Will A Rehabilitation Center Lead to the Release of the Cleared Yemeni Prisoners in Guantánamo?

18.11.13

Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about one of the enduring problems at Guantánamo — how to establish a situation in Yemen to reassure those who are concerned about the security situation in the country that it is safe to release the 56 Yemeni citizens still held at Guantánamo who were cleared for release nearly four years ago, in January 2010, by the inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shorty after taking office in 2009.

It is ridiculous, of course, that men cleared for release are still held, but that is the reality on the ground in the United States today, as it has been since the end of 2010, when lawmakers began passing legislation designed to prevent the president from releasing prisoners or closing the prison, as he had promised.

In fact, 84 of the remaining 164 prisoners in Guantánamo were cleared for release by President Obama’s task force, but while some of the other men need third countries to be found that are prepared to take them in because it is unsafe for them to be repatriated, and others — like Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison — only need President Obama to flex his political muscles to send them back home, the Yemenis are a slightly more complicated matter.

This is not for reasons that have anything to do with notions of justice. Those were first jettisoned by the Bush administration when a “war on terror” was declared following the 9/11 attacks, and Guantánamo was subsequently established, and they were jettisoned again, when, having promised to close Guantánamo within a year, and having established a sober and responsible inter-agency task force to review all the men’s cases, President Obama responded to the task force’s recommendations that 156 of the 240 prisoners held when he took office should be released by releasing some and then allowing the whole process to grind to a halt when he met political opposition.

For the last three years, only seven prisoners have been released from Guantánamo, but whenever the plight of the cleared prisoners has come up, it is clear that the Yemenis have been consigned to the bottom of the pile. The task force, conscious of long-standing fears about the security situation in Yemen, which had led to only 16 Yemeni prisoners being released by President Bush, had consigned 30 of the cleared prisoners to a separate category that they made up, which was called “conditional detention.” The detention of these men was justified as lasting until there was a perceived improvement in the security situation in Yemen, but the task force failed to provide any indication of who would decide this, or how it would be decided.

Then, on Christmas Day 2009, a Nigerian man recruited in Yemen, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried and failed to blow up a plane bound for Detroit with a bomb in his underwear, and, in response, there was a hysterical backlash against all Yemenis, to such an extent that President Obama was prevailed upon to impose a moratorium on releasing any cleared Yemeni prisoners from Guantánamo, thereby consigning the other Yemeni prisoners — 28 at the time — to the same open-ended “conditional detention” as the 30 others.

Since that time, just one Yemeni prisoner has been released, and one other cleared prisoner died, and it was not until May this year that, provoked by a prison-wide hunger strike which had awakened the world’s media to the ongoing plight of the Guantánamo prisoners, President Obama dropped his ban on releasing Yemeni prisoners,  which he announced in a major speech on national security issues.

Despite this, no Yemenis have been released since the speech, but the indefinite imprisonment of Yemenis on the basis of their nationality alone — which I regularly refer to as “guilt by nationality” — may be coming to an end, as the Los Angeles Times reported two weeks ago.

Plans for a rehabilitation center

According to the article, both US and Yemeni officials said that the Obama administration was talking to Yemeni officials about setting up a facility outside the capital Sana’a to hold dozens of prisoners — not just from Guantánamo, but also from Afghanistan, where a handful of Yemeni prisoners have been held for up to 11 years.

A US official described as being “familiar with the talks,” but “who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans are classified,” told the Los Angeles Times, “There’s a definite recognition that this needs to happen but if it’s not done right, the risks are very high.”

It was noted that, although Yemeni officials “have drawn up preliminary plans for the facility,” outside Sana’a, “final agreement may be months away.” As the article explained, “Deep disagreements remain on funding, and about whether it would function as another prison or as a halfway house for detainees to re-enter society after years of confinement and isolation.”

That latter point is crucial, because there is absolutely no justification for imprisoning those who are released from Guantánamo, and who have already been cleared for release by President Obama’s task force, and there is no justification either for holding men returned from Afghanistan, who have not even had the luxury of a presidentially appointed task force making decisions about their disposition.

Those returned should only be held during a period of rehabilitation, designed to facilitate their re-entry into Yemeni society, because, if they posed any kind of significant threat, there would not be discussions taking place about their release. In Guantánamo, for example, there are five more Yemenis who were recommended by the task force for prosecution and 26 others who were recommended for ongoing imprisonment on the basis that they are too dangerous to release but insufficient evidence exists to put them on trial. This is a disgraceful attempt to justify detention, which I don’t endorse, of course, but a mechanism for addressing the men’s cases — known as the Periodic Review Boards — has recently been established, so there is some hope that they have not been abandoned completely.

I intend to write about the PRBs in the near future, but for now the importance of these cases for the prisoners cleared for release but still held is to distinguish between them, and to point out that, from the US government’s point of view, those eligible for release are not regarded as posing a threat, and should not be imprisoned on their return, just to satisfy the hysteria of a handful of people with power and authority in the United States.

These concerns were noted in the Los Angeles Times article, which explained, “Human rights activists warn that they will oppose the new facility if it means Yemenis who were imprisoned for years without being charged at Guantánamo Bay are merely shifted to serve indefinite detention at a new jail.” Andrea Prasow, senior counter-terrorism counsel with Human Rights Watch, said, “I don’t think [it] should exist unless it’s an actual rehabilitation program. There’s no way I would find it acceptable for [returned Yemeni detainees] to be held against their will.”

For their part, US officials portrayed the proposed facility as somewhere where returned prisoners “would undergo counseling, instruction in a peaceful form of Islam, and job training in Yemen before any decision on freeing them” was made. It was also noted that the program “would be modeled on a largely successful Saudi effort to reintegrate Islamic militants into society,” and White House officials stated that they were “working with the United Nations and other governments to assist Yemen with the project.” However, doubts remain about the intentions of the US, despite Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, stating, “We believe that the establishment of a credible, sustainable program would be an important step for the Yemeni government in bolstering their counter-terrorism capabilities.”

The key doubt concerns the relationship between the aspects of the program involving rehabilitation, and those involving “any decision on freeing them,” as the Los Angeles Times described it, as it could easily become a situation which replicates the fearfulness that has already kept the men at Guantánamo years after they were cleared for release.

As negotiations continue, the Los Angeles Times noted that US officials expressed concerns that repatriated Yemeni prisoners “may resume terrorist activities after being released, possibly by joining Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” while Yemeni officials “don’t want to be seen helping Washington create an alternative to the unpopular prison at Guantánamo Bay.” As the article described it, “They warn that any US-backed facility would create a target for attacks by Islamist militants, and thus would need heavy defences.” The article proceeded to explain that, in recent talks held in Rome “because of security risks in Yemen,” Yemeni officials “pressed US and European officials for funding for construction and training guards and other staff members,” and “brought Saudi Arabia into the talks as well in the hope it will pay for the project.”

The Los Angeles Times also noted that Yemen’s foreign minister, Abubakr Qirbi, “acknowledged last month that his government plans to construct a facility for ‘rehabilitation’ of Guantánamo Bay detainees,” but noted that he “did not mention the US involvement.” Alarmingly, the article also noted that he “portrayed the returning prisoners as non-violent.” Quite why this was regarded as an acceptable comment for the Los Angeles Times to make was not made clear, but, to return to the task force’s deliberations, if the 56 cleared for release were regarded as dangerous, they would not have been cleared for release.

In fact, there was nothing to take exception to in Abubakr Qirbi’s words. Yemen’s official news agency reported that he said, “We are currently planning to construct this facility and taking legal steps for the return of the 55 [or 56] people who the US has agreed to send home, those who do not pose a threat.” He added, “A meeting of specialists from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the European Union was held to mull over the construction of the rehabilitation facility.”

The fact that Abubakr Qirbi did not mention the US was probably because of ambivalence in Yemen towards the supposed ally who conducts drone strikes on Yemeni soil, and keeps holding Yemeni citizens it says it no longer wants to hold.

I sincerely hope that the proposals regarding a rehabilitation center in Yemen lead to positive action, as the ongoing imprisonment of the cleared Yemeni prisoners is the single biggest reminder of the gross injustice of holding a high-level review process to decide who to release, and then not releasing them.

That, as I have said before, adds an edge of cruelty to the indefinite detention taking place at Guantánamo that even openly totalitarian regimes would hesitate to implement. It is time for these 56 men to be freed.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. It’s very much appreciated. There can be no significant progress towards the closure of Guantanamo without the release of the cleared Yemeni prisoners.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    My friend Debra Sweet of the World Can’t Wait posted this on Facebook, and wrote:

    What an f’ing mess; the U.S. trying to hold onto legitimacy of imprisoning people at Guantanamo AND release some to another prison they want to control in Yemen. Thanks to Andy Worthington for digging through it for us.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Debra. Well put. People need to know about the obsession in some parts of the US government with only letting people out of Guantanamo if they’re subsequently imprisoned in their home countries. It was always the preference under George W. Bush, but most countries, of course, told him that they couldn’t possibly imprison people who had been so horribly abused in US custody, and against whom there was no evidence. Under Obama, however, as a result of all the scare stories (lies) about recidivism, the message that it is unacceptable to release cleared prisoners only to imprison them again seems to have become lost.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Bernard Elias wrote:

    Will A Rehabilitation Center Lead to the Release of the Cleared Yemeni Prisoners in Guantánamo? Not likely in my opinion.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I’m not surprised by that point of view, Bernard, but I have to hope that there will be progress at some point – and that will have to involve releasing the Yemenis cleared for release by Obama’s task force. Otherwise, at some point decades from now, people the US said it no longer wanted to hold in January 2010 will die at Guantanamo, never charged, never tried, never convicted of anything, and never having been allowed to see any of their relatives.

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