Closing Guantanamo Bay Prison Could Mean the Release of Yemenis Who Are Unrepentant Terrorists

The United States questions whether Yemen could rehabilitate the Yemenis being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The United States questions whether Yemen could rehabilitate the Yemenis being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The single biggest opportunity -- and potential difficulty -- for the incoming administration's plan to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, comes from the same group of Yemeni prisoners, who make up fully 40 percent of the detainees still held there.

Despite intensive diplomatic discussions in recent months, and the Yemeni government's promise to put released prisoners through a rehabilitation program, the Bush administration remains unconvinced that the impoverished Arab nation is capable of absorbing a group of men that officials believe includes hardened extremists.

Administration officials said President-elect Barack Obama will face the same daunting array of concerns about Yemen, a country where the terrorist threat from al-Qaeda is escalating and where extremists already have escaped prison and returned to the fight. Some have strong ties to Guantanamo detainees.

"There are still, I think, significant concerns throughout the U.S. government, amongst all the agencies, about the Yemenis' capacity to absorb and process any significant number of returned detainees," said a senior administration official who, because of the sensitivity of the issue, spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And then there are simply logistical and financial issues involved in setting up a rehabilitation center, which could take quite a long period of time."

The Yemeni government rejects U.S. criticism of its record of combating terrorism and insists that it can successfully handle the Yemeni detainees, who make up the largest national contingent at Guantanamo Bay.

"We are ready to receive all of them, and we hope President-elect Obama and the next administration will send them to Yemen," said Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington. "It is not to our benefit to simply let these people go free. Anybody who we see as a threat to Yemen or its people, and our allies, will be dealt with in an appropriate way."

In an interview with "60 Minutes" on Sunday, Obama said: "I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantanamo, and I will follow through on that." But he has provided few details on how prisoners will be either prosecuted or released.

Of the 250 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 101 are Yemenis, including two who have been convicted in military commissions and two who are charged with war crimes for participation in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"The remaining 97 are an eclectic group of intentional unrepentant combatants and accidental warriors," according to a forthcoming report in the CTC Sentinel, a publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. "Yet separating the detainees into two groups and determining where different individuals fall on a spectrum of past and potential violence is a nearly impossible task."

Lawyers for the detainees, who note that only four of the 101 Yemenis at Guantanamo have been charged with any crime, said the United States should either prosecute or release the others. Much of the information about the detainees remains classified.

"The U.S. treats the Yemenis as a homogenous group of dangerous people; in fact they are not," said David H. Remes, a lawyer who represents 18 Yemeni detainees. "Having met the men and their families, we have not found any of them to be a threat to the U.S. or to be aiming to harm the United States."

Albasha said the Yemen government has formulated a rehabilitation program, including psychological counseling, religious dialogue and technical education, in which every returning detainee from Guantanamo Bay would be required to participate. The Yemeni government said detainees also would be subject to post-release monitoring, backed by guarantees from the leaders of their tribes that they would not pose a danger to either Yemen or its allies.

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