SANAA (Reuters) - Awdah al-Shabati has never seen her father Abdulrahman except via video link with a U.S. military prison thousands of miles away from her native Yemen.
He is incarcerated at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His daughter was born after he was picked up in Pakistan following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Now Abdulrahman is one of more than 90 inmates on hunger strike at the prison.
“The last time we spoke to him was eight days ago. He looked thinner, his health seems to have deteriorated since we last saw him,” Mohammed al-Shabati, a Yemeni Defense Ministry employee and Awdah’s uncle, said last week.
Awdah, speaking to her father from a Red Cross office in the capital Sanaa, asked him about his health then burst into tears, Shabati added.
A total of 166 inmates remain at the prison more than a decade since its opening despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledge soon after he took office in 2009 to shut it down.
Many inmates have been held without charge or trial and some have been cleared for release but kept locked up. At least 89 are Yemeni, many of whom were captured more than a decade ago.
International human rights groups have over the years condemned the prison, the harsh treatment of inmates, and the dubious legality of the system.
Guantanamo is back in the spotlight after a clash between guards and prisoners this month and the release of accounts by inmates about the force-feeding of hunger strikers.
Legal and political hurdles stand in the way of closing the facility, including U.S. fears inmates may rejoin al Qaeda if they go home.
The United States began repatriating Yemeni prisoners after Obama’s election in 2008. The effort was halted in 2010 after a man trained by militants in Yemen attempted to bomb a U.S.-bound plane in 2009 with a bomb concealed in his underwear.
Yemen itself is in the frontline of the fight against al Qaeda, with Washington providing military support including drone strikes at militants operating mainly in the south.
The White House insists it wants the facility shut but says restrictions by Congress remain an obstacle.
Some releases would need senior U.S. officials to certify that countries receiving an inmate were willing and able to stop the individual from acting against the United States - a guarantee few U.S. politicians would want to give.
Asked if measures taken by new Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to confront al Qaeda would help restart the transfers, White House spokesman Jay Carney said he had no new information on the detainees.
Caitlin Hayden, White House National Security Council spokesman, blamed Congress for the impasse.
Human rights lawyers say the restrictions put in place by Congress are not the full story.
Cori Crider, legal director of Reprieve, a British-based charity which represents detainees, blamed a lack of political will by the Obama administration, which she said feared being seen as weak on security.
“Where there is no political will, suddenly the administrative obstacles are important and everyone is concerned about meeting Congressional reporting requirements. But when there is political will, no one cares about that,” she said.
David Remes, a U.S. lawyer who acts for detainees, told the Yemeniaty.com website their plight could not compete with Obama’s domestic policy priorities like immigration reform and gun control.
“It is a big issue as far as principle is concerned, but in terms of practical politics, it’s a tick on a camel’s back.”
Al-Shabati’s family says he has never been convicted of any crime despite being held in Guantanamo for more than 12 years.
They say the 30-year-old - 18 when he was arrested in southern Pakistan and handed to the United States - was a victim of an indiscriminate crackdown on foreigners with suspected al Qaeda ties. He was in Pakistan to study, they say.
Mohammed said a U.S. military review panel cleared Abdelrahman in 2008 of charges of being an enemy combatant - a term normally apply to suspected al Qaeda militants - but efforts to win his repatriation had been fruitless.
“The Yemeni government says the U.S. government does not want to hand them over and the Americans say Yemen does not want to take them,” Mohammed said. “We no longer believe anyone.”
Yemenis complain that their government has not been pushing enough to ensure the return of its citizens.
Mohammed said the family has grown more worried about Abdelrahman’s health following the hunger strike, now in its third month. Washington says 17 are being force-fed.
In an op-ed in the New York Times this month, a Yemeni man gave a dramatic account of force feeding and prison conditions.
Samir Najal al Hasan Moqbel, who said he has been held for 11 years and three months without charges, wrote he had lost about 30 pounds since he began to refuse food on February 10.
At a coffee shop in Sanaa, Bandar al-Qatta‘a said his brother Mansour had joined the hunger strike because he lost hope of being freed after a decade in jail without trial.
“We hope human conscience will move to help us secure their release. Those people have never been convicted of any crime,” said Bandar, a Saudi-born Yemeni who campaigns for the inmates.
Yemeni rights activists say a U.S. military committee that studied the cases of the inmates had recommended that 58 of the Yemenis at Guantanamo prison be returned home.
Abdelrahman Barman, a Yemeni human rights attorney, said the United States had demanded that the Yemenis be sent to Qatar or to Saudi Arabia to ensure they did not return home to join al Qaeda. About 11 Saudis freed from Guantanamo later quit a Saudi rehabilitation program and disappeared, security analysts say.
“Those who returned to al Qaeda did so because they were kept under constant harassment by security forces and found the doors (for normal life) closed,” Barman said.
The Yemeni government says talks with the U.S. government over the fate of the prisoners are making progress.
Rajeh Badi, an aid to Yemeni Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa, said work was underway on an $11 million centre to hold the prisoners while they undergo a rehabilitation program to ensure they did not return to al Qaeda.
“We object to sending Yemeni prisoners anywhere but to their home country,” Badi said. “The government will be responsible for caring for them and rehabilitating them.”
Additional reporting by William Maclean in Dubai and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Writing by Sami Aboudi, Editing by Angus MacSwan