Former Guantánamo Prisoner Kidnapped in Yemen, Held at an Unknown Location


Abdulqadir al-Madhfari (identified by the US as Abdel Qadir Hussein al-Mudhaffari, and given the prisoner number ISN 40), in a photo taken at Guantánamo and included in his classified military file, released by WikiLeaks in 2011.

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

In disturbing news from Yemen, reported by the Intercept, a former Guantánamo prisoner, who had only just been reunited with his family after 14 years in Guantánamo, and five subsequent years in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he had been imprisoned despite having been promised his freedom, has been seized by Houthi militia, and is being held an undisclosed location.

The disappearance of Abdulqadir al-Madhfari (identified by the US as Abdel Qadir Hussein al-Mudhaffari, and given the prisoner number ISN 40) is one of the more depressing examples of how the “taint” of having been held at Guantánamo, despite never having been charged with a crime or put on trial, dogs former prisoners. It also provides a vivid example of the US government’s almost complete lack of interest in the welfare of men released after long years of unjustifiable imprisonment in the US’s notorious offshore prison in Cuba.

Al-Madhfari’s long ordeal began almost 20 years ago, when he was seized crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Whilst it was likely that the “young physician’s assistant who dreamed of becoming a doctor,” as the Intercept described him, had been a foot soldier with the Taliban, there was no reason to suppose, as the US alleged, that he had been part of what his captors described as the “Dirty Thirty,” a group of bodyguards for Osama bin Laden, because most of the men in question were young men, who had been in Afghanistan for only a short amount of time, and would not, therefore, have been trusted to guard Al-Qaeda’s leader.

As the years passed, the “Dirty Thirty” allegations largely faded away, and most of those alleged to have been bin Laden’s bodyguards were released — or rather, because they were Yemenis, and the entire US establishment refused to consider repatriating them, in light of the security situation in their home country, were transferred to third countries that, for money, or for diplomatic favors, agreed to resettle them.

For many of these men, the long road to their release began after President Obama took office in January 2009, and established a high-level government review process, the Guantánamo Review Task Force, to assess whether prisoners should be freed or tried or, in some cases, whether they should explicitly continue to be held without charge or trial. Al-Madhfari was one of 30 Yemenis whose release was recommended, but who continued to be held in what was described as “conditional detention,” their release contingent on some undefined perception that “the security situation in Yemen improves” or that “an appropriate rehabilitation program or third-country resettlement option becomes available.”

And so it was that, eventually, in August 2016, al-Madhfari and eleven other Yemenis, as well as three Afghans, were transferred to the UAE, which had reassured them — and their lawyers, and the State Department — that, after a short period of rehabilitation, they would be freed and given help to rebuild their lives.

That never happened. Instead, al-Madhfari and the 14 other men transferred with him, as well as five other Yemenis transferred to the UAE in November 2015, and another Yemeni, another Afghan and the last Russian in Guantánamo, who were transferred just before President Obama left office in January 2017, found themselves imprisoned in conditions that were at least as bleak as those in Guantánamo — if not worse.

The deplorable conditions in which the men were held in the UAE first surfaced in a Washington Post article in May 2018, which I wrote about here, and in July last year the United Nations intervened, sending a letter to the Emirati authorities decrying the treatment of the men transferred to the UAE from Guantánamo. In October, the situation became even more perilous, when the UAE threatened to forcibly repatriate the Yemenis, and despite continued opposition to their plans, followed through on their threat in July this year, when six of the men were repatriated.

Last month, Reuters reported that the 12 other Yemenis had also been forcibly repatriated, and while everyone who cared about these men’s welfare crossed their fingers and hoped that, against the odds, they would be reunited with their families and would stay safe, al-Madhfari’s case shows how fundamentally insubstantial those hopes were.

“Less than a week” of freedom

As Elise Swain explained in the Intercept article, al-Madhfari’s freedom “lasted less than a week.” His family had already been warned by lawyers who had managed to assess his situation in the UAE that “he was deteriorating in solitary confinement,” and on his return his family found him “severely mentally disturbed,” and “no longer the same man [they] had spoken with at Guantánamo.”

As Swain also explained, “Immediate family members in Yemen were completely unrecognizable to him,” as Ameen al-Madhfari, a brother living outside Yemen, told her, adding that he “accused them of being Emiratis playing a trick on him.” As she described it, “He refused to speak to anyone and became agitated and fearful when approached. Blindfolding al-Madhfari was the only way that UAE security forces could convince him to leave their base in Mukalla, a seaport in Yemen, and drive back to the capital with his brother and uncle.”

As Swain proceeded to explain, “On November 11, al-Madhfari asked to take a walk outside for the first time since arriving at his family’s home. While accompanied by his family on the streets of the capital, Sanaa, al-Madhfari bolted. Panicked, the family had no idea what had happened until an acquaintance with the police confirmed their worst fears: He had been detained by Houthi militia members at a checkpoint.”

Ameen told Swain that his disappearance “has left the family distraught,” further explaining that, “After fighting for two decades to free him, one sister is still in shock, and an older brother was admitted to a hospital, where he remained for days after hearing the news.” Highlighting the precarious situation in Yemen, Swain highlighted that the Intercept was “withholding the names of some of Madhfari’s family members, who fear persecution and retaliation for speaking to the media.”

Ameen also confirmed that al-Madhfari is being “held at an unknown location.” As he explained, “He is hidden and not allowed to be interviewed. We do not know where he is being detained.”

As Swain pointed out, “In Yemen, torture and disappearances into prison networks abound. The existence of UAE-operated secret prisons, where Yemeni detainees are subjected to torture and US interrogation, has been well documented by the Associated Press and Yemeni human rights lawyer Huda al-Sarari. The Houthis, the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and additional warring parties have all been accused of operating their own secret prisons rife with torture.”

Lawyers and others campaigning for the former Guantánamo prisoners had long been aware of the perils of returning them to Yemen. As Swain explained, they “had unsuccessfully sought the former Guantánamo detainees’ transfer to a safe third country like Oman or Qatar, warning against repatriation to Yemen — a country embroiled in civil war, experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Faced with the reality of returning to Yemen, however, Abdulrahman Barman, a Yemeni human rights lawyer and the executive director of the American Center for Justice, who had worked on coordinating the men’s return to Yemen, explained that it was not surprising that al-Madhfari had been arrested and disappeared. “Some of his returning comrades may be subjected to kidnapping and enforced disappearance, especially as Yemen is in a state of war and chaos,” he said, adding, “Most of the men returning belong to areas controlled by armed groups that do not respect the law and human rights,” referring to the Houthis and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council.

As Swain also explained, “Persecution from the Houthi rebels, who overthrew the Saudi-backed Yemeni government in 2014 and now effectively control 80 percent of Yemen’s 30 million people, complicates any hope the former detainees have for a new life in the country. Part of a Shia movement backed by Iran, the rebels oppose the Yemeni government, Al-Qaeda in Yemen, and Islamic State militants. Since the United States suspected former Guantánamo detainees of involvement with Al-Qaeda, they are at high risk for abduction, disappearance, and assassination within Yemen. Emiratis, too, have imprisoned hundreds of Yemenis suspected of being Al-Qaeda or ISIS militants, according to the Associated Press. Former Guantánamo detainees returning to Yemen are also targeted by Al-Qaeda for recruitment.”

US responsibility

What will happen next is unknown, as the chaos on the ground in Yemen makes it difficult for human rights observers and activists to have any influence. However, Alka Pradhan, a defense lawyer in the military commissions at Guantánamo, told the Intercept that, “After torturing and arbitrarily detaining these men for decades, it is our legal and ethical responsibility to make sure that they are spared any further rights violations in the countries to which we choose to send them.” As she added, “The US needs to publicly question the UAE on where the men are and how they plan to ensure their safety.”

Swain also spoke to former prisoner Mansoor Adayfi, who was resettled in Serbia in July 2016, just before Abdulqadir al-Madhfari’s ordeal began in the UAE, and who told her that, “Beyond basic safety, most former Guantánamo detainees have never been given rehabilitation services, financial reparations, or the opportunity to live ‘like a normal person.’”

Despite having an acclaimed memoir published this August, Adayfi still faces harassment and arbitrary restrictions on his liberty. Swain noted that former prisoners “have long spoken out about the constant harassment, surveillance, and stigma Guantánamo brings them,” and, as Adayfi explained, “We still suffer living under restrictions. We cannot travel. We’re not allowed to work. We’re not allowed to obtain travel documents or a driving license.” He added that, “without pressure from the United States, nothing will change.”

In Yemen, meanwhile, the US’s indifference to the fate of its former prisoners “has become a matter of life or death” for the family of Abdulqadir al-Madhfari. “We have no choice except following up with authorities in Sanaa,” Ameen al-Madhfari told the Intercept, adding, “We are trying to have mediators explain his psychological and mental health condition, but we did not get any conclusive promise so far to release him.”

One day, the US needs to be held accountable for its shameful abandonment of the men it abused at Guantánamo, but for now the most urgent focus needs to be on the plight of Abdulqadir al-Madhfari, a man who seems, quite literally, to have been been driven to a situation of complete mental collapse by his treatment at Guantánamo, and his subsequent treatment in the UAE.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison 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 you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, a report about the seemingly unending ordeal of former Guantanamo prisoner Abdulqadir al-Madhfari.

    Held at Guantanamo for 14 years, and then for another five years in the UAE (where he was supposed to be freed, but where his imprisonment continued), he was recently forcibly repatriated to Yemen, with eleven of his compatriots, but after just one week reunited with his family, who were alarmed at the decline in his mental health, he was seized by Houthi militia at a checkpoint in Sana’a, and is now being held incommunicado in an undisclosed location.

    The US bears a huge responsibility for al-Madhfari’s plight, but sadly I doubt that the State Department has any leverage with the Houthis. The Biden administration does, however, need to do whatever it can to ensure the safety of the other men repatriated from the UAE.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    The US just throws them away after illegally detaining them and leaves them, with their lives broken, in terrible conditions. It’s hard to believe how they always get away with that!
    I read about their lives after Guantánamo and most of the times it’s heartbreaking.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, it’s an absolute disgrace, Natalia, and it’s why I want to set up an organization to call for accountability. To be fair to the Biden administration, however, the State Department recognizes that mistakes were made when it came to some of the resettlements – particularly the terrible situation of the men sent to the UAE. I think they want to be careful where they send released prisoners in future who can’t be repatriated, but that’s not going to be easy. A lot of the resettlements under Obama were only really possible because the US didn’t have much choice about where people ended up – but the ultimate responsibility for that, of course, lies with the Obama administration itself, which gave up without a fight when its plans to resettle some of the Uighurs in the US met resistance from Republicans.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Angie Graham wrote:

    Poor man !! How terrible to finally being free and then held again. This must be unbearable for him and his loved ones.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, Angie. Thanks for caring.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Angie Graham wrote:

    I can’t believe they can be so cruel, Andy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    The whole resettlement program for former prisoners who can’t be safely repatriated has been such a mess, Angie. Those sent to western European countries seem generally to have fared quite well, but it’s a different matter in eastern Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union. And in Muslim countries, while men sent to Oman seem to have been well looked after, the UAE ended up being a nightmare.

    And while it’s a relief to see the back of Trump, who had no interest whatsoever in monitoring former prisoners (not even from a right-wing national security perspective), the Biden administration hasn’t provided us with any reassurance that it’s much of a priority for them either, having failed to appoint an official with specific responsibility for Guantanamo issues, which really should have happened by now.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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