After 20 years of torture and indefinite and arbitrary detention, former Guantanamo detainee Abdulqadir Al-Madhfari was transferred to Yemen from his cell in a United Arab Emirates (UAE) prison. Despite being cleared of all charges, his freedom did not even last for a day. This article is in his honour.
Abdulqadir Al-Madhfari was a medical student who travelled to Pakistan in 2001 to continue his studies. He was kidnapped and sold to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by the Pakistani government following the 9/11 attacks. This story is a familiar one by now.
Like many Muslim men sold to the US for bounty money, or taken as a result of mistaken identity, he was put in an orange jumpsuit, shackled, hooded, blindfolded and flown to Guantanamo Bay where he remained for 14 years. He endured torture before being released in 2016 without a trial, or any charges against him.
In 2016, Al-Madhfari, along with 17 Yemenis, three Afghanis and one Russian, was transferred to the UAE as part of a resettlement agreement between the US and the UAE governments, which promised to help them start a new life.
This was publicly sold as the UAE doing its part to help the Obama administration close Guantanamo. These men thought that their ordeal had come to an end, and their lawyers assured them so.
However, as soon as they landed, Emirati forces seized them, and they spent a further five years in a UAE prison, where they were further abused and tortured. This time, neither their lawyers, nor any human rights organisations, were allowed to visit or communicate with them.
Al-Madhfari has lived in isolation since 2017, after his mental health deteriorated. During a phone call, his brother told me that he was punished for having a "mental problem".
For the last three years, I have been closely following these 21 cases, communicating with the families. Their cases were also part of my final year thesis in 2021, entitled "Rehabilitation and integration of former Guantanamo detainees into social life and the labour market."
The UAE begins moving men to Yemen
The UEA stands out as the worst country dealing with released prisoners from Guantanamo and has repatriated many to war-torn Yemen.
Last year, a United Nations human rights expert warned and called the UAE to halt its plans to forcibly repatriate men to Yemen, urging that their forced return puts their lives at risk and violates international human rights and humanitarian laws, as they would be targeted by different militia groups.
Many lawyers and activists also warned against sending men back to Yemen. The families of the 21 men, with the help of CAGE, has continued to push for their release to a safe third country, sending letters to the US State Department and US officials. However, none showed any intention of helping, despite the former prisoners being cleared of charges and remaining trapped in a UAE prison.
Last May, a family member received a call from his brother in the UAE jail telling him that some Yemeni prisoners had been hospitalised after contracting COVID-19. To exacerbate matters, the UAE informed the prisoners again that they would be sent to Yemen. CAGE began making attempts to notify the Biden administration, but again, there was no answer from Washington.
Al-Madhfari's mental health deteriorated in the UAE prison due to prolonged periods in solitary confinement and torture. "We lost contact with him and have not heard from him since 2017," his brother Ameen told me. "We used to call him while he was at Guantanamo and he seemed mentally okay." But then, things went silent.
'He was afraid of his own family and wouldn't speak to us'
Last month, the situation escalated after the UAE deported 12 Yemeni former Guantanamo prisoners, hooded, shackled and blindfolded, to Al-Mukalla airport in Hadramout, which was under the control of a UAE-aligned militia group in Yemen.
The deportation was sudden. It came without coordination with any human rights organisations, lawyers or families.
"We just received a message that we should come to Hadramout to collect my brother," said Ameen. "When we arrived, Abdulqadir couldn't recognise any of us."
Instead, their own son and brother refused to speak to them and even accused his family of being Emiratis playing a trick on him.
"He was afraid and confused," recounted Ameen. "He refused to leave with us. We spent five days trying to convince him, but with each time, it got only worse. In the end, the UAE militia blindfolded him and forced him into the car with us."
Al-Madhfari tried to resist when he found himself in the car, but he had no choice but to comply. His elder brother and uncle drove back to Sanaa, where his elder brother lives, arriving at night.
The day after his arrival in Sanaa, on 11 November, he insisted on going for a walk. While his family accompanied him, he slipped away and disappeared. Later, police told the family that Al-Madhfari had been kidnapped by Houthi militia.
"We have no idea where he is being held," Ameen explained.
But Abdulrahman Barman, a lawyer and the executive director of the American Centre for Justice, said: "Most of the men are in areas controlled by armed groups that don't recognise the law and human rights." He is referring to the Houthis and the Southern Transitional Council.
The haunting shadow of torture
The family was in shock, firstly by Al-Madhfari's mental state, and then further devastated by his disappearance.
"We fought for 20 years to free him," said Ameen. "Now, his sisters couldn't greet him, he didn't recognise any of us, and his elder brother was admitted to a hospital for days after hearing this news."
The shadow of torture hangs heavily over the family. Since the abduction, Al-Madhfari has been held at an undisclosed location, and the family has no knowledge of his whereabouts. They are denied visits and any contact with him.
"We are working through mediators trying to explain to the Houthis about his case and his mental health," according to Ameen. "We are hoping they will release him."
But Yemen is like an abyss. Since the country fell into war, torture, kidnapping, arbitrary detention, assassinations and disappearances have become common.
In an interview with the director of human rights organisation SAM, Tawfiq Al-Hamidi, he shared that SAM has documented 18 secret prisons run by the UAE in Aden and Hadramout, where prisoners were tortured, raped and even killed.
He also said that the UAE hired mercenaries to eliminate those who opposed the UAE presence in Yemen. Thousands have been imprisoned and disappeared in UEA secret prisons, and many cases have been well documented by the Associated Press and Yemeni human rights organisations.
The unaccountability that presided at Guantanamo has given the green light to this type of terror worldwide. The Yemeni government and many militia groups there have been accused of operating their own secret prisons, and all are known to torture. It is also reported that the US was part of some of these UAE operations and interrogations in Yemen.
Last month, when the US was elected to the UN Human Rights Council, President Joe Biden vowed to promote accountability for governments and continue supporting activists and human rights defenders. However, there has still been no accountability for US actions at Guantanamo, and the very least that the US can do is publicly question the UEA about these lost men. The alleged role of Washington in some of the transfers should be investigated.
The legacy of Guantanamo can only end with the safety of all its prisoners
While the media reports with relief on the release of men from Guantanamo, this is not the end for us. Many of us find ourselves trapped in a foreign country, criminalised and a burden to our families, due to the lack of rehabilitation and crucial support integrating back into society.
There are many cases similar to Al-Madhfari's, where former detainees have faced imprisonment, torture and death due to medical negligence.
While 39 men are still held at Guantanamo, another dozen have been cleared for release. But where will they go? And what guarantees for safety do they have?
Biden promised to close Guantanamo when he was elected in 2020. So far, only one detainee has been released.
But a "release" now is no longer a promise of freedom, let alone safety. Often, men like us simply walk from one Guantanamo into another.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.