By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; 5:25 PM
The Obama administration said Tuesday that it is suspending the repatriation of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay to Yemen, where a deteriorating security situation driven by a branch of al-Qaeda has stoked fears that detainees could join -- or rejoin -- the terrorist organization if released.
The decision means that at least 30 Yemenis who were cleared for release by a Justice Department-led inter-agency review could face many more months in detention.
Of the 198 detainees remaining at Guantanamo, approximately 90 are Yemeni. Other Yemeni detainees face prosecution and a significant number are likely to be held in some system of prolonged detention at the maximum security prison the administration has identified in Thomson, Ill.
"It was always our intent to transfer detainees to other countries only under conditions that provide assurances that our security is being protected," President Obama said. "Given the unsettled situation [in Yemen], I've spoken to the attorney general and we've agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time."
The administration had already acknowledged that it would not be able to meet the deadline it set to close the Guantanamo prison in Cuba by Jan. 22.
White House officials said the decision to suspend the repatriation of Yemenis was related to the "current security situation" and may change. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the suspension could swell the population at Thomson. Government officials don't believe the Thomson facility will be ready to receive detainees before the fall at the earliest.
Last month, the administration sent six detainees back to Yemen, a transfer that drew harsh criticism from Republicans in Congress. Concern about transfers to Yemen intensified after al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a U.S. airliner.
Former Guantanamo detainees released to Saudi Arabia by the Bush administration hold leadership in this branch of al-Qaeda, which has conducted a number of terrorist operations, including an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen in March 2008.
No further transfers to Yemen were imminent, and Republicans said they hope the administration will permanently halt further repatriations.
"It's the correct decision on a very real security threat," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.). "It shouldn't have taken this long and I am going to continue to stay on the issue."
Human rights groups, however, expressed dismay that detainees who have been cleared for release will continue to be held without charge after what the administration called a rigorous review of all evidence against them.
"Halting the repatriation of Yemeni men cleared by the Task Force after months of careful review is unconscionable," the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement. "It will also effectively prevent any meaningful progress towards closing Guantanamo, which President Obama has repeatedly argued will make our nation safer."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.