Yemenis in Guantanamo

Both Yemen and the US should take immediate action to address the current detention crisis in Guantanamo.

Inside Story Americas : Guantanamo protest
People across the world have made it clear that they want Guantanamo consigned to history [Reuters]

It has been over 10 years since the first Yemeni prisoner was declared an enemy combatant and transferred to Camp X-Ray. Since then, tales of discrimination, humiliation and torture in Guantanamo have galvanised public opinion against the prison. Yemenis, the largest group of inmates, continue to languish with no foreseeable return to their home country. Reason? Apparently, Washington policymakers deem the country too unstable to accept them. 

Reducing Yemeni detainees to their passports, rather than treating them as individuals, is wrong and which suggests that Guantanamo would never close. With the largest hunger strike in the prison’s history underway, this is the single most important detention crisis of the Obama presidency. Sorting out the Yemenis will be an essential part of his legacy on Guantanamo. 

Today (June 26) is recognised as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It is the day the United Nations Charter was signed and the Convention against Torture came into effect. The celebratory ethos aside, the truth remains troubling. As many as 89 Yemenis, 56 of whom have been long cleared for release, are still detained in Guantanamo. In the murky legal waters governing the base, there is no reassurance for the cleared prisoners – inmates can wait for years before any meaningful action is taken.  

However, there is still some hope for the Yemenis’ imminent release. Under Section 1028(d) of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has the authority to issue “national security waivers” for cleared prisoners. All Yemen needs to do is demonstrate to the US that it has taken sufficient measures to curb any concerns regarding recidivism. This could be achieved through entering security agreements with prisoners on release. 

Many prisoners have agreed to do so. The responsibility now lies on the Yemeni and the US governments to act fast to defuse the current crisis at the base. The prison-wide hunger strike began over four months ago. While it is true that the trigger was due to an alleged mishandling of the Quran during a search practice, the open-ended nature of their detention has made the hunger strike much stronger. 

Force-feeding detainees

In an unclassified letter to his lawyers, Samir Moqbel, a Yemeni from Taiz who is taking part in the hunger strike, described the brutality of the ongoing force-feeding practice. He said: 

“They have been force-feeding me for a long time now… I am like a corpse – except for the fact that every move of the tube hurts me, like stabbing a fork through my nose and throat. It is a hard truth. It is hard for me to explain to you how it feels when the tube passes over a person who is as good as dead, but who still feels pain, and who is lashed down, surrounded by soldiers.” 

It is unfortunate that the detainees had to resort to such extraordinary measures to get the attention of the very same administration that promised an end to their plight over four years ago. 

Legacy-concerned Obama, faced with increasing questions about his inaction vis-à-vis Guantanamo delivered a speech last month at the National Defense University: 

“I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it.” 

He continued to explain: 

“Imagine a future 10 years from now or 20 years from now when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country.” 

In his speech, President Obama announced the lifting of moratorium on transferring prisoners to Yemen. However, less than a month later, he appointed Washington lawyer Cliff Sloanto become Guantanamo’s closure envoy. 

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These moves were perceived by many as a step toward fulfilling his electoral promise to close the facility. For the detainees, however, it all meant very little. Particularly, those on the “indefinite detainees” list, who would remain indefinitely in custody without being tried or sentenced. The list includes 26 Yemenis and dozens others. 

The US administration has deemed them too dangerous to be released, but it does not hold enough evidence to try them in a court. The argument here is inherently flawed. It may well be the case that the supposed threat posed by an individual prisoner is overstated. 

To draw any fair conclusion, the Obama administration needs to reassess all the cases through the long-promised Periodic Review Board (PRB). Objectivity should be maintained throughout the process and prisoners should be allowed to access legal aid. 

Investing in a rehab facility

This US political manoeuvring is further complicated by the persistent upheaval in Yemen that has brought about a new administration tough on security, headed by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi – a more trusted alley to the US than his predecessor. But even Hadi grew wary of the limbo his countrymen are facing in Guantanamo. In an interview, he decried

“We believe that keeping someone in prison for over 10 years without due process is clear-cut tyranny… The United States is fond of talking democracy and human rights. But when we were discussing the prisoner issue with the American attorney general, he had nothing to say.” 

Hadi’s sentiment is welcomed, but it is far from adequate. There is a lot more than mere words his administration can do to rectify the situation. Hadi needs to prioritise discussions with the US government regarding Guantanamo. He needs to devise an immediately applicable release plan. He needs to send an official delegation to Guantanamo to meet the men and discuss repatriation. 

Another essential part of resolving the current crisis will be for the Yemeni government to swiftly conclude agreements with the US for a rehabilitation centre that would open its doors to cleared men and help with their reintegration into society. This proposition is not new, in fact, it is believed that discussions to the same end between the US and the deposed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh were previously halted when the latter sought financial gains out of the deal. 

Today, the Yemeni government has shown more willingness than ever before to address the issue. The Yemeni Minister of Human Rights, Hooria Mashhour, who was recently in Washington, lobbying for the release of the men, appealed for funds for the rehabilitation centre: 

“The (financial) support that the United States would offer to Yemen in this regard will not be more than what it is (currently) spending to maintain Guantanamo prison.” 

Mashhour is correct. The Yemeni government can capitalise on already existing initiatives – it would mean that the per person cost would fall below the annual $1m per inmate figure currently spent in Guantanamo. 

Investing in a rehab facility is money more wisely spent than the millions of dollars wasted on largely mysterious counterterrorism deals. Shunned, reviled and demoralised, it is no wonder that more than two thirds of the prisoners have gone on a permanent hunger strike. The Yemenis and the world have made it clear that they want Guantanamo consigned to history. If the current crisis is to be redressed, both the Yemeni and the US governments need to take immediate action. 

Ghada Eldemellawy is an investigator at the London-based NGO, Reprieve, which currently represents 15 prisoners in Guantanamo, including three Yemenis.