WASHINGTON — Yemen’s human rights minister breezed into Washington this week expecting the opportunity to lobby U.S. officials for the release from Guantanamo of Yemeni detainees, who make up more than half the population at the controversial U.S.-run prison that President Barack Obama has pledged to close.
“Unfortunately, I ended up with nothing,” a dejected Hooria Mashhour said by phone from Yemen on Thursday, hours after returning from her trip.
Mashhour had planned a 10-day visit, but she left after just three days with no official meetings and no updates on plans for the 84 or more Yemenis who comprise the majority of the 166 detainees remaining at Guantanamo.
Mashhour’s version of her ill-fated trip – essentially that poor planning by the Yemeni Embassy, coupled with U.S. reluctance to discuss the matter, left her forlorn in Washington – doesn’t jibe with accounts from State Department and Yemeni officials. They say that Mashhour was scheduled to meet with U.S. counterparts but that she balked that they weren’t senior enough and left the United States in a huff, a testament to how Yemen’s complicated internal politics are hampering its ability to negotiate on the Guantanamo detainees.
“It was one of the weirdest experiences,” a stunned Yemeni official said of Mashhour’s abrupt departure, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to inflame political sensitivities.
“We’re all a little befuddled,” said a State Department official, likewise asking for anonymity in order to speak freely about a prickly diplomatic matter.
Securing the return of Guantanamo prisoners is a top priority for the fragile coalition government that’s ruled Yemen since the ouster of longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh last year. The new administration sprang from the uprisings that toppled Arab autocrats in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and Mashhour is a respected revolutionary known for her early presence in the Yemeni protest camps and for her ties to youth groups.
However, former opposition figures don’t always transition quickly into polished diplomats. The Yemeni official said Mashhour didn’t understand how U.S. protocol works and expected meetings with administration figures as senior as Secretary of State John Kerry. In fact, the official said, the primary purpose of Mashhour’s trip was to attend a World Bank conference on women’s issues; the bilateral meetings were just a bonus.
“This is the problem with the Arab Spring transitions – opposition figures get Cabinet seats, but then something happens to upset them and they start behaving as if they’re not part of the Cabinet,” the Yemeni official said.
Mashhour concedes that Yemen’s rocky transition played a role in the disarray of her visit, but she was referring mostly to the fact that the embassy in Washington still has no ambassador; the highest-level envoy is a charge d’affaires. The Yemeni official confirmed that Washington is one of more than 30 posts where Yemen hasn’t replaced ambassadors because of the delicate and ongoing negotiations among the ruling coalition members back in Sanaa, the capital.
Mashhour complained that her meeting arrangements were left to a new hire who didn’t have the connections in Washington to get her time with the real power brokers. She even publicly criticized the embassy’s handling of the matter to the more than 7,000 followers of her Twitter account – a rare breach for such a high-profile figure.
“I was disappointed,” Mashhour said. “But, anyway, we’ll continue our efforts to bring the detainees back. This is our commitment.”
The State Department official said that it was Mashhour who canceled the arranged meetings. She’d been expected to discuss not only Guantanamo but broader issues related to human rights in Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest and least developed countries.
“There were meetings set up with senior-level people, so I don’t know why she didn’t meet with them,” the official said. “Perhaps she thought they weren’t senior enough.”
Despite the raw feelings over this particular visit, all parties said discussions would continue on how to close Guantanamo; the Obama administration is expected to name a new envoy on the matter this month.
Mashhour said the pressure on the Yemeni government to get its citizens out of Guantanamo has mounted since the spread of a hunger strike that now involves nearly two-thirds of the 166 men held at the prison. Of the total detainees there, at least 84 are Yemenis, including 26 who are approved for transfer and another 30 who could be eligible if the Yemeni government takes “appropriate measures to reduce the risks of their return,” as the State Department puts it.
A moratorium on the transfer of Yemeni detainees has been in place since the 2009 Christmas Day attempt to bomb an aircraft as it was landing in Detroit after a flight from Amsterdam. The would-be bomber, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalan, who had hidden plastic explosives in his underwear, told U.S. investigators that he’d been recruited for the mission in Yemen by U.S.-born al Qaida operative Anwar al Awlaki. Awlaki later died in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen.
Mashhour said she’s been hard at work tweaking plans, already approved by Yemen’s Cabinet, to assign 10 government ministries to monitor repatriated detainees to ensure they don’t threaten the United States. The returnees, she said, would receive counseling, job training and other aid with the goal of reintegrating them into society after what she called a “rehabilitation” period.
In recent months, she’s also asked for – and been denied – a visit to Guantanamo to check firsthand on the condition of Yemeni prisoners after hearing from their attorneys that the hunger strike had left many with severe mental and physical problems.
While the U.S. officials’ position is that only attorneys and law enforcement officials are permitted such visits, they apparently haven’t ruled out the prospect of Mashhour participating in future talks in Washington on what to do with the prison’s largest bloc of detainees.
“Who knows?” the State Department official said. “Maybe she’ll be back.”