SANAA, Yemen — President-elect Barack Obama's pledge to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, faces a major obstacle: Yemen.
The Bush administration has transferred hundreds of Guantanamo prisoners to the custody of their home countries, but it's been unable to win assurances from Yemen — whose approximately 100 prisoners are the largest group still jailed at Guantanamo — that the men, if they're returned, won't pose a threat to the United States.
By striking similar deals with nations such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, Bush administration officials have dramatically reduced Guantanamo's population over the past three years. Yemen, however, which has failed to stop homegrown militants from staging major attacks on American targets in the past decade, says it can't continue to hold prisoners without charges.
Yemeni officials say they're ready to try many of the men and imprison those who are convicted, but they complain that U.S. officials refuse to share evidence with them.
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"Based on the information we have, some of the Guantanamo prisoners have nothing to do with terrorism," said the Yemeni foreign minister, Abu Bakr al Kirbi. "We cannot imprison them without a court sentence. We cannot do something that is against our laws. We are accountable to our own public."
Attorneys for the prisoners said that the stalemate underscored how the Bush administration had painted itself into a corner with its efforts to transfer detainees from Guantanamo, which has become such a stain on the U.S. human-rights record that both Obama and his presidential rival, John McCain, campaigned vigorously to close it.
After jailing hundreds of men for years without charges, the attorneys said, the Bush administration began to empty the prison in 2005 by convincing other countries to adapt or suspend their own due process to continue holding many of the men indefinitely. To a great extent, the tactic worked: Guantanamo's population is down from more than 770 to about 250 today.
Yemen, however, a rugged, deeply poor nation at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has proved a more nettlesome partner. Experts said that President Ali Abdullah Saleh was fearful of agreeing to anything that would anger Yemen's powerful tribal leaders, on whose support much of his authority depends.
"Yemen is one of the biggest obstacles to closing the prison," said Cori Crider, a staff lawyer at Reprieve, a London-based legal organization that represents more than 30 Guantanamo prisoners.
Obama's advisers describe closing Guantanamo as a top priority, but experts say that resolving the remaining cases poses a host of complex legal, diplomatic and national security challenges. Obama's transition team said this week that no decisions on the remaining prisoners, including how and where they might be tried, would be made until his national security and legal teams have been assembled.
Bush administration officials have been scrambling to empty Guantanamo of all but the highest-risk prisoners since June, when a landmark Supreme Court decision granted the detainees the right to challenge their imprisonment in federal courts. Attorneys for dozens of Yemenis think that these "habeas corpus" hearings could set many of their clients free because U.S. officials have collected little evidence connecting them to serious crimes.
Lawyers say that the Bush administration — which maintains that all the prisoners pose some level of risk — would prefer to hand the men over to Yemen before they come up for hearings. One question for the Obama administration is whether to review all the prisoners' cases before deciding on transfers or prosecutions.
"As habeas cases move forward, more and more people are going to be transferred," Crider said. "Unfortunately, the Yemenis are still stuck."
A U.S. delegation last visited Yemen for talks on the prisoners in June, and although the Yemenis reported little progress, a Bush administration official who has knowledge of the discussions said that the two sides were working on an arrangement to ensure that the detainees don't pose threats after their transfers.
"The situation is that there are still huge concerns here about Yemen's capacity to absorb these people," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions. "There are continuing efforts to work with the Yemenis to resolve the issue."
"Things just move slowly in Yemen," he added.
Militants disguised as Yemeni soldiers exploded two car bombs Sept. 17 outside the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, the capital, killing 19 people, an American among them. The attack revived memories of 2000, when an al Qaida suicide bomb tore through the destroyer USS Cole off Yemen's southern coast and killed 17 American sailors.
The embassy bombing poured "a glass of cold water over the negotiations," said Jill Williamson, a Washington lawyer for two of the Yemenis.
David Remes, who represents 15 Yemenis, said: "The security situation in Yemen is so unstable now. . . . I cannot imagine the U.S., under the current circumstances, returning these men."
Officials in Yemen portray themselves as fighting an epic struggle against Islamic militants, most famously Osama bin Laden, whose family hails from the eastern Hadramout region. In recent years, however, prominent terrorism suspects — including several linked to the Cole attack — have staged stunning prison escapes or have quietly been set free in exchange for pledges that they won't attack Yemeni interests.
"The Americans are very concerned about Yemen's ability to secure the Guantanamo prisoners," said Mohammed Kahtan, a leader in the opposition Islah party. "And frankly, I share the Americans' concern. There are no guarantees."
Yemeni officials say they lack the resources to secure a rugged nation that's roughly the size of California, and they balk at U.S. demands for assurances that the prisoners won't engage in terrorist activity.
"Even the United States can't make such promises," said Amin al Huthaify, a spokesman for the Political Security Organization, Yemen's main government intelligence agency. "Terrorism is an international phenomenon."
Two of the Yemenis at Guantanamo are "high-value" suspects who've been charged in connection with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and could face the death penalty if a military tribunal convicts them. Also among the Yemenis are the only two detainees whom Guantanamo's special court has convicted of war crimes: Salim Hamdan, who's nearing the end of a 66-month sentence for working as bin Laden's driver in Afghanistan, and Ali Hamza al Bahlul, who was found guilty this month of producing a two-hour al Qaida recruitment video that spliced bin Laden speeches with footage of the Cole bombing.
While it's unlikely that U.S. officials would transfer the high-value detainees, they've indicated support for a rehabilitation program for lower-risk prisoners. In 2002, Yemen pioneered a program of psychological counseling for terrorism suspects, and although it has many skeptics, it helped to inspire an extensive program in neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has taken in dozens of former Guantanamo inmates.
Yemeni officials say their prisons are overcrowded, and they want the United States to finance a rehabilitation center to house and monitor the detainees.
If the impasse continues, some worry that the United States will try to offload the Yemenis to other countries, such as Egypt or Jordan, where prisoners are at grave risk of abuse, according to human rights groups.
"If they send them to a third country, like another Arab country, they could disappear, and it will be very difficult for us to work to help them," said Khalid al Anisi, the executive director of Hood, a Yemeni human-rights group that's lobbied on behalf of the prisoners. "That is the worst scenario."
Many experts think that the Bush administration has trapped itself by describing the Yemenis and other Guantanamo inmates as security threats. In the case of 17 Muslim Uighur prisoners from China — whom a federal judge in October ordered released but who fear being tortured if they return to China — U.S. officials have been unable to find a country that's willing to accept them. Another, smaller group of Uighurs has ended up marooned in Albania.
Attorneys say that resolving the Yemenis' fate could require Obama to seek a new understanding with Yemen on how they should be treated.
"It's not enough to say we want to close Guantanamo," Crider said. "There's going to have to be a change in policy at the U.S. end in the way they try to resettle these people."
(Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)
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