President-elect 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 U.S. 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.
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.