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US/Yemen: Negotiate Return of Guantanamo Detainees

(New York) - The apparent suicide of a Yemeni detainee at Guantanamo Bay underscores the urgent need for the United States to reach agreement with Yemen on sending uncharged prisoners home, Human Rights Watch said today. 

Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh Al-Hanashi, whose death in Guantanamo's psychiatric ward was announced Tuesday, was the fifth detainee - and the second Yemeni - to die in an apparent suicide at the Guantanamo prison. Lawyers for the Yemenis have told Human Rights Watch that a large number have gone on hunger strike to protest their confinement.

"The United States and Yemen have stalled long enough on reaching a humane repatriation plan," said Letta Tayler, terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of "No Direction Home," a report on the grim prospects facing Guantanamo's Yemeni detainees. "Many of these men are entering their eighth year of detention without charge."

Nearly 100 Yemenis remain at Guantanamo - the largest national group by far and almost half the 239 detainees at the camp. More than a dozen Yemenis have been cleared for return, and the vast majority have never been charged, but in the more than seven years since Guantanamo began receiving prisoners, the US has sent only 14 Yemenis home and only two in the past two years.

A stalemate with Yemen over their return is among the main obstacles to President Barack Obama's pledge to close the detention facility by January 2010. Fearing Yemeni and other detainees will be transferred to US soil, the US Congress last month voted to block funding for Guantanamo's closure.

US-Yemen talks are stalled over concerns that Yemeni detainees might pose a security threat once they return home.

"Holding these men without charge only increases international resentment against the US and hands terrorist groups a convenient recruiting tool," said Tayler. "The Obama administration should swiftly release the prisoners it can't charge and prosecute the rest in federal courts."

Saleh, 31, had been held without charge at Guantanamo since February 2002. Lawyers who visited Guantanamo in May said he was one of seven prisoners being held in a psychiatric ward and that he was restrained in a chair and force-fed through a tube, indicating he was on a hunger strike. Pentagon medical records show Saleh's weight had dropped to 87 pounds in 2005. He weighed 124 pounds when he entered Guantanamo.

 In 2006, another Yemeni, Ali Abdullah Ahmed, was found dead in an apparent suicide.  A third Yemeni, Abdul Latif, has tried to commit suicide multiple times, and was placed in a psychiatric ward after repeated suicide attempts. He tried to kill himself again in May in front of his attorney. Altogether, dozens of detainees have tried to commit suicide at Guantanamo.

A US Defense Department report prepared for Obama in February concluded that Guantanamo meets the standards for humane treatment laid out in the Geneva Conventions. Since then, the Obama administration has made improvements such as increasing communal hours and television access. However, harassment by guards and force-feeding of hunger strikers remain widespread, according to detainees' lawyers. Nearly half the detainees are being held in isolation.

Until the prison is closed, Human Rights Watch called on the Obama administration to dramatically improve conditions and allow inspections by human rights groups and independent physicians who can report publicly on their findings.

"While the Pentagon's improvements at Guantanamo should be lauded, inhumane conditions persist for many prisoners," Tayler said.

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