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Yemeni Official: It’s Our ‘Duty’ to Ask for Return of Detainees

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/01/lieberman-mccain-graham-480x332.jpgSens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) (UPPA/ZUMA Press)

Critics of President Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility are saying that the Yemen connections of would-be plane bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab ought to prevent the administration from repatriating dozens of Yemeni detainees currently held at Guantanamo. “It would be irresponsible to take any of the Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo and send them back to Yemen,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn) said on ABC News’ “ThisWeek” on Sunday.

But a Yemeni official points out that his government wouldn’t stand for such a reversal.

“It is my country’s duty to ask for the custody of our detainees, like every country would do,” the Yemeni official told TWI. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitive political nature of the Guantanamo Bay question. But the official added, “Of course, we have stated that to the Obama administration.”

[Security1]Since investigators determined that Abdulmutallab received aid from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist syndicate’s Yemen affiliate, a chorus has built on the right to warn Obama against repatriating the Yemenis at Guantanamo. On December 29, Lieberman joined with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in writing to Obama for an “immediate halt” on releasing any detainees cleared for repatriation. “The current conditions and threat of AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] are clear evidence of the danger in repatriating these Yemeni detainees at this time,” the Senators wrote. There are about 90 Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with about 40 of them cleared for release back to their home country by the Bush and Obama administrations.

Post-Christmas fears of terrorism have led even some administration allies to come out against repatriation to Yemen. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, echoed the McCain-Graham-Lieberman letter in a statement, saying that conditions in Yemen were “too unstable” to release the Guantanamo Yemenis “to Yemen at this time.” Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a longtime member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, added on ABC’s “ThisWeek,” “I think it is a bad time to send the 90 or so Yemenis back to Yemen.”

But the Yemeni official’s comments underscore the difficulties with abandoning Obama’s plans to ultimately close Guantanamo. Shortly before the failed Christmas attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the U.S. assisted Yemen with missile strikes against al-Qaeda targets. John Brennan, the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, said on the Sunday talk show circuit yesterday that the Obama administration would be broadening and deepening its support to the Yemeni government to “provide the Yemeni government with the wherewithal to carry out this fight against al-Qaeda.”

Brennan spoke about providing additional diplomatic, intelligence, financial and security-sector assistance to the Yemeni government, which is facing an intensifying challenge from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. To refuse Yemen its repatriation of detainees the Defense and Justice Departments have already cleared for transfer risks upsetting the Yemenis at a time when the U.S. is relying on it to take additional action against al-Qaeda — or to tolerate its own controversial airstrikes against al-Qaeda targets. On Monday, the Yemeni government said it had killed two members of the terrorist group, but over the weekend, Yemen’s foreign minister warned the U.S. against “direct intervention” during an interview with al-Jazeera.

“The Obama administration has a legitimate reason to hesitate in repatriating Yemeni detainees, given past experience that has included escapes (probably assisted) from Yemeni jails and the the return of some released detainees to terrorist activity,” said Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Mideast analyst. “The administration needs to balance this hazard against the hazard of inadvertently insulting or antagonizing the Yemeni government, on which the United States is more dependent than ever for counterterrorist cooperation, including potentially costly military action by the Yemeni armed forces.”

The Yemeni official declined to comment on the impact a lack of repatriation would have on the two nations’ relations. Nor would the official comment on the congressional calls to keep the Yemeni citizens at Guantanamo. But the official said, “The detainees that have been sent to Yemen were detainees that have been cleared by U.S. courts, and therefore are presumed innocent, or at least nothing stands against them.” (Few, if any, Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo have received a hearing before a civilian U.S. court.)

There have been some additional criticism of the McCain-Graham-Lieberman letter’s grasp on the basic facts of the Yemenis’ situation at Guantanamo. Shortly after it was issued, TWI’s Daphne Eviatar noticed that its specific reference to “six Yemeni nationals” actually referred to six individuals whom the Obama administration returned to Yemen more than a week before the three senators wrote their letter, and before the Christmas attempt on Flight 253 occurred. A spokesperson for Graham explained to Eviatar, “They’re trying to stop the transfer of a number of detainees back to Yemen until we are certain these detainees will not make their way back to the battlefield.” Additionally, ABC News had to retract a story about freed Guantanamo detainees aiding Abdulmutallab.

Still, Pillar predicted, “The likely policy outcome is to slow-roll release of the remaining Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo, who represent the toughest cases among all the Yemenis who have been incarcerated there.”

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