Nation & World

Yemen human rights minister in Washington to talk about Guantanamo detainees

With a weeks-long hunger strike focusing new attention on conditions at the United States’ controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the minister of human rights for Yemen is due in Washington on Friday for talks she hopes will lead to the repatriation of at least some of the scores of Yemenis held at the island prison.

Speaking on the eve of her trip, Hooriya Mashhour told McClatchy that the Yemeni government’s ultimate goal is to gain custody of all its citizens currently held at Guantanamo – a number that is uncertain but includes at least 84 of the 166 men imprisoned there. But she said her current hope is more modest – the return of the two dozen or so Yemenis that a special Obama administration task force determined in 2010 could be returned to their homeland.

“At the very least, we want the release of the detainees who have been cleared – those who have already been determined to present no threat to the U.S.,” she said. “That, however, is just the first step.”

What to do with the Yemenis at Guantanamo is one of the major decisions that President Barack Obama must make if he is to accomplish his first-term campaign pledge to close the detention center – a goal he reiterated at a news conference Tuesday.

The State Department said this week that 26 of the Yemenis at the center have been cleared for release, and that 30 others could be transferred to Yemen if the government could take “appropriate measures to reduce the risks associated with their return.” But their return is blocked by a moratorium on the transfer of any detainees to Yemen, which Obama imposed after the attempted Christmas Day 2009 midair bombing of an aircraft over Detroit. The Nigerian who confessed to that attempt said he’d been recruited for the mission by al Qaida-linked people in Yemen.

The White House said this week that the moratorium remains in place, even as pressure rises on Obama to do something to ease tensions at Guantanamo, where at least 100 of the detainees have refused to eat since March. Twenty-three of those are being force-fed twice daily, the Pentagon said this week, a step that has been denounced by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the American Medical Association as a violation of prisoner rights.

The disposition of Yemeni detainees is also a potent political issue here, where anxiety over the hunger strike is adding to anger that swept the country after the suicide in September of Yemeni detainee Adnan Latif.

For much of the past decade, Yemeni officials have petitioned for the detainees’ release. But they have won the return of only a handful of men under the presidency of longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted last year in the wave of Arab revolts. While U.S.-Yemeni relations have warmed under Saleh’s successor, former Vice President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, no Yemenis have been sent home, and Hadi has been sharply critical of his American allies.

Hadi has cast the Yemenis’ imprisonment without trial as “clear-cut tyranny,” while officials have noted that preparations already had begun for the detainees’ “rehabilitation” process upon return. Saudi Arabia and other countries have instituted similar programs – to mixed success – in an effort to reintegrate former Guantanamo detainees into society.

With whom Mashhour will meet in Washington is unclear. The State Department did not respond to requests for information. Last month, Mashhour said she would seek permission to visit the prison to see for herself the conditions of the Yemenis there. But previous requests for such a visit have been denied, and Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale said Thursday he was unaware of any current request from Mashhour to visit Guantanamo.

Breasseale said such visits typically are restricted to foreign intelligence and law enforcement officials.

Mashhour’s delegation includes officials from Yemen’s intelligence service and the Foreign Ministry, she said.

Barron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Hannah Allam and Matthew Schofield contributed from Washington.