I’m cross-posting below an article that was published on NPR’s website yesterday, primarily because the sister of Abdul Salam al-Hila (also identified as Abdulsalam al-Hela), a Yemeni colonel who was kidnapped in Egypt in 2002 and rendered to the CIA’s “Dark Prison” before his transfer to Guantánamo, has perfectly captured the human cost of the hysteria that followed the failed Christmas Day plane bombing by the Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, by asking, “So a Nigerian man tries to set off a bomb on an American plane, and they punish my brother for this?”
Prior to this failed bomb attempt, the Obama administration had repatriated six cleared Yemenis from Guantánamo, following up on the release of another court-cleared Yemeni in October. These transfers broke the long-standing deadlock regarding the release of Yemenis from Guantánamo, which had afflicted both the Bush administration and, until that point, the Obama administration too.
The transfers were intended to pave the way for future releases, but in response to claims that Abdulmutallab had been recruited for his failed suicide bombing in Yemen, President Obama capitulated to criticism from Republicans, and from members of his own party, and promised to halt any further Yemeni releases for the foreseeable future.
That was nearly three months ago, and Obama has been true to his word, but as al-Hila’s sister and other commentators point out, refusing to release any cleared Yemenis because of the actions of a single man is akin to collective punishment based on guilt by nationality, and is entirely unacceptable.
In Yemen, Anger Toward US Grows Over Detainees
By Kelly McEvers, NPR, April 1, 2010
Of the nearly 200 inmates still being held at the US detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, nearly half are from Yemen, on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
A task force set up by the Obama administration had approved many of these Yemeni detainees for release. But after a Yemen-based branch of al-Qaeda took responsibility for the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt, those releases were put on hold.
Abdul Salam al-Hila is one of the detainees affected. He was captured in Egypt in 2002. His family says he was working for the Yemeni government to help resettle jihadis who had fought in Afghanistan and ended up in Yemen.
In 2004, the Bush administration claimed that Hila was a member of al-Qaeda, and he was transferred to Guantánamo. Since 2001, the US has used the facility to detain suspected terrorists from other countries.
Hila’s family lives in a tall and narrow house in the Yemeni capital, San’a. They say that since President Obama took office and pledged to close Guantánamo, they had some hope they might at least see Hila again, even if he had to face charges in a Yemeni court.
That hope disappeared when they heard that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to ignite a bomb on a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight late last year, after spending time in Yemen.
“So a Nigerian man tries to set off a bomb on an American plane, and they punish my brother for this?” says Hila’s sister, who did want to be identified. She says the family has endured enough trouble already. Last year, Hila’s two young sons died when a grenade they were playing with exploded.
“His mother died, his father died, his two sons died, and now his uncle has died,” Hila’s sister says. “Do they want us to all be dead before they bring him back home again?”
Exasperation Turning Into Anger
Khaled al-Anisi heads the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, a legal organization in Yemen that is pressing for the Yemeni detainees’ release. He says their families’ exasperation is turning into anger.
“Obama [gave] the people hope. And they [lived] one year with this hope,” Anisi says. “Now, the people start to think this is not [a] Bush problem or [a] Bush administration mistake, it is the mistake [of] all American people,” Anisi says.
As a result, he says, Yemenis have become increasingly angry at all Americans. “They said … all of them [are] the same. Democrat people or Republican people — all of them are [the] enemy,” he says.
Anisi and many others say that the danger with this anti-American sentiment is it makes it easier for al-Qaeda to recruit new members.
US officials say they are keenly aware of the dangers of continuing to hold so many Yemenis at Guantánamo. But they say they’re concerned that if released, these Yemenis will find their way to the local militant group, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That’s what happened to two Saudis who were released from Guantánamo in 2007. [Note: McEvers neglects to mention that the Saudis were released by President Bush, and not President Obama, and that they were released as part of a political deal with the Saudi government, undertaken in spite of a recommendation by the intelligence services that the two men in question still posed a threat to the US].
Of the two dozen Yemenis who have been released so far, most lead normal lives. Two or three are missing. Another one was killed in a US-assisted airstrike against alleged al-Qaeda hideouts in December.
Lack Of Will To Pursue Solution
Letta Tayler, who researches Yemen for New York-based Human Rights Watch, says the US and the Yemeni governments should work together to find a solution for the remaining detainees.
“And that solution should be either Yemen repatriating the detainees to Yemen or finding a third country that can host them, and if necessary, either solution would involve placing restrictions on detainees’ movements to protect national security,” she says.
Tayler says the problem is that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh lacks the will to pursue such a solution.
“If President Saleh sees the repatriation of Yemenis as a political asset at any given moment, he will advocate for that. If he does not see it as politically expedient at any given moment, he won’t. And a lot of the time, he does not see it as politically expedient, he sees it as a headache,” Tayler says.
Life Hard For Released Detainees
Last year, Yemen asked the US for tens of millions of dollars to fund a rehabilitation program for Yemenis returning from Guantánamo. That plan never materialized.
But the US has increased military aid to Yemen to help fight al-Qaeda. US military and intelligence agencies already provide equipment and information for Yemeni airstrikes against alleged al-Qaeda targets.
Saleh al-Zuba spent six years at Guantánamo and was released back to Yemen in late 2006. He spent a few more months in Yemeni custody, then was freed when a relative vouched for him.
Now, Zuba spends most days at home, watching TV. He says he tried to open a honey store, but the owner wouldn’t rent to him because he heard Zuba had been in Guantánamo. Once a month, Zuba has to check in with local security officers.
“I don’t need a rehabilitation program,” Zuba says. “Right now, I just need a job.”
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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