MIAMI — The Pentagon missed a deadline Tuesday to send a prisoner from the Guantanamo Bay detention center home to Saudi Arabia in what would have been the first transfer under President Donald Trump.
Ahmed al-Darbi pleaded guilty before a military commission at the U.S. base in Cuba in 2014 to charges stemming from an attack on a French oil tanker. He was supposed to be transferred to a rehabilitation program for former jihadists in Saudi Arabia in exchange for his testimony in two other Guantanamo war crimes cases.
But the U.S. is still awaiting unspecified “assurances” from the Saudi Arabian government before the Defense Department can move forward with the transfer, said Navy Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, a Pentagon spokeswoman for issues related to Guantanamo.
Higgins said that the Defense Department “hopes the transfer will take place soon,” but said she could not offer further details.
Al-Darbi’s lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, said he realizes that dealings between two nations can take longer than expected and that he believes “all sides are working together toward the same goal” to complete the transfer despite the missed deadline.
“It would make little sense for the U.S. government to renege on a deal with Mr. al-Darbi after describing his testimony as ‘unprecedented’ in counter-terrorism prosecutions to date,” said Kassem, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law who has been al-Darbi’s lead defense counsel since 2008. “That would virtually guarantee that no one else will cooperate with the U.S. government and its military commissions.”
The prisoner pleaded guilty to charges that included conspiracy, attacking civilian objects, terrorism and aiding the enemy for helping to arrange the 2002 al-Qaida attack on the French tanker MV Limburg. The attack, which killed a Bulgarian crew member, happened after al-Darbi was already in U.S. custody and was already cooperating with authorities, according to court documents.
He has testified to being subjected to sleep deprivation, painful shackling and other abusive treatment while in U.S. custody in Afghanistan.
Al-Darbi could have received a life sentence but instead got 13 years under an agreement that he be sent after four years to the rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia. As part of the deal, he agreed to testify against Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who is charged with orchestrating the deadly 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen and Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi, who is charged with overseeing attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2002-2006.
Al-Darbi provided testimony in both cases, though neither has gone to trial yet. On Friday, a military judge put the Cole case on indefinite hold until another court can weigh in on legal issues that have emerged over the decision by the senior members of the defense team to quit the case because of what they say was a breach of attorney-client privilege.
No prisoners have left Guantanamo under Trump, including five men who were previously deemed eligible for transfer out of the detention center. There are now 41 men held at the base. President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush together released nearly 750 men from Guantanamo.