WASHINGTON (AFP) – A cargo bomb plot hatched in Yemen put into question the fate of 57 of its citizens who remain detained at the US-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, rights observers said.
Now, the election this week of a more conservative, security-minded new US Congress makes it even less likely that the men will be freed in the near future, human rights observers said.
One week ago, two parcels sent from Yemen were addressed to Jewish institutions in Chicago and containing the lethal explosive PETN hidden in ink toner cartridges were uncovered on cargo planes en route to the United States in Britain and Dubai.
The revelation of the plot was sobering news for the Yemeni Guantanamo inmates who now appear less likely than ever to be released in the near future.
All told, 90 of Guantanamo’s 174 inmates have been cleared for release, including the 57 Yemenis, who nevertheless remain imprisoned at the camp which houses foreign inmates suspected of acts of terrorism and of waging war against the United States.
President Barack Obama, who vowed that he would close the Guantanamo detention camp by January 2010, missed that deadline and has failed to set a new one.
Only nine Yemenis of the more than 500 inmates detained during the George W. Bush administration were sent home. Six more were freed at the end of 2009, during the first year of President Barack Obama’s administration.
“The problem of Yemeni detainees is by far the largest single problem we have with respect to transfer out of Guantanamo,” a US official told AFP.
“It’s by far the largest national group of detainees that have been cleared for resettlement and repatriation,” he said.
The problem of what to do with the men has bedeviled two US administrations, with no solution in sight.
“The problem for both Bush and Obama administrations has been Yemen’s capacity to absorb this problem, repatriate these people in a way that doesn’t pose security problems,” the official said.
“That’s a genuinely difficult problem and the administration’s thinking through its options.”
In the aftermath of last week’s revelation of the cargo plane bomb plot, Sanaa has scrambled to contain the fallout by announcing exceptional security measures on all freight leaving Yemeni airports, even as Western governments announced that they were restricting or suspending air cargo from Yemen.
The slowdown in repatriations of Yemenis at Guantanamo first became evident after last year’s Christmas Day bombing plot, in which a young African allegedly tried to bring down a US airliner with explosives hidden in his underwear, after receiving training from an Al-Qaeda group in Yemen.
That led the US administration to suspend plans to send the Guantanamo Yemenis home, and the latest plot now has made release of the men any time soon even less likely.
“They are still stuck. There is no immediate prospect for release, in a foreseeable future. It’s quite a natural reaction” said David Remes, an attorney who represents several of the Yemeni men.
“They keep asking me: how long is this going to last? We’ve already been here for going on 10 years, accused of nothing, convicted of nothing’,” the attorney said.
“They are quite in limbo,” Remes said.
This week’s ouster from power of the Democrats in Congress complicates matters for them even more, he said.
“It puts in control congressmen who want Guantanamo to remain open,” he said.
He added: “I can only tell them they are hostages to US politics and that until that dynamic changes, there is little hope for their transfer.”
The Obama administration has legal authority under a 2001 act of Congress to hold detainees from Yemen and other countries for long periods of time without criminal charges or trials.
“The Republican-controlled Congress is likely to drop as many obstacles as they can to the resettlement of detainees,” said Tom Parker, of Amnesty International.
“I talked to people at the State Department before the elections, they were very concerned that the Republicans, if they win the House, would affect, if not prevent, any further releases. I don’t think that is an unlikely outcome” he said.