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Empty luxury jail awaits four Guantanamo inmates

James Calderwood, Foreign Correspondent
The National
June 2, 2010

KUWAIT CITY // Within the grounds of the country’s central prison out in the searing heat of the Kuwaiti desert, there is a compound, ringed by locked gates and security guards, with facilities that might seem luxurious to the estimated 4,000 prisoners detained in regular sections of the jail.

Unfortunately for them, Al Salam Rehabilitation Centre, with its carpeted living room, Islamic paintings and library of carefully chosen religious books, was opened in June with just four prisoners in mind. The centre was an attempt by the Kuwaiti government to entice the United States into sending four Kuwaitis who remained at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay back home.

Since that time two of the detainees have been released. Khalid al Mutairi returned to Kuwait in October and underwent six weeks of psychological and religious counselling in the facility, where he would sit sipping tea with the guards in a shaded area near the basketball court during breaks. He was allowed to move home when Kuwait’s public prosecution dropped the charges against him, but prison officials said he returned “voluntarily” for the next five months.

Another detainee, Fouad al Rabiah, who was released in December, was never detained in the facility, but meets Adel al Zayed, head of the ministry of health’s psychiatric department who is in charge of psychiatric care in the centre, in his home every week.

“Each one has his own needs for rehabilitation,” Mr al Zayed said. “Fouad, for example, he’s a married man, he has four children. It was a big issue for him, how to re-establish his relationship with his kids after eight years of separation.

“Khalid is a different case, because he is a younger chap. He has no job, he is not married. And being young, he had more anger over what happened, so we had to deal with these things.”

Aside from treatment in the facility, the Kuwaiti government’s plan to reintegrate the former prisoners into society includes handouts of cash and favours.

Mr al Rabiah, who was an engineer with Kuwait Airways before he was picked up by the US military in Afghanistan, was working for the airline again two months after his return and the government gifted him all the wages he lost while imprisoned, Mr al Zayed said. He said Mr al Mutairi will wed in one month and his marriage will be sweetened with a lump-sum payment from the state.

“They didn’t have any extremist views at all, but, of course, understandably, they had some anger with how they had been dealt with, how the Kuwait government had dealt with the issue,” Mr al Zayed said.

He said when Mr al Rabiah saw “how the government was generous in protecting him and taking care of him, he started to change his views, and his anger has almost dissolved”.

Two Kuwaitis are still among 180 detainees remaining in Guantanamo Bay, which has seen 774 prisoners pass through its cells. Lt Col Barry Wingard, the lawyer for a Kuwaiti detainee whose case is still pending, Fayiz al Kandari, said roughly 100 are cleared for release, and the US government says they can prosecute up to 30.

In January 2009, the US president, Barack Obama, said he would close the detention centre within one year, but many of the prisoners are still waiting to be freed or extradited to their home countries. Others are thought to be too dangerous to release but cannot be tried because of a lack of evidence.

“I’ve talked to the Kuwaitis and it was their understanding that once the facility was to be completed that they would get the return of all the remaining detainees,” Lt Col Wingard said on a recent trip to Kuwait to interview witnesses and speak with the local press.

He said the cost of the centre was around US$40 million (Dh147m). “They have exceeded everything the Americans have asked them to do.”

David Cynamon, the lead attorney for the Kuwaiti detainees in Guantanamo Bay, said in a letter to Mr Obama in April: “According to recent news reports, you are struggling to fulfil your commitment to close Guantanamo in part because you are having trouble finding other countries that will take detainees. I know a country that is ready, willing and able to take two: Kuwait.”

“Officials of your administration have now informed the government of Kuwait that they will not even consider returning the last two Kuwaiti detainees unless Kuwait imposes restrictive conditions on Mr al Rabiah and the other Kuwaiti released by a federal court – as if they were paroled criminals instead of men who never should have been imprisoned in the first place.

US Lt Comm Kevin Bogucki, who was Mr al Rabiah’s lead military council and is now working on Mr al Kandari’s case, said the restrictions the US is trying to impose include forcing the released to report to police stations and surrender their passports. He believes that putting the Kuwaitis in the rehabilitation centre is not one of the demands.

“They’re essentially holding the two remaining Kuwaitis hostage and saying if you want those two Kuwaitis back, we want you to impose restrictions on the Kuwaitis who have already been released,” Lt Comm Bogucki said.

He said the US government’s “horrible batting average” in the habeas cases, 34 out of 47 of which have been resolved in favour of the detainees, proves that it has scant evidence against the detainees.

“They cast a very wide net, but they basically, indiscriminately, hauled in a bunch of dolphins with the tuna, and then they just decided: well, they’re all tuna, we’re not going to let any of them go.”

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