Yemen is to formally look into building a secure rehabilitation center for radicals — a move that could hasten the return of its citizens held in the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention center on Cuba.
The announcement, which came in a presidential decree carried by state media on Wednesday, is a significant step forward for the project, which is influenced by a similar center in Saudi Arabia.
The decree said a committee had been set up to advance the project, but did not say if funds had been earmarked. The center would need a high level of security in a country beset by violence by armed fighters and with a history of jailbreaks.
Closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center was an early promise by President Barack Obama after he took office in 2008, but the plan has been thwarted by the difficulty of returning prisoners to their home countries.
Of the scores of detainees who have been cleared for transfer or release from Guantanamo, 56 are from Yemen.
But some experts are concerned that Yemeni citizens who have been unanimously cleared for release by the U.S. government would be transferred to the rehabilitation center instead of being freed.
Pardiss Kebriaei, senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) who represents Yemeni detainees, told Al Jazeera that while the U.S. government and receiving governments should certainly provide rehabilitation support for Guantanamo detainees, the center should "absolutely not" be a prerequisite for the transfer of all Yemenis.
"There are Yemeni citizens who have been unanimously cleared to leave Guantanamo by every government agency with a stake in these detentions, who would be accepted by the Yemeni government, who have families waiting to help them rebuild, who should be repatriated now, without further delay," Kebriaei said.
Washington halted transfers of Guantanamo prisoners to Yemen in 2010 after Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the movement's most active branch, which is based in Yemen, was involved in a plot to blow up an airliner.
A year ago Yemen asked the United States and Gulf Arab neighbors to help it finance the estimated $20 million rehabilitation center.
The stakes are high for Yemen, the Arab world's poorest state, which is battling an upsurge in AQAP violence with U.S. help.
Some of AQAP's founding members were former Guantanamo detainees who had been returned to Saudi Arabia and gone through its rehabilitation program.
Among the group's other founders were armed fighters who escaped from a prison in Aden in 2006 after being jailed in 2003 for their part in the bombing of the USS Cole off Aden in 2000.
In February, attackers using bombs, grenades and guns sprang at least 19 suspected AQAP fighters from the central prison in the capital Sanaa.
Al Jazeera and Reuters