Andrew Wander, a Reprieve Media Fellow
When Ayman al-Shurafa was taken to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, few outside Chicago had heard of Barack Obama.
By the time Obama, a junior senator from Illinois, announced he was running for president in 2007, al-Shurafa, a Palestinian, had already spent five years in the jail and had been cleared for release by the administration of George Bush, the then-president.
When Obama became president almost two years later and said he would close the prison, 34-year-old al-Shurafa was still being held on the US naval base but should have been one of the first detainees to leave.
Although he had admitted to attending a training camp in Afghanistan, the Pentagon assessed that he posed no threat and should be released. But in the strange world of Guantanamo Bay, degrees of innocence and guilt are only part of the story.
Al-Shurafa’s case helps to explain why, six months after ordering the closure of Guantanamo Bay, Obama has made so little tangible progress to this end – only 11 of the 242 prisoners he inherited from the Bush administration have been released during his tenure.
Despite being born and raised in Saudi Arabia, al-Shurafa is Palestinian by nationality. His family and friends live in Jeddah, but the Saudi government has so far refused to allow his return from Guantanamo, saying he is not a Saudi national and has no residency rights in the country.
The Palestinians say he would be welcome in the Occupied Territories, but the Israelis will not allow him to enter.
|Ayman al-Shurafa is one of dozens of “stateless” inmates|
Al-Shurafa has been rendered stateless by the stamp of Guantanamo, despite having never been convicted of a crime.
He desperately wants to return to his family in Saudi Arabia, but convincing the authorities of his suitability is no easy task while he is held incommunicado on the other side of the world.
Al-Shurafa’s predicament is not unusual. Around 60 of the remaining 229 prisoners cannot return to their countries of origin. While some are not welcome by their governments, others fear what will happen when they arrive.
In 2007, a Tunisian Guantanamo prisoner called Abdullah bin Omar al-Hajji was returned, against his will and over his lawyers’ objections, to Tunis.
He had not lived in the country for 20 years and despite having been cleared by the Bush administration, he was immediately arrested by state security forces and taken into custody.
His interrogators beat him and threatened to rape his wife and daughters if he did not confess to terrorist offences.
He is still in jail today, based on evidence gathered by means of torture. Tunisia continues to demand the return of its remaining nationals in Guantanamo.
Unsurprisingly, none of them want to go, and their only hope of safe release lies in finding another country to offer them asylum.
That is easier said than done. The Obama administration has been exerting diplomatic pressure on countries that might offer such prisoners a home.
But it has failed to secure an agreement even with countries which have proven links with the prisoners, let alone those with which they do not.
The result has been that smaller and more obscure countries are being considered. Even tiny Palau is a contender to take former detainees, allegedly in return for a multi-million dollar aid package.
Obama’s efforts to persuade countries to offer a home to Guantanamo asylum-seekers have partly been hobbled by the political climate in the US, where congressmen have balked at the suggestion of bringing prisoners to their shores.
For many countries, the idea of taking Guantanamo prisoners while the US refuses to do the same is unacceptable. In an article written earlier this month, Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator, summed up Europe’s position.
If European countries are to take prisoners, he wrote, “we in the EU expect the US to do likewise; if it is safe to release these people in Europe, it is safe to do so in the US”.
From the perspective of many potential host countries, the resettlement issue has become a case of “do as I say, not as I do”, with Washington asking other countries to do what it itself finds politically impossible.
|Domestic opposition in the US has meant detainees cannot be sent there [EPA]|
Lawyers for the remaining prisoners warn that as time runs out, Obama may attempt to return them to countries where they will not be safe.
Cori Crider, an attorney from the UK-based legal charity Reprieve, which represents more than 30 detainees, says that the new administration’s intentions are far from clear.
“Closing Gitmo (sic) shouldn’t mean sending prisoners from the frying pan into the fire,” she said.
“But as the osmotic pressure increases on the US to move people out of Guantanamo, the risk of quick and dirty solutions in places like Algeria or Tunisia is greater than ever.”
And resettlement is not the only diplomatic barrier facing Obama. Hammering out conditions for what should be straightforward repatriations is also taking time.
Ninety-four of the remaining prisoners are Yemeni, and brokering a deal on their fate is essential.
Return to Yemen is one option. But the country has been identified by US security agencies as a potential new theatre of operations for al-Qaeda, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni president, is facing a gathering secessionist movement in the south.
The US want any men returned from Guantanamo to be monitored by Yemeni authorities, but Saleh has not yet demonstrated the will to do so.
Many of the Yemenis in Guantanamo have shared Saudi heritage and reaching a deal on their fate with Riyadh could be key to the prison’s timely closure. So far none has been forthcoming. They, too, are waiting in limbo before they can go home.
In the midst of the political and diplomatic wrangling over Guantanamo’s closure, it is easy to forget that at the centre of this story are 229 human beings. Crider says many of the prisoners are losing faith in Obama’s promises.
“Many of them thought the new administration might finally be the light at the end of their tunnel, but most of them have started to lose hope again,” she says.
Just last month one of the Yemeni prisoners, Mohammad al-Hanashi, could take no more and committed suicide.
It was a stark reminder that every day Guantanamo Bay remains open increases the human cost of a system built on an inherent contradiction – that even if you are found innocent, you are still treated as if you were guilty.
This contradiction lies at the heart of the lack of progress being made on closing the prison. It must be resolved if Obama’s January deadline is to be met.
Andrew Wander is a Reprieve Media Fellow working on Al Jazeera’s Public Liberties and Human Rights Desk.
Reprieve is a legal charity based in London that represents more than 30 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and investigates US secret prisons worldwide.