Yemeni Languishes at Guantanamo Long After U.S. Approved Release

A guard tower overlooks detention facilities at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where about one-quarter of the approximately 385 people still in custody are Yemenis.
A guard tower overlooks detention facilities at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where about one-quarter of the approximately 385 people still in custody are Yemenis. (By Brennan Linsley -- Associated Press)

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

SANAA, Yemen -- The word came in May 2006: Ali Mohammed Nasser Mohammed, a slight, 24-year-old Yemeni with curly black hair and a wispy beard, would be freed from Guantanamo after more than four years. He got a checkup. His photo was taken, as were his fingerprints. He was measured for clothes and shoes, then offered a meeting with the Red Cross.

As the Pentagon tersely put it later in an e-mail to his attorneys: "Your client has been approved to leave Guantanamo."

"He never went home," said Martha Rayner, one of the lawyers.

In the legal netherworld that the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has represented since it was opened in 2002, Mohammed, once a cook for the Taliban in Afghanistan, remains stuck in a limbo of mistaken identities, bureaucratic inertia and official neglect. In the eyes of his lawyers, the young Yemeni's case is an indictment of a system, still cloaked in the strictest secrecy and largely beyond accountability, in which a man who faces no charge and no sentence remains deprived of the freedom he was granted more than a year ago.

"It's a lovely illustration of what happens when there's no oversight of the jailer," said a rueful Rayner.

Just before he was to depart on May 18 of last year, on a flight that carried 15 Saudis home, Mohammed was left off the plane for a simple reason: The Saudi government said he was not Saudi, even though he was born there. Under Yemeni and Saudi law, he is Yemeni, by virtue of his parents' citizenship. He carries a Yemeni passport, grew up in Yemen and went to school in Sanaa, the capital, where his parents live.

But his attorneys say the U.S. military still classifies him as Saudi. The Saudi government considers its role over. The Yemeni government says it is unaware of his case. And Mohammed waits, now confined to Guantanamo's newest facility, Camp Six, a maximum-security building with no communal area and no way to talk to other detainees save a shout through a locked door.

"This is a legal issue that has to be looked at," Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said in an interview.

Asked if he was familiar with the case, he replied, "Not really."

A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment specifically on Mohammed's case but said that determining a detainee's citizenship can be "more complex in some parts of the world."

"We use the best information available and work closely with foreign governments to ascertain a detainee's citizenship and nationality," the spokesman, Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, said in a statement.

For lawyers, Mohammed's case is perhaps the most vexing among those of the 100 or so Yemenis who now constitute the single largest group of detainees at Guantanamo. In addition to Mohammed, lawyers say, at least six other Yemenis, and perhaps many more, were cleared for release as long ago as February 2006 but remain imprisoned there.


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