Department of State Detainee Coordinator Tony Ricci to Yemen Times: Transferring the Yemeni detainees is not a bargain or a trade-off [Archives:2008/1170/Reportage]

July 7 2008
Tony Ricci
Tony Ricci
Sami Ghaleb
For Yemen Times

Last week a delegation from the United States paid a visit to Yemen to meet formally with Yemeni officials about the status of Yemeni inmates in Guantanamo Bay. Yemen Times interviewed Tony Ricci, the U.S. Department of State's Detainee Coordinator, who spoke about the result of the visit, the impact of the current events taking place in Yemen and the U.S. government's policy towards the Yemeni detainees in Guantanamo.

Q: Could you please tell us the results of the delegation's meetings with the Ministers of Interior and Religious Guidance?

A: The purpose of our visit is to look into and discuss how to deal with the issue of Yemeni detainees held in Guantanamo Bay detention. Along those lines, we had a number of meetings in and around Sana'a with various offices and ministries. As we all know, there is a fairly large number of Yemeni nationals remaining in Guantanamo. And it is the policy of our government not to hold any detainees any longer than we have to. The President of the United States has stated that we should be working towards the day when we close Guantanamo. Each detainee is assessed on an individual basis. Each one presents different sets of difficulties. But they all represent some level of threat. Some represent a very high level and some present something less than that. Now what we look for is a way in which we can transfer – and this applies in all cases – a national to his home country in such a way where the threat is mitigated or accounted for in some way. This is by no means something we take lightly. It is something we take very seriously. There is a large amount of resources involved in doing this. So in terms of our visit here, we're trying to learn as much as we can learn to continue the dialogue we have established to try to find some resolution to these cases. I think we have transferred approximately 13 or so Yemeni detainees in the past, most recently in September of 2007.

Q: The Yemeni government said it presented a plan to the U.S. last month to rehabilitate and assimilate Yemeni Guantanamo returnees- did the U.S. government accept this program or does it have any comments or reservations?

A: I would not comment on any specific plan as we try to keep our discussions with the government confidential. I however; I would say that I think there have been some efforts to try to find solutions and ways to go forward on this issue from both sides.

Q: What about the program itself?

A: We are learning about aspects of programs that may be available and the issues behind some of those aspects. We are going to have to assess whether or not these efforts could adequately deal with the threat that some of these [people] pose.

Q: How do you assess Yemen's experience in dealing with former Guantanamo returnees?

A: This is a part of what we are looking at. We have learned a lot over the past couple of days. There has been an effort at least since we have been here. I know that there have efforts in the past to try to provide as much information as possible to make important decisions.

Q: How many Yemeni detainees were referred to military tribunals?

A: I really do not how many Yemenis were referred to such tribunals because the Department of Defense is responsible for the military commissions. They are an independent entity. They do their own assessment of the detainees and make the determination of which ones really have committed crimes.

Q: How many Yemenis have been charged?

A: In terms of the Yemeni nationals who have been charged, I do not recall on the top of my head who many there have been but I believe there have been two in addition to a Saudi of Yemeni origin who was charged by the Pentagon over the attack on the USS Cole in 2001.

Q: Previously the detainee issue was discussed solely between the two governments of Yemen and the U.S. Does the delegation's meetings with Yemeni non-governmental organizations (NGOs) indicate a new phase of transparency?

A: The short answer is that I do not know how this affects Yemen. However, our meetings with NGOs are not unusual. We meet NGOs in the United States to discuss these issues. We meet with NGOs in other countries. Some NGOs are very much involved in detainee issues in different countries. So this is not unusual.

I think in some cases, the NGOs are very involved with the families of the detainees and it is always interesting to get their perspective. Because when we talk about returning detainees and if they are going to be integrated into the society then presumably the families are going to be great assets for them. I think everywhere we have gone where there was a reintegration effort, the families played an important role and this is common sense.

Q: Some detainees were recently allowed to telephone their families- can this be seen as an indication of optimism that the tough measures applied in Guantanamo will be lessened or at least that treatment of prisoners will be improved?

A: I do not agree with the term \”tough measures\”” but we understand the significance that individuals are going to be returned. Again it is something that was able to be done. It made sense and I think it was very positive.

Q: Can the U.S. set a timeframe to realize President Bush's aspiration to see Guantanamo detention closed down?

A: I do not think we can set a timeframe for that. Again