World News

U.S. Misses Deadline to Repatriate Detainee Who Pleaded Guilty

Posted February 20, 2018 5:22 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration failed Tuesday to repatriate a Guantánamo Bay detainee to Saudi Arabia, missing a deadline set in his 2014 plea deal and dealing another blow to the struggling military commissions system at the wartime prison.

The detainee, Ahmed al-Darbi, agreed in February 2014 to plead guilty to terrorism-related offenses involving a 2002 attack by al-Qaida on a French-flagged oil tanker off the coast of Yemen. Under the pretrial agreement, if he cooperated, he was to be sent home within four years to serve the remainder of his sentence in Saudi custody.

But on Tuesday, the four-year anniversary of that deal arrived, and al-Darbi remained at the U.S. prison. The Department of Defense still hopes the transfer will take place soon, but diplomatic arrangements with the Saudi government are incomplete, Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in a statement.

“Ahmed Muhammed Ahmed Haza al-Darbi’s transfer from Guantánamo detention to Saudi Arabia will not take place today,” she said, adding: “We await assurances from the Saudi Arabian government to move forward on his departure. Al-Darbi will remain at Guantánamo until all transfer details are concluded.”

The missed deadline came days after a military commissions judge indefinitely shut down the case against another Saudi detainee — who is accused of orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole, and against whom al-Darbi testified as part of his cooperation — after more than six years of pretrial hearings.

The fate of al-Darbi has been closely watched for several reasons. If the United States lived up to the Obama-era deal, it would mean that President Donald Trump would preside over a reduction of the Guantánamo detainee population, which would drop from 41 to 40, despite his campaign vow to fill it back up.

But if the government reneged on the deal, legal experts have warned that it would strongly discourage other detainees from cooperating with military commissions prosecutors by pleading guilty and potentially serving as witnesses — a key tool that civilian court prosecutors routinely use to win convictions.

Last year, the State Department, under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, dismantled the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, which had been created by the Obama administration to make diplomatic arrangements for detainee transfers and to handle any subsequent diplomatic issues regarding former detainees. A remaining official was reassigned to help process Freedom of Information Act requests.

In November, shortly after al-Darbi’s sentencing, the State Department, in response to a question by The New York Times about whether anyone was actively working on transfer arrangements, said only that it was prepared to support the Pentagon in implementing the plea agreement. At the time, it was unclear what the Pentagon was doing.

On Tuesday, Lee Wolosky, who as the last of several Obama administration special envoys for Guantánamo closure arranged for the transfer of more than a dozen detainees to Saudi Arabia between late 2015 and early 2017, criticized the Trump administration’s approach to getting that task done.

“It takes weeks or months to lay the groundwork for a normal transfer (which this one is not), from arranging logistics, to negotiating security arrangements, to obtaining the necessary political approvals,” he wrote in a text message. “The D.O.D. historically has not interfaced with the right parts of the Saudi government to get all that done.”

On Tuesday, Higgins acknowledged that the Defense Department is taking the lead in talks with the Saudi government about transferring al-Darbi. But she declined to address how long those negotiations have been taking place or what assurances the Pentagon is seeking but has not received.