GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — After a decade at the US Naval base, five Guantanamo Bay detainees left their jail cells on Thursday to board a C-17 Air Force plane bound for new soil.
The men are being transferred to Slovakia and Georgia, reducing the count of detainees in Guantanamo Bay to 143. One is a Tunisian national and four are from Yemen. All had affiliations with Al Qaeda, but the United States has now deemed they do not pose a significant threat.
Only one of the detainees currently at Guantanamo Bay is convicted of a crime. Within the first few days of his presidency in 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the detention facility, following a campaign promise that he has yet to make good on. During his administration 95 detainees have been transferred to other countries while the military prison in Cuba has remained open.
Since 2002 the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station has held detainees for alleged war crimes against the US, but more than half of them are no longer considered significant threats, according to an executive order task force made up of representatives from six government agencies and departments. Members of that low-risk group are eligible for transfer.
The challenge is finding countries that will take them. While Obama originally suggested a detention facility in Illinois for all the detainees, the National Defense Authorization Act prevents the Defense Department from spending money on transferring detainees to US soil.
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“His hands are kind of tied,” said Lt. Col. Myles Caggins, the Pentagon’s spokesman for detainee policy.
It’s up to the countries that accept transfers to decide whether a Guantanamo detainee will remain in detention or be released. Destination-country representatives interview the detainees before they are transferred, and the foreign governments decide whether to transition them into the work force. Some have been set up with jobs and language classes while still at Guantanamo Bay to help with resettlement.
Last week Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and six other senators visited Guantanamo Bay calling for its closure.
“The detention center at Guantanamo Bay does not make us safer, and it is wildly expensive,” Manchin said in a statement. “The status quo is not an acceptable solution, and I am confident we can find a solution that protects Americans and responsibly manages our tax dollars.”
Caggins said that it’s a slow process for the Defense Department to make good on Obama’s executive order.
“There’s no magic key, get a plane and throw somebody on it,” Caggins said.
In total, 47 countries have taken Guantanamo Bay detainees. Slovakia and Georgia, which received the new transfers on Thursday, have previously accepted detainees from the facility, according to data maintained by The New York Times and NPR.
The men transferred on Thursday were Hashim Bin Ali Bin Amor Sliti of Tunisia and Yemenis Husayn Salim Muhammad Al-Mutari Yafai, Salah Mohammed Salih Al-Dhabi, Abdel Ghaib Ahmad Hakim, and Abdul Khaled Al-Baydani.
Congress was notified of the transfers.
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Hayat Norimine is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism based in Washington, DC.