WASHINGTON – Up to half of the terrorism suspects held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay could be closer to heading home under a bipartisan deal reached in Congress that gives President Barack Obama a rare victory in his fight to close the prison in Cuba.
The deal would lift the most rigid restrictions that Congress imposed on detainee transfers overseas and is part of a broad compromise defense bill awaiting final passage in the Senate this week.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said the compromise could have a dramatic impact on the 160 detainees still being held at Guantanamo Bay. “About half of the detainees would be detainees that could be transferred to their Third World countries from which they come,” Levin told reporters. “About half of the detainees would remain in Guantanamo because of the prohibition on transferring them to the United States for detention and for trial.”
The government announced Wednesday it had transferred two Sudanese detainees from Guantanamo to their home country, its second release this week. Noor Uthman Muhammed, 51, and Ibrahim Othman Ibrahim Idris, 52, were the last Sudanese prisoners at the naval base.
They were both considered by the U.S. military to be members of al-Qaida. Idris was among the first detainees to arrive at Guantanamo Bay on Jan. 11, 2002. Muhammed arrived in May of that year.
In exchange for a guilty plea to terrorism offenses in February 2011, part of Muhammed’s 14-year sentence was suspended, and he completed his term on Dec. 3. Idris, who had been cleared for transfer since 2009 by an interagency task force, was released following an October court order from the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
The defense bill marks the first time since Obama came to office promising to close Guantanamo that Congress is moving to ease restrictions instead of strengthen them. And it could signal changing political views toward the prison for terrorism suspects now that the war in Afghanistan is winding down.
Obama’s achievement was somewhat of a surprise, after the Republican-controlled House earlier this year voted overwhelmingly to make it harder to transfer detainees. But the deal to move in the opposite direction passed with hardly any opposition and little attention.