A soldier stands guard in a tower at Camp Delta at Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay in 2009.

A soldier stands guard in a tower at Camp Delta at Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay in 2009. Navy file photo

Defense Department Transfers Two Guantanamo Detainees to Ghana

The move, the first of 17 in coming days, shrinks the total population to 105.

The Pentagon has transferred two Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo to Ghana, the first of 17 expected transfers to come in the early days of 2016.

Mahmud Umar Muhammad Bin Atef and Khalid Muhammad Salih Al-Dhuby, as identified by the Defense Department in its Wednesday afternoon announcement, have each been held at the U.S. military’s detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than 13 years. Six years ago, a review task force recommended that both be returned to Yemen, “provided that certain security conditions were met,” the New York Times wrote. They are the first detainees to be sent to a sub-Saharan country.

The 62 Yemenis still at Guantanamo are the largest group among the 105 detainees remaining today. They also include 37 of the 46 detainees who have been cleared for transfer to countries other than the U.S., but have proven the hardest to move.

President Barack Obama, who pledged as a candidate to close Guantanamo, recently signed a defense authorization bill that bars detainees from being transferred to Yemen, though his administration hasn’t considered the war-torn country as a host for some time because it cannot meet security requirements.

When the next 15 of the expected 17 are transferred in the coming days, the total population at the detention facility will drop to 90, of which 31 are cleared to be moved. That number meets a key Obama administration benchmark for bringing the total under 100, which officials hope will make transfers to the U.S. more palatable to Congress.

Critics in Congress sought to effectively freeze such transfers with the NDAA, arguing that security cannot be guaranteed in such a tumultuous global security environment. They are likely to question the assurances given and agreed to by the government of Ghana, which has never hosted detainees from Guantanamo.

Still, the Pentagon stated, in language familiar to other releases on transfers, “The United States coordinated with the Government of Ghana to ensure these transfers took place consistent with appropriate security and humane treatment measures.”

Obama said in an end-of-the-year press conference at the White House last month, “My expectation is by early next year, we should have reduced that population below 100. And we will continue to steadily chip away at the numbers in Guantanamo.”