Medea Benjamin and Awda Al Shubati. (Photo: Pam Bailey)
Awda is 12 years old and has never seen her father. Her mother was pregnant in 2001 when her father, Abdulrahman Al Shubati, traveled to Pakistan to earn extra money as a teacher of the Qur’an. However, he suddenly disappeared without a trace and her mother gave birth alone. It wasn’t until a year later that mother and daughter learned what had happened to him: a caller from the Red Cross announced that Abdulrahman had been imprisoned in Guantanamo. In Arabic, the little girl’s name means “come back.”
* * *
Qaid’s cousin, Abdulhakim Ghalib Alhaq, was just 17 in 2001 when he left Yemen for Pakistan to study Islam. Two months later, he disappeared. When his family learned that the teenager was in Guantanamo, his parents’ health deteriorated. “When we are permitted phone calls,” says Qaid, “our news is mostly about deaths – first his father, then his mother and grandmother. He is losing everything familiar to him while he is behind bars.”
* * *
Ameena’s brother, Salman Yehia Al-Rabiee, journeyed to Afghanistan when he finished high school to look for his brother, Fawaz, who had gone to the region in search of work. Then Salman disappeared as well. From TV, they discovered Salman was in Guantanamo. Fawaz had been jailed as a suspected member of Al Qaeda and his entire family paid the price. After Salman was detained, his father and brother were imprisoned as well (in Yemen), and Ameena’s husband divorced her, afraid of guilt by association. “We have lost all of the men in our family,” she says.
* * *
These are just three of the stories our Codepink delegation heard from families of the estimated 82 Yemenis still held in Guantanamo – the largest national segment in the prison operated by the United States to keep “War on Terror” suspects behind bars without charge or trial. The stories have an eerie sameness – men who suddenly disappear off the streets, frequently while traveling in targeted countries, with no explanation to the victims or the families who are left behind, waiting in confusion and desperation for their sons, fathers and husbands. They learned of their loved ones’ fate only from a TV report or a phone call from the Red Cross, many months later.
Twelve years on, the men are still behind bars, despite the fact that 56 have been cleared for release since 2008. For about 20 of those 56 (including Abdulrahman Al Shubati and Abdulhakim Ghalib Alhaq), the U.S. government has basically admitted it has absolutely no evidence against them at all. For the rest, either the evidence can only be described as reaching the level of “suspicion” or the individuals are generally acknowledged as being very small potatoes.
“This was done by your government, a major superpower,” admonished Ali Mohammed Aziz, whose brother-in-law was seized in Pakistan at the age of 17. “It’s not a gang or a criminal. I thought the United States was all about democracy and the rule of law. Instead, what you’re teaching us is the law of the jungle.”
Most of the Yemenis are among the 100-plus Guantanamo detainees who have been on hunger strike for more than 200 days (with some being force-fed, widely regarded as a form of torture), protesting in the only way they can their indefinite confinement without trial or sentencing. The international media coverage and attention from human-rights agencies spurred President Barack Obama to re-affirm his neglected election-year promise to close the prison, as well as to lift the moratorium on releasing detainees from Yemen imposed since Christmas Day 2009.
Transfer of the cleared Yemeni prisoners had been just about to begin when Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. The Nigerian had been trained in Yemen, and the administration ruled the Yemeni government too unstable and unreliable to assure that the returning prisoners would not retaliate with terrorist acts once home.
On May 23, however, Obama agreed to lift the moratorium – if the new, transitional Yemeni government initiates and will vouch for a “rehabilitation” program for returning inmates, similar to the program operated by Saudi Arabia.
We met with Yemen’s popular Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashour to discuss this issue and others. She earned respect during the revolution for leaving her post in Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government to join the people in the street, and has continued her reputation for being willing to “speak truth to power” to her bosses in government, including transitional President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
On June 2, she announced a two-day hunger strike to protest her employer’s refusal to release all of the youth imprisoned during the revolution. When Yemen youth were camping in “Change Squares” throughout the country, Saleh gave his security apparatus a green light to conduct mass arrests. As a peace offering, Hadi’s newly formed coalition government promised to release all political prisoners. Many were, but many more were not — including some who have simply “disappeared.”
“I had tried to get a meeting with Hadi many times before on this issue, with no luck,” Mashour laughed. “But when I started my hunger strike, he came and met me for more than an hour, and issued an order to release 19 of the prisoners.” Seventeen of them eventually were, with two continuing to be retained by a special court. An estimated 41 more remain behind bars, however, and the fight continues.
The Guantanamo detainees are another of Mashour’s priorities. When we met, the government had just signed a decree defining and authorizing the creation of a rehabilitation program that could receive them, meeting Obama’s condition. She is consulting with a delegation from Saudi Arabia on its own such program, which the United States considers a model. About 120 Guantanamo detainees have “graduated” from Saudi Arabia’s program, the core of which is to return “extremists” to “true Islam.” The program, for example, teaches participants they can only wage jihad with government approval — specifically the head or ruler of state — and not through a fatwa issued by an ideologue. Counseling and evaluation follows religious instruction. Determining whether participants are ready for release is the responsibility of the Saudi Ministry of Interior and its security forces. A condition of release is agreement to be monitored under a system similar to parole or probation.
I have to pause here and express a deep ambivalence about this program and others like it. On the one hand, it allows them to come home, offers participants psychological counseling and supports them upon release with employment and housing. On the other, there are aspects that are a bit creepy. My uneasiness begins with the fact that in Saudi Arabia, it is run by the government’s “Ideological Security Directorate.” It continues with the fact that in the case of Guantanamo, many of the detainees were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time; if they need rehabilitation, it is only because of the torture and other trauma inflicted upon them by their jailers. Saudi Arabia reports that 20 percent of graduates who are former Guantanamo detainees broke the rules upon release – including 11 who reportedly went to Yemen to join AQAP. But even then, Abdulrahman al Hadlaq, who is in charge of Saudi Arabia’s program, attributed this outcome in part to the treatment they received in Guantanamo. “Torture is the most dangerous thing because in the end you will be having something called ‘revenge’,” al Hadlaq told The National. In Yemen, 22 Guantanamo detainees had been released to their home country before Obama imposed the moratorium, and only two were known to have associated with terrorist activities.
“I must be personally involved (in the creation of the rehabilitation program) to make sure the returning detainees are not simply imprisoned,” Mashour told us. “They need vocational training, for example, and medical care. Some of them will come back very sick.”
Funding for the program still must be secured, however. (My question is why hasn’t the United States committed to providing the funding? After all, our government has admitted it doesn’t have enough evidence to prove their guilt, and they already have lost 12 years of their lives.) In addition, it will take time to identify and prepare a proper facility. How long that will require she doesn’t know – perhaps five or six months.
“But someone could die by then,” Medea Benjamin responded in shock. What will happen to the hunger strikers?
A month ago, Awda and her family traveled seven hours to Sana’a to see her father for the first time via video link. But she went home disappointed. Her hunger-striking father was so weak he was unable to talk.
Postscript: Just as I was publishing this post, we received an email from Hooria Mahsour informing us that the life of another Guantanamo prisoner, Abd al-Salam al-Hilah, is in danger due to his prolonged hunger strike. We had just had lunch with his brother.