The United States on Friday complied with a federal court order and released a former Afghan militiaman from detention in Guantánamo Bay, in a case that reflects the changing political realities of Afghanistan.
Assadullah Haroon Gul, who is in his 40s, was held for 15 years at the military prison under the name Haroon al-Afghani and was never charged with any war crimes.
A U.S. Air Force plane carrying Haroon departed from Guantánamo Bay on Thursday and delivered him to Qatar, which has long served as go-between on U.S. interests with the Taliban. Qatari officials then handed Haroon over to Taliban government representatives in Doha, according to a senior U.S. official.
A Qatari aircraft was to transport both the prisoner and the Taliban envoys to Kabul, Afghanistan. The official, who was not authorized to be identified by name, said the repatriation was completed with the handoff to the Taliban.
When Afghan forces allied with the United States captured Haroon in 2007, he was considered a commander of the Hezb-i-Islami militia, which fought alongside the Taliban and al-Qaida against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Then, in 2016, the militia made peace with the government of President Ashraf Ghani, a U.S. ally, casting doubt on whether Haroon could legally be held as part of an enemy force at Guantánamo Bay. By last year, the Ghani government had filed a petition in U.S. court seeking his return.
But by the time a federal judge, Amit P. Mehta of the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., ruled that his continuing detention was unlawful, the Taliban had ousted the Ghani government, leaving the Biden administration with the conundrum of how to get Haroon home.
In most instances, the law requires the secretary of defence to certify to Congress his satisfaction with the security arrangements, which typically require monitoring of the former detainee, restricting his travel and sharing intelligence with U.S. counterterrorism officials. But when a court orders a release, as in Haroon’s case, or a detainee completes a war crimes sentence, no such certification is required. Instead, the transfer was approved by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who sent notice to Congress of the pending release last month.
It was not known if any security assurances were arranged.
On May 4, the Justice Department filed notice in Haroon’s federal court case of the potential transfer. “The U.S. government is pursuing a strategy for outreach and meeting logistical requirements to effect petitioner’s repatriation to Afghanistan,” it said.
The transfer reduced to 36 the number of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, 20 of whom could be released if the State Department finds nations to receive them. One other prisoner at Guantánamo, like Haroon, does not require the defence secretary’s approval to leave but currently has no place to go.
He is Majid Khan, 42, a Pakistani citizen who pleaded guilty to serving as a courier for al-Qaida and completed his sentence in March. His lawyers say that because he co-operated with the U.S. government and in some instances provided evidence against other detainees he cannot be repatriated. He recently filed suit against the Biden administration in federal court seeking a finding that his continued detention is unlawful.
Haroon was born to an Afghan family that fled to a refugee camp in Pakistan during a civil war, according to court filings. He is married and has a daughter, who was born after he was captured. They live in Afghanistan. A brother and his mother live in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Last year, Tara J. Plochocki, one of Haroon’s lawyers, described her client as “desperate to get home” to make sure his daughter gets an education. The Taliban barred women and girls from going to school the last time they were in power.
Haroon’s lawyers say that he rose above his circumstances to study economics at a college in Peshawar and gained fluency in five languages – the fifth being English, which he learned from his American captors. They described his affiliation with the Hezb-i-Islami movement as an inevitable outcome of growing up in refugee camps that were sponsored by that movement.
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