(New York) - The United States and Yemen should quickly move to develop a humane repatriation plan for the nearly 100 Yemeni prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Unless the impasse in repatriation negotiations is swiftly resolved, the Yemenis will remain the biggest obstacle to President Barack Obama's plan to close the detention facility.
"Many Yemenis are entering their eighth year without charge at Guantanamo," said Letta Tayler, terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "The United States can't simply hold these men because it fears they might become dangerous in the future."
The 52-page report, "No Direction Home: Returns from Guantanamo to Yemen," criticizes US and Yemeni proposals to transfer the detainees to a detention center in Yemen where they could continue to be held indefinitely, ostensibly for rehabilitation. Based on two weeks of field research in Yemen and more than three dozen interviews, including with former Yemeni prisoners and US and Yemeni officials, the report also warns of the potential for mistreatment in other plans being considered for the detainees.
Human Rights Watch obtained a summary of the Yemeni government's rehabilitation plan for future Guantanamo returnees, which says the men would receive counseling, medical care and job training. However, the plan provides scant detail on how authorities would decide when the men were "rehabilitated."
During meetings with Human Rights Watch, senior Yemeni officials said some returned men could be detained in rehabilitation for a year or more. Yemeni officials also said they may restrict the men's movements upon release from the center.
While insisting they would not seek unlawful detention, US officials expressed security concerns arising from returned detainees. One US Embassy official in Yemen said the proposed center should be "basically a prison facility with a programmatic aspect."
"The Yemenis' rehabilitation needs to be genuine, not a guise for continued detention without charge," said Tayler. "Moving them from one form of arbitrary detention to another is not a solution to Guantanamo."
About two-fifths of the estimated 241 detainees currently at Guantanamo are Yemeni, making them the largest national group remaining at the prison. While the United States will likely prosecute a handful of them, talks with Yemen on repatriating the rest have stalled on several issues, including US fears they might "return to the fight," because al- Qaeda's presence in Yemen has been growing. In September 2008, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at the US Embassy in the capital Sana'a that killed 18 people.
If Washington does not work to create a repatriation plan for the Yemeni detainees, it may try to transfer them to the United States and continue to detain them without charge, Human Rights Watch said. Another option, sending some Yemenis to a locked rehabilitation center in Saudi Arabia, could also pose potential risks.
The report also details the mistreatment and neglect of the 14 Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo who have already been repatriated. Yemeni authorities jailed most of the men for a few months without charge. In the worst case, one man was held for two years and said interrogators tried to beat him into confessing he was a spy.
Some of the returnees said they suffer from both psychological and physical problems emanating from years in US custody, yet despite their unlawful detention, none has received assistance from the United States or Yemen. Stigmatized as former "terror suspects," many cannot find jobs. The men are under constant surveillance, are banned from leaving Yemen, and must report monthly to authorities.
The report recommends that the United States fund a genuine rehabilitation effort for returned detainees that includes counseling, medical care, and job training. It also calls on Yemen to let detainees challenge any restrictions and allow independent, nongovernmental organizations to monitor the repatriation process.
"Yemeni authorities should not assume these men are terrorists simply because the United States held them at Guantanamo," Tayler said. "If they feel they must monitor the detainees or restrict their movement, they have to provide the men with a meaningful legal process to contest the measures."
Human Rights Watch said that any accord between the United States and Yemen should also resolve the cases of two Yemenis whom the United States is holding without charge at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
"The best way to prevent the returned Yemenis from becoming a threat is to help them reintegrate into their society and repair their lives," Tayler said.
Accounts from former detainees (pseudonyms used to protect them from possible reprisal):
"They [the Yemeni authorities] beat me with shoes. There were insults, bad words and threats. I told them, ‘If you're going to torture me, it won't be anything new. The Americans already put me through torture.'"
- "Fahmi Muhammad," on being held for two years after his return in 2004.
"It's a catastrophe. I have lost a lot of things - my health, my kids' childhoods, my career, and many years of my life."
- "Malek al-Dhabi," on life since his return to Yemen in 2006.
"No one will hire me because I was at Guantanamo. ... There is a girl I am interested in, but I can't ask her father for her hand because I don't have bride money or a way to support her. Her father wouldn't dismiss me if I had a job."
- "Omar Fawza," on life since his return to Yemen in 2006.