Getting out of Guantánamo is such a feat these days (with only three men released in the last 18 months) that it is remarkable that Ibrahim al-Qosi, a Sudanese prisoner who agreed to a plea deal at his war-crimes trial in Guantánamo in July 2010 guaranteeing that he would be freed after two years, has been repatriated as promised. One hundred sixty-eight prisoners now remain in Guantánamo.
With a typical disregard for the principle that a prisoner — any prisoner — must be freed when his sentence comes to an end, the United States has maintained, since the “war on terror” began nearly 11 years ago, that prisoners at Guantánamo can continue to be held after their sentence has come to an end and be returned to the general population as “enemy combatants.” Even so, George W. Bush failed to do that when he had the opportunity — with Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden who was freed after serving a five-month sentence handed down after his military trial in 2008.
A source with knowledge of al-Qosi’s case who does not wish to be identified told me that the Obama administration was unwilling to detain al-Qosi after his sentence came to an end. I believe that one of the reasons that Barack Obama negotiated a waiver to the provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act allowing him to bypass restrictions on releasing prisoners that were imposed by Congress, was to prevent Republicans from trying to force him to continue holding al-Qosi.
That, it should be noted, was not out of kindness. Al-Qosi’s plea deal — preventing him from serving 14 years, as decided at his trial — has been used in Guantánamo to encourage other prisoners to accept plea deals in exchange for providing the authorities with information they can use against yet other prisoners. If al-Qosi had not been freed, it would have derailed a plan that is already on shaky ground because of the Canadian government’s refusal to repatriate Omar Khadr, who also accepted a plea deal in October 2010. His plea deal was supposed to guarantee that, after one more year in Guantánamo, he would be returned to Canada to serve the rest of an eight-year sentence in his homeland.
As Carol Rosenberg, who broke al-Qosi’s story in the Miami Herald, explained, Khadr’s presence at Guantánamo, eight months after he was supposed to have left the prison, “has meant that prosecution plea deal offers have fallen on deaf ears.” Al-Qosi’s release, in contrast, “may break a logjam in plea deals attributed to the Khadr case.” Marine Col. Jeffrey Colwell, the chief defense counsel for the military commissions, told Rosenberg, “Clearly if the government can’t carry through on their end of the bargain, it has a chilling effect on the willingness of others to plead.”
Al-Qosi’s release will allow him to be reunited with his family. Unlike the families of many other prisoners, all of his immediate family are still alive. As Paul Reichler, his Washington-based civilian attorney, who represented him pro bono for seven years, explained, “He is now in his 50s, eager only to spend his life at home with his family in Sudan — his mother and father, his wife and two teenage daughters, and his brothers and their families — and live among them in peace, quiet, and freedom.”
His Pentagon-appointed defense lawyer, Navy Comdr. Suzanne Lachelier, noted that last week, al-Qosi was moved to “special quarters, ” with “a flat-screen TV, a refrigerator that let him eat at his leisure, and a small outdoor gravel-topped patio, all inside a locked enclosure.” Commander Lachelier added that there was also “a real bed rather than a steel bunk topped with a mat,” but that al-Qosi slept on the floor before leaving “because he suffers from a bad back.”
Although al-Qosi is technically a convicted war criminal, his conviction says more about the distortions introduced by the United States after 9/11 than it does about al-Qosi himself. He was seized in December 2001 escaping from the Tora Bora mountains, where a showdown had taken place between al-Qaeda and the Taliban on the one hand, and the United States and their proxy Afghan army on the other, but there was no indication that he held any kind of leadership position. He was seized with other men who were later described as being bodyguards for Osama bin Laden, but those are largely discredited allegations made by prisoners notorious for making false statements about their fellow inmates.
Al-Qosi was a trained accountant who had been the bookkeeper for one of the businesses that Osama bin Laden ran in Sudan during his stay in al-Qosi’s homeland between 1992 and 1996. He then followed bin Laden to Afghanistan, but he was never anything more than a peripheral figure, sometimes working as a driver for bin Laden (like Salim Hamdan), and sometimes cooking at an al-Qaeda compound in Jalalabad named Star of Jihad.
As Rosenberg noted, he was also one of the first prisoners “to formally allege torture,” including “the use of strobe lights, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, [and] being wrapped in the Israeli flag,” in a petition filed in federal court in 2004. None of that was revealed publicly at the time, and he had to drop all allegations about his torture and abuse as part of his plea deal.
With his long ordeal behind him, al-Qosi will return to his hometown, Atbara, north of Khartoum, where he will help to run his family’s shop. His wife, Mariam, whom he married in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks, is the daughter of another former Guantánamo prisoner, Abdullah Tabarak, a Moroccan released in July 2003. She moved to Atbara from Morocco last year with their daughters to await al-Qosi’s return.
Summing up his client, Reichler said, “He is an intelligent, pious, humble, and sincere individual who has endured much hardship the past ten years. But he returns home without hatred or rancor.”
In conclusion, while it is reassuring that the Obama administration has honored its agreement to release al-Qosi, it remains deeply dispiriting that 87 other men — never charged, never tried, and cleared for release up to eight years ago — are still held. New homes are required for some of the men who cannot be safely repatriated, because they are from countries where they would be unsafe if returned — China, for example, or Syria. Fifty-eight of them, however, are Yemenis, held because of an unjust and hysterical response to the capture of would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in December 2009.
When it was revealed that Abdulmutallab had been recruited in Yemen, Obama responded by issuing a moratorium on releasing any more Yemenis that has stayed in place ever since, even though not releasing Yemenis — some cleared as long ago as 2004 — is nothing less than imputing guilt by nationality. It is a disgrace that, unfortunately, no one in a position of power and authority wishes to address.