WASHINGTON Yemen's human rights minister breezed into Washington this week expecting to lobby U.S. officials for the release from Guantánamo of Yemeni detainees, who 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 from her trip. 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 84 or more Yemenis who comprise the majority of the 166 detainees remaining at Guantánamo.
Mashhour's version of her trip essentially that poor planning by the Yemeni Embassy, coupled with U.S. reluctance to discuss the matter, left her forlorn in Washington doesn't 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 weren't senior enough and left the United States in a huff, a testament to how Yemen's 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 Mashhour's 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 that's 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 don't always transition quickly into polished diplomats.
The Yemeni official said Mashhour didn't understand how U.S. protocol works and expected meetings with administration figures as senior as Secretary of State John Kerry.
In fact, the official said, the primary purpose of Mashhour's trip was to attend a World Bank conference on women's 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 they're not part of the Cabinet," the Yemeni official said.
The State Department official said that it was Mashhour who canceled the arranged meetings. She'd been expected to discuss Guantánamo and also broader issues related to human rights in Yemen, one of the Arab world's poorest and least developed countries.
"There were meetings set up with senior-level people, so I don't know why she didn't meet with them," the official said. "Perhaps she thought they weren't senior enough."