STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If President-elect Barack Obama wants to close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, he has some decisions to make first. The administration will have to figure out what to do with the roughly 250 detainees who are still there. Many are from Yemen, and there are many questions about how they should be handled. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: At its peak capacity, roughly 775 detainees were held at Guantanamo Bay. Several years ago, the Pentagon began releasing them back to their home nations or to third countries willing to accept them. So far, more than 500 Afghans, Pakistanis, Europeans, Saudis, and others have been released. Not so for the roughly 100 Yemeni detainees still held at Guantanamo.
Mr. DAVID REMES (Legal Director, Appeal for Justice): Yemenis now account for 40 percent of the Guantanamo prison population.
NORTHAM: David Remes with the human rights group Appeal for Justice represents 16 of the Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo. Two of his clients were cleared for release by the Pentagon in February 2006.
Mr. REMES: The concept of cleared for release is something of a mystery to us because after two and a half years, the men are still in Guantanamo.
NORTHAM: A new report published today by West Point's Combating Terrorism Center says that security in Yemen is the problem. Gregory Johnsen with Princeton University's Near Eastern Studies Program co-authored the report. He points to the case of Qasim al-Raymi, who is second in command of al-Qaeda in Yemen and whose brother is being held at Guantanamo.
Mr. GREGORY JOHNSEN (Ph.D. Candidate, Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University): So what happens when this younger brother is released in Yemen? Does he go and join his brothers? Does this act as sort of a shot in the arm for al-Qaeda in Yemen? I think that's the main concern for the U.S. government.
NORTHAM: But defense lawyers say not all the Yemenis at Guantanamo represent a threat. Only four have been charged. Two have been convicted. The U.S. and Yemen have had diplomatic discussions about what to do with those who don't pose a threat. One option is to send some of the prisoners through a rehabilitation program, one that's modeled after a four-year program in Saudi Arabia. Chris Boucek with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the program had a unique way of dealing with the approximately 120 Saudi prisoners released from Guantanamo.
Dr. CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK (Associate, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): They land back in Saudi Arabia. A member of the royal family comes out to meet them and kind of welcome them back to the kingdom. The government brings your family to Riyadh to reunite you with your family. Then there's a series of counseling and support sessions that go on not just for you, but also for your family.
NORTHAM: Boucek says the intense sessions include religious dialogue with imams, working with psychologists and social workers. Nearly 3,000 Saudis, including the Guantanamo detainees, have gone through the rehab program. About 20 percent don't make it. Boucek says very few of those who finish the program relapse. The problem is that the program focuses on low to midlevel militants, not the most serious ones.
Dr. BOUCEK: These figures look really, really good right now - that we can say, you know, there's been a two percent re-arrest rate. That looks really phenomenal. That's because these are the easiest possible guys to deal with.
NORTHAM: Yemen has already experimented with a rehabilitation program, but Princeton University's Johnsen says it didn't have the resources to make it work. Johnsen says the program ran from September 2002 until December 10, 2005.
Mr. JOHNSEN: And that was the day that a reporter for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi published a report that charged that a couple of different individuals who went through the Yemeni program had since made their way to Iraq and had carried out a suicide attack on U.S. forces there.
NORTHAM: Johnsen says according to an al-Qaeda Web site, three others who went through the Yemeni program were involved in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Sana'a, two months ago. That news does nothing to ease the Pentagon's concerns about releasing the Yemeni detainees. Still, Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman with the Yemen Embassy in Washington, says there are plans for a new rehabilitation program.
Mr. MOHAMMED ALBASHA (Press and Public Relations Officer, Embassy of the Republic of Yemen, Washington, D.C.): We're still in talks regarding finalizing the funding of this center. It's going to be a joint project by the U.S. government and the Yemeni government.
NORTHAM: Albasha says it's hoped the program will be up and running by the end of this year. The Pentagon declined to comment. Human rights workers worry the Yemeni rehabilitation program could end up being just another detention center like Guantanamo where the prisoners are held indefinitely. Spokesman Albasha says Yemen will not hold any prisoners without sufficient evidence. He points to the 13 Yemeni prisoners who have been released so far.
Mr. ALBASHA: Up to this point, the U.S. did not hand or furnish us with any solid evidence for us to lock them up, so they're free. They remain under the surveillance of our security apparatus.
NORTHAM: There has been talk of the U.S. funding a Supermax-type prison in Yemen for the returned detainees. But those talks faded after February 2006, when 23 al-Qaeda members escaped from a prison in Yemen. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.