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Guantanamo strike sparks outcry in Yemen

Hunger strike at controversial prison pushes families awaiting the fate of their loved ones to find a voice.

Last Modified: 25 Apr 2013 11:05
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In Sanaa, Yemenis have been protesting outside the US embassy [Rebecca Murray/Al Jazeera]

Sanaa, Yemen - An ongoing hunger strike by nearly half of Guantanamo's 166 prisoners has galvanised street protests outside the US embassy in Yemen, where detainees' long-suffering families have been raising their voices.

Amina al-Rabaia, a 34-year-old schoolteacher from the capital, is the sole member of her close-knit family - ripped apart during the past decade - who is still able to speak out.

In 2001, Amina's worried parents had sent her 19-year-old brother, Salman al-Rabaia, to Afghanistan to bring back their older brother Fawaz, who had lived there for years.

The siblings never crossed paths.

When Fawaz did return home late that year, he was imprisoned by Yemen's feared intelligence apparatus, the Political Security Organisation (PSO). After he took part in a notorious prison break by alleged al-Qaeda members in 2006, Fawaz was tracked down by security forces and killed.

His family has paid a devastating price for his actions.

Salman was captured in Afghanistan during the US invasion in 2001 and taken to Jordan, where, according to his lawyer, David Remes, he was severely tortured before being sent to Guantanamo. Salman was told he was held because of Fawaz, but has since been cleared for release.

His older brother, Abu Baker, is being held for the same reason by the PSO.

After her father died a year ago, Amina has since moved with her ailing mother into an impoverished neighbourhood on Sanaa's outskirts to preserve her anonymity. She cuts a lonely figure at the protests.

"I feel very alone and tired," she said. "But I can't give up - I'm the only one in the family who can do this. Sometimes I feel scared. I just want my two brothers to come back."

Hunger strike

The current hunger strike, sparked on February 7 by what prisoners say was the mishandling of the Quran, has been said to be particularly brutal. Prisoners have reportedly been shot with rubber bullets, thrown into isolated cells and force-fed with tubes.

Of the prisoners who remain at Guantanamo, 86 have been cleared for release, sometimes repeatedly, but none have yet returned home.

They have been pushed to desperate measures. Remes, who currently represents 14 Yemeni prisoners in Guantanamo, said Salman told him this is the "first time everyone is striking to death".

One of US President Barack Obama's first promises in office was to close Guantanamo. He is now in his second administration, and human rights advocates and lawyers say the situation has worsened.

If President Obama is true to his word that he wants to close Guantanamo, then he has to start taking action to demonstrate that. So far, he has not.

Zachary Katznelson, ACLU lawyer

Almost 800 prisoners have passed through Guantanamo since it opened 11 years ago, said Zachary Katznelson, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), but only 13 military commissions - heavily censored and seemingly skewed to the detriment of the defendants - have been convened.

There are 90 Yemeni prisoners in Guantanamo today, with 56 cleared for release.

"It's significant that Yemenis are the largest bloc because they were not initially," Letta Tayler, a terrorism and counterterrorism researcher from Human Rights Watch (HRW), said.

"The Saudis and Afghans were far larger in number. But what did the Saudis and Afghans have that the Yemenis don't have? Clout with the US government. The Saudis got out because of their relationship with the US and oil. The Afghans got out because the US was essentially controlling the Afghan government and President Karzai, and they had Bagram. What did Yemen have? Nothing."

There are two categories for cleared Yemenis. The first is for Yemenis that can be returned immediately, without any significant security concerns to the US. The second are those that are eligible for release or transfer, if Yemen were to implement more security restrictions.

But transferring any prisoners out of Guantanamo has been made extremely difficult by the annual National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA) passed by the US Congress, which restrict funds for this purpose, and require the US defence secretary to certify a released prisoner will not engage in terrorism.

Transfer of Yemenis was suspended by Obama "for the foreseeable future" after the "underwear" bombing plot in 2009, because Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's plane journey originated in Yemen where he allegedly received training from al-Qaeda. He later pleaded guilty to all charges.

Another deterrent to their release has been Said Ali Al-Shihri, a Saudi national who helped initiate al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen after his release from Guantanamo in late 2007. He was rumoured, on several occasions, to have been killed by drone strikes.

"The US Congress has put up roadblocks, but they are not insurmountable," said the ACLU's Katznelson. "It is a question of political will, and if President Obama is true to his word that he wants to close Guantanamo, then he has to start taking action to demonstrate that. So far he has not."

Warming relationship

The relationship between the US and Yemen has warmed since President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi took over from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year dictatorial rule.

If you lost your son for one day or one week, how would you feel? I have lost my son for 12 years.

Kolod Al-Mithali, mother of prisoner

Tayler believes there is a renewed push for the prisoners' return, including from an upcoming Yemeni government delegation that will visit Washington DC and Guantanamo.

But for the prisoners' families, the chronic emotional stress in dealing with their loved ones' long-term imprisonment and uncertain fate has taken its toll.

Visiting family members of Yemeni prisoners, Remes said he sensed powerlessness that added to their despair.

At the same time, he says many have become activists. "Now they are taking the initiative. They have grown tired of waiting."

Kolod, the elderly mother of prisoner Hayal Al-Mithali, has had enough. Having borne nine surviving children out of a total of 18, she said Hayel, now 31 years old, is her favourite.

She rebelled against her husband, who wanted to remain quiet about Hayal's detention, for fear of bringing more trouble to their house. "She broke a wall of silence with the media," said Abdul Rahmin Ali Barman, a lawyer from HOOD, a local human rights organisation.

"They asked her to speak as the mother of all prisoners of Guantanamo. She gave a very small but emotional speech. She cried when she talked to the cameras. Everyone cried."

"The only thing I remember is the injustice," said Kolod. "I am Hayal's mother and I'm asking the people in the US to release my son. If you lost your son for one day or one week, how would you feel? I have lost my son for 12 years."

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Al Jazeera
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