WASHINGTON -- Yemens human rights minister visited Washington this week expecting to lobby U.S. officials for the release of her fellow citizens from Guantánamo, where Yemeni make up more than half the population at the controversial U.S.-run prison that President Barack Obama has pledged to close.
"Unfortunately, I ended up with nothing," a dejected Hooria Mashhour said by phone from Yemen on Thursday, hours after returning home.
Mashhour had planned a 10-day visit, but she left after just three days with no official meetings and no updates on plans for the roughly 90 Yemenis among the 166 detainees at Guantánamo
Mashhours version of her ill-fated trip essentially that poor planning by the Yemeni Embassy, coupled with U.S. reluctance to discuss the matter, left her forlorn in Washington doesnt jibe with accounts from State Department and Yemeni officials. They say that Mashhour was scheduled to meet with U.S. counterparts but that she balked that they werent senior enough and left the United States in a huff, a testament to how Yemens complicated internal politics are hampering its ability to negotiate on the Guantánamo detainees.
"It was one of the weirdest experiences," a stunned Yemeni official said of Mashhours abrupt departure, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to inflame political sensitivities.
"We're all a little befuddled," said a State Department official, likewise asking for anonymity in order to speak freely about a prickly diplomatic matter.
Securing the return of Guantánamo prisoners is a top priority for the fragile coalition government thats ruled Yemen since the ouster of longtime strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh last year. The new administration sprang from the uprisings that toppled Arab autocrats in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and Mashhour is a respected revolutionary known for her early presence in the Yemeni protest camps and for her ties to youth groups.
However, former opposition figures dont always transition quickly into polished diplomats. The Yemeni official said Mashhour didnt understand how U.S. protocol works and expected meetings with senior administration figures, such as Secretary of State John Kerry. In fact, the official said, the primary purpose of Mashhours trip was to attend a World Bank conference on womens issues; the bilateral meetings were just a bonus.
"This is the problem with the Arab Spring transitions opposition figures get Cabinet seats, but then something happens to upset them and they start behaving as if theyre not part of the Cabinet," the Yemeni official said.
Mashhour concedes that Yemens rocky transition played a role in the disarray of her visit, but she was referring mostly to the fact that the embassy in Washington still has no ambassador. The highest-level envoy is a charge daffaires. The Yemeni official confirmed that Washington is one of more than 30 posts where Yemen hasnt replaced ambassadors because of the delicate and ongoing negotiations among the ruling coalition members back in Sanaa, the capital.
Mashhour complained that her meeting arrangements were left to a new hire who didnt have the connections in Washington to get her time with the real power brokers. She even publicly criticized the embassys handling of the matter to the more than 7,000 followers of her Twitter account a rare breach for such a high-profile figure.