Some detained Yemenis guilty, some aren't, attorneys say

A bustling street in the historic district of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.
A bustling street in the historic district of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. Shashank Bengali / MCT

SANAA, Yemen — Attorneys for dozens of Yemenis held at Guantanamo Bay say that the prisoners range from "high-value" terrorism suspects to people who were mistakenly arrested, and they include a number who apparently were jailed because they're related to other suspects.

The Bush administration designated two Yemenis as "high-value" terrorism suspects and linked them to the Sept. 11 attacks: Ramzi Binalshibh, allegedly a key intermediary between the hijackers in the United States and al Qaida leaders in Afghanistan, and Walid bin Attash, who reportedly helped select some of the hijackers and flew on U.S. commercial planes to examine security procedures before the attacks.

Two others have been tried and convicted: Salim Hamdan, who was Osama bin Laden's $200-a-month driver in Afghanistan and is near the end of his prison term, and Ali Hamza al Bahlul, who was convicted this month of producing an al Qaida propaganda video.

However, the attorneys say that dozens of the Yemenis aren't affiliated with terrorism and were wrongly snatched up in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in post-Sept. 11 security sweeps.

While all the Yemenis aren't innocent, "in percentage terms that's more true than not," said Cori Crider, a staff lawyer at Reprieve, a London-based legal organization that represents more than 30 Guantanamo inmates.

For example, there's Mohammed Ahmed Salam al Khateeb, in his 20s, who traveled from Yemen to Pakistan on the advice of doctors to have a growth in his nose removed, according to court documents. U.S. officials charge that his trip was funded by Jamaat al Tabligh — a Pakistani-based Muslim missionary organization that militants sometimes have used as a cover — but Khateeb denied that at a status hearing in 2004.

Others include Salman Rabeii, who was arrested in Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Rabeii told a military tribunal in 2004 that he'd turned himself in to Afghan authorities because he wanted to return to Yemen, and he denied that he'd attended a training camp that was associated with al Qaida.

Rabeii's parents, who live on the outskirts of Sanaa, told McClatchy that their youngest child continued to be held because his older brother, Fawaz, had been connected with terrorist attacks in Yemen. Fawaz was among 23 high-profile Yemeni terrorism suspects who escaped from a Yemeni prison in 2006; security forces killed him later that year.

"Fawaz was tied with bin Laden, but Salman had nothing to do with bin Laden," said his mother, Um Hasan. Her husband and two other sons also have served jail time in Yemen, when authorities questioned them about Fawaz, she said.

Two other Guantanamo inmates have brothers who escaped from prison in Yemen in 2006, according to experts, which may complicate their release in Yemen.

"There are a lot of family linkages," said Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen who's researched for the Jamestown Foundation and other counterterrorism organizations. "It's not clear how they'll fit back into Yemen if they're released."


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