SANAA, Yemen — Abdulrahman al Shabati, his parents say, never had any connection to al Qaida. Instead, they insist, his decade-long detention at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is little more than a case of terrible luck.
Shabati, they say, was studying in Pakistan when he was picked up in a raid on a mosque in 2002 and dispatched to Guantanamo.
In the 10 years that Shabati’s been held, life has moved on. His siblings have married and his daughter has grown up. Now Shabati’s parents have become part of a new push by the Yemeni government to win the release of the 90 Yemenis being held at Guantanamo.
Last week, Shabati’s parents traveled from their home 60 miles outside Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, to protest outside the U.S. Embassy here. In the coming weeks, a delegation of senior Yemeni officials – including the country’s foreign minister and its minister of human rights, as well as intelligence officers – is hoping to visit Guantanamo Bay, where dozens of detainees currently are conducting a hunger strike to protest their indefinite imprisonment without trial.
Even Yemen’s president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who generally enjoys close relations with the United States, has directed rare criticism at the Obama administration.
“We believe that keeping someone in prison for over 10 years without due process is clear-cut tyranny,” Hadi said in a recent interview broadcast over the Arabic language channel of Russia Today. “The United States is fond of talking democracy and human rights. But when we were discussing the prisoner issue with the American attorney general, he had nothing to say.”
Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said the U.S. does not comment on communications with foreign governments about Guantanamo or the cases of individual detainees who have not been charged with a crime. He said he was unaware of any previous visit to Guantanamo by foreign officials, except members of a country’s intelligence or law enforcement services.
In an interview with McClatchy, Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s minister of human rights, cast the ongoing hunger strike as the catalyst for seeking to visit Guantanamo. At least 41 of the 166 detainees at Guantanamo are refusing food, the Pentagon has said, in a protest that U.S. officials say began in March and that lawyers for the detainees say began in February.
But Mashour said that ultimately Yemen wants Obama to fulfill his previous promise to close the Guantanamo detention center and either send the detainees home or have them face criminal charges.
“For them to spend such a long time without trial is simply lawless,” she said. Mashour said that was especially true of the 25 Yemenis, including Shabati, whom she said the United States has cleared for release but is still holding.
On Friday, the United Nations’ top human rights official, Navi Pillay, reiterated her calls that the Guantanamo detention center be closed. “The continuing indefinite incarceration of many of the detainees amounts to arbitrary detention and is in clear breach of international law,” she said.
She said she welcomed Obama administration officials’ statements that closing Guantanamo is still a goal of the administration, more than four years after a then newly inaugurated Obama ordered the detention center shut. But she expressed disappointment that nothing has been done and that Obama in January signed a defense appropriations bill into law that contained more restrictions on Obama’s ability to release detainees and bring others to trial before civil courts.
“This systemic abuse of individuals’ human rights continues year after year,” she said. “We must be clear about this: The United States is in clear breach not just of its own commitments but also of international laws and standards that it is obliged to uphold. When other countries breach these standards, the United States – quite rightly – strongly criticizes them for it.”
Anger has been growing in Yemen over the continued detention without trial of Yemenis at Guantanamo since the September suicide of Yemeni detainee Adnan Latif, who once had won a court ruling from a U.S. district judge ordering his release but whose victory was overturned by an appeals court.
Roughly 90 Yemeni citizens are still being held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The Yemenis currently form the largest group of detainees at the prison.
The fate of the Yemeni prisoners is complicated by the Obama administration’s decision in 2009 to halt repatriation of detainees to Yemen in the wake of the Christmas Day attempt to bomb an aircraft as it was landing in Chicago after a flight from Amsterdam. The would-be bomber, Umar Abdul Mutallab, who had hidden plastic explosives in his underwear, told U.S. investigators that he had been recruited for the mission in Yemen by U.S.-born al Qaida operative Anwar al Awlaki. Awlaki was subsequently killed by a U.S. drone strike.
The moratorium on sending Yemenis home is especially striking in a case such as Shabati’s, one of the at least 23 Yemeni detainees that the Obama administration has said should be transferred out of Guantanamo.
According to U.S. government records made public by WikiLeaks, U.S. intelligence operatives at Guantanamo recommended as far back as January 2007, if not earlier, that Shabati was eligible for return to his native Yemen. The Obama administration then conducted its own reviews, and notified the courts in September 2012 that he was among 56 Guantanamo captives approved for release, if Congress lifts restrictions and international political conditions make transfer possible.
Such a transfer, however, might not mean release. In their 2008 assessment of Shabati, U.S. intelligence officials at Guantanamo said they believed he had been a member of al Qaida and remained a moderate threat to the United States. They believe he was recruited in Yemen to fight in Afghanistan with al Qaida and was not there as a student, and that he fought against U.S.-allied forces at Tora Bora, the mountainous Afghan region from which al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is believed to have escaped.
Mashhour said her government is aware that the repatriation of detainees would ultimately prove a massive undertaking, requiring a large-scale rehabilitation program, aimed at reintegrating the returnees into Yemeni society. She said such a program also would have to reckon with any psychological effects of a decade-long imprisonment.
“Of course we will need money, we will need logistical support; of course we are committed to doing what’s necessary,” she said. “But also, the American government has a duty to support us.”
Shabati’s family says after 11 years, they just want to see him back in Yemen.
“No one can understand the suffering we’ve felt,” Shabati’s mother said. “We know we’ll be pained by the wounds from this injustice for the rest of our lives.”
Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @adammbaron