In some regards, the Yemeni government’s recent demand for the repatriation of Yemeni detainees who have been languishing in Guantanamo Bay for nearly a decade seemed to come out of left field, as did the prison hunger strikes that prompted it. President Obama’s 2008-election-campaign promises to close the notorious prison remain unfulfilled. According to recent polls, roughly 70 percent of Americans back the president’s decision to ignore his pledge and keep the prison open; polls taken at the start of his 2012 term put support for Guantanamo’s closure at a tepid 53 percent.
It’s a mistake, however, to say that the detainees have completely disappeared from most Yemenis’ minds. Of the 166 detainees who remain held without charge in Guantanamo Bay, 91 are Yemeni. It’s not quite as popular an issue as the drone strikes, but Yemenis still bring up Guantanamo on a nearly weekly basis. Many see the legal limbo of their fellow countrymen as a kind of tragicomic joke.
Recently in Sanaa, dozens of family members of Guantanamo detainees gathered at the American embassy to protest their internment.
“We demand that the American government release all detainees,” one father said, holding up a poster of his son. “The Yemeni government should do everything in its power to pressure them. Does Obama think that there’s a Yemeni exception when it comes to human rights?”
However, those working for Yemen’s human rights organizations know that a couple of small protests won’t shut down Guantanamo. After the demonstration, I sat with Mohamed al-Ahmadi, the legal coordinator of Munthamet al-Karama, a human rights organization, in a cab, listening to him chat with the driver.
“Are they all actually al Qaeda?” the driver asked.
“Some are, some aren’t,” Ahmadi responded. Then he turned to me. “But your country has a legal system, doesn’t it?”
Yemenis tend to focus on the contradiction between the “American” values of justice, due process, and concern for human rights, coupled with the government’s willingness to hold more than a hundred people in secret for years without trial. Yemeni officials have harped on this incongruity repeatedly. Still, they stress, they are just beginning a long process of bringing the detainees home.
Hooriya Mashhour, the Yemeni minister of human rights, hopes to lead an official delegation to Guantanamo soon. In our conversation, she stressed that anything other than the repatriation would be unacceptable. “They don’t just need to be brought home,” she said, noting the challenges detainees would face in finding jobs and reckoning with the psychological effects of their detention. “They need to be rehabilitated.”
For US officials, the key concern isn’t the difficulty of reintegrating detainees into Yemeni society: it’s the detainees reintegrating into terrorist networks. Repatriations of Yemeni citizens held at Guantanamo were frozen in 2008 after the botched Christmas Day bomb attempt by Omar Abdul Mutallab, a Nigerian citizen believed to have received al Qaeda training while he was studying Arabic in Yemen. Since 2008, Yemen has only become more volatile: an Arab Spring-inspired uprising led to the country’s first transfer of power in 33 years and the central government remains rather weak. Many American politicians and analysts view sending the detainees back to an unstable country with an active al Qaeda presence as idiotic.
This view is bolstered by the fact that several former Guantanamo detainees have, in fact, rejoined the fight after their releases. The most infamous, perhaps, is Said al-Shihri, who released a new audio statement Wednesday defying reports of his death for the fourth time since he became deputy leader of the Yemen’s local al Qaeda franchise. A Saudi citizen, he was cleared for release from Guantanamo in 2007. Documents released from the Pentagon state that Shihri claimed he’d reunite with family and work in their furniture business, upon his return to Riyadh. But months after undergoing a Saudi reintegration program for former jihadists, Shihri slipped across the border to Yemen, emerging as al Qaeda's number two in the Arabian Peninsula, less than a year after he was “rehabilitated.”
But for every Guantanamo alum who follows in Said’s footsteps, there is someone like Salim Hamdan. Once Osama bin Laden’s driver, Salim was repatriated to Yemen in 2008. He returned to his former occupation as a taxi driver. He’s shown no sign of reengaging with the jihadist networks that landed him his former position as a terrorist chauffeur.
I briefly met Salim last year, in what was undeniably one of the most crushing moments of my journalistic career. Through a combination of luck and contact-mining, I managed to get his number; to my shock, when I called, he agreed to meet me an hour later. Ten minutes into our conversation, he declared his remarks off the record. He portrayed his imprisonment as an injustice but seemed almost single-mindedly dedicated to keeping a low profile. He was obviously perturbed that I had managed to get his number, but his displeasure seemed solely directed towards the person who gave it to me. I literally ran into Mohamed Bashumaila, a formerly Indonesia-based Yemeni businessman who was held in secret detention for 20 months after being arrested in Jordan in 2003, as he was walking down the street. Mohamed stressed that his imprisonment hadn’t spawned any plans for revenge. It had, it seemed, to have drawn him into activist circles.
“It’s important that what happened to me and others never happens again,” he told me, expressing a sense of responsibility. By contrast, Salim just wanted to move on with his life and put the whole ordeal in the past.
I’m not completely sure how one goes about definitively dividing Said cases from Salim cases; to be honest, I’m glad it’s not my job. But having 166 men indefinitely rot in an extrajudicial prison isn’t a sustainable option. That being said, as far as the American government is concerned, the maintenance of the status quo is probably the easiest—and safest—route. Still, many Yemenis find it understandably hard to reconcile flaunting the rule of law for the sake of the United States government’s convenience.