Depressing but important news about life after Guantánamo was published by the Associated Press on Wednesday, focusing on the appalling treatment that former Guantánamo prisoners have received since being resettled in the United Arab Emirates between November 2015 and January 2017, when President Obama left office; specifically, 18 Yemenis (out of 23 men in total sent to the UAE), who have now been told that the UAE is preparing to repatriate them, even though their lives may well be at risk in Yemen.
As reporter Maggie Michael described it, the prisoners “were promised they were being sent to a Muslim country for rehabilitation that would help integrate them into society, opening the way to jobs, money, and marriage, according to their lawyers and families. It was a lie.”
To anyone paying close attention, this wasn’t news. The Washington Post reported in May 2018 that former prisoners sent to the UAE after being unanimously approved for release by high-level US government review processes remain imprisoned, despite promises that their new host country would help them rebuild their lives. Missy Ryan’s story was entitled, “After over a decade at Guantanamo, these men were supposed to go free. Instead, they’re locked in a secretive center in the UAE.”
I wrote about the story shortly after its publication, as “Guantánamo Scandal: The Released Prisoners Languishing in Secretive Detention in the UAE,” but never followed up on it publicly, because the consensus amongst lawyers and NGOs seemed to be that the UAE would respond very badly to media criticism, and that it would be much better to try and persuade them to honor their promises to help the former prisoners rather than punishing them via international bodies like the United Nations.
With the latest news, however, it seems that everyone’s patience has run out. The UN started the ball rolling in July, sending a letter to the Emirati authorities decrying the treatment of 20 of the men transferred to the UAE from Guantánamo: “eighteen Yemeni detainees, who remain in detention without charge and suffer from ill-treatment”; Ravil Mingazov, “who continues to be detained in the UAE without charge, subjected to torture and ill-treatment, and threatened with repatriation to his native Russia, where he risks torture and abuse”; and Haji Hamidullah, “who was held in a secret location subjected to torture and ill-treatment, until he was forcibly repatriated to his native Afghanistan, on 23 December 2019, where he died suffering from health issues resulting from torture and ill-treatment in both Guantánamo and the UAE detention facilities.”
The Rapporteurs who wrote the letter noted, of the Yemenis, that they “have reportedly been punished by guards when they were deemed to be unpleasant. Punishments include deprivation of adequate food, exercise, and medical treatment for detainees suffering from diabetes and heart disease. One detainee stated that he has been tortured by guards and held in solitary confinement. As for family visits, detainees were brought to a third location to meet with their families, blindfolded and with their hands and feet tied together. Detainees have also been punished in retribution of visits, with one detainee saying that he is treated badly and moved to a dark room before each visit. Recently, at least one detainee began a hunger strike. This detainee is described as being close to death.”
There is much more in the Rapporteurs’ letter concerning the treatment of Ravil Mingazov and Haji Hamidullah, and last week they followed up on news of the proposal to repatriate the Yemenis by calling on the UAE to halt their plans, stating that “their forced return put their lives at risk and violated international human rights and humanitarian law.”
The Rapporteurs also stated, “We are seriously concerned about the secrecy surrounding the terms and mode of implementation of this resettlement programme agreed between the UAE and the United States,” adding, “It is worrying that instead of undergoing a rehabilitation programme, or otherwise be[ing] released … these men have been subjected to continuous arbitrary detention at an undisclosed location. Now they are at risk of being forcibly repatriated to their native Yemen amid an ongoing armed conflict and a profound humanitarian crisis.”
They also noted that the Yemenis “were allegedly forced to sign documents consenting to their repatriation, or otherwise remain indefinitely in Emirati detention,” and explained, “This repatriation process is happening without any form of judicial guarantees, or individual examination and assessment of risks, which blatantly violates the absolute prohibition of non-refoulement under international human rights and humanitarian law.”
Worse than Guantánamo
For the Associated Press Maggie Michael provided further details from the prisoners’ lawyers and families, noting how, “In short, sporadic phone calls from undisclosed locations in the UAE — including a notorious prison rife with torture — several whispered to their families that as bad as life in Guantánamo was, they wish they could return there.” She added that, “When one complained of ‘pressures’ three years ago, the call was cut off” and “he has not been heard from since.” She also noted how when Mingazov “staged a hunger strike, he was dumped in solitary confinement and roughed up.”
The AP also noted that a “senior Yemeni government official confirmed the plans, pending security arrangements,” and “a State Department official indicated the US government was aware that it was happening,” with both officials speaking ”on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.” The UAE, meanwhile, “didn’t respond to AP questions.”
The fears about what will await these men if they are returned to Yemen are very real. As the AP noted, “Torture and arbitrary detention are widespread in networks of secret and formal prisons run by various factions controlling different parts of the country.” As Hussein, the brother of one of the Yemenis (identified as Bir to protect his identity), said, “Here the legitimate government itself is not safe. Who will be in charge of them?”
The family of a second Yemeni, identified as Salem, said, “We fear they will be gunned down or rounded up as soon as they put a foot in Yemen.” Another fear, as the AP noted, is that they will be “prime recruits for terrorists in Yemen,” like former prisoner Ibrahim al-Qosi, freed as a result of plea deal, who surfaced in al-Qaida publicity in Yemen two years later.
As the AP also explained, the ongoing imprisonment of these men “violates promises made by US officials” when they were first sent to the UAE, and “underscores flaws in the transfer program,” as well as “the failure of President Donald Trump’s administration to ensure their humane treatment,” which came about because of Trump’s complete lack of interest in monitoring the status of former prisoners (even for reasons of US national security). As the AP explained, he “dismantled an entire office” — the Office of the Envoy for Guantánamo Closure — that was “tasked with closing the Guantánamo facility, overseeing transfers, and following up on the resettled detainees.”
Although the “[t]erms of the agreements the US struck with the UAE and dozens of other countries that received Guantánamo detainees weren’t made public,” Ian Moss, a former chief of staff for the State Department’s Guantánamo envoy, told the AP, “We wanted these individuals after they were released to have a fresh start in life. It wasn’t part of the deal that they be incarcerated. That was never part of the deal.”
Moss “blamed the current administration for lack of engagement,” as the AP described it, saying, “the Emiratis knew that the Trump administration didn’t care about what they did with these people or how they treated them. This is disgraceful.”
Lee Wolosky, the envoy for Guantánamo closure from 2015 to 2017, when the Yemenis were transferred to the UAE, confirmed Moss’s account. “I can categorically deny that there was a plan to keep the men in detention following their transfer from US custody,” he stated by email.
Discussing the situation in the UAE, Katie Taylor, the coordinator of the legal NGO Reprieve’s “Life After Guantánamo” project, told the AP that she had documented “the lives of nearly 60 former detainees in 25 countries,” but explained that “the situation facing the men resettled in the UAE is among the worst and most troubling.”
Taylor’s comments are important, because they help to provide a wider context to the plight of the men in the UAE, which I have written about before — how everyone released from Guantánamo, but especially those resettled in third countries, are vulnerable to ill-treatment by their hosts, not just because of Donald Trump’s indifference to them, but because there is no internationally agreed code of conduct governing former Guantánamo prisoners, who remain, fundamentally, the “enemy combatants” without rights that the Bush administration first declared them to be when they initially ended up in US custody.
One day this serious omission needs to be addressed, but for now the gravity of Katie Taylor’s comments can be gleaned from recalling the circumstances other former prisoners have found themselves in — in particular, the two Libyans resettled in Senegal, who were then sent back to Libya (one willingly, the other unwillingly), where they subsequently disappeared into the hands of unfriendly militia. The only good news about this particular story is that apparently both men are still alive, and one of them, at least, is now a free man, but it — and the UAE story — underscore how vulnerable former Guantánamo prisoners remain to abuse by their host governments or their home governments.
For an earlier article on this topic, see Guantánamo’s Lost Diaspora: How Donald Trump’s Closure of the Office Monitoring Ex-Prisoners is Bad for Them – and US Security.
Examples of ill-treatment in the UAE
Of the 17 or 18 Yemenis in the UAE — “unconfirmed reports” suggested to the AP that “one Yemeni left prison because of medical complications” — one is represented by lawyer Patricia Bronte, who confirmed that “State Department officials had told her and the detainees that they would be held from six to 12 months in a rehabilitation facility, and then they would be allowed to reunite with their families in the UAE.” However, as she explained, “From early on, the assurances I have been given weren’t lived up to.”
She said that she had had “no contact with her client since his arrival in the UAE in 2016,” and family members of other prisoners told the AP that “their communication with their loved ones has been infrequent, and troubling.”
One example is Abdo, who is 41 years old, and whose name, like those of all the Yemenis mentioned, has been “withheld for fear that they might face retribution.” He told his brother Ahmed that “he spent 70 days in solitary confinement — blindfolded, handcuffed, and with hands and feet chained to the ground — upon his arrival.” As Ahmed described it, “There was no rehabilitation or ‘de-radicalization sessions.’” Instead, Abdo and other prisoners were “moved to a ‘filthy and dark prison’ for 16 months.”
Ahmed said that his brother had told him, “It was just terrible there,” and also explained that he was then “moved to al-Razin prison, located nearly 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Dubai, where human rights groups have documented abuses and torture. In the spring of 2019, Abdo was brought back to the ‘filthy’ prison, where he remains.”
According to Ahmed, Abdo said, “It’s not what I thought. I wish I return to Guantánamo … it’s 1,000 times worse here.” Then, as the AP described it, “the phone call was cut off.”
Another prisoner, Bir, briefly mentioned above, is a 41-year-old nurse, who was identified in 2015 in his Periodic Review Board (the parole-type process that led to his release) as “a ‘low-level Yemeni militant’ who was arrested in Pakistani raids in Sept[ember] 2002 and transferred to Guantánamo.” His brother, Hussein, told the AP that, “despite earlier promises of a new life, his brother ended up in ‘mysterious conditions. We know nothing.’”
Hussein added, “He continues to live behind bars with other Yemeni detainees, they are facing the most brutal injustice in the history.” He explained that, in phone calls which are allowed every 10 days, “He says nothing except for, ‘How are you?’ He can’t speak. They are banned.”
The AP article also mentioned Ravil Mingazov, noting that he “has never physically met his 19-year-old son Yusuf, who lives in London,” but “they have talked.” Yusuf said that “his father complained that he had been humiliated by his captors and had been deprived of food and medicine.” Mingazov’s mother, Zoria Valiullina, said her son had said that he “wanted to return to Guantánamo,” and had told her, “It’s better there.”
The family of another Yemeni, Abdel-Rab, 44, who had “worked as a house painter in Yemen” before his ill-fated trip to Afghanistan in 2000, which led, in turn, to Guantánamo, said that, after his transfer to the UAE, “he disappeared three years ago after two phone calls during which he complained about conditions, and nervously said, ‘I am under pressure … Guantánamo was much better. One billion times.’”
As the AP explained, after he said this, “The call was cut off,” and “he never called again.” His family members said they “have no clue if he is alive.” In June, disturbingly, “a man pretending to be Abdel-Rab called the family,” but as his brother said, “It wasn’t his voice. He wasn’t the same.”
The AP article also discussed Hamidullah, whose former attorney stated that “his client was a ‘model detainee,’ a ‘peaceful man’ who had never been a member of the Taliban,” and, in fact, had been “imprisoned by the Taliban in the late 1990s.”
Hamidullah “lived to tell about the conditions of his imprisonment in the UAE, though only barely.” After three and a half years in UAE prisons, he was returned to Afghanistan last December, but died in May this year, “having enjoyed just four months of freedom after nearly 20 years in detention,” as the AP explained, adding that his family “believes that the conditions he endured in UAE prisons contributed to his death.”
His son Ahmed spoke to the AP, and “recalled the first time he visited his father” in the UAE, describing, in faltering English, how he was “brought with chains in hands and feet, covered eyes with black cloth, and was also tighten with chains in the seat.”
After his return to Afghanistan, Hamidullah had “shared more details of his imprisonment” in the UAE with his son, telling him that the guards “forced him to strip naked every time he went to the bathroom.” The son called it “mental torture.”
I wrote the above article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.