Afghanistan’s Taliban announced Friday that the United States had freed one of the last two Afghans from the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after 15 years.
The ruling Islamist group said Asadullah Haroon’s release was the outcome of “direct and positive interaction” between the Taliban and Washington.
The 39-year-old freed prisoner was handed over to Taliban officials in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the group maintains its political office.
“It is a positive development,” said Suhail Shaheen, who heads the Taliban’s Doha office. He told VOA that Haroon hails from the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.
“I call on (the) U.S. to release the only last remaining Afghan detainee now in Guantanamo jail, as well as all other detainees being kept there on mere suspicions,” demanded Shaheen. He is also the Taliban’s permanent representative-designate to the United Nations.
The other Afghan inmate is Muhammad Rahim, who is accused of being a close associate of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden.
The U.S. Department of Defense said Wednesday that Haroon’s release followed a U.S. court ruling that the Pentagon no longer had the legal authority to detain him. The statement said a review body made up of career civil servants had additionally determined this past October that Haroon was eligible for transfer from Guantanamo Bay.
A group of U.S. senators introduced legislation this week that would prevent the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to Afghanistan.
“It is reckless and irresponsible to release Asadullah Haroon Gul al Afghani to the Taliban,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement, using Haroon’s legal name. “The terrorist organization that now controls Afghanistan cannot and will not ensure Gul, or any future detainees who are released, will not return to the battlefield and potentially kill Americans or other innocent civilians.”
Haroon was said to be working as a honey trader before being captured by American forces in 2007 while they were fighting al-Qaida terrorists and the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
The U.S. alleged that Haroon was an al-Qaida courier serving as a commander with the Afghan-based Hezb-e-Islami (HIA) militant group who coordinated attacks against coalition forces. The Afghan man admitted to being a member of HIA but denied any al-Qaida association.
Last October, an American court ruled that Haroon was being held unlawfully, paving the way for his transfer out of Guantanamo after languishing there for years without charge or trial.
The secretive prison once housed hundreds of suspected militants captured by U.S. forces during the “war on terror,” many held without charge or the legal power to challenge their detention.
Rights groups and detainees have accused U.S. authorities of torture and abuse against Guantanamo inmates, with some allegedly held in cages and subjected to illegal interrogation techniques. Most of the detainees have been released over the years.
“He was unanimously cleared for release by U.S. security agencies last year. Asad is finally free and about to be reunited with his family,” tweeted Reprieve, an independent group that provided legal representation to Haroon in the federal court.
“We hope the State Department will move quickly to release other detainees who have been cleared to leave but remain stuck in limbo, wondering when their long ordeal will end.”
Haroon’s family hailed his release, saying it has proved his innocence. His wife and a daughter live in Afghanistan while his brother and mother live as refugees in neighboring Pakistan, which hosts around 3 million Afghan refugees and illegal economic migrants.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has been working to reduce the number of inmates and eventually close the Guantanamo prison, which still holds around three dozen detainees.
VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.