Obama's Yemen Problem

By Letta Tayler

During his sixth year of captivity at Guantanamo, Fahd Ghazy of Yemen finally got the news he had longed to hear. His captors, who had never charged him with a crime, informed him that he would be going home.

"Fahd was very excited," recalled his lawyer, Julia Symon. A model prisoner who had passed multiple lie detector tests, "he thought his good behavior paid off."

That was in September 2007. Eighteen months later, Ghazy, 24, remains at Guantanamo. A teenager upon arrival, he has spent more than one-fourth of his life inside the US detention center.

President Barack Obama should be thinking about Yemenis like Ghazy as he works to close Guantanamo by January 2010. About 100 Yemenis are locked inside the notorious outpost--nearly half the remaining prisoners. The largest single group at the camp, they pose one of the biggest obstacles to its closure.

Both Yemeni and US authorities say they want most Yemenis to be sent home as soon as possible. But as we learned on a recent trip to Yemen, the two governments appear to be deadlocked over US security concerns. Having held the men for years without charge as "enemy combatants," US officials now fear they will "return to the fight."

The impasse does not involve a handful of Yemenis who are considered dangerous criminals and will be prosecuted by the United States -- men such as Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who has boasted of helping plan the September 11 attacks. At issue are the vast majority of detainees, who have never been charged with a crime. About a dozen of them have been cleared to leave Guantanamo, some as far back as 2005.

Frustrated over their continued arbitrary detention, many Yemenis have joined a hunger strike. Others, like Ghazy, keep asking their lawyers, "Why am I still here?"

If the stalemate continues, President Obama may be tempted to continue holding the men without charge by transferring them to detention on US soil, a move that would render Guantanamo's closure meaningless. Repatriation proposals that US diplomats and ranking Yemeni officials outlined to us in Yemen were nearly as troubling.

Yemeni government officials told us they hoped to place the men in what they called a rehabilitation camp, where experts would try to dissuade them of violence, offer them counseling, medical care and job training, and help them find work upon their release. That sounded promising, except that neither the officials--nor a written summary of the plan that they gave us -- explained how they would decide when the men were "rehabilitated." The officials said rehabilitation could take a week or more than a year.

Equally worrisome, a US Embassy official said the center would need to be "basically a prison facility" with rehabilitation thrown in. That was before Obama took office, but his administration has not entirely distanced itself from that stance, saying that there would need to be a legal framework for confinement.

Concerns about arbitrary detention in Yemen are not hypothetical. The country has a documented history of holding suspects without charge and of subjecting them to torture and other abuse. Yemen detained all 14 Yemenis who have been sent home so far from Guantanamo, most for months, although only two were charged. Most returned men say they were not physically abused, but one former prisoner was held for two years and told us he was routinely beaten.

Clearly, President Obama would be naïve to ignore security concerns in Yemen, a country where al Qaeda killed 18 people in a suicide bombing outside the US Embassy last September. At least two Saudis who were released from Guantanamo have slipped into Yemen to join al Qaeda, although one subsequently surrendered.

But if releasing some men who might "join the fight" is risky, continuing to lock them up without charge -- whether in US custody or in Yemen -- fosters resentment and hands groups like al Qaeda a tool to persuade even more disaffected youths to join their cause.

Instead of branding the Yemenis guilty until proven innocent, the United States and Yemen should prosecute those against whom they have evidence and repatriate the rest. The two governments should fairly monitor those they consider a potential threat, and launch a genuine reintegration effort for all of them.

Comprehensive counseling, medical care and job training could cost millions of dollars. But as the country that imprisoned these men for years without charge, the United States should foot the bill. Otherwise, the returnees could end up like some of the prisoners sent home before them: traumatized from years in US custody, subjected to constant surveillance, and stigmatized as terrorist suspects. "I can't get a job, not when people know I've been in Guantánamo," one former prisoner told us in Yemen. "People are afraid."

President Obama must send the Yemenis home and shutter Guantanamo as soon as possible. But unless he ensures that his Yemeni repatriation plan is humane and fair, the prison's closure could be a hollow gesture at best.

Letta Tayler is a counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report released on Sunday, "No Direction Home: Returns from Guantánamo to Yemen."