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Yemenis at Gitmo stuck in diplomatic stalemate

The number of men held at Guantanamo Bay is declining rapidly, but there is no way out for most of the Yemeni detainees because of an impasse between their homeland's government and the U.S.
Guantanamo Stranded Yemenis
In this photo, reviewed by a U.S. Department of Defense official, a detainee jogs around the exercise area at a medium-security portion of the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba in 2006. The overall number of men held there is declining rapidly, but the vast majority of Yemenis are caught in a diplomatic impasse between their government and Washington.Brennan Linsley / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The number of men held at Guantanamo Bay is declining rapidly, but there is no way out for most of the Yemeni detainees because their homeland's government and Washington are mired in a diplomatic impasse over security concerns.

The jail at the U.S. Navy base in southeast Cuba entered its seventh year Friday, with Yemenis now making up the biggest group of prisoners. Only one Yemeni was among a record 100 detainees sent away over the past six months, according to an Associated Press count.

Of the 275 prisoners who remain at Guantanamo, nearly 100 are from Yemen, replacing Afghans and Saudis as the predominant detainee group as the jail population has declined from a peak of about 680 in 2003.

The United States and Yemen have refused to publicly disclose details of their negotiations. But Sandra Hodgkinson, deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee affairs, said Yemen must do more to assure that any repatriated detainees do not attack the U.S. or its allies.

A key Yemeni official hinted that Washington seeks to have repatriated Yemeni detainees locked up once they reach Yemen, a mountainous, impoverished country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

"We demand that Guantanamo be closed, and we do not accept smaller prisons elsewhere," Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kerbi said Thursday at a conference about Guantanamo in Yemen's capital, San'a.

Detainees' lawyers criticize Yemen
Lawyers for Yemeni detainees criticize Yemen's leadership, saying it has not applied as much diplomatic pressure on Washington as countries that have won the release of their citizens.

Yemen is "trying to continually shift the blame on the Americans," said Martha Rayner, who represents one Yemeni detainee.

Sheila Carapico, a Yemen expert at the University of Richmond, said it is not in Yemen's interest to push for the return of Guantanamo detainees because repatriating almost 100 men with "high-profile security issues" would bring problems.

She said Yemen's jails already are overcrowded, but more importantly, locking up former Guantanamo detainees could threaten alliances that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been forging with Islamic fundamentalist parties.

Struggling to maintain order
Yemen's government struggles to maintain order. Many areas of the California-size country are beyond government control and Islamic extremism is strong. In addition, tribes frequently kidnap foreigners to win concessions from the government.

In October, the State Department threatened to withhold aid from Yemen after it reportedly released a convicted plotter in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor, an attack that killed 17 American sailors. Yemen later said the plotter was in custody.

In a telephone interview Friday, Hodgkinson said the U.S. was concerned "with the track record of the Yemeni government in mitigating these type of threats." But she conceded it is hard to have complete confidence in any country's ability to keep freed detainees from posing a threat.

Only 13 Yemenis have been repatriated from Guantanamo since the prison opened soon after a U.S.-led campaign toppled Afghanistan's Taliban regime. After being returned to Yemen, they were questioned and released because they were not wanted for crimes there, Yemeni officials said.

That is not much different from what happened with the 126 Afghan detainees who have been sent home. Some were put in Afghan prisons but dozens are now free.

Afghans don't keep track of ex-detainees
Even though much of Afghanistan remains lawless as the U.S. and its allies battle Taliban insurgents, the Afghan government does not maintain surveillance of former detainees who have been let go, said Sharif Yousefy, spokesman for that nation's Reconciliation Commission.

Released Guantanamo prisoners are even given a letter by the Reconciliation Commission, telling police and intelligence officials not to harass them, Yousefy added.

Saudis were long the second-largest population at Guantanamo after Afghans, and a total of 118 Saudis have been returned home.

A "religious rehabilitation" program in Saudi Arabia designed to persuade former detainees to abandon militant ideology has won praise from the Pentagon and hastened the repatriation of Saudis. Forty were sent home from Guantanamo in just the last four months.