
Typically, former detainees transferred to other countries are subject to surveillance and travel restrictions.
The six resettled detainees were identified by a government official as Idris Ahmed Abdu Qader Idris; Sharaf Ahmad Muhammad Masud; Jalal Salam Awad Awad; Saad Masir Mukbl al Azani; Emad Abdalla Hassan; and Mohammed Ali Salem al Zarnuki. All six were arrested in Pakistan in late 2001 or early 2002 and turned over to the United States.
The transfers were the first approved by Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, who took office in February. Under the statutory restrictions, the secretary of defense must personally approve any transfer and notify Congress that he has determined that any risk of post-release terrorism has been substantially mitigated, then wait 30 days before moving the prisoner.
The officials familiar with Guantánamo detention policy said there were packages for the transfer of two other lower-level detainees, including the proposed repatriation of a Mauritanian man, awaiting Mr. Carter’s approval, but no pending transfers for which Congress has already been notified.
The Obama administration has two envoys charged with negotiating transfer deals, Paul M. Lewis at the Pentagon and a position at the State Department that has been vacant since late last year, when its previous occupant, Clifford Sloan, stepped down.
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(via NY Times)