"In Yemen we are close to the bottom in all kinds of measures like income and education, but there's one statistic where we come out on top: the number of prisoners in Guantanamo," laughed Mohammad Naji Allaw, a successful Yemeni lawyer who ploughs his firm's profits into the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms. "Over 90 of 166 Guantanamo prisoners are from Yemen. Most of them, 56 to be exact, have already been cleared by the US government for release but the US government still won't send them back."
Two detainees in white stand in the doorway of their bay in Camp 4.
(Image by Wikipedia) Permission Details DMCA
Two detainees in white stand in the doorway of their bay in Camp 4. by Wikipedia
Our American peace delegation spent the week in Yemen meeting with lawyers, human rights activists, government officials and most importantly, families with loved ones in Guantanamo.
While we were visiting, Congress passed an amendment saying that no US military funds could be used to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo back to Yemen. The families and Yemeni officials we met were outraged. "You mean that after detaining Yemenis for over 11 years without charges and trials, refusing to release even those prisoners who have been cleared of all wrongdoing, forcing them to starve themselves to call attention to their plight, you're saying that Congress is going to make it even harder to send them home?," they asked us. "How can this be?"
How could we explain this to the mother of Abdulhakeem Ghaleeb, who hasn't seen her son since he was 17 years old in 2002, a mother who can't eat a meal in peace, knowing that her son has been on a hunger strike since February 6 and is now so weak he can't speak? How can we explain this to 12-year-old Awda, who was in her mother's womb when her father Abdulrahman Al Shubati was carted off to the island gulag, and here she was, holding his picture with tears streaming down her cheeks? What could we say to Ameena Yehya, whose brother had been sending home letters with beautiful drawings of flowers and scenes from their village, but stopped even writing five years ago because he is too hopeless to lift his pen? Or to Ali Mohammed, who said that on video call arranged every two months with the Red Cross he barely recognized his brother--a lifeless skeleton with sunken eyes and a big, inflated nose from where the feeding tube is forced down his nostrils?
We couldn't bear to tell them the truth: that their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers are simply pawns in the US game of politics where one party is always trying to "out hawk" the other, where concern about winning the next election far eclipses any respect for the rights of the prisoners. And we didn't have the heart to tell them that most American have become so consumed by fear after 9/11 that they think that holding these prisoners in Guantanamo indefinitely somehow makes them safer?
So instead we hugged and cried together. Our delegation explained that we are totally opposed to this cruel policy. We told them that over 300,000 Americans have signed petitions calling for Guantanamo to be closed. We talked about Americans like CODEPINK co-founder Diane Wilson and Veterans for Peace Elliott Adams who are risking their own lives on a long-term solidarity hunger strike--Diane since May 1 and Elliott since May 17 . We showed them photos of our protests outside the White House. I mentioned that I even interrupted President Obama's national security speech on May 23, demanding that he take action to release the 86 prisoners cleared for release. But gnawing constantly on our minds was the fact that we are just not doing enough, not caring enough, not creative enough, not strategic enough to force a change in policy.
In 2009, President Obama had cleared 56 Yemenis for transfer home, 26 immediately with 30 others to follow. But days after Christmas Day attempt to bomb an aircraft as it was landing in Detroit, Obama placed a moratorium on the transfer of Yemeni detainees. The would-be bomber, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, who had hidden plastic explosives in his underwear, told U.S. investigators that he'd been recruited for the mission in Yemen by Anwar al Awlaki, the US-born cleric who was later killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011.
Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashoohouras heard US officials say that Yemeni government is not stable enough or strong enough to make sure the released prisoners don't take up arms against America. They have told her that even if some of the prisoners were totally innocent and unjustly imprisoned, now--after 11 years behind bars--they probably hate the US so much that they'll want revenge. In our meeting with Mashoohourshe threw up her arms in exasperation. "So you abuse these men and then you keep abusing them because they might hate you for your abuse? Is that the way the US justice system works?," she asked.
Mashhour said the Yemeni government has already agreed to assign 10 government ministries to monitor repatriated detainees to ensure they don't threaten the United States. The returnees, she said, would receive counseling, job training and other aid. She also explained how she went to Washington DC in May to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to release the cleared Yemeni prisoners, but left empty handed, complaining that she was never received at the White House.
Now the US government is setting up another obstacle: it wants Yemen to set up a rehabilitation center, but it has not committed money to fund it. Many people we talked to in Yemen believe the US government should not only fund the rehabilitation center, as this is a problem that the US created and Yemen has no money, but that it should also compensate the prisoners who have been wrongly imprisoned.