One of the very last actions of the Obama administration, on his last day in office in 2017, was to transfer four prisoners from the military prison at Guantánamo Bay — one to his native Saudi Arabia and three for resettlement in a third country, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This brought the prisoner population down to 41, a number that has only fallen by one since then.
The men were among 196 prisoners resettled by the Obama administration upon transfer from Guantánamo, effectively but not recognized as refugees, often as a result of the U.S.’s foreign policy and wars. Transferred from Guantánamo in Obama’s attempts to close the facility, for many of these men, who were never charged or tried and were cleared for release, freedom has remained elusive. This is the case for most of the 23 transferred to the UAE between November 2015 and January 2017.
On October 15, 2020, a group of UN Special Rapporteurs expressed concerns over the situation of the remaining 19 transferred prisoners who remain in the UAE, all of whom have been subject to indefinite and arbitrary detention at secret locations since their arrival there and now face the prospect of forced expulsion to their home countries (Russia for one of them and Yemen for the other 18). The experts state that the Yemenis were “were allegedly forced to sign documents consenting to their repatriation, or otherwise remain indefinitely in Emirati detention.”
The other prisoner, Ravil Mingazov, was the only Russian prisoner not to return home in 2004. His seven returnee compatriots have faced ongoing, continuous persecution, both in the Russian Federation and abroad, resulting in one being shot dead by the police and spurious charges and detention for others, including a life sentence for one of the former Guantánamo prisoners. Mingazov has insisted on never being returned to Russia.
The UN experts expressed concerns for the 18 Yemenis in view of the ongoing war in the country. Obama ceased the transfer of Yemenis from Guantánamo in 2010; this was later extended due to the war. In view of the international law principle of non-refoulement, the forced transfer of any of the men would be illegal.
The latest statement follows concerns the experts raised with the UAE authorities in July. Since their arrival in the country, all the men have been held at unknown locations with limited access to family (some visits have been permitted) and legal and medical visits. Some of the men allege they have been tortured at UAE facilities. At least two of them have gone on hunger strike in protest in the past year and there are reports of the men being held in solitary confinement. None have faced any charges or prosecution in the UAE.
Guantánamo prisoners cleared for release were transferred to the UAE in three groups between November 2015 and January 2017, including the largest single transfer of 15 men (three Afghans and 12 Yemenis) in August 2016. At that time, the U.S. thanked the UAE for its “humanitarian gesture” but the risks of transfer there were already evident, as what had become of the prisoners transferred in November 2015 was unknown. U.S. officials allegedly assured prisoners and their lawyers that they would be released from a residential rehabilitation program and reintegrated into Emirati society and allowed family reunification, but that has not happened for any of the men. U.S. lawyers for the men wrote to the UAE authorities on three occasions without a response.
Some blame the Trump administration for failing to track resettled prisoners. However, the UN experts’ demands include that “the UAE authorities disclose the terms of the resettlement programme (with the United States),” an agreement made with the Obama administration. They state, “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.”
Transfers of prisoners from Guantánamo by the Obama administration, in some cases, involved trade deals and other benefits; for example, the company of a former political strategist to the Obama administration, who helped to broker the 2009 transfer of Uighur prisoners to Bermuda, won a consultancy contract with the Bermudan government in 2017. Uruguay’s sale of oranges to the U.S. resumed in return for accepting six Guantánamo prisoners in 2016. In spite of the Uruguayan government’s apparent displeasure at hosting the men, it has insisted on several occasions on having one prisoner, Jihad Diyab, a Syrian refugee, returned to the country after his attempts to flee abroad. With many prisoners released by both the Bush and Obama administrations still subject to surveillance and restrictions in various countries, it is possible, as one former U.S. official put it, that “this seems like the UAE is imprisoning them on behalf of the U.S. government.”
The UN experts, in their July 2020 communication, also raised the case of Afghan national Haji Hamdullah, who was one of three Afghan nationals resettled in the UAE and returned to Afghanistan in December 2019. Hamdullah “was forcibly repatriated to Afghanistan, without security assurances, despite his claims of risking torture and ill-treatment in Afghanistan.” He died in Kabul on May 4, 2020.
In a January 2020 interview with the Turkish Anadolu Agency news outlet, Hamdullah said, “Worst was our stay in the UAE. It was un-Islamic and against human rights. We were told in Guantánamo about transferring us to the UAE, and a rosy picture was painted for us for our six-month stay in the UAE, so we approved and agreed to this offer by the U.S. Foreign Ministry.” He urged the Afghan government to take action against the UAE.
It is possible that the terms of the U.S.-UAE resettlement agreement mean that the prisoners would only be allowed to remain for a limited period. Senegal agreed to resettle two prisoners on humanitarian grounds in 2016, but they were unlawfully transferred to their native Libya, exactly two years later in April 2018, where they promptly “disappeared.” While some states have reportedly been given cash incentives to accept prisoners, the UAE instead has seen its stock as a global political player rise, including in the war in Yemen, with U.S. backing over the past five years.
The risk to these 19 men cannot be underestimated and is not without precedent. They remain at risk whether they stay in the UAE, subject to a regime of continuing secret indefinite arbitrary detention, or return to their home countries, where they risk further persecution and, potentially, death.
Given that Guantánamo remains open after almost 19 years, it is clear that both the Republicans and Democrats have a poor record on the treatment of the prisoners and a weak grip on human rights. While closing Guantánamo has not been an election issue since 2008, its continuing existence remains a stain on the U.S. In a year that has seen millions of U.S. residents receive little more than complacency from their government in the face of a global pandemic, and as millions file for unemployment and other basic benefits, the question of whose interests Guantánamo protects and at what cost needs to be raised. Demands for the closure of Guantánamo and the release of the remaining 40 prisoners must ensure that prisoners are released to safety and are genuinely set free.