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After Guantanamo, Released Yemeni Prisoners Become Refugees

During the August 13 weekend, the Pentagon released 15 prisoners from the Guantánamo Bay military prison to the United Arab Emirates. Twelve of the prisoners transferred were Yemenis. Three of the prisoners were Afghans. All the Yemenis were barred from returning to their home countries and became refugees.

The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, has a national rehabilitation program for persons who join or are attracted to terrorist organizations. Indefinite surveillance, along with counseling against terrorism, will “integrate” the Yemenis into UAE society. They will also be placed in a halfway house, where family members supposedly can visit them.

None of the Yemenis were convicted of any crimes. Each prisoner was detained for well over a decade at Guantánamo, where they endured varying levels of torture, abuse, and other systemic violations of their human rights, including the denial of their due process rights.

Unlike the twelve Yemenis, the three Afghan prisoners, who were released, will eventually be allowed to leave the UAE and return to their homes in Afghanistan. Why the U.S. thinks the Afghan government is more capable of preventing them from joining extremist groups than the Yemeni government is unclear. After all, the U.S. continues to wage a war that has no end in sight.

On top of that, Saudi Arabia and the United States have contributed to the destabilization of their home country through drone attacks and bombing offensives. Warfare has fueled the expansion of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and other extremist groups, which now control territories in Yemen. Because of these developments, the U.S. will not permit Yemeni prisoners to return home.

Zahir Hamdoun, a 36 year-old, was cleared by the military’s Periodic Review Board (PRB) in January. He was one of the 15 prisoners released.

The military once claimed Hamdoun was a “weapons and explosives trainer” in Afghanistan. They believed he “fought under the command of an al Qaida leader during Operation Enduring Freedom and possibly commanded foreign fighters.” However, if he was truly some kind of commander leading foreign fighters, the Pentagon does not explain why Hamdoun fled the battlefield to Pakistan, where he was captured in a safehouse. It is more than likely this idea that he was a commander came from interrogators coercing statements out of Hamdoun.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represented Hamdoun, he “graduated at the top of his high school class in Yemen, then traveled to Afghanistan to teach Islam in 1999 while awaiting a college scholarship.”

“The United States has made Mr. Hamdoun a refugee, citing unstable conditions in Yemen on the one hand while fueling that very instability with the other,” Hamdoun’s CCR attorney, Pardiss Kebriaei, declared. “It must at least help ensure that Mr. Hamdoun can see his family—in particular his mother—without delay after his transfer, after depriving him of his loved ones for all these years.

“Even that much is not clear for the men just transferred. Release must mean not only physical transfer from Guantánamo, but the restoration of these men’s basic freedoms,” Kebriaei added.

Whether a prisoner has family to support them immediately after their release is crucial to the military’s decision to clear a prisoner for transfer. Yet, for Yemenis, the military put an extra burden on their families by forcing them to uproot and move to other countries, where they themselves will have to become just as acclimated with their new surroundings as the released prisoners.

Hamdoun has family in the Yemen province of Hadramawt, but the military wrote in his “detainee profile” that AQAP has been “more active in recent years” in this province. They also peculiarly suggested if sent to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or UAE he may not have family to “dissuade him from returning to Yemen.”

Remarkably, the military concluded Hamdoun “dislikes the U.S., an emotion that probably is motivated more by frustration over his continuing detention than by a commitment to global jihad, and he probably sympathizes with but is not deeply devoted to extremist causes.”

Mahmud al Mujahid, who is 36 years-old, was part of the transfer. He was cleared for release by the PRB in 2013.

His attorney, David Remes, failed to persuade the military that Mujahid should be allowed to return to Taiz, Yemen.

“If the experience of two of my former Yemeni clients is any indication, Taiz is a safe and stable environment for ex-detainees. When the United States repatriated these two men in 2009 and 2010, respectively, the men married and started families and now work in a store in downtown Taiz selling honey, perfume, and spices,” Remes argued.

“Like these men, Mr. Mujahid requires no ‘rehabilitation” when be returns. He simply needs to get on with his life.”

Inside Guantánamo, Mujahid was a prisoner who the military praised for his “apparent candor to interrogators about current events and detainee issues.” Remes said he was valued by other prisoners in his cell block, who trusted him. He acted as “peacemaker.” He worked to resolve conflicts between prisoners and officers or guards. “When his fellow detainees resist orders, he coaxes them to obey. He alerts authorities to simmering problems and helps keep the problems from coming to a boil.”

But this level of cooperation did not earn Mujahid a flight back to his home in Yemen. He is now in the UAE, where he will live as a terrorism suspect indefinitely.

In 2014, the military described Saeed Sarem Jarabh as someone who did not harbor “strong anti-American sentiments relative to other Guantánamo detainees, extremist beliefs, or intentions to reengage.” It also noted that he wanted to be repatriated to Yemen to return to his wife, daughters, and extended family in Sanaa.

“Although Sanaa has experienced frequent AQAP activity, it has the highest level of security in the country,” the military stated. At least, that left open the possibility of returning to Yemen, where he could live with his elderly parents and even possibly attend his oldest daughter’s wedding.

Now, Jarabh will live in the UAE, where he will not be able to attend any of his daughters’ weddings.

Thirty-eight year-old Ayub Murshid Ali Salih was released. He was cleared in March. In December 2015, the military heaped a lot of suspicion on him because of where he was born.

Though acknowledging he had “no known associations with at-large extremists,” the military emphasized his “negative views of both the Yemeni government and the Houthis,” as “evidence” he would “find common cause with extremist groups in and around Yemen.”

Mohsen Aboassy, who the legal charity and human rights organization, Reprieve, represented, was released in the transfer.

His attorney, Shelby Sullivan Bennis, stated, “Mohsen, whose favorite movie is ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ has never, for a moment, been a threat to our national security—something the Obama administration realized nine long years ago when it cleared him for release. Yet there he languished, a fate lived by many Yemeni detainees, while the government took its time finding him a suitable country in which to resettle.”

“It is to his credit that he is full of enthusiasm; excited about his new life in the United Arab Emirates, about reconnecting with his family and about becoming a carpenter. How many of us could cope so well with such a senseless ordeal? What might Mohsen have achieved had he not lost fifteen years of his life? How many more lives are going to be wasted at Guantánamo Bay?”

Aboassy moved to Afghanistan in 2001 to find work to support his sick father and siblings, according to Reprieve. In December, bounty hunters raided the village, where he lived. He was captured and taken to a military base in Kandahar then sent to Guantánamo in February 2002.

For nine years, he languished in Guantánamo knowing he was not going to be charged but uncertain of when he would be freed. He slowly had to accept the fact that the U.S. would not let him return to his home in Yemen and yet he is publicly optimistic.

“Over the time that I have been in Guantánamo, thirteen children have been born in my family. I miss playing with my nephews and nieces. I have a photograph of them and when I get sad, I look at the photo to cheer myself up,” Alboassy shared. “After almost fourteen years in Guantánamo, I realize that when I leave this place it will just be a bad memory. Determination, will, and ambition will overcome any ordeal and any difficulty.”

Other prisoners who became refugees include: Mohammed al Adahi, Abd al Rahman Sulayman, and Bashir al Marwalah, Mohammed Khusruf, Majid Mahmud Abdu Ahmed, Abdel Qadir al Mudhaffari, and Abdul Muhammed al Muhajari.

There is no evidence that any of these prisoners transferred are dangerous men. If they posed a threat, the U.S. government would have kept them indefinitely detained like forty of the prisoners, who remain at Guantánamo.

Still, they could very well spend the rest of their lives in the UAE as suspects under total surveillance by the UAE government.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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