The last time Amina al-Rabeii video conferenced from Yemen with her brother Salman, a detainee at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, she barely recognized the skeletal man on the screen.
“His eyes were sunken into dark recesses,” al-Rabeii told me when we met recently in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. “He was slumped in his chair and he could barely keep his head up. He couldn’t concentrate and he didn’t seem to register what we said. We could hardly keep from crying.”
Salman al-Rabeii, 33, was reportedly picked up in Afghanistan in December 2001. He is among the scores of detainees participating in a three-month-old hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention without charge at Guantanamo. He also is among about 90 Yemenis at the prison – the largest bloc by nationality and the group at the heart of the current Guantanamo crisis.
Last week, Guantanamo detainees got their first glimmer of hope in years, when President Barack Obama renewed his pledge from his first day in office to close Guantanamo. At the same time, Yemen’s new transition government is beginning its own effort to bring the Yemeni detainees home. The Obama administration should do all it can to seize the momentum.
Last month, Yemen’s cabinet approved a resolution from the country’s feisty human rights minister, Hooria Mashhour, pledging that 10 key government ministries will watch over any repatriated detainees, both to prevent them from potentially threatening the U.S. and to ensure they receive counseling, job training and other assistance to help them reintegrate into society.
Mashhour, who is transforming her formerly timid ministry into a bully pulpit for human rights, also has prepared a draft memorandum of understanding with the United States on sharing information on repatriated detainees and providing access to them. In addition, the Yemeni authorities have proposed to build a Yemen-based rehabilitation center to house detainees upon their return.
Both Mashhour and a team from Yemen’s National Security Bureau, one of the country’s intelligence agencies, were in Washington this week to discuss the Guantanamo detainees with U.S. officials. Unfortunately, Mashhour, who was already in town for a World Bank meeting, cut short her visit after learning she had only one official appointment scheduled with the Obama administration.
Mashhour’s visit would have been a golden opportunity for the United States and Yemen to engage on one of the most pressing human rights issues facing the two governments. But her early departure should not become an excuse for Washington or Sanaa to further dally over a solution for Guantanamo’s Yemenis, who account for nearly two-thirds of the prison’s 166 detainees.
In 2009, Obama had cleared 56 Yemenis at Guantanamo for transfer to their homeland, 26 immediately with 30 others following if the initial tranche went well. But the president froze the transfers days after the Christmas 2009 attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit by a Nigerian youth who claimed to have been inspired by the Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. At least two Yemeni detainees had actually been removed from their cells and were preparing to head home when, according to their lawyer, their guards were alerted to the freeze and locked them back up. The U.S. killed Awlaki in 2011 in a drone strike in Yemen.
Further discussions on returns got bogged down under the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, a shrewd leader but a fickle counterterrorism partner. Saleh reportedly gave the U.S. permission to attack Awlaki in a drone strike in 2011, yet al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula blossomed in Yemen during his presidency.
Saleh ceded power in 2012 following a popular uprising. His successor, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, has in contrast to his predecessor worked closely with the U.S. on countering terrorism.
Of course, the stated aims of Yemen’s government cannot mitigate all risks of repatriating the detainees. Even if the Yemenis inside Guantanamo were innocent when they arrived, some may have been radicalized inside the prison, or might turn to militancy when they get home.
But prolonged indefinite detention without charge or trial violates U.S. obligations under international law, and the backlash in Yemen to the continued imprisonment is mounting. During one demonstration in April outside the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, protesters in orange jumpsuits waved banners in English reading: “U.S.A. Give (sic) up Human Rights.”
Amina al-Rabeii regularly attends the rallies to demand the release of her brother Salman, who has never been charged. Amina believes Salman’s only crime is to be the brother of Fawaz al-Rabeii, who was convicted in 2004 for the bombing two years earlier of a French oil tanker and killed by state security forces in 2006. “I used to think the US was trustworthy but now I think everything it says is a big lie,” she said. “When will Obama send the Yemenis home?”
Obama should answer Amina’s question as soon as possible. He would do well to start with a close look at the draft memorandum of understanding and other repatriation proposals from Yemen. Long viewed by Washington as part of the Guantanamo problem, Yemen may instead be part of the solution.
Letta Tayler is a senior terrorism-counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch with an expertise in Yemen.