National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD),
Jacob Zenn — Yemen
I interned with the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD) in Yemen where I researched the legal and political obstacles to repatriating Yemeni Guantanamo detainees, especially those who were granted Habeas. The perspectives I sought came from Human Rights activists at HOOD, family members and friends of detained Yemenis, Yemeni journalists and the Yemeni public. At the end of the internship I wrote an Op-ed for the Yemen Times titled “GITMO: A No Man’s Land Between the Federal Courts and Politicians http://www.yementimes.com/defaultdet.aspx?SUB_ID=34452),” which clarifies my view on the power conflict between the Executive and Legislative branch in the United States and the hopelessness of the detainees. I also plan to write a supervised research paper and, potentially, a law review article in my 3L year at Georgetown Law.
The first challenge I faced in Yemen was telling people that I am an American who came to Yemen to work for the summer at a Human Rights Organization. As one of the relatively few Westerners in Yemen who speaks Arabic, local people would often first ask me my name, then where I am from, and then what I was doing in Yemen. Having the biblical name Yaqoob inspired a positive reaction and coming from America rarely provoked negative sentiment, but when I told people that I worked in Human Rights, a common reaction was “There are no Human Rights in the Middle East! Look at Afghanistan, look at Philistine, look at Iraq, look at Yemen, we are colonized and oppressed!” One man who I conversed with while in a kebab restaurant asserted that, “Even kebabs have more Human Rights than us!” Human rights seemed to be perceived as a hollow and hypocritical notion to many people I met, who believed the promotion of human rights and democracy often leads to more violations of human rights and less democracy. I found myself on the defensive explaining that the work at HOOD was strictly separate from the government.
Another challenge was that from the time I applied for the Fellowship to the time I started, Yemen reemerged in the international spotlight for terrorism while domestically the country’s al Qaeda problem, internal civil fighting, and sectarian and tribal conflicts became fiercer. In mid-December a Nigerian student’s attempted bombing of a New York-bound airplane was traced to al Qaeda in Yemen and the Fort Hood shootings and attempted Times Square car bombing were allegedly inspired by Yemeni-American Anwar Al-Awlaqi, who is currently hiding in Yemen’s tribal areas. Many visas to foreigners were being rejected, travel outside of the capital Sana’a required special permissions, and foreigners who associated with people considered extremist or radicals were sometimes imprisoned without due process or deported. Interestingly, at HOOD I helped draft reports for the press and memos to the Yemeni government calling for the release of several of the as many as 40 foreigners who were arrested extrajudicially this past summer.
Because HOOD no longer recommended that I travel outside of Sana’a to meet with former detainees, I met with only Sana’a-based family members of detainees and journalists and activists. One journalist had videos of interviews with formers detainees and their families, which indirectly helped me in the interview portion of my research. These videos provided me with an understanding of the detainees’ lives in Yemen before they went to “jihad” and were subsequently captured, and what type of risk (or lack thereof) they might pose if repatriated. In addition, I met Nasser el-Bahri/Abu Jandal, who is the brother-in-law of Salim Hamdan from Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, and who formerly was the bodyguard of bin Laden in Afghanistan and is now the featured person in the upcoming documentary movie “The Oath.” Now a reformed al Qaeda, el-Bahri talked with me about root causes of jihadism and the process he went through to reform himself. For many others like him, the root cause of jihadism was a lack of education on mainstream Islamic principles, a complete lack of knowledge of international affairs, and the exploitation of their ignorance by jihadi leaders. Many young Yemenis, like El-Bahri, started jihad careers during conflicts involving Muslims around the world, such as Bosnia, Kashmir or Chechnya, before going to Afghanistan.
In Yemen, I learned that the idea of rehabilitation or reintegration of Habeas winners in Yemen has become, as Guantanamo lawyer David Remes told me, a “pipe dream.” Yemen has far too few resources to invest in former detainee rehabilitation and the United States is not going to pay to send former detainees to Yemen where there is a continuous war with Al-Houthi rebels in the north, fighting with separatist insurgents in the South, and Yemen-US cooperation to drop aerial bombs from drones on alleged al Qaeda terrorists in tribal regions of Maarib. The situation in Yemen is not safe enough, according to many politicians, to even send Habeas winners back to Yemen, let alone rehabilitate them. The humanitarian argument for the repatriation of Yemeni Habeas winners rests only in the Rule of Law itself — the federal courts granted their Habeas petitions, and as they say in Arabic, “chalass --” “that is enough.” Additionally, some detainees with no convictions against them who are psychologically insane should be repatriated on humanitarian grounds as they pose only a threat to themselves.
My summer experience taught me that a career combining Human Rights, diplomacy and international law requires a lawyer to be creative, able to anticipate challenges and to learn how to solve problems to stay on course. The obstacles I faced made me become more resourceful, expanding my research to meet with people in the Human Rights field who I may not have reached out to otherwise. One of my goals was to research detainee rehabilitation issues but even though rehabilitation is no longer viable, the repatriation of Yemeni detainees who have won Habeas is not only possible, but necessary in order to effectuate the successful Habeas Supreme Court petitions. That is why I wrote the Op-ed piece for the Yemen Times and why I want to employ the lessons of this summer at HOOD in legal work, congressional advocacy and research work related Guantanamo or national security back in Washington DC. Furthermore, some journalists and translators have expressed an interest in me returning to Yemen to write a legal biography on some of the detainees who have or will have returned by then.