“You don’t solve mistakes, with more mistakes! As a government, the U.S. must follow the law. Be legal!” pleads the brother-in-law of Hayeel Aziz Al-Mithali.
Hayeel went from Yemen to Pakistan when he was 17 to study the Qu’ran. Captured following the 9/11 attacks, Hayeel has spent the last 12 years in Guantanamo. The U.S. had made no charges against him, yet Hayeel still faces indefinite detention. And so he has joined the hunger strike.
Along with fellow members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, I have been protesting the corrupt and cruel Guantanamo system for years. I came to Yemen to deepen my understanding, but sitting face-to-face with the families whose lives have been devastated, I am sickened anew by how my country’s responses to 9/11 continue to multiply the pain and injury of the attacks.
At a meeting with families of Guantanamo detainees arranged by HOOD, a human rights organization in Sana’a, we are introduced to a 12-year-old girl who has only seen her father, in photographs and via videoconferences arranged by the Red Cross. She weeps as she shows us his picture. The brother-in-law of another Yemeni detainee says his daughter asks him, “Father, all children have uncles. Where is my uncle? Why can’t I see him?” And a woman whose brother has also joined the hunger strike because he has lost all hope of returning home, tells us her daughter wants to know, “Where did our human rights go?”
I hope President Obama has answers for these children, for the peace and security of their world will depend in large part on whether they believe that human rights are something more than empty promises. The President must take immediate and meaningful action to address all the mistakes that the U.S. made at Guantanamo. Listen to Hayeel’s family. “Be legal!”
779 detainees have been held at Guantanamo since 2002; just 166 remain today. Six detainees (including the five 9/11 suspects) are currently undergoing unfair and inadequate trials staged by military commissions. Only seven of 779 have been convicted by military commissions; five of those convictions resulted from pre-trial guilty pleas. And even four of those found guilty of offenses have already been released and repatriated.
Caught in a Kafkaesque trap are 157 detainees facing no charges – 86 of them actually cleared for release – but going nowhere. Anyone who believes the broken system of justice at Guantanamo is going to bring about some kind of resolution to this legal debacle has been deeply misled. It is time to shut down the facility. Conduct trials in federal courts, if there is evidence to make charges. And release those for whom we lack evidence.
The families we met here in Yemen know that many of their relatives are now dangerously ill after months of hunger striking. Hayeel’s family recently talked via videoconference and they saw that he was terribly thin but his nose was strangely enlarged. Hayeel is being force fed. Other families reported that their brothers, sons and husbands are weak, their voices hard to hear. Some completely missed the calls the Red Cross had arranged.
Before the hunger strikers begin to die, President Obama needs to act. A clear and short timetable for transferring the 86 men cleared for release must be announced and respected.
There is a young girl in Yemen who wonders what happened to her human rights. We need to be able to tell her, “They were lost for a while, but you can count on them again.”