GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — Thirty-five-year-old Abdalmalik Wahab had been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for nearly 14 years without charge when he got some good news: The U.S. government was no longer interested in holding him.
A panel made up of representatives of six government agencies, including the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, determined on Dec. 5 that Abdalmalik was “almost certainly” a member of al-Qaida at one point but it was no longer worth keeping him at the U.S. base in Cuba.
“This is a happy day,” he said in a statement released by one of his lawyers, David Remes, after the decision, “but the happiest day will be when I see my wife and daughter.”
He may get that chance, along with others who have been languishing at Guantanamo for years.
Despite the fiery rhetoric over Guantanamo in Congress, President Barack Obama has been making progress toward his goal of closing the detention center, reaching some notable milestones.
A surge of releases in recent months has brought the number of men in custody to 122, less than half the number when Obama took office, and the fewest since 10 days after the U.S. began shipping al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, shackled and clad in orange jumpsuits, to the base on Jan. 11, 2002.
The number of prisoners cleared for transfer is now 54, with the remainder still facing indefinite detention.
One result of these efforts, according to military officials, is that Guantanamo is a quieter, more manageable detention center. Army Col. David Heath, who runs day-to-day operations inside the camps, says around 80 percent of the men are now deemed “highly compliant” with the rules to the point that they can live in communal conditions, confined in their cells for only two hours a day. The rest of the time they are free to eat together, pray, play soccer and computer games and watch satellite TV.
Some who have pushed to close the prison say fewer detainees may make that goal more realistic.
“I strongly believe that momentum leads to more momentum,” said Clifford Sloan, who served until Dec. 31 as the State Department special envoy on Guantanamo. “The smaller the number, the more manageable the issue is and the more overwhelming the arguments for closure.”
But there are plenty, including many Republican members of the new Congress, who don’t want to see the facility shuttered and are proposing an end to future transfers. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said there were too many empty beds at Guantanamo. “We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep the country safe,” he said, before adding that those there now can “rot in hell.”
At its peak, in June 2003, Guantanamo held nearly 700 prisoners, and more than 500 were released under President George W. Bush. Obama came into office pledging to close it in a year, but Congress banned the transfer of any prisoners to the U.S. for any reason, including trial and later imposed restrictions on transfers.
Congress eased the transfer restrictions in December 2013, but the surge of releases didn’t begin until November, when Obama directed officials to pick up the pace, resulting in resettlements to Estonia, Oman, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Slovakia, Uruguay and Afghanistan.
That brought a degree of optimism for some of the prisoners, hoping they might be next. “There was definitely a palpable mood change when the transfers went out,” said Brian Foster, a member of Abdalmalik’s legal team.
The releases haven’t been entirely smooth. Foster said a client of his who went to Slovakia doesn’t speak the language and feels isolated. Some of the six men sent to Uruguay have complained publicly about not getting enough support from the government while President Jose Mujica questioned their work ethic.
The 68 not cleared for release include prisoners facing trial by military commission, such as the five men charged in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, those who could potentially face charges in the future or men deemed just too dangerous to release.
Their long-term fate remains an unresolved question that could be easier to address once the cleared men are gone, said Benjamin Wittes, a national security expert with the Brookings Institution.
“I think the administration is in a much stronger place if they can say we have gotten it down to a core group of people we’re not going to let and we want to hold them somewhere other than Guantanamo,” Wittes said.
Most prisoners on the cleared list have been there since 2009, when authorities took a look at the evidence against them and the potential threat they posed. Most cannot return to their homeland, either because they could face persecution or because they are from Yemen, which is considered too unstable, and the U.S. has been trying to persuade other countries to take them.
Last year, the U.S. also began the first releases of Yemenis in several years. The review board agreed to put Abdalmalik on the transfer list only after he agreed to be resettled in a third country with his wife and daughter. His lawyers say they don’t have any idea when he will be released, but say he has been studying English, Spanish and business in preparation.
“I want to close this chapter of my life,” he told the board, according to a transcript. “I wish to open my eyes and see this nightmare has ended and vanished once and for all.”