Attorney For Yemeni Guantanamo Detainees Responds To Obama Speech

President Obama announced Tuesday that the United States would halt the transfer of Yemeni detainees back to their homeland. This comes after nearly two weeks of renewed bipartisan calls for the Obama administration to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Host Michel Martin talks with David Remes, a human rights attorney who represents 15 Yemeni detainees currently imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay about what this move means for his clients.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to spend some time today focusing on Yemen. The country has become the focus of American concern since a Nigerian student allegedly trained there to undertake a terrorist attack on the U.S. That alleged attack on Christmas Day failed, obviously, but now officials have become concerned that the Middle Eastern nation has become a breeding ground for terrorists.

We hear from a Washington Post correspondent who has been reporting from there, and we'll hear from a young rapper, born in the U.S., but now living in Yemen, who says he is trying to use hip-hop to counteract the message of radicalism that seems to be attracting some of his peers. That is all coming up.

But first, we will speak to a lawyer who represents 15 Yemeni detainees being held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay. Earlier this week we spoke to the attorney, David Remes, about the detainees who have already been cleared for release. But yesterday, President Obama announced that, for the time being, at least, no Yemeni detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center will be returned to their homeland. David Remes is with us now from Guantanamo Bay where he is scheduled to begin meeting with some of his clients. Welcome to you. Welcome back, I should say.

Mr. DAVID REMES (Legal Director, Appeal For Justice): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You were with us earlier this week, and you actually predicted that the failed Christmas Day bombing attempt by a Nigerian man would complicate your clients' release. And just to remind people that a number of Yemeni detainees were already slated for release from Guantanamo. Let's just play a short clip of what President Obama had to say.

President BARACK OBAMA: With respect to Yemen, in particular, there's an ongoing security situation, which we have been confronting for some time along with our Yemeni partner. Given the unsettled situation, I have spoken to the attorney general and we've agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time. But make no mistake, we will close Guantanamo Prison.

MARTIN: Just to refresh our memories, how many Yemeni prisoners were slated for release, and how many will be affected by this decision?

Mr. REMES: Our best estimate is that about 40 Yemenis have been approved for transfer by the president's task force, which means that a group composed of the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the Director of National Security, the Homeland Security Department, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have all decided, together, that these men present no danger to the United States. In addition, three men have been cleared by federal courts, and these courts have determined that United States never had any basis for holding them. So, we were really talking about 40 men who, in the normal course, probably would have been returned home over the next several weeks or several months.

MARTIN: So, what might happen to them now? Has there been any discussion with you, as counsel to these prisoners, about what will happen?

Mr. REMES: No, and I must say, Michel, that the president's words are not very reassuring. After all, the situation in Yemen is likely to remain unsettled for some time - if not forever, frankly. And the president's commitment to closing Guantanamo sooner or later doesn't bode well for the Yemenis either. There's absolutely no sense of whether or when this suspension of transfers will end.

I'm very disappointed on behalf of my clients. And it appears to me, just as a personal observation, that this is nothing but raw politics - that the administration simply didn't want to have to deal with the heat it was taking from the Republicans and Democrats in Congress for a transfer policy that is perfectly normal, natural and reasonable. There's absolutely no logical connection between the chaos in Yemen and Yemeni returnees who have been determined to present no danger to the United States. It is simply a non sequitur, and the men at Guantanamo that I represent are being held responsible for things they have no control over and had no role in.

MARTIN: What do you do now? What's your next course of action? For example, is the administration obligated to meet with you as counsel to these clients or not?

Mr. REMES: They're not obligated to meet with us. However, they're still obligated to deal with us in the litigation in the courts. Whatever their policies might be where they have discretion with respect to transferring detainees, I don't believe they have discretion when a federal court says this man is innocent, you must let him go. At that point, the administration brings itself close to contempt for the judiciary if it says, well, we don't care what you say, your honor, we're just going to keep the men here until we think the situation is settled.

MARTIN: And finally, just to clarify, what is your next step? You will be meeting with your clients. You will be discussing whatever options you think are available there. What do you do now?

Mr. REMES: I think that our focus will have to continue to be on the litigation. We're going to have to continue to press very hard. And we can only hope that on the political side, the administration will finally be persuaded that it can't just throw these men overboard in order to solve its own political problems.

MARTIN: David Remes is legal director for the nonprofit Appeal For Justice. He represents 15 Yemeni detainees currently imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he joined us from there, where he is about to meet with several of his clients. Mr. Remes, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. REMES: Thanks for having me.

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