Saudi Arabia Offers Rehab For Gitmo Detainees

The Saudi government offers former Gitmo detainees a rehabilitation program. It includes spiritual counseling, financial payments, help getting a job and occasionally a Toyota Corolla.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Among the foreign nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay, a lot came from Saudi Arabia. When the camp opened in 2002, it had 136 Saudis. Three of them died in what U.S. officials called suicides; 13 are still there.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The others have been released to the Saudi government in small groups over the last several years. And at home there, treatment is very different from what they experienced at Guantanamo.

BRAND: They're placed in a prison rehabilitation program that relies on religious dialogue to turn militants away from radical Islamist ideology. The government says for now, the approach appears to be working. Caryle Murphy has more from Riyadh.

CARYLE MURPHY: Haladar Hubaishee (ph) spent several years as a Jihadi militant in the Philippines and Afghanistan. He says he never joined al-Qaeda, but he knew a lot of big shots in Jihadi circles. His specialty was training others in remote-controlled explosives.

Five months after 9/11, Hubaishee landed in Guantanamo. Three years later, he was turned over to the Saudi government and got a reception that he did not expect.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible). What do you think? We give you a chance to open a new - start a new life. OK?

MURPHY: For Guantanamo returnees, the tone is set as soon as they're back on Saudi soil. They're met by a Muslim sheik, who doesn't mince words, according to Turkial Otayen (ph), a psychologist in the rehabilitation program.

Mr. TURKIAL OTAYEN: If you think you are heroes - you are not heroes. There are some mistakes being done by you. You have to respect that.

MURPHY: The returnees spend several days with their families at a prison, where they are investigated to see what, if any, charges they should face. Most have been charged with going to a country off-limits to Saudi passport holders. They received sentences ranging from several months to two years. Hubaishee spent a year in prison, five months of it in solitary. No returnee has ever been charged with a terrorism-related offense. Meanwhile, the men begin their psychological counseling and religious re-education, which involves one-on-one discussions with Muslim scholars, according to Hubaishee.

HUBAISHEE: There is a religious adviser that stay with you and speak with you, and ask you what you believe. And they discuss, and they try to change your mind. And it's held by so many guys in the prison. They like it.

MURPHY: The spiritual counseling covers all the key issues that the Saudi government says extremists have distorted. When is Jihad permissible, relations with non-Muslims, and who can declare another Muslim an apostate. The aim is changing minds through persuasion, says program director Abdul-Rahman al Hadlaq.

Mr. ABDUL-RAHMAN AL HADLAQ: So, what we are trying to do is have some kind of dialogue with them so we can rehabilitate these people, and some day they can be good citizens.

MURPHY: Psychologist Otayen says the rehab program, which is run by the interior ministry, is based on the idea that prison alone will not eliminate extremist beliefs.

Mr. OTYEN: Our job is to ease them up, and try to build the person again, to let them live normal life, instead of love and death (unintelligible) life. This is our job.

MURPHY: Before a prisoner is released, he spends some weeks in a halfway house outside Riyadh. The lightly guarded compound has sports facilities, and residents take courses in small-business start-ups, anger management and art therapy. They're also permitted occasional unescorted visits home. Officials say many of them are angry about their treatment at Guantanamo. Psychologist Otayen says his staff confronts the issue openly, sometimes using religious values to wean the men from feelings of revenge.

Mr. OTYEN: We give them some skills about how to ease their angers. We try to let them speak up about their anger.

MURPHY: The most controversial part of the program are the financial payments given to the returnees and their families. Hubaishee, for example, gets $800 a month. He also received a new Toyota Corolla and $20,000 to pay for his marriage. The government also helps former prisoners get jobs or attend university. Program director Hadlaq says some Saudis are critical of what they see as a reward for bad behavior. But he defends the payments, saying they help win the loyalty of families, who then assist the government in rehabilitating their relatives. Today, 33-year-old Hubaishee, who was Detainee Number 155 at Guantanamo, lives in Jeddah with his new wife, and works as a power plant technician. He comes across as an affable, tolerant man, surprisingly free of rancor towards his former American captors. He also appreciates his government's way of dealing with extremist thinking.

Mr. HUBAISHEE: I hope that each country do this program, because you have to change the idea or - and beliefs by talking, not by throwing him in jail for a long time. He's not going to change, he's going to strongly believe again in what he believes.

MURPHY: For NPR News, I'm Caryle Murphy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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