MIAMI -- A Guantanamo Bay prisoner who protested his indefinite confinement with a lengthy hunger strike has taken the unusual step of turning down a chance to finally leave the U.S. base in Cuba, rejecting an offer to be resettled in an unfamiliar new country.
Muhammad Bawazir, a 35-year-old from Yemen, refused to board a plane as two other prisoners were being flown out for resettlement in the Balkans, his lawyer, John Chandler, said Thursday. Since returning to his homeland was not an option, he insisted on being sent to a country where he has family.
Chandler said he spent months trying to persuade Bawazir to accept the resettlement in another country he declined to name. But the prisoner, who was 21 when captured in Afghanistan, apparently decided at the last minute he couldn't do it.
"It's a country I'd go to in a heartbeat," the Atlanta-based attorney said. "I can't help you with the logic of his position. It's just a very emotional reaction from a man who has been locked up for 14 years. "
Several prisoners over the years have resisted returning to their own country, fearing treatment at the hands of their own government. Some of the ethnic Uighurs held for years at the base once spurned a resettlement officer in the Pacific island nation of Palau because it seemed to close to China, the country they said they fled because of intense persecution.
Still, the decision by Bawazir is unusual. Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo, who can't be sent to their homeland because of the civil war there, have been described by officials and lawyers as eager for any way out of the prison.
"The rest of the guys there, if I had offered them the opportunity to go they would have said 'show me the plane,' said Chandler, who has three clients at Guantanamo after two others went to the United Arab Emirates for resettlement.
The two prisoner releases announced Thursday brought to 16 the total to leave in January as President Barack Obama works to whittle down the number of low-level detainees as he seeks to close the detention center on the base and move the remainder of the men to the U.S.
The two who left included Tariq al-Sawah, an Egyptian who was a relatively well-known prisoner. He was sent to Bosnia.
El-Sawah had admitted being an explosives trainer for al-Qaida and at one point faced charges of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. The government withdrew the charges and decided not to pursue new ones for reasons that have not been made public. He was kept in a special housing unit away from other prisoners and had reportedly cooperated with authorities. Several former commanders wrote letters on his behalf urging his release.
While in captivity, the prisoner's weight ballooned to more than 400 pounds (180 kilograms). At one point, his lawyers feared that he might not survive Guantanamo because of his multiple medical conditions, including his morbid obesity and diabetes.
The other was Abd al-Aziz al-Suwaydi, who went to Montenegro, which his lawyer, David Remes, described as an ideal country for the prisoner.
"He has a Western sensibility. He is open and friendly and looks European. When people pass him in the street, they will not even notice him," Remes said.
Their release brings the total Guantanamo population to 91, the lowest it's been since shortly after it opened in January 2002 to hold suspected enemy combatants with links to al-Qaida and the Taliban. They include about 35 who are cleared for transfer, most of whom are from Yemen.
Bawazir had been cleared for release in 2008 under President George W. Bush but he was caught up with the rest by the U.S. refusal to send prisoners to Yemen for fear that some might again pose a security risk to the U.S. For several years he protested his confinement with a hunger strike, dropping to 90 pounds (41 kilograms) at one point. He was force-fed to keep him alive.
The prisoner has family in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia but the U.S. was apparently unable to secure the diplomatic agreement to settle him in any of those places. Chandler said that the human rights group Reprieve had offered to help him start a new life in the new country and the State Department said it would help his family visit.
"He's very frightened of going to a place where he has no assured support," he said.
The lawyer said Bawazir may have become institutionalized in Guantanamo, comparing him to the character "Brooks" in the prison movie "The Shawshank Redemption" who commits suicide shortly after his release.
"He's always been very emotional," Chandler said. "When he was a hunger striker he told me 'All I want to do is die.' He just couldn't stand the place."