The United States has transferred nine Yemeni men to Saudi Arabia from the US military prison at Guantanamo under a long-sought diplomatic deal between Washington and Riyadh, US officials said.
The transfer, which took place just days before President Barack Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia for a summit of Gulf Arab allies, marked the latest step in his final push to close the controversial detention centre at the US naval base in Cuba before he leaves office in January 2017.
The Saudis agreed, after lengthy negotiations that at one point involved Obama and Saudi King Salman, to take the nine Yemenis for resettlement and put them through a government-run rehabilitation program that seeks to reintegrate militants into society, the officials said.
The group announced by the Pentagon was the largest shipped out of the Guantanamo Bay prison since Obama rolled out his plan in February aimed at shutting the facility. But he faces stiff opposition from many Republican lawmakers as well as some fellow Democrats.
There are now 80 prisoners at Guantanamo, most held without charge or trial for more than a decade, drawing international condemnation.
The most prominent of the transfers was Tariq Ba Odah, a 37-year-old Yemeni whom the military had been force-feeding daily since he went on a hunger strike in 2007.
Ba Odah’s lawyer, Omar Farah, said the US government had “played Russian roulette” with his client’s life and that his transfer “ends one of the most appalling chapters in Guantanamo’s sordid history.”
His case was a source of legal wrangling between the U.S. Department of Justice and his lawyers, who had unsuccessfully sought his release on humanitarian and medical grounds, and also created divisions within the Obama administration.
Transfers precede Obama’s visit
The transfers took place as Obama prepared to visit Saudi Arabia for a summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council at a time when US-Saudi relations have been strained by the nuclear deal with Iran, their Shi’ite regional rival, and what Riyadh sees as a weak US response to Syria’s civil war.
The Saudis have also threatened to sell of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of American assets should the US Congress pass a bill that could hold the kingdom responsible for a role in the September 11, 2001 attacks, the New York Times reported.
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