U.S. Releases Saudi-American It Had Captured in Afghanistan

By JOEL BRINKLEY and ERIC LICHTBLAU

New York Times

October 13, 2004

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Oct. 11 - The three-year odyssey of Yaser E. Hamdi, the Saudi-American college student found in the company of Taliban fighters in 2001 and held in prison since then, came to an end on Monday after a secret military flight from a Navy brig in South Carolina to the airport in Riyadh, where he was greeted by his rapturous family.

The United States had held Mr. Hamdi, 24, in solitary confinement as an "enemy combatant" for much of the past three years. One condition of his release required Mr. Hamdi, who was born in Baton Rouge, La., to renounce his American citizenship within a week of his arrival here.

Mr. Hamdi did not wait a week; the Saudi Interior Ministry said he had proclaimed he was no longer American as soon as he stepped off the plane about noon. Mr. Hamdi also spoke to Frank Dunham, his lawyer in Washington, after he landed, and Mr. Dunham said his client declared the moment to be "awesome."

Mr. Hamdi's release had been held up for 10 days because of an impasse between the Saudi and American governments. Saudi officials, irritated that they had not been included in negotiations over his release, insisted that he be freed without condition because he had not been charged with any crime.

In the end, State Department officials said, the Saudis accepted Mr. Hamdi's return without imposing new conditions. One senior State Department official added, "It was really just a situation of making the Saudis feel comfortable with the terms of the deal, making them understand the arrangements and know what we were requiring of him."

Shortly after arriving in Riyadh on a military contract aircraft, Mr. Hamdi took a commercial flight home to Al Jubayl, on the eastern coast. There he was being questioned by the Saudi police, said Brig. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

"It is just to get a picture of his activities in Afghanistan and to understand any violations or criminal activities, if any," General Turki said. "To us he is innocent, and we still think he is, but we are just doing our work based on our laws."

The United States had portrayed Mr. Hamdi as a dangerous man with possible links to Al Qaeda. Interviews with his lawyer and others on Monday provided a clearer picture of Mr. Hamdi's side of the story, as he recounted it.

In early 2001, he left King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia and entered Afghanistan through Pakistan. He attended a camp run by the Taliban in Kunduz Province. There, young men trained in religious activities, calisthenics and small-arms proficiency. A friend who has been in contact with Mr. Hamdi said his aim was simply to reconnect with Islam.

"His agenda was to take a sabbatical from school and try to get his head straight to live in a strict Islamic environment with other young men like himself," the friend said. "He wanted to strengthen his resolve, and he thought he would get the necessary training so that if the need ever arose for him to defend himself and his family, he would have the know-how to do so."

The United States has said Mr. Hamdi was captured with Taliban soldiers and a weapon in his hands. But Mr. Hamdi insisted to family and friends that he had no connections to Al Qaeda or terrorism.

His father, Esam, said Mr. Hamdi had called in the summer of 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks, and had said he was ready to come home.

His friend said, "He didn't want any part of any war with the United States. He wanted to go home, but he was trapped in Afghanistan. After 9/11, the Afghan borders were closed down, and he couldn't go anywhere."

As he tried to leave the country, Mr. Hamdi said, he was captured by the Northern Alliance and taken into custody along with John Walker Lindh, the other so-called American Taliban. Mr. Hamdi said he later learned that the Northern Alliance had apparently "sold" him to American officials for $20,000.

After his capture, the United States filed no legal charges against him. He was held first at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and then in Navy brigs in Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C., for nearly three years.

His lawyers filed suit, asserting that he had a right to have his case heard in court. Last June, in a major rebuke of Bush administration policy, the Supreme Court agreed. Immediately afterward, the government began negotiations with Mr. Hamdi's lawyer for his release.

Mr. Dunham was jubilant on Monday.

"This stands for the proposition that if you're a U.S. citizen, the government can't just lock you up without giving you due process of law," he said in an interview.