BEIRUT: Arab leaders seem strangely reticent about Guantanamo, even after the deaths of three Arabs at the US prison camp stirred outrage around the world. Critics say some are wary of offending the United States, others are glad that potential troublemakers are locked up and all know their own treatment of prisoners bears little scrutiny.
The European Union may press President George W. Bush at an EU-US summit on Wednesday to close the camp, but no such calls have come from Arab governments whose nationals form the bulk of the 460 prisoners held there without trial or access to lawyers.
“They are silent because they have no respect for human rights themselves,” said Saad Djebbar, an Algerian international lawyer based in London. “They have their own Guantanamos.”
He said despotic Arab states could hardly attack their own tactics of detention without trial. “They deal with people perceived as a threat to national security in the same manner.”
Bush recently said he would like to shut Guantanamo, saying it had given some an excuse to accuse the US of not upholding the standards it set for others.
But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it was not easy to negotiate the repatriation of what she called “very dangerous people” and to get their home countries to promise that they would neither be persecuted nor set loose.
The father of a Yemeni inmate, said by the Americans to have committed suicide at Guantanamo along with two Saudis this month, had nothing but scorn for Arab government officialdom.
“Arab leaders have forsaken their people and fear the United States. That’s why they don’t dare call for the closure of Guantanamo,” Ali Abdullah al-Selmi told Reuters in Sanaa.
Arab allies of Washington, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, have lobbied quietly to get their prisoners returned, though often to face local justice, not freedom.
In May, 15 Saudis returned from Guantanamo. All are now in prison while the Saudi authorities decide whether to try them.
“We’d rather work discreetly through our own channels,” said a Saudi official, who asked not to be named. He said this was better than confronting Washington with “sensationalist statements” over up to 103 Saudis still languishing in the camp.
Saudi Arabia is in a delicate position. Fifteen of the Sept 11 hijackers were Saudis. Human rights groups often criticise the kingdom over torture and Islamic punishments.
Mosleh al-Qahtani, vice-president of Saudi Arabia’s National Society for Human Rights said it was true that Arab countries had imperfect rights records.
“But isn’t the United States, the so-called champion of human rights, doing worse?” he asked.
Washington denies charges by former detainees, lawyers and human rights groups of torture at Guantanamo, where 23 inmates had made 41 suicide attempts before the three deaths this month.
Discreet diplomacy for Guantanamo prisoners has drawbacks, according to Amnesty International spokeswoman Nicole Choueiry.
“Releases should not be subject to good relations between some governments and the United States,” she contended.
“All detainees should have minimum safeguards. There is an obligation on the US not to send them back to countries where they might face torture and that includes Arab countries.”
Choueiry said Guantanamo might be the “tip of the iceberg”, referring to a network of secret US-run detention centres around the world believed to hold Al Qaeda terrorists.
“What’s worrying is the complicity of Arab governments and others in the US ‘war on terror’,” she said.
Hesham Kassem, president of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, said the anti-Americanism fuelled by Guantanamo had been useful to Arab governments who felt threatened by the Bush administration’s pressure for democracy and human rights.
Khaled al-Ansi, a Yemeni lawyer and human rights activist, said Arab states believed that abuses at US jails provided legitimacy for them to oppress their own people.
“They have transformed their countries into prisons for the service of the US administration,” Ansi said.
Egypt, a close US ally, has not lobbied publicly for the handful of Egyptians in Guantanamo, one of whom has been freed.