Collective Punishment by Nationality: The Plight of Guantanamo's Yemenis

October 2013
Huffington Post

By Omar Farah, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights

Like my client Fahd Ghazy, 90 out of the 164 men still at Guantánamo are from Yemen. Over one-third of all Guantánamo prisoners are Yemenis who have been approved for release by President Obama, many by President Bush as well. Yet only one Yemeni prisoner has been transferred off of the island alive since 2010. Guantánamo is becoming an internment camp reserved for Muslim men from Yemen.

This morning, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) - the Organization of American States (OAS) body with responsibility for protecting human rights in the Americas - will call on the U.S. government to account for its Guantánamo policy, the second time it has done so in roughly six months. The focus of today's hearing will be Yemen. Unlike the last hearing, convened during the darkest days of the 2013 mass hunger strike, today's hearing was not at the request of the detained men, but, in a rare step, was convened at the initiation of the IACHR itself.

I will testify before the commission about Fahd, who has been languishing at Guantánamo without charge for over one-third of his life. He arrived at Guantánamo at age 17 and therefore has the distinction of being one of the last remaining prisoners to have been detained as a juvenile. In a few months he will be thirty. He was cleared for release by President Bush in 2007 and again by President Obama in 2009. For nearly half as long as Guantánamo itself has been open, he has been tormented by the knowledge that not even the U.S. government wants him there yet there he remains. For much of 2013, he was punished with solitary confinement for hunger-striking in protest of his interminable detention. Access to his lawyers is guaranteed by the U.S. constitution, yet the U.S. military continues to interfere with that right: a renewed body search protocol at Guantánamo required Fahd to choose between meeting me last week when I went to the prison and potentially enduring a search of his genital area - sometimes multiple searches for each time he passes through the cell-block gates. The shame the searches cause has predictably led many prisoners to refuse critical attorney-client meetings.

No one is leaving Guantánamo, either: two men, just two, have been released in the five months since the President's highly publicized speech in May at the National Defense University when he recommitted to closing the prison. By the only measure that counts - detainee releases - the Obama administration is headed for failure at Guantánamo yet again.

In no small part, the president's policy toward the Yemeni detainees is to blame. When he banned all transfers to Yemen in 2010 to appease critics after the failed underwear bomber attack, President Obama added discrimination on the basis of national origin to the litany of Guantánamo's human rights violations. Under the moratorium, neither of Fahd's clearances, nor his status as a former juvenile detainee, nor the flawed allegations against him - themselves based on events of almost 15 years ago - has been sufficient to outweigh the fact that he is from Yemen. For the Obama administration, that accident of birth sealed his fate.

The Obama administration has long regarded the Yemenis at Guantánamo as a political liability to manage, rather than as individuals it has a moral obligation to release. The administration now says the moratorium has been lifted. We will know that is true when a Yemeni prisoner actually goes home. Until then, there are reasons to be skeptical. Today, administration officials will be asked about efforts to release Fahd, or anyone else from Yemen for that matter. It is a fair question: President Obama pledged at the National Defense University to begin considering the Yemenis for release on a case-by-case basis. Yet so far, the administration has shown no progress towards resuming repatriations.

The IACHR is alarmed; its mandate is to hold the line on human rights in the Americas. If the United States quietly permits Guantánamo to become an internment camp for citizens of Yemen - a single, conspicuously less powerful nation - it will do lasting damage to regional human rights standards. In May, the IACHR unequivocally called on President Obama to correct course. It should do so again now. Guantánamo has long been associated with torture and indefinite detention. Now add to that institutionalized discrimination on the basis of national origin against Yemenis. It is past time for these abuses to end. It is past time for Fahd to go home.

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Last modified 

January 3, 2014