In 2008, the then fresh-faced US presidential hopeful Barack Obama promised to shut down the detention center that had become famous as a symbol of the presidency of George W. Bush: Guantanamo Bay. He described it as a “sad chapter in American history.”
Yet, five years on, and now into Obama’s second term, Guantanamo is still open for business and continues to hold many of those the US terms ‘enemy combatants’ without charge.
More than half of the 166 men still detained are Yemeni. Fifty-six of those Yemenis, termed ‘low-level detainees,’ were approved for transfer back to Yemen three years ago. The Obama administration essentially admitted that the men had not committed any crime. However, these men remain behind bars, with no apparent end to their misery in sight. In the same period of time, men from other nationalities have come and gone.
The reason for the continued detention of the Yemeni citizens is a moratorium that prevents the United States from sending any Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. This was implemented following the failed attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab to bomb an aircraft traveling from Amsterdam to Detroit. Abdulmuttalab had been trained in Yemen and the mission was planned by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is based in Yemen.
This left the Americans uneasy at the prospect of returning Guantanamo detainees, either suspected militants or men angry at being falsely detained for over a decade, to a country with one of the strongest local franchises of Al-Qaeda.
Yemen has also witnessed suspicious prison escapes, including one in 2006 where twenty-three suspected Al-Qaeda members spent months digging a hole underneath a cell and managed to escape. Question marks remain over the relationship between elements of Yemen’s security and intelligence services and Al-Qaeda.
Yemen’s President, Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has been a loyal ally to the Americans since taking office, allowing drone strikes against Al-Qaeda figures among other pro-American moves. This has been welcomed by the Americans, but it is still not enough to convince them that Yemen is secure enough to send the Guantanamo detainees home.
The prisoners have resorted to hunger strikes to try and bring attention to their plight, with Yemeni detainees taking an active role in the protest. Samir Moqbel, detained for over eleven years without charge, recently wrote a harrowing piece in the New York Times entitled “Gitmo Is Killing Me,” describing his detention and his hunger strike.
“The situation is desperate now. All of the detainees here are suffering deeply. At least 40 people here are on hunger strike. People are fainting with exhaustion every day. I have vomited blood.”
According to documents obtained by Al-Jazeera, hunger strikers are force-fed while wearing masks that cover their mouths and shackled into a restraint chair for up to two hours. After the procedure, the detainees are returned to the restraint chair if they are found to have vomited.
News of the hunger strikes, along with the continued detention of the Yemeni detainees, has led to protests in Yemen. In April, the families of the detainees protested outside the American embassy in Sana’a, demanding their release. The Yemeni government has also requested that the Yemeni detainees be repatriated to Yemen, promising that they will ensure that the detainees do not join AQAP.
The anti-American anger among some Yemenis in response to the continued detention of Their countrymen at Guantanamo Bay is accompanied by anger at the American drone strikes that continue to hit Yemen, which have resulted in numerous civilian casualties. Recently, the testimony of Yemenis such as Farea Al-Muslimi and Baraa Shiban at US Senate hearings on the subject has brought increased attention to the controversial tactic, both in Yemen and in the United States.
Repatriation of the Guantanamo detainees to Yemen would go a long way to allaying Yemeni anger towards the US. Will it happen in the near future?
Senator Dianne Feinstein, one of the American law-makers who had been a strong backer of the moratorium on detainees returning to Yemen, has now sent a letter to the Obama administration, saying, “It would be prudent to revisit the decision to halt transfers to Yemen and assess whether President Hadi’s government, with appropriate assistance, would be able to securely hold detainees in Sana’a.”
There is no doubt that the repatriation of Yemeni detainees back to Yemen, and even the full closure of Guantanamo Bay, would be a relief for the Obama administration, as the facility stains America’s reputation around the world. However, President Obama can ill afford a scenario where a Guantanamo detainee is sent back to Yemen, only to join Al-Qaeda and attack American interests. It therefore remains to be seen whether the Americans will be convinced of Yemen’s ability to ensure that that does not happen. In the meantime, over eighty Yemenis remain marooned in Guantanamo, with no end in sight to their decade-long detainment.