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Why Gitmo’s Yemenis Can’t Go Home

An NPR report by Jackie Northam this morning on 101 Yemenis held at Guantanamo Bay highlighted a major part of the Gitmo dilemma facing the next administration that I wrote about for TWI today. While academics focus largely on the fate of the few dozen hi-level detainees who the Pentagon believes are truly dangerous and have been (or may eventually be) charged with crimes, there’s little discussion of what to do with the 200 or so others imprisoned at the US naval base without charge, some for more than seven years. The US has acknowledged that many of them did nothing wrong and pose no threat.

David Remes, who recently started an organization called Appeal for Justice, focused on the plight of detainees (he was formerly a partner at the Washington law firm Covington & Burling, where Eric Holder, Obama’s pick for AG, is a partner) represents about 17 of the Yemenis at Guantanamo bay in habeas corpus proceedings before the DC District Court. As he explained to me last week, who’s been able to leave Gitmo so far has been based more on whether the US has good relations with their home countries than on whether they did anything that warranted their detention.

“The return process is highly political,” says Remes. The more than 500 detainees already sent home since includes all of the Europeans that were picked up, and 90 percent of the Saudis.

“Many were accused of very serious acts of terrorism,” says Remes. “But as a result of

negotiations with the home country we sent them back.” Although the US returned men who had not been officially cleared for release, he says, it continues to hold about 60 men who have been cleared for release, but have nowhere to go.

The problem for the Yemeni prisoners is partly that the Yemeni government hasn’t satisfied the US that it’s doing enough to crack down on terrorism and control its borders. But the problem remains that we haven’t seriously determined which of these guys poses a danger to the United States.

“The government claims that many of the them were taking the side of the Taliban in a civil war with the Northern Alliance,” says Remes. “But even if true, what basis do we have for holding them because they were on the wrong side of another country’s civil war?”

This comes, of course, from their defense lawyer. And while he may be no traditional lefty (Remes spent more than 25 years as a corporate litigator, defending the likes of ExxonMobil before devoting himself to the plight of prisoners at Guantanamo), US authorities may reasonably be hesitant to return people who may be cooperating with terrorists to a country that refuses to deal with the problem. Then again, it was a pretty cursory process that labeled them “enemy combatants” to begin with.

Says Remes: “I’d call it a kangaroo court except that that would be unfair to the kangaroos.”

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