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Two Guantanamo Bay prisoners, both Yemenis, win release after 17 years

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Two Yemenis who have been held at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for 17 years as alleged al-Qaeda supporters have won their release, according to newly published Defense Department filings on their cases.

Ali al-Hajj al-Sharqawi and Abd Al Salam Al Hilal were both detained in 2002 as US authorities, citing a “war on terror,” combed the world for members of al-Qaeda after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

They were transferred to Guantanamo in 2004, with subsequent records showing Sharqawi had undergone torture while being interrogated by the CIA after he was detained in Pakistan.

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Documents released by the Pentagon’s Periodic Review Board, which regularly assesses the cases of the detainees at Guantanamo, showed both had been approved for release on June 8.

“The Periodic Review Board, by consensus, determined that continued law of war detention of the detainee is no longer necessary to protect against a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States,” filings on both men’s cases said.

Sharqawi (named as Sharqawi Abdu Ali Al Hajj in Guantanamo records), 47, was accused of being a high-level facilitator for al-Qaeda, helping to move money and fighters across the Middle East and recruiting bodyguards for al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.

But he has never faced charges in the military tribunals set up for Guantanamo prisoners.

A 2019 report by Physicians for Human Rights said he has multiple health problems, some exacerbated by a 2017 weeks-long hunger strike.

This photo made during an escorted visit and reviewed by the US military, shows an US soldier walking next to the razor wire-topped fence at the abandoned Camp X-Ray detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, April 9, 2014. (AFP)
This photo made during an escorted visit and reviewed by the US military, shows an US soldier walking next to the razor wire-topped fence at the abandoned Camp X-Ray detention facility at the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, April 9, 2014. (AFP)

Al Hilal, 49, also has never been charged. A Yemen government official who allegedly facilitated activities for al-Qaeda, he was detained by Egyptian authorities in Cairo in 2002 and was then apparently handed over to the Americans.

The Periodic Review Board statements on their release approvals said both appear to not subscribe to extremist beliefs or to plan to reengage with groups like al-Qaeda.

The two are among 40 prisoners still at Guantanamo, nearly two decades after it began taking in detainees after the 9/11 attacks.

Once numbering around 780,, most have been released back to their home countries or to third countries without ever having been charged.

Of the 40 left, a dozen have been shown to have strong connections to 9/11 or other attacks and are in the military tribunals system, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, called the architect of the 9/11 attacks.

Eleven have been cleared for release and await the State Department to arrange their repatriation.

For Yemenis, that poses a difficulty because the country remains mired in a civil war and has a potent al-Qaeda presence.

The others continue to face regular review for their release.