GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — The U.S. government on Monday agreed to release a Yemeni surgeon who reportedly treated al Qaida wounded at Tora Bora in Afghanistan under a new review ordered by President Barack Obama meant to empty the prison camps here by January 2010.
Ayman Batarfi, 38, had told a military review panel in 2005 that he was a humanitarian worker who found himself at the battle of Tora Bora in 2001 while Osama bin Laden was in the area, according to a Pentagon transcript. He said he'd met bin Laden while the doctor was burying the dead from American air assaults, but that he did not respect the al Qaida leader, who he called "a coward."
Batarfi will be sent to "an appropriate destination country in a manner that is consistent with the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd in Washington, D.C.
Amnesty International described Batarfi as a humanitarian worker, an orthopedic surgeon who was swept up as an innocent Arab trying to flee the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. His lawyers said he was volunteering at a clinic in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan in late 2001 when Northern Alliance forces overran the city.
Batarfi is held as detainee No. 627. Defense Department records indicate he was born in Cairo, Egypt, to a Yemeni father, captured in Afghanistan and sent to the prison camps here in 2002.
He weighed in at 160 pounds, 5-foot-3 inches tall, and Pentagon records said that by November 2006 he had ballooned to 209 pounds.
He is the second detainee whose release was ordered during the Obama administration.
Ethiopian-born, British resident Binyam Mohammed was sent home a month into the Obama administration, after protracted negotiations between the British and American governments.
Obama ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to set up a series of review processes of the 240 or so war-on-terror captives here from some 30 countries, and set a Jan. 22, 2010, deadline for his administration to empty the controversial prison camps.
In essence, the new president ordered a new Cabinet-supervised re-examination of those held here in order to release some and send others elsewhere for trial, preferably in federal courts on U.S. soil.
Monday's announcement by Holder's spokesman, along with a filing in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., signaled that the administration was no longer willing to defend the Pentagon's seven-year incarceration of Batarfi. A volunteer Baltimore-based legal team had filed an unlawful detention suit known as a habeas corpus petition.
U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan had scheduled a hearing for next week in the Batarfi case.
The government said in a filing Monday that Batarfi, who had petitioned for his freedom, and agents for Defense Secretary Robert Gates had mutually agreed he should no longer be held at Guantanamo.
"In light of this development, the United States will initiate the appropriate diplomatic process . . . to facilitate petitioner's prompt transfer from Guantánamo Bay to an appropriate destination country," the filing said.
There are nearly 100 Yemenis among the 240 or so Guantánamo captives, in part because Bush administration officials never succeeded in negotiating a repatriation agreement for those who had been earlier approved for release.
Batarfi's attorney did not respond to a query on where the doctor would like to go. He told the panel in 2005 that he had no family left in Yemen but siblings in Saudi Arabia.
"We are extremely pleased that the Detainee Review Task Force has determined, based on a full review of the record, that Dr. Batarfi should be released from Guantanamo," said Baltimore attorney Bill Murphy.
"We hope that we will be able to assist the Department of State in facilitating his prompt transfer to another country. We are also hopeful that Dr. Batarfi, who has been in U.S. military custody for more than seven years, will soon be reunited with his family."