Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

Why Obama Must Keep Releasing Yemenis From Guantánamo

The failed bomb plot on Christmas Day has prompted lawmakers to declare that no more Yemenis should be released from Guantánamo. They're wrong.

The weekend before Christmas, 12 prisoners were released from Guantánamo. In two previous articles, I told the stories of six of these men -- two Somalis and four Afghans, and in this final article I look at the stories of the six Yemenis who were also released. These releases were enormously important because Yemenis make up nearly half of the remaining 198 prisoners in Guantánamo, and until these six men were repatriated, only 16 Yemenis had been freed from Guantánamo throughout the prison's long history.


Back in October, when the Obama administration's interagency Task Force announced that it had cleared 75 prisoners for release -- and explained that this figure included 26 Yemenis -- I took exception to the administration's unwillingness to release any of the Yemenis. This was revealed in the case of Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed, a Yemeni whose release had been ordered in May  by a district court judge, who had granted his habeas corpus petition. Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the government had based its case on unreliable allegations made by other prisoners who were tortured, coerced, bribed or suffering from mental health issues, and a "mosaic" of intelligence, purporting to rise to the level of evidence, which actually relied, to an intolerable degree, on second- or third-hand hearsay, guilt by association and unsupportable suppositions.

However, when it came to releasing Ali Ahmed, the government balked, and administration officials told The New York Times in October that, "Even if Mr. Ahmed was not dangerous in 2002 ... Guantánamo itself might have radicalized him, exposing him to militants and embittering him against the United States."

As I explained at the time, "only at Guantánamo can fear trump justice to such an alarming degree" that, "if [the officials'] rationale for not releasing any of the Yemenis from Guantánamo was extended to the US prison system, it would mean that no prisoner would ever be released at the end of their sentence, because prison 'might have radicalized' them, and also, of course, that it would lead to no prisoner ever being released from Guantánamo."

In the end, Alla Ali Bin Ali Ahmed was released -- primarily, it seems, because Judge Kessler "appeared to be losing patience with the delay in complying with her May 11 release order," and was about to criticize the government openly -- and not because officials had truly considered the flawed basis of their unwillingness to release him. As a result, the release of six more Yemenis on the weekend of December 19-20 was a significant breakthrough, as it represented the first time that the Obama administration had, of its own volition, released Yemenis cleared by its own interagency Task Force.

As I hope to demonstrate below, in profiles of these six men, the administration's reticence was unjustified, as their stories represent a cross-section of the horrendous mistakes made by the Bush administration in its search for "terrorists" to imprison without rights at Guantánamo, and also because they strongly suggest that other innocent Yemenis continue to be detained.

The importance of this should not be overlooked, especially because, in the wake of the failed bomb plot on a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day, the connections allegedly established by the would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with terrorists in Yemen has prompted lawmakers in the US to declare that no more Yemenis should be released from Guantánamo.

As Politico reported, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Michigan), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, claimed that the news "highlights the fact that sending this many people back -- or any people back -- to Yemen right now is a really bad idea," and Rep. Peter King (R-New York) called it "a major mistake" to repatriate any Yemeni prisoners, adding, "I don't think Guantánamo should be closed, but if we're going to close it I don't believe we should be sending people to Yemen where prisoners have managed to escape in the past." Even Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), the House Homeland Security Committee Chairman, expressed doubts, telling Politico, "I'd, at a minimum, say that whatever we were about to do we'd at least have to scrub it again from top to bottom."