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Dead Gitmo detainee was cleared for release in 2009

Guantanamo Bay detainee Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, in an undated photo provided by his attorney.

The Guantanamo detainee found dead in his prison cell last weekend had been cleared for  release three years ago by an Obama administration task force that concluded that his detention was no longer necessary, NBC News has learned. 

The disclosure that the detainee, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif, a 32-year-old Yemeni citizen, had been approved for repatriation could raise new questions about the handling of his case and those of scores of others held in Gitmo who also have been cleared for release. Instead, the detainees remain stuck in legal limbo in the U.S. prison for suspected terrorists with no prospect for getting out any time soon.  

A special Obama administration task force review found in 2009 that Latif, who had been held at Gitmo since early 2002 and had waged a long legal battle for his freedom, could be released, a conclusion that could only be reached by a unanimous vote of all U.S. intelligence agencies. 

That finding was buttressed a year later when U.S. Judge Henry Kennedy ruled that the U.S. government's initial evidence that Latif had links to al-Qaida and the Taliban was "unconvincing."  Despite both findings, the Obama administration appealed the ruling --  because it did not want to return him to Yemen, a country it viewed as too unstable. 

That stance provoked criticism from human rights groups. At the time of Latif's death, Amnesty International was about to launch an international campaign calling for his freedom, according to David Remes, who headed a legal team that represented Latif. 

"Adnan spent more than ten years in Guantanamo-- nearly a third of his life -- but like most Guantanamo detainees, he was never charged with a crime or accused of violating any law," Remes said in a statement released Tuesday. 

He  "endured great suffering at Guantanamo -- physical and spiritual -- and lived in constant torment" but "could see no end to his confinement,"  it said.  "However he died, Adman's death is a reminder of the injustice of Guantanamo and the urgency of closing the prison." 

Remes told NBC News Tuesday that Latif had been “in despair” over his plight and had told him he would take any opportunity he could to commit suicide. He also said that Latif had been heavily sedated by guards there.

In a statement on its website Tuesday, Amnesty International USA called Latif’s death, “a tragic reminder of the numbing cruelty of the USA’s indefinite detention regime at its Guantánamo Bay detention facility, and the urgent need to resolve the detentions.” 

Latif's death is the ninth at Gitmo since the U.S. prison for terrorists opened in January 2002 and the third since last year. The case is now the subject of an investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Military officials say that Latif, who had no serious medical problems, was found unconscious and unresponsive in his cell at Camp 5 on Saturday afternoon. After efforts to revive him failed, he was rushed to a hospital at the base and pronounced dead. An autopsy was conducted on Sunday, but the results have not yet been released.

Military officials say that Latif had been a disciplinary problem: He had been on a hunger strike that he ended in June and recently had hurled a "cocktail" of food and bodily fluids at guards, causing him to be placed in a special disciplinary cell in Camp 5, where he was isolated from other detainees.

But Remes said that Latif had ample grievances. Pentagon officials had first recommended he be released from Gitmo as early as 2004, but he was caught up in seemingly endless legal battles over the status of detainees. He was brought to the prison in early 2002 after being turned over to Pakistani police to the U.S. military following the invasion of Afghanistan. Latif had said he suffered from brain injuries as a result of an auto accident in Yemen and had gone to Pakistan for free medical help.

U.S. military officials originally claimed that he had been encouraged to leave Yemen by an al-Qaida facilitator named “Abu Khalud” and had received military training at a camp in Afghanistan. But Judge Kennedy noted in his ruling that there was no corroborated evidence that Latif ever met Khalud and that Defense Department officials had previously concluded that Latif  “is not known to have participated in combatant/terrorist training.”

In letters from Gitmo, Latif repeatedly asserted his innocence.  “This prison is a piece of hell that kills everything, the spirit, the body, and kicks away all the symptoms of health from them,” he wrote in one letter that was widely cited by human rights advocates.

Noting President Barack Obama's one-time pledge to close Gitmo, Remes said: "The only detainees who have been released from Gitmo in the last two years have been in caskets."

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