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Obama Administration Releases First Yemeni Prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in Years

There are now 143 prisoners still being held in indefinite detention. Seventy-four are cleared for release, 53 of these are Yemeni..

Five prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay prison were released and resettled in Georgia and Slovakia. The released prisoners included four Yemenis, marking the first time since 2010 that Yemenis cleared for release were set free.

Salah Muhammad Salih Al Dhabi, Abdul Khaled al Baidani, and Abd Al Hakim Ghalib Ahmad Alhag, who are each Yemeni, were resettled in Georgia. Hussain Almerfedi, a Yemeni, and Hisham Sliti, a Tunisian, were resettled in Slovakia.

Alhag had been represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) as he pursued a lawsuit in United States courts arguing he had been unlawfully detained. But, according to Wells Dixon, an attorney for CCR, Alhag decided to “stay the case” after he was approved for transfer in 2009 by President Obama’s review task force.

He was the subject of a “failed resettlement effort a couple years ago,” even though he posed absolutely no threat. The problem he had was that he was Yemeni.

CCR planned to sue the federal government for keeping Alhag in detention.

“Today’s transfer is in large part an effort by the administration to avoid that litigation,” Dixon stated. He added that CCR had been working with the government of Yemen to prepare a lawsuit and the Yemen government was “very supportive of Alhag’s transfer and resettlement.”

“We are grateful to the Republic of Georgia for offering our client a new home where he can begin to rebuild his life after more than a decade in Guantánamo without charge or trial,” Dixon added.

The Obama administration imposed a moratorium on transfers of Guantanamo Bay prisoners to Yemen. This effectively meant that no Yemeni could return to his country, even if cleared for release.

However, in May 2013, Obama stated that the moratorium would be lifted so his administration could decide whether to release each prisoner on a “case-by-case basis.”

One year and a half passed before the lifting the moratorium led to any Yemeni prisoner’s release. Perhaps, more importantly, a midterm election took place before Guantanamo Bay prisoner transfers resumed.

Kuwaiti prisoner Fawzi Al Odah was cleared for release by a periodic review board in July and was transferred to Kuwait just hours after Election Day wrapped.

In spite of Republican fear mongering, the Obama administration has resumed transfers. In fact, according to the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg, “more transfers are in the pipeline, including perhaps another six captives, who can’t go home to Middle East trouble spots, to resettlement in Uruguay in December.”

Slovakia has previously accepted six Guantanamo prisoners for resettlement.

There are now 143 prisoners still being held in indefinite detention. Seventy-four are cleared for release.

The release of four Yemenis brings the number of Yemeni prisoners, who are cleared for release, to 53.

For much of Obama’s presidency, the US government has essentially been punishing Yemenis because they are from a country with an ongoing conflict on the basis that if returned they would like join up with militant groups and fight against the US.

Republicans like to argue the president should not be releasing “terrorist detainees” and that there should be worry about recidivism. However, in recent years, according to the Director of National Intelligence’s (DNI) recent review, the rate of alleged recidivism has dropped dramatically.

That may be due to the fact that the DNI has changed the criteria for what constitutes recidivism. But the DNI still maintains that “transfers to countries with ongoing conflicts and internal instability as well as active recruitment and terrorist organizations pose a particular problem.”

Much of the information is based on classified government reports, which the public does not get to read.

“We don’t have all the details to be able to actually check who the government is talking about, what those acts of recidivism are. We have no way of being able to meaningfully evaluate those conclusions,” CCR staff attorney Pardiss Kebriaei stated in a previous interview.

What is clear is that there is a period of opportunity from now until the new Congress is sworn in. The Obama administration can release any cleared prisoners to any country as long as the president notifies Congress ahead of time. And Congress cannot block or interfere with a transfer without passing a new law to stop certain transfers.

Photo by Paul Keller under Creative Commons license

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."