KABUL, Afghanistan – Amin al-Bakri holds a get-out-of-jail card from a detainee review board but so far it's been useless to the former Yemeni gem salesman, who has been locked up at the U.S. military prison in Afghanistan for more than eight years.
Day upon day, 42-year-old al-Bakri wakes up behind bars at the massive U.S. detention center near Bagram Air Field. It's the same place that CIA Director Leon Panetta says Osama bin Laden would be taken for initial questioning — if he's ever captured.
Al-Bakri, who was never charged, is not alone.
More than a dozen detainees who were picked up outside of Afghanistan have been cleared for release by review boards but are still at Bagram, according to an estimate by Daphne Eviatar, a senior associate at Human Rights First, a nonprofit international human rights organization based in New York and Washington D.C.
The detainees' lawyers suspect some are caught up in political problems between the U.S. and their home countries, including Yemen, Pakistan and Tunisia.
The Defense Department did not respond to allegations that political issues are delaying the release of detainees. Finding out exactly what's holding up their release is difficult because their lawyers are not even privy to what evidence the government has on their clients, why they were picked up in the first place or how they ended up at Bagram.
"Amin has been there for almost a decade of his life," said Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who filed the latest appeal for al-Bakri's release late Monday in a U.S. federal court in Washington. "Amin should never have been there in the first place. He has never been a threat to the United States."
U.S. agents captured al-Bakri in late 2002 in Bangkok, Thailand, while he was on a business trip, according to his lawyers. He checked out of his hotel and was on his way to the airport to fly back to Yemen where he was planning to celebrate his 34th birthday with his wife and three children. He never made it home.
His family found out that he was alive when the International Committee of the Red Cross forwarded them a post card, in his own handwriting, from the detention facility north of Kabul. In December, Bagram detainees were moved to a new, modern prison several miles (kilometers) away from the old facility.
The Pentagon says it is working to free detainees approved for release, but it takes time. Lt. Col. Tanya Bradsher, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Defense Department in Washington, said that if a non-Afghan detainee is approved for transfer or release, diplomatic arrangements still must be made in order to repatriate the detainee to his home country or another location. The Pentagon would not say how many detainees at Bagram have been recommended for release, but still aren't free.
"The United States has no desire to detain anyone longer than necessary," Bradsher said.
U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Robert Harward, who has control, oversight and responsibility for U.S. detention and correction operations in Afghanistan, said detainee review boards evaluate each case every six months and make recommendations to repatriate third-country nationals.
"Those decisions then go through an interagency process back in Washington, D.C.," he said. "That process is ongoing as we speak."
He said he could not speak to what drives the process in Washington.
Redha al-Najar, a 45-year-old citizen of Tunisia, is another detainee whose life is in limbo.
In May 2002, Pakistani men and French-speaking men in plain clothes took him from his home in Karachi as his wife and child looked on.
During his nearly nine years in detention, the U.S. government has never charged al-Najar, according to Tina M. Foster, an attorney and executive director of International Justice Network, a New York-based nonprofit that has represented more than 30 Bagram detainees since 2006.
"His son, now 10, has grown up without a father," she said.
She said she learned through al-Najar's family that the military planned to release him and send him to Tunisia, his country of birth, instead of Pakistan where he was picked up. Foster said he does not want to go to Tunisia, a country in North Africa where an uprising ousted the longtime president in January and prompted revolts around the Arab world.
"I believe that the recent events in Tunisia will only complicate the diplomatic landscape while the U.S. government re-evaluates its stance on whether and how it will repatriate Tunisian nationals to that country," Foster said.
Foster said another client, Fadi al-Maqaleh from Yemen, also has been cleared for release but is still being held at Bagram.
Many Yemeni prisoners at the U.S. military prison in Cuba have been cleared for release too but still remain incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay. Yemen is a hotbed of terrorism and the U.S. does not trust the government to monitor their activities if they're released. According to a court ruling, the United States can hold these Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo indefinitely until the security situation in Yemen improves or the U.S. can find somewhere else to move them.
Also waiting to walk free is Jan Sher Khan, who has been detained for six years. He was 15 when he disappeared from his village near Kohat, Pakistan, in the spring of 2005. He never came home from classes at his high school and ended up at Bagram. According to court papers filed seeking his release, his family believes he was seized by someone seeking thousands of dollars in reward money advertised for the capture of suspected members of al-Qaida or the Taliban.
On Jan. 10, the U.S. government confirmed that Khan had been cleared for release.
Foster said she believes his release has been delayed by the diplomatic spat between the U.S. and Pakistan over the Ray Davis case.
Davis, a CIA contractor, shot and killed two Pakistani men on Jan. 27 in the eastern city of Lahore, allegedly in self-defense. He was taken into custody in Pakistan over U.S. objections that he had diplomatic immunity. Davis was released March 16, yet U.S.-Pakistan relations remained strained.
"The only reason that Jan Sher Khan remains in prison — even though the U.S. government agrees he should be returned home to his family — is because of a lack of political will on the part of either the U.S. or Pakistani governments."
The Defense Department said the media was not an appropriate place to discuss the results of detainee review board hearings.
Al-Bakri's second of three review board hearings took place in August 2010.
Two months later, al-Bakri was handed a paper saying he was going to be released to his home country.
"Your transfer may take some time to process," the brief note said. "Please be patient while arrangements are being made."
AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.