RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Sixteen Saudis released from the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, returned home Thursday and were being held by Saudi authorities to determine if they have any terrorist ties.
The new arrivals bring to 53 the number of Saudis released from Guantanamo so far. Another 75 remain, according to Kateb al-Shimri, a lawyer who represents relatives of Saudis held at the U.S. base in Cuba.
The detention of Saudis at Guantanamo has been an irritant in the relationship between the Bush administration and the Saudi kingdom, a close U.S. ally. Two Saudis died in the prison earlier this year in what American officials said were suicides. But many Saudis don't believe that explanation, saying the detainees were abused, a claim the U.S. denies.
Seventy-five Saudis remain at Guantanamo, most for more than five years, al-Shimri said.
Mohsen Yahia al-Zaylaei, 28, said his family had been notified that his brother Mohammed was among the newly released. His parents and 13 of his siblings and cousins were preparing to fly from their home in Medina to Riyadh to see him.
"We will find him a bride as soon as we can, because he used to write in his letters that he wants to get married," Mohsen al-Zaylaei told The Associated Press. The family name was spelled Al-Zayla in records released by U.S. officials.
"The most important thing is that he's back, thank God," Mohsen said.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz underlined that the Saudi government was working to free its citizens in Guantanamo, telling the state news agency that the release of the 16 was due to "efforts exerted by Saudi authorities."
The 16 were being held in custody for investigation, as have most of the previous Saudi citizens returned from Guantanamo, ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told AP.
He did not elaborate on the investigation, but al-Shimri said returned prisoners are usually questioned to determine why they were in the locations where they were captured — Pakistan or Afghanistan, in most cases.
They were initially staying at a Riyadh hotel before being moved into a detention facility. Their families were notified about their arrival and will start seeking permission to see them, al-Shimri said.
Al-Shimri said the fact that Saudi Arabia was able to win their release "proves they had nothing to do with terrorism."
Four batches of Saudis have been released, with the first in May, and all have gone through the same process of being detained in their homeland. Besides the latest 16 released, 29 others remain in Saudi custody under investigation, and eight have been freed, al-Turki said.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, said the 16 men were released Wednesday for transfer to the custody of the Saudi government. Their departure brings the number of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to about 415, he said.
Some 759 people have been held over the years at Guantanamo, according to Defense Department documents released to the AP in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
Of those, 136 have been Saudis, making them the second-largest contingent of Guantanamo prisoners, behind 218 Afghans that have been held there.