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Originally published Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 6:10 PM

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Gitmo closure: A welcome decision, but late

For Jomaa al-Dosari, Barack Obama's decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay is seven years too late. The Saudi national spent six years in the detention facility, never knowing the charges against him, never facing a trial and always asserting that he was not a terrorist.

Associated Press Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia —

For Jomaa al-Dosari, Barack Obama's decision to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay is seven years too late. The Saudi national spent six years in the detention facility, never knowing the charges against him, never facing a trial and always asserting that he was not a terrorist.

"When I heard the news I said to myself, 'I wish Obama was elected years ago. Guantanamo would not have happened,'" said al-Dosari, speaking by telephone from the eastern city of Dammam where he now lives, studying computers.

To many around the world, the decision Thursday by Obama to close the reviled prison within a year is welcome news. But it is especially so in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where the detention facility has become a symbol of U.S. injustice toward Muslims and Arabs around the world. At one time, Saudis made up the second largest group of detainees there, and, according to a Saudi human rights lawyer, at least 13 Saudi families were still awaiting freedom for relatives detained at Guantanamo.

Ali al-Sayari's 28-year-old son, Abdullah, has been jailed for eight years. The family has heard no news from or about him for the past two years. The family does not know the charges against their son, whether he is on trial or even where he was picked up and by whom. They don't know whether the closure decision means their son will be able to come home, but they're hopeful.

"That was a humane decision. We're very optimistic. We have suffered a lot," Ali al-Sayari said, speaking from the southern town of Sharoura.

When Ali al-Shamrani found out the prison where his nephew Mohammed has been for the past eight years would be closed, he immediately called friends and family to celebrate.

"Obama is correcting the mistakes of his predecessor," he said. "This is the best news we have heard about Mohammed in eight years."

All of the men were doing what was described as relief work in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Dosari said he was picked up in Pakistan, and Ali al-Shamrani said his nephew was arrested in Afghanistan. Many Saudis felt that it was their duty to help fellow Muslims in Afghanistan, which had suffered greatly under Soviet occupation and the fighting that followed.

In Lahore, Pakistan, former detainee Saad Iqbal Madni, who said he had been arrested in Indonesia in 2002 and freed last year, questioned why Obama did not issue the order the moment he was sworn in as president. He also said closing the prison was not enough.

"All prisoners at Guantanamo must be freed," he said.

Many Thursday pointed out that the decision to close the prison is only the first step, and will likely have many repercussions around the world.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay called for an investigation into allegations of torture at the Guantanamo and said detainees who were innocent or arbitrarily detained should be adequately compensated.

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Pillay saluted Obama "for the extremely important step he has taken, and for doing it so swiftly upon taking up office."

In a statement issued at U.N. heaquarters in New York, Pillay said that detainees suspected of crimes "are entitled to an expeditious and fair trial before the regular courts."

The U.N.'s torture investigator, Manfred Nowak, considered the news a first sign of goodwill by the new American administration. But he warned that shutting the prison will require difficult decisions and said freed inmates should be allowed to sue the United States if they were mistreated.

"Justice also means to look into the past," Nowak told The Associated Press. Nowak has previously said he had reliable accounts to indicate that Guantanamo detainees have been tortured.

Attorneys for two other inmates, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Mohammed Jawad, say their clients too were subject to torture during interrogation.

Pentagon official Susan Crawford told The Washington Post in an interview published last week that the United States tortured one inmate, Saudi Mohammed al-Qahtani, in 2002. She was the first senior Bush administration official to make such a statement.

Obama's decision was praised in Europe.

"The essential fight against terrorism must be conducted in all circumstances with respect for human rights, international humanitarian law and the rights of refugees," spokesman Frederic Desagneaux said in an online briefing.

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called it "a good decision," but also pointed out that it may force Europe to take in some of the released inmates. Some detainees cannot be returned to their own countries because of the risk of persecution. Albania and Sweden have already acknowledged taking in a few inmates.

In China, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu demanded a swift return of Chinese people detained at Guantanamo once the facility is shut down. Some 17 Chinese detainees have been cleared for release but Washington fears they could be mistreated or even tortured if they are turned over to China and has been trying to find another home for them.

Many Thursday said Obama's decision will go a long way to restoring faith in the United States. In Saudi Arabia, al-Dosari said he is not bitter at the U.S.

"I want to put the whole thing behind me. I am focused on the present and look forward to the future," he said.

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Associated Press writers Babar Dogar in Lahore, Pakistan and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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