The U.S. government released from Guantanamo Wednesday a Kuwaiti Airways engineer whom a judge freed from eight years detention because American interrogators had wrung a false confession out of him years ago.
The case of Fouad al Rabia, a 50-year-old father of four, brought into sharp relief questions about the quality of evidence the military intended to present at his military commission trial.
Rabia's case also illustrated the long and twisted path Guantanamo detainees have faced in trying to challenge their imprisonment. Rabia first sued for his freedom in early 2002, but his case was heard only this year.
"This innocent citizen of one of the United States' best allies was wrongfully imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for almost eight years, during which he was tortured, abused and coerced into making false confessions,'' said defense attorney David Cynamon.
A Kuwaiti families committee retained two Washington D.C. firms for nearly eight years in their quest to release their citizens at Guantanamo.
At one point, there were 12 Kuwaitis held in the makeshift prison camps in southeast Cuba. Wednesday's release left two Kuwaitis among the 210 foreign captives.
In September, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly instructed the Obama administration to release Rabia "forthwith." It still took three months to release him in part because the U.S. government was weighing its options. Even after he'd been moved to the section of Guantanamo for soon-to-be-freed prisoners, the military did not drop the charges against him.
In the end, Cynamon said, the emir of Kuwait sent one of his personal jets, a J5 twin-engine 12-seater, to the remote U.S. Navy base in southeastern Cuba Wednesday to fetch Rabia under a release agreement negotiated between the two countries.
Rabia, who holds a business degree from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, Fla., won his freedom after Cynamon argued that U.S. officials had mistakenly identified the obese flight engineer as a key aide to Osama bin Laden at the 2001 battle of Tora Bora, then subjected him to systematic abuse at Guantanamo until he told them what they wanted to hear.
Kollar-Kotelly, with access to secret Pentagon evidence, agreed in a 65-page ruling.
She found that Rabia had been subjected to a sleep deprivation program forbidden by the U.S. Army's field manual, that his interrogators themselves didn't believe his confession, and that the evidence backed his assertion that he was in Afghanistan on a humanitarian mission that he undertook annually.
"If there exists a basis for al Rabia's indefinite detention, it most certainly has not been presented to this court.''
Human rights advocates and military commission critics said the case illustrated how much the war court prosecutions relied on self-incrimination and coerced testimony that would be excluded from federal criminal trials.
"The legal system that freed him certainly failed him because it took the government seven years to have a hearing on the merits, in which the judge ruled they essentially had no reason to hold him in the first place,'' said attorney Andrea J. Prasow, a former Pentagon defense lawyer now working on counterterrorism issues at Human Rights Watch.
She blamed a culture at Guantanamo, and within the U.S. government, that didn't take a dispassionate look at the evidence against detainees.
"The interrogators as well as everyone else were told they were the worst of the worst and they've all done terrible things,'' she said. "I don't think the mindset allowed for the possibility that some of them were innocent.''
The Justice Department confirmed the release Wednesday afternoon, once the aircraft carrying Rabia had left the Navy base. "The United States will continue to consult with the government of Kuwait regarding this individual,'' a Justice Department statement said.
The Pentagon says one of the nine Kuwaitis released from Guantanamo returned to the battlefield as a suicide bomber in Iraq. Abdallah al Ajmi was released in 2005 and drove a truck filled with explosives into an army base outside Mosul, killing 13 Iraqi soldiers and himself.
The last two Kuwaitis at Guantanamo include Fawzi al Odah, 32, whose case was also reviewed by Kollar-Kotelly. In that instance she found the Defense Department had presented sufficient evidence to hold him indefinitely at Guantanamo.
Al Odah's father has championed the Kuwaiti efforts to get their relatives out of Guantanamo.
The other is Fayiz al Kandari, whom a Pentagon prosecutor alleges trained with al Qaeda, "served as an advisor to Osama bin Laden'' and produced jihad recruiting tapes.
Cynamon said the release Wednesday did not end the Kuwaiti's quest to clear his name.
"We call upon President [Barack] Obama to provide both a formal apology on behalf of the United States and appropriate compensation,'' he said, adding that Rabia "can never reclaim the eight years he lost at Guantanamo Bay.''