Abdulqadir al Madhfari was a young physician’s assistant who dreamed of becoming a doctor. No one could have imagined that at the age of 25, he would be imprisoned for the next two decades, first by the United States, then by the United Arab Emirates. Like many innocent Muslim men caught in the CIA’s dragnet immediately following 9/11, al Madhfari was abducted by American forces in Pakistan and flown, hooded and shackled, to Guantánamo Bay prison. Held indefinitely as a suspected member of Al Qaeda, he saw his future slip away within America’s most shameful jail. As one of the earliest Guantánamo detainees, he was subjected to torture during interrogation and held for 14 years.
In 2016, with newfound hope that his ordeal was over, al Madhfari was released along with 14 other detainees. His homeland, Yemen, was too unstable to return to, but the UAE promised rehabilitation and resettlement. The third-country deal, negotiated by the State Department, came as President Barack Obama’s early resolution to close the notorious prison flatlined toward the end of his term.
But instead of offering al Madhfari and his fellow Yemeni transfers a chance to recover from years of abuse, the UAE jailed them — a move the Trump administration ignored. One year of detention stretched into five, with no communication allowed to the outside world. Lawyers relayed to al Madhfari’s family that he was deteriorating in solitary confinement. Following pressure from lawyers and the media, al Madhfari and others were finally released from UAE custody last month and given over to the care of their families. Advocates had unsuccessfully sought the former Guantánamo detainees’ transfer to a safe third country like Oman or Qatar, warning against repatriation to Yemen — a country embroiled in civil war, experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
After his imprisonment in the UAE, a severely mentally disturbed Madhfari was no longer the same man his family had spoken with at Guantánamo. Immediate family members in Yemen were completely unrecognizable to him, Ameen al Madhfari, a brother living outside Yemen, told The Intercept. “He accused them of being Emiratis playing a trick on him.” He refused to speak to anyone and became agitated and fearful when approached. Blindfolding al Madhfari was the only way that UAE security forces could convince him to leave their base in Mukalla, a seaport in Yemen, and drive back to the capital with his brother and uncle.
On November 11, al Madhfari asked to take a walk outside for the first time since arriving at his family’s home. While accompanied by his family on the streets of the capital, Sanaa, al Madhfari bolted. Panicked, the family had no idea what had happened until an acquaintance with the police confirmed their worst fears: He had been detained by Houthi militia members at a checkpoint.
“We do not know where he is being detained.”
His disappearance has left the family distraught, Ameen said. After fighting for two decades to free him, one sister is still in shock, and an older brother was admitted to a hospital, where he remained for days after hearing the news. (The Intercept is withholding the names of some of Madhfari’s family members, who fear persecution and retaliation for speaking to the media from their country of residence.)
Al Madhfari has since been held at an unknown location. “He is hidden and not allowed to be interviewed,” Ameen said via WhatsApp. “We do not know where he is being detained.” In Yemen, torture and disappearances into prison networks abound. The existence of UAE-operated secret prisons, where Yemeni detainees are subjected to torture and U.S. interrogation, has been well documented by The Associated Press and Yemeni human rights lawyer Huda al-Sarari. The Houthis, the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and additional warring parties have all been accused of operating their own secret prisons rife with torture.
Abdulrahman Barman, a Yemeni human rights lawyer and the executive director of the American Center for Justice, who worked on coordinating the Yemen transfer, was not surprised by al Madhfari’s arrest. “Some of his returning comrades may be subjected to kidnapping and enforced disappearance, especially as Yemen is in a state of war and chaos,” Barman told The Intercept in a statement translated from Arabic. “Most of the men returning belong to areas controlled by armed groups that do not respect the law and human rights,” Barman added, referencing the Houthis and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council.
Persecution from the Houthi rebels, who overthrew the Saudi-backed Yemeni government in 2014 and now effectively control 80 percent of Yemen’s 30 million people, complicates any hope the former detainees have for a new life in the country. Part of a Shia movement backed by Iran, the rebels oppose the Yemeni government, Al Qaeda in Yemen, and Islamic State militants. Since the United States suspected former Guantánamo detainees of involvement with Al Qaeda, they are at high risk for abduction, disappearance, and assassination within Yemen. Emiratis, too, have imprisoned hundreds of Yemenis suspected of being Al Qaeda or ISIS militants, according to The Associated Press. Former Guantánamo detainees returning to Yemen are also targeted by Al Qaeda for recruitment.
Guantánamo’s Long Shadow
After the U.S. was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council last month, President Joe Biden vowed to “promote accountability for governments that abuse human rights” and to “continue to work tirelessly in support of the activists, human rights defenders, and peaceful protesters on the front lines of the struggle between freedom and tyranny.” Biden’s speech highlighted the unique ability of the United States to advocate for human rights while committing its own abuses and neglecting its own recent victims.
“After torturing and arbitrarily detaining these men for decades, it is our legal and ethical responsibility to make sure that they are spared any further rights violations in the countries to which we choose to send them,” Alka Pradhan, human rights counsel at the Guantánamo Bay Military Commissions, told The Intercept. “The U.S. needs to publicly question the UAE on where the men are and how they plan to ensure their safety.”
“The U.S. needs to publicly question the UAE on where the men are and how they plan to ensure their safety.”
Beyond basic safety, most former Guantánamo detainees have never been given rehabilitation services, financial reparations, or the opportunity to live “like a normal person,” Mansoor Adayfi, a former Guantánamo detainee, explained. After 14 years imprisoned, Adayfi, a Yemeni, was forced to go to Serbia against his will in 2016. He’s called his life there “Guantánamo 2.0.” Former detainees have long spoken out about the constant harassment, surveillance, and stigma Guantánamo brings them. “We still suffer living under restrictions,” Adayfi said. “We cannot travel. We’re not allowed to work. We’re not allowed to obtain travel documents or a driving license.” Now affiliated with the prisoner advocacy group CAGE as a Guantánamo project coordinator, Adayfi said that without pressure from the United States, nothing will change.
That the horrors of arbitrary detention at Guantánamo continue to imperil the lives of the men who have passed through its concertina wire-wrapped doors — and the 39 who remain imprisoned — is a failure of both the press and U.S. government to adequately reckon with the abuses that occurred in the aftermath of 9/11.
“Our policy seems to be that as long as we’re dealing with Muslim men, no one will care what happens to them,” Pradhan said. “Many of us have watched for 20 years as that policy drained us of all credibility.”
Indeed, most Americans who are aware that Guantánamo Bay prison wasn’t shuttered during the Obama administration seem surprisingly in favor of the indefinite, unconstitutional detention center. The fact that most detainees were completely innocent and simply sold to the CIA for bounty money in impoverished countries remains willfully misunderstood. Of the 780 detainees who were held at Guantánamo, only six men have ever neared a trial at the military court, five in pretrial hearings for involvement in 9/11.
The domestic failure to confront the legacy of Guantánamo left the door open for the Trump administration to neglect the former detainees as they languished in secret jails without adequate health care. For the family of al Madhfari, this has become a matter of life or death. “We have no choice except following up with authorities in Sanaa,” Ameen said. “We are trying to have mediators explain his psychological and mental health condition, but we did not get any conclusive promise so far to release him.”
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