WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Tuesday suspended the transfer of detainees from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay to Yemen as a result of the deteriorating security situation there.
President Barack Obama bowed to political pressure from Democratic and Republican lawmakers not to send any more prisoners to Yemen as a result of revelations that a would-be bomber on a Detroit-bound plane had received al Qaeda training in Yemen.
“It was always our intent to transfer detainees to other countries only under conditions that provide assurances that our security is being protected,” Obama said.
“Given the unsettled situation, I’ve spoken to the attorney general (Eric Holder) and we’ve agreed that we will not be transferring additional detainees back to Yemen at this time,” Obama said.
Several of the roughly 91 Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay had been cleared to be sent home, as the Obama administration struggles to close the prison.
White House officials made clear that the suspension was considered a temporary one.
“We will close Guantanamo prison, which has damaged our national security interests and become a tremendous recruiting tool for al Qaeda,” Obama said.
His decision came after The Times newspaper of London reported that at least a dozen former Guantanamo Bay prisoners had rejoined al Qaeda to fight in Yemen.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan had left the door open to more transfers to Yemen as recently as Sunday in a round of television interviews. He stressed that no decisions would be made that would put Americans at risk.
Some leading Democrats from Obama’s own party had called for a halt to the transfers, including Representative Jane Harman, a member of the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell welcomed the move and said Obama should revisit his decision to close the facility.
“Given the determined nature of the threat from al Qaeda, it made little sense to transfer detainees from the secure facility at Guantanamo back to Yemen, where previously transferred detainees have escaped from prison and returned to al Qaeda,” he said.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, however, denounced the decision, saying many of the Yemenis are about to begin their ninth year of indefinite detention and to continue holding them is unconscionable.
“We know from the military’s own records that most of the detainees at Guantanamo have no link to terrorism,” the group said.
Attorney David Remes, an American who represents 15 Yemeni captives at Guantanamo, said politics had trumped justice in the decision.
“These men are going to continue to be held at Guantanamo solely because they had the misfortune of being Yemenis,” he said. “...”Guilt and innocence make no difference in this equation.”
Obama has encountered various complications in trying to close the Guantanamo facility and has acknowledged he will not be able to meet a self-imposed one-year deadline to close it that he promised when he took office last January.
Just last month his aides announced the U.S. government would proceed with buying an Illinois prison and bolstering security there so a limited number of Guantanamo detainees can be transferred to it.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan, editing by Cynthia Osterman