GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — The United States sent two long-cleared Guantanamo detainees to Saudi Arabia over the weekend, the latest move in renewed efforts to empty the prison that President Barack Obama ordered closed in 2009.
The Pentagon identified the two men as Saad Muhammed Qahtani, 34, and Hamood Abdulla Hamood, 48. Both men were brought here in 2002. Neither was ever charged with a crime.
The transfer reduced the prison population to 160 as the Pentagon pressed forward with two death penalty proceedings on the base.
At the war court Monday, lawyers for the men accused of plotting the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were studying a judge’s sealed ruling that appeared to let the five defendants talk about what the CIA did to them in years of secret custody before they got to Guantanamo.
According to the ruling, said attorney James Connell, defense attorneys like himself are forbidden from divulging classified CIA information, but the judge, Army Col. James L. Pohl, said the Sept. 11 defendants’ “thoughts and memories” are their own.
“This ruling is an important step forward in accountability for torture,” said Connell. “The real question is whether the prison will allow the prisoners to communicate with foreign government officials, medical care providers, human rights authorities and media.”
A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment on whether the ruling meant, for example, that the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, would be able to describe in open court his 183 rounds of waterboarding, who he believed interrogated him or in what country — information that so far had been considered subject to censorship as state secrets.
Similarly, the military would not say if Pohl’s ruling had implications for the clandestine world of the prison where former CIA captives are kept here, Camp 7, a site so secret its location is classified.
Connell, the Pentagon-paid lawyer for Ammar al Baluchi, accused of helping some of the Sept. 11 hijackers with their travel and finances, spoke after a four-hour closed hearing that excluded the public and the alleged terrorists so lawyers and Pohl could work out what part of this week’s proceedings could be held in public.
Tuesday, the lawyers will argue a defense motion that seeks to have the case thrown out over a “defective referral.”
Hot-button issues involving possible CIA revelations to the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” and whether the judge will impose a protective order to preserve any remnants of the agency’s secret prison network were pushed off until next year.
At the prison, the weekend transfer suggested a new momentum in the move toward emptying the camps of at least some of the 80 captives that were cleared to leave years ago.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration sent two Algerians home on condition they be “subject to appropriate security measures.” The two Saudi men went back with the same conditions.
The next to go, according to Sudan’s news agency, could be the last two Sudanese captives at Guantanamo.