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How US detained Ghassan al Sharbi for 20 years on false terror charges

Ghassan Abdallah Ghazi al Sharbi, a detainee in Guantanamo military complex prison, has been released and transferred to Saudi Arabia following an agreement between the US and the kingdom.

Held for more than 20 years in the notorious US-run security facility in Cuba, the 48-year-old Saudi citizen was one of the last 32 detainees there. 

His case has become symbolic of Washington’s flawed and often failed attempts in trying al Qaeda’s low-ranking suspects in military court, with most detainees ending up in indefinite detentions.

The US detained Sharbi after 9/11 in 2001 when al Qaeda terrorists launched the most audacious and devastating attacks on US soil. Sharbi was suspected of having provided “material support” and making a radiological bomb for the terror group. 

But a military tribunal in the US dismissed the charges and dropped the case against Sharbi on the basis of the case of Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who served as al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s driver and bodyguard. The court said that providing material support was not a recognised international war crime at the time of his actions. 

US forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 in his compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. His successor Ayman al Zawahiri was also killed in 2022 in a US drone strike in Afghanistan. 

American authorities closed in on Sharbi after it emerged that he had taken flight lessons at a school in Phoenix, Arizona, with two of the hijackers. He was detained in March 2002 with a suspected al Qaeda facilitator Abu Zubaydah from Faisalabad, a Punjab province of Pakistan, according to unclassified documents.

Operatives allegedly tortured him in Pakistan and sent him to the isolated prison in Cuba.  

Fluent in English, Sharbi was an engineer and lived in the US, where he attended the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. 

After six years of Sharbi’s detention, the US authorities dropped the charges against him but continued to see the prisoner as a terror suspect and did not approve his release.

But in its Periodic Review Board (PRB) in February 2022., Pentagon decided that the Saudi citizen had no leadership or facilitator position in al Qaeda.

The PRB “recommended that Ghassan Al Sharbi be transferred subject to the implementation of a comprehensive set of security measures including monitoring, travel restrictions and continued information sharing,” the body said.

It also said he had unspecified “physical and mental health issues”.

Guantanamo detainees

Sharbi is the last of four detainees freed from the prison and repatriated to another country so far in 2023.

There are 31 other prisoners remaining in the high-security prison in Guantanamo Bay, with 17 detainees are eligible for repatriation, according to Pentagon, if other countries agree to accept them.

The PRB process is a military body to review Guantanamo Bay detainees on a periodic basis. It was established in March 2011 by then-President Barack Obama.

Last year, 75-year-old Saifullah Paracha — the oldest inmate — was released from the facility. Pakistani citizen Paracha was accused of financing al Qaeda and was held in the prison for 19 years.

Two other Pakistani brothers – Abdul, 55, and Mohammed Rabbani, 53 – were also released last month and repatriated home after being prisoned there for over two decades.

The Guantanamo prison was established in January 2002 and was once home to about 800 al Qaeda suspects.

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