behind the bars: guantanamo bay

Yemen’s Proposed GTMO Rehab Centre Isn’t Making Much Progress

Although President Obama has made assurances that Yemen is the model for counterterrorism success during his administration, an initiative to build a rehabilitation centre to house repatriated Guantánamo detainees from that country is showing little...

by John Knefel
10 November 2014, 10:00am

Yemen President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty

Yemenis make up the majority of detainees cleared for transfer at Guantánamo. Despite their clearance, these 58 men remain imprisoned at least partly due to concerns over whether Yemen is able to safely reintegrate them into society. And although President Obama has made assurances that Yemen is the model for counterterrorism success during his administration, an initiative to build a rehabilitation centre to house repatriated Guantánamo detainees from that country is showing little, if any, progress.

In August 2013, President Obama and Yemen President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi issued a joint statement saying that both countries would begin a programme "to address the problem of violent extremism within Yemen, which could also facilitate the transfer of Yemeni detainees held at Guantánamo". Then, in May, President Hadi issued a presidential decree stating that Yemen had established a committee to look into creating a rehabilitation facility to accept Yemeni Guantánamo detainees who had been sent back.

It seemed a promising exit for the Yemeni detainees, who make up over half the population of Guantánamo, and would be a key step in eventually closing the detention centre. But since then there has been almost no discussion of the project from Washington, and the centre remains little more than an abstraction for an administration increasingly struggling to justify the continued existence of the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Obama is ​considering options to close the detention centre despite restrictions Congress has placed on transferring prisoners.

The proposed facility, if it is ever built, would likely make it easier politically for the administration to unload some of the dozens of Yemenis still detained at Gitmo without charge or trial, because they wouldn't be seen as simply releasing potential terrorists. Any serious plan to shutter the prison – long a central promise of Obama's candidacy and presidency – must offer some solution to these men.

"There has been radio silence from both the US and Yemen about any progress on the facility," says Pardiss Kebriaei, of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents one of the Yemeni prisoners cleared for transfer.

Mohammed Albasha, a spokesperson for the Yemen government in Washington, recently told me in an email that basic questions about the facility have yet to be answered, and that the project is still in its initial stages. When asked if construction had begun, he justified the delays as a debate between "construction of a new facility versus rehabilitation of a current facility".

The White House, for its part, offered a confusing response when asked for comment on the apparent lack of progress on the facility. National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden initially told me to direct questions about the rehabilitation initiative to the UN's Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute. But the director of UNICRI said that he had no knowledge either of a proposed facility or anything involving the repatriation of Guantánamo detainees, and declined to comment further.

The Department of Defense dodged questions too, by referring queries about the facility to the State Department, who would not comment on the record. Regarding the future transfer of any prisoners to Yemen, DoD spokesperson Myles Caggins offered the standard response that "transfers of detainees from Guantánamo is determined on a case-by-case basis; the assurances of security, human rights protections and rehabilitation options for former detainees is all considered in repatriation decisions."

Kebriaei's client, Ghaleb Nassar al-Bihani, was cleared for transfer – which means a multi-agency panel of US officials determined he does not pose a continuing security threat – by a recently active administrative body called the Periodic Review Board. But al-Bihani, like some other detained Yemenis, doesn't want to be repatriated, as he believes returning to his home country comes with its own hellish circumstances.

"They want a new start in a third country," says Kebriaei. "The administration can't possibly use country conditions in Yemen and the need for what seems increasingly like a fictional rehabilitation facility as excuses for its failure to transfer at least these men."

The US government continues to hold 87 Yemenis at Guantánamo. Last May, in a widely publicised speech at the National Defense University, Obama lifted a self-imposed moratorium on sending Guantánamo prisoners back to Yemen, though he has yet to send any Yemenis back from the detention centre.

Halfway around the world, however, the administration has shown its willingness to send Yemeni prisoners in the War on Terror home. In August, the Department of Defense repatriated two Yemenis – Amin al-Bakri and Fadi al-Maqaleh – who had both been held without charge or trial at a military prison near Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan.

Their transfer shouldn't be seen as a sign that similar Guantánamo transfers are imminent, though, according to David Remes, who represents numerous Yemenis at Guantánamo. " I doubt they meant the Bagram transfer to be taken as movement toward a Guantánamo transfer," Remes told me in a telephone interview. "The situations are so different that you just can't view one as being a first step to the other. Who knows what's going on over there? The US is winding down and has to release its non-Afghan prisoners, even if it may not want to."

As for what's holding up construction on the facility, Remes has suspicions. "I've heard that the Yemen government wants the US to pay not simply for a rehab centre, but for a whole prison," says Remes. "That wouldn't surprise me, and in that case what they want from the US is probably more than the US is willing to pay."

The White House declined to comment on that accusation beyond referring questions about President Hadi's views to Yemen officials. Albasha, the Yemen spokesperson, said he was "not aware of such [a] request".

Recent internal fighting within Yemen has weakened the already shaky central government there, and it's unlikely that the proposed facility will be operational any time in the near future. And these kinds of programmes in the Gulf have a complicated past – an early rehab programme in Yemen inadvertently shuttled fighters to Iraq at the height of the US occupation, and a separate programme in Saudi Arabia served as the crucible from which Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was formed. Still, without the establishment of some kind of programme, it's difficult to see the US government sending dozens of Yemenis home despite having cleared them for transfer. For now, at least, they'll remain prisoners in what some have called the Forever War, neither charged nor released, trapped in an untenable limbo.