The prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center were promised that they were being sent to a Muslim country for rehabilitation that would help integrate them into society, opening the way to jobs, money and marriage, their lawyers and families said. It was a lie.
Instead, the detainees — 18 Yemenis and one Russian, swept up from Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — have languished in custody in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for as long as five years, their families and lawyers said.
In short, sporadic phone calls from undisclosed locations in the UAE — including a notorious prison rife with torture — several whispered to their families that as bad as life in Guantanamo was, they wish they could return there.
Illustration: Tania Chou
When one complained of “pressures” three years ago, the call was cut off; he has not been heard from since. When the Russian staged a hunger strike, he was dumped in solitary confinement and roughed up.
Now there are plans to send them to Yemen, where their families fear their treatment might be even worse.
A senior Yemeni government official confirmed the plans, pending security arrangements, and a US Department of State official indicated that the US government was aware that it was happening. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The UAE did not respond to requests for comment.
UN rights experts described the men’s upcoming repatriation as a “forced return,” warning that it contravenes international laws.
Their destination is a poor Arab country wracked by a grinding civil war for the past six years. Torture and arbitrary detention are widespread in networks of secret and formal prisons run by various factions controlling different parts of the country.
“Here, the legitimate government itself is not safe. Who will be in charge of them?” said Hussein, a brother of Bir, one of the detainees.
The family of a second detainee, Salem, said: “We fear they will be gunned down or rounded up as soon as they put a foot in Yemen.”
If they survive, they might be prime recruits for terrorists in Yemen.
Ibrahim al-Qosi, is a former Guantanamo detainee who was transferred to Sudan in 2012 before surfacing as an al-Qaeda group leader in Yemen two years later.
The lingering confinement of these men breaks promises made by US officials when they were sent to the UAE in 2015 to 2017. It underscores flaws in the US’ transfer program and the failure of US President Donald Trump’s administration to ensure their humane treatment.
Former US president Barack Obama pressed to close the detention center amid opposition from the US Congress. The plan was to prosecute some detainees and continue to hold others without charges while their cases were evaluated by review boards. Those no longer deemed dangerous were to be transferred to their homelands or third countries.
Trump had other plans. Before taking office, he wrote on Twitter that there would be “no further releases from Gitmo [the detention center].” His administration dismantled an entire office tasked with closing the facility, overseeing transfers and following up on the resettled detainees.
Terms of the agreements the US struck with the UAE and dozens of other countries that received Guantanamo detainees were not made public.
However, Ian Moss, a former chief of staff for the US State Department’s Guantanamo envoy, said: “We wanted these individuals after they were released to have a fresh start in life. It wasn’t part of the deal that they be incarcerated. That was never part of the deal.”
Moss blamed the US administration for lack of engagement, saying that “the Emiratis knew that the Trump administration didn’t care about what they did with these people or how they treated them. This is disgraceful.”
Lee Wolosky was US special envoy for the closure of the detention center in 2015 to 2017, the period when the Yemenis were transferred to the UAE.
“I can categorically deny that there was a plan to keep the men in detention following their transfer from US custody,” Wolosky said in an e-mail.
Under Trump, only one prisoner, a Saudi Arabian, was transferred to his home country to serve the remainder of his sentence after he agreed to a plea bargain.
Under Obama, 197 detainees were transferred to other countries, while 500 were transferred by former US president George W. Bush. The US base now has 40 detainees. Most are being held without charges, and a third are Yemenis.
Katie Taylor is deputy director of the UK-based group Reprieve and coordinator of the group’s Life After Guantanamo project.
She said that after documenting the lives of nearly 60 former detainees in 25 countries, “I have to say that the situation facing the men resettled in the UAE is among the worst and most troubling.”
It is not clear whether there are 17 or 18 detainees in UAE hands, but unconfirmed reports indicate that one Yemeni left prison because of medical complications.
One detainee is represented by lawyer Patricia Bronte. (His name and the names of all the Yemeni detainees are being withheld for fear that they might face retribution.)
She recalled that US State Department officials had told her and the detainees that they would be held from six to 12 months in a rehabilitation facility, and then they would be allowed to reunite with their families in the UAE.
“From early on, the assurances I have been given weren’t lived up to,” Bronte said.
She has had no contact with her client since his arrival in the UAE in 2016.
Families of the detainees said that their communication with their loved ones has been infrequent and troubling: Abdo, a 41-year-old former Guantanamo detainee, told his brother that he spent 70 days in solitary confinement — blindfolded, handcuffed, and with hands and feet chained to the ground — upon his arrival.
There was no rehabilitation or “de-radicalization sessions,” his brother Ahmed said. Abdo and other detainees moved to a “filthy and dark prison” for 16 months.
“It was just terrible there,” Ahmed quoted Abdo as saying.
He was later moved to al-Razin prison, located nearly 200km from Dubai, where human rights groups have documented abuses and torture.
In the spring of last year, Abdo was brought back to the “filthy” prison, where he remains.
Ahmed quoted Abdo as saying: “It’s not what I thought. I wish I return to Guantanamo ... it’s 1,000 times worse here.” Then the telephone call was cut off.
Bir, a 41-year-old nurse, was in 2015 identified by the US Periodic Review Secretariat as a “low-level Yemeni militant” who was in September 2002 arrested in a raid in Pakistan and transferred to Guantanamo.
Hussein said that despite earlier promises of a new life, his brother ended up in “mysterious conditions.”
“We know nothing,” Hussein said. “He continues to live behind bars with other Yemeni detainees. They are facing the most brutal injustice in history.”
In phone calls every 10 days, “he says nothing except for, ‘How are you?’ He can’t speak. They are banned,” Hussein added.
Rival Mingazov, a former ballet dancer and member of the Russian military, was the only Guantanamo detainee from the country when he was sent to the UAE. He was accused of fighting with the Taliban.
A US Department of Defense profile alleged that he had links to a militant group in Uzbekistan with ties to al-Qaeda and said that he was captured in Pakistan at a safe house associated with Abu Zubaydah, a “facilitator” for the organization.
He has never physically met his 19-year-old son Yusuf, who lives in London.
However, they have talked: Yusuf said that his father complained that he had been humiliated by his captors and had been deprived of food and medicine.
Mingazov’s mother, Zoria Valiullina, said that her son wanted to return to Guantanamo.
“It’s better there,” she quoted him as saying.
The family of Abdel-Rab, 44, said that he disappeared three years ago after two phone calls during which he complained about conditions and nervously said: “I am under pressure ... Guantanamo was much better. One billion times.”
The call was cut off, and he never called again. His family members said that they have no clue if he is alive.
According to records, Abdel-Rab had told interrogators that he worked as a house painter in Yemen before he left for Afghanistan in 2000 to study and teach the Koran. He was captured in a crackdown on those suspected of links to then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and landed in Guantanamo in 2002.
In June, a man pretending to be Abdel-Rab called the family.
“It wasn’t his voice. He wasn’t the same,” his brother said.
Hamidullah, another detainee, lived to tell about the conditions of his imprisonment in the UAE, although only barely. He spent three years in UAE prisons before he was returned to Afghanistan in December last year.
Hamidullah’s private counsel wrote that his client was a “model detainee” and a “peaceful man” who had never been a member of the Taliban, and “in fact, he was imprisoned by the Taliban in late 1990s.”
Surviving a decade in Guantanamo, pictures in official documents showed a cheerful man with salt-and-pepper, curly hair. He and the other Afghan detainees were sent to the UAE in 2015.
His son Ahmed recalled in labored English the first time he visited his father there and how he was “brought with chains in hands and feet, covered eyes with black cloth, and was also tighten with chains in the seat.”
After his return to Afghanistan, Hamidullah shared more details of his imprisonment. Guards forced him to strip naked every time he went to the bathroom. They would harshly clutch his shoulders and put his head down while leading him out of the cell.
“It was mental torture,” he said.
Hamidullah died in May, having enjoyed just four months of freedom after nearly 20 years in detention. His family believes that the conditions that he endured in UAE prisons contributed to his death.
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