Families' dismay as US keeps detainees

While officials say fears are exaggerated, Yemeni former Guantanamo Bay prisoners warn of a return to militancy.

SANA'A // Washington's suspension of plans to repatriate Yemeni Guantanamo detainees after the failed Christmas Day attack on a US airliner has dismayed rights groups and officials in Yemen. And former detainees who have returned warn that those who are eventually released could go back to militancy. Barack Obama, the US president, announced on January 5 he was suspending the transfers of additional detainees to Yemen from Guantanamo, even while saying he remained committed to his plan, now delayed, to close the prison in Cuba.

The United States claims that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national who tried unsuccessfully to blow up the Northwest Flight over Detroit, Michigan, was in contact with al Qa'eda operatives in Yemen. This incident has caused great concern for the Obama administration, which inherited 242 detainees at Guantanamo when Mr Obama took office, and so far he has released or transferred only 44. Of the 198 remaining, 92 are from Yemen. Of those, 20 have been cleared for release. Six Yemenis were handed over to the government in December.

Khaled al Anisi, the executive director of the National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms, a human rights group in Sana'a, said US concerns about what will happen to the detainees once they are released are exaggerated. "The US says it has no confidence in the Yemeni government to control these returnees even though it has already repatriated people who stood before the US military court. Again, this is against international law to keep people in jail on the basis of concerns they might join al Qa'eda," Mr al Anisi said.

"Keeping 100 people in jail will not bring about the US security and will not stop al Qa'eda from recruiting new people," Mr al Anisi added. "It rather generates frustration and more sympathy with it." Hamud al Hitar, the minister of endowment and guidance, which is in charge of religious schools and mosques, said his government is still committed to its request for the repatriation of Yemeni detainees.

"Yemen has repeatedly asked the Americans that they should repatriate Yemeni prisoners. The Americans should prove they are credible and respect their promises by getting rid of this heavy burden," Mr al Hitar said. Still, Abdulrehman al Hilah, whose brother Abdulsalam is in Guantanamo, said he is still optimistic his brother will be released. "According to Obama's promise, Abdulsalam should be back this month. He might be back in the coming few months. I was in contact with him three weeks ago and he was optimistic about his release."

Mr al Hitar, who is the chief of Yemen's militant rehabilitation programme, known as the "dialogue committee", said his programme has succeeded in rehabilitating about 600 people with only a few cases of recidivism. He said none of the former Guantanamo detainees went through his programme because security officials felt they posed no threat. It is not known how many of the 20 detainees who have returned have joined al Qa'eda, but the government said Hani Abdu al Sha'lan, who was repatriated to Yemen in 2007, was killed in a Yemeni air strike against al Qa'eda hideouts in Arhab on December 17.

Mr al Hitar, however, believes repatriated detainees should be required to attend his programme. But government officials said they need more financial support before establishing the centre. The United States has been keen on sending Yemeni detainees to Saudi Arabia for rehabilitation, though the Saudis have not announced that they would accept them. But many of the former Guantanamo detainees that have returned have become frustrated with the lack of opportunities in Yemen.

Mohsin Mohammed al Askari, 29, was released three years ago. "For three years, I have been looking for a job but to no avail; my father still supports me. I have tried my best for a job, but people refused to employ me as they feel afraid to hire a former Guantanamo prisoner," Mr al Askari said. "I feel as if I am in a bigger jail with no difference except that I am with my family." In December 2007, Mr al Askari returned to Yemen. He was put in jail for 45 days and released only after a businessman agreed to sign a "guarantee" that he would not return to militancy. He now lives in the southern city of Taiz with his family but his movements are restricted. "The government does not provide anything to me; they promised to employ me, but never respected their promise. We are asked to check in every month at the intelligence office and I have to inform them if I leave my home city and the purpose of my visit or I would face jail," he said.

Saleh Mohammed al Zobah, 60, is a returnee who is unable to shake off the stigma of Guantanamo. "Some people consider me a hero, but many consider me a terrorist; they look at me as a terrorist. They say that I was a member of al Qa'eda because they don't really know the truth," said Mr al Zobah, who lives on the support of his children and some friends. Mr al Zobah said there is a possibility that some returnees might go back to fight if their conditions do not improve.

"Some al Qa'eda detainees told the US in Guantanamo they would fight them again and again. Others said they would not fight only if their conditions in their home countries improved," he said. "There might be a response to such bad treatment; they need some support." malqadhi@thenational.ae