Leave Gitmo? Why One Prisoner Is Refusing to Go
Policy + Politics

Leave Gitmo? Why One Prisoner Is Refusing to Go

REUTERS/U.S. Department of Defense/Petty Officer 1st class Shane T. McCoy/Handout

President Obama’s renewed push to close the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has hit an unexpected snag: a detainee cleared for release won’t leave.

The Defense Department on Thursday announced it transferred two prisoners, one to Bosnia and one to Montenegro, reducing the site’s total population to 91. The administration had hoped to lower that figure to 90 but a third man, a Yemeni prisoner named Mohammad Bwazir, 35, refused to leave for a nation that offered him sanctuary.

Related: Why President Obama Rejected the Pentagon’s Plan to Close Gitmo

“He’s been in Guantánamo so long that he was terrified about going to a country other than one where he had family,” Bwazir’s lawyer told the Miami Herald

“He just didn’t want to go. He just feels like he’ll be OK if he has a family to support him,” the lawyer added, saying there was no timeline for when Bwazir might depart.

Bwazir was one of 17 inmates Defense Secretary Ash Carter cleared for release in December. Of the 91 still at the prison, 34 have been approved for release, 10 are awaiting some form of trial and 47 are indefinite detainees.

The Pentagon has transferred 16 prisoners from Guantanamo this month as President Obama works to fulfill a campaign promise he made in 2008 to mothball the site. The accelerated pace has angered congressional Republicans, who have inserted language into a variety a laws over the years to try to tie the president’s hands and prevent him from making good on his promise.

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With less than a year to go, though, Obama is working on a plan close the detention center, potentially through an executive order, and move the remaining prisoners to an existing U.S. military site on American soil, possibly in Kansas, Colorado or South Carolina.

Senate Armed Services chair John McCain (R-AZ) has signaled he might support the administration’s proposal to close the prison but he has to see it first. Obama rejected a Pentagon plan to close the site last year because of its $600 million price tag.

When the revamped plan will be presented to Congress is anyone’s guess and has become an almost daily question at White House press briefings.

The scheme is something “that the Pentagon's been working on a lot. I know that they've had a lot of conversations with White House officials about the development of that plan,” press secretary Josh Earnest said last week.

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“I would also encourage you to not give in to a sense of mystery about the plan,” he added.

“I think our strategy that we have been pursuing for quite some time is familiar to those of you who have been watching this issue for years now,” Earnest said before repeating the administration’s well-rehearsed arguments that the prison is costly for taxpayers and a recruiting tool for extremists around the world.