MIAMI (AP) — Two long-held prisoners have been freed from Guantanamo Bay and sent to Europe for resettlement, the Pentagon said Thursday, capping a monthlong flurry of releases that was unexpectedly reduced by one when one of the men refused at the last minute to leave the U.S. base in Cuba.
The Department of Defense said Tariq al-Sawah, an Egyptian whose health had deteriorated so significantly at Guantanamo that his lawyers at one point feared he might die there, was sent to Bosnia. A Yemeni prisoner, Abd al-Aziz al-Suwaydi, went to Montenegro. Neither man had ever been charged, but nor could they return home. The Pentagon said U.S. government officials had determined it was no longer necessary to detain them at Guantanamo and that they could be safely transferred abroad.
A third man, Muhammad Bawazir, was scheduled to depart for an undisclosed country but refused to board the plane. A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, declined to discuss the specifics of his case, but John Chandler, an attorney for the prisoner, said the Yemeni insisted on being sent to one of several countries where he has family since he couldn't return to his homeland.
The U.S. does not send enemy combatants detained at Guantanamo to Yemen, which is embroiled in a civil war and considered too unstable.
Chandler, who is based in Atlanta and represents two other prisoners at Guantanamo, said he tried many times in recent months to persuade Bawazir to accept the resettlement offer. The prisoner, who has been held at Guantanamo since he was 21 and is now 35, was deeply reluctant to start over in a place he did not know.
"He's very frightened of going to a place where he has no assured support," he said.
Bawazir, who had engaged in hunger strikes at Guantanamo and at one point dropped to 90 pounds, was offered assistance from Reprieve, a human rights group that helps former Guantanamo prisoners re-establish themselves, and the State Department agreed to help his family visit him in the country that the attorney declined to name.
"It's a country I'd go to in a heartbeat," Chandler said. "I can't help you with the logic of his position. It's just a very emotional reaction from a man who has been locked up for 14 years. "
Bawazir, was captured in Afghanistan and turned over to U.S. forces. He has family in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia, his lawyer said.
El-Sawah was a relatively well-known prisoner. He had admitted being an explosives trainer for al-Qaida and at one point faced charges of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. But the government withdrew the charges and decided not to pursue new ones for reasons that have not been made public. The prisoner was kept in a special housing unit away from other prisoners and had reportedly cooperated with authorities. Several former commanders wrote letters on his behalf urging his release.
While in captivity, the prisoner's weight ballooned to more than 400 pounds (180 kilograms). At one point, his lawyers feared that he might not survive Guantanamo because of his multiple medical conditions, including his morbid obesity and diabetes.
The U.S. released a total of 16 prisoners from Guantanamo this month, part of an effort by President Barack Obama to whittle down the number of low-level prisoners at the base. He has said he wants to transfer several dozen to the U.S. for indefinite confinement and prosecution. Many in Congress, however, want to keep the detention center open.