Ongoing instability in Yemen should not derail plans to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, Barack Obama’s former envoy for the closure urged on Monday.
Clifford Sloan, who resigned on 31 December as the State Department’s special envoy for shuttering the infamous detention center, said the 47 Yemenis currently approved for transfer would not be returned to their home country.
“The focus with regard to the Yemenis at Guantánamo has been on resettling them to other countries, because of the perilous security situation in Yemen. That was true before the very recent events as well as since the very recent events,” Sloan told the Guardian in an interview on Monday.
Since Houthi rebels overran the capital of Sana’a last week and ousted the US-backed president, Republican congressional opponents of the long-stalled closure have seized on Yemen’s compounding chaos to argue against transfers from Guantánamo. Yemenis comprise the largest nationality represented within the 54 remaining detainees whom six executive agencies unanimously approved for release in 2010.
“It is only the restrictions that Congress has placed into law that has prevented all these folks from already having been shipped back to Yemen,” Representative Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House armed services committee, said on Thursday.
Since his party’s loss in the November midterm congressional elections, Obama has accelerated Guantánamo transfers, running head-on into furious GOP criticism. After the most recent transfer, which sent five Yemeni detainees to Oman and Estonia on 14 January, Republican senators on the armed services committee asserted that the detainees had “potential ties to al-Qaida” and deepened their push to pass a bill to make closing the facility more arduous.
Sloan said it was a mistake to consider the Guantánamo Yemenis cleared for transfer, whose release carries the approval of the Pentagon and the uniformed military, a particular threat to national security.
“Any suggestion that the Yemenis are uniquely dangerous is just flat-out wrong and is belied by the facts,” Sloan said.
“There’s a particular difficulty with the detainees from Yemen because of the situation in their home country and also because of the large number of Yemenis at Guantánamo. But it certainly does not relate to a correlation to the security issues presented by those individuals.”
Sloan said he was “very pleased and gratified” by the willingness of foreign countries, from Slovakia to Uruguay, that have been willing to resettle former Guantánamo detainees. Bolstered by recent rhetorical support from Pope Francis, the administration is signaling that it expects an even greater pace of transfers from Guantánamo in the coming weeks.
But even if the administration can resettle the 54 detainees awaiting transfer, it still must determine the fate of the other 68 before Obama can fulfill his pledge to close the detention center.
The vast majority of those 68 are not expected to face war crimes charges before US military tribunals. Obama’s preferred pathway to adjudicating their fates is to perform quasi-parole hearings, known as Periodic Review Boards, whereby the administration comes to a consensus about whether or not they pose a continuing threat.
US officials recently interviewed by the Guardian expressed skepticism that Obama can shutter Guantánamo without picking up the pace of the review boards. Sloan urged the administration to intensify the process, which thus far has cleared six detainees for release and recommended three for continuing detention.
“The pace of the Periodic Review Boards needs to be accelerated, to reflect the importance and the urgency of the task the Periodic Review Boards have in front it. That can be done while maintaining the fairness and rigor of the proceedings,” Sloan said.
Sloan also urged Congress to remove what he called its “irrational ban” on moving detainees to the United States to face prosecution in federal criminal courts, and rejected the GOP effort at preventing the facility’s closure.
“I think there is no basis for additional restrictions,” he said.