CAIRO (AP) — The United Arab Emirates has sent six Yemeni detainees who were first held at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then in the Gulf Arab federation, to their home nation of Yemen, the families of the men and a government official said Thursday.
The transfer comes amid concerns that the former detainees could face significant dangers at home in Yemen, which is largely lawless after years of civil war. The men were held in detention for years in the UAE without charges, their families said.
According to the Yemeni official, the six landed earlier this week in Yemen’s eastern Hadramawt province. The detainees had undergone rehabilitation while in the UAE, the official said, adding that they would all be released and reunited with their families in the coming weeks.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the transfer with the media, said the men would continue to be monitored by Yemeni security.
United Nations rights experts said last year that forcibly returning detainees to Yemen could be a violation of international law. The experts said the men could face torture or ill-treatment once back in Yemen.
The six were among 19 detainees — 18 Yemenis and one Russian — who were scooped up in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. The 19 were transferred to custody in the UAE during the period between 2015 and 2017, when the U.S. released them from Guantanamo.
Following this week’s release of the six, 13 from the original group remain held in the UAE.
The men’s continued confinement violated promises made by U.S. officials when they were sent to the UAE. In sporadic phone calls from undisclosed locations in the UAE, several whispered to their families that as bad as life in Guantanamo was, they wish they could return there, The Associated Press reported last year. The U.N. experts said the men had been “subjected to continuous arbitrary detention at an undisclosed location,” in the Emirates.
Emirati authorities have not commented publicly on the handover and the UAE’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to request for comment.
A relative of one of the detainees shared photos of the emotional first meeting between one detainee and his son, now an adult, and of the two embracing. But he and others relatives remain concerned for their family members’ safety. His name and the full names of the Yemeni detainees are being withheld for fear that they might face retribution.
The U.S.-based American Center for Justice, which follows human rights abuses in Yemen, welcomed the release of the six from Emirati custody but urged Yemen’s government to “continue full care for them to help them integrate into society and practice their normal lives.”
Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country has been wracked by a grinding civil war since 2014. Torture and arbitrary detention are widespread in networks of secret and formal prisons run by various factions controlling different parts of the country.
The return of Yemenis comes after a Moroccan held for 19 years without charges at Guantánamo rejoined his family in this North African kingdom earlier this month. Abdullatif Nasser, now 56, is the first detainee at the Guantánamo Bay center to be transferred into the custody of his home country under the administration of President Joe Biden.
Rights groups have called the detentions and the detention camp at Guantánamo, opened under President George W. Bush after the 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks, a historic wrong by the United States. There were allegations of torture in early questioning, and challenges to the lawfulness of military tribunals there. The Bush administration and supporters called the camp, on a U.S. naval base in Cuba, essential to safely managing international terror suspects.
Almost 800 detainees have passed through Guantanamo. Of the 39 remaining, 10 are eligible to be transferred out, 17 are eligible to go through the review process for possible transfer, another 10 are involved in the military commission process used to prosecute detainees and two have been convicted, a senior administration official said.
The 10 who are eligible for transfer are from Yemen, Pakistan, Tunisia, Algeria and the UAE.
Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this story.
This story was first published on Jan. 12, 2019. It was updated on Jan. 13, 2019, to correct the name of the organization that welcomed the release.
Samy Magdy, The Associated Press