Fears that the governments of both the US and the UK are conspiring to break international safeguards preventing the return of prisoners held without charge or trial to their home countries –- where they face a serious risk of torture and abuse –- have gained prominence in the last few days. On Saturday, I wrote on these pages about the case of Abdul Rauf al-Qassim, a Libyan prisoner in Guantánamo who is struggling to prevent his enforced return to the country of his birth, and on Tuesday the Pentagon announced that two Tunisian prisoners in Guantánamo, cleared for release since last year, had been returned to Tunisia on Sunday.
Zachary Katznelson, Senior Counsel at Reprieve, a London-based legal charity representing one of the Tunisians, Abdullah bin Omar, immediately denounced his client’s enforced repatriation, stating that he was “cleared by the United States –- found not to be a threat and not to have information about terrorism. But the US has not apologized and set him free after five years in Guantánamo. Instead, he has been shipped to Tunisia, where abuse and possibly torture await. What has happened to American justice? How are we any safer by sending cleared men back to notorious regimes in the dead of night?”
A 50-year old former railway engineer, bin Omar left Tunisia in 1989 because of religious persecution, and settled in Pakistan, where he was living when he was convicted by a Tunisian court, in absentia, and sentenced to 23 years in prison for belonging to Ennahda, a moderate Islamist political party and just one of the many valid organizations and worthy individuals persecuted over the last 20 years by the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He arrived in Guantánamo after being captured in Pakistan in April 2002, during a frenzied few months when all manner of innocent Arabs were rounded up in Pakistan, and was sold to the Americans for $5,000, although much of his subsequent story is unknown. He never took part in any tribunals in Guantánamo, and the US authorities only allowed Katznelson to meet him once, on 1 May 2007, when he “expressed severe concerns that were he to be returned to Tunisia, the authorities there would torture him to force him to confess or to become an informant.”
In the light of his story –- and the secretive Tunisian dictator’s well-reported history of political repression –- Katznelson was undoubtedly correct to point out that bin Omar “finds himself a guinea pig in a potentially deadly diplomatic experiment. The United States is so desperate to send people out of Guantánamo Bay, they are willing to ignore Tunisia’s horrific human rights record.” His opinion was reinforced by Jennifer Daskal, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, who noted, “the United States got diplomatic assurances from Tunisia –- a no-torture promise from a country with a documented record of torture. How are they enforced? Who is doing the monitoring?”
These are not the only cases in which the rights of prisoners cleared for release from Guantánamo are being trampled on by two administrations desperate to wash their hands of their own failings. On Saturday, the Times (in the UK) ran an affecting, if slightly misleading article about the former Guantánamo prisoner Ahmed Errachidi, who was flown back to Morocco on 27 April. A 41-year old chef, who suffers from bipolar disorder and has a history of mental breakdowns, Errachidi had been living in the UK, where he had been granted indefinite leave to remain, for 16 years, working in hotels and restaurants. However, in September 2001, with an impetuousness that is a hallmark of those suffering from the illness that afflicted him, he set off for Pakistan on a hare-brained mission to buy silver jewelry to sell in Morocco to raise money for an essential heart operation for one of his two young sons. Sidetracked by the humanitarian crisis that followed the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, he took a bus to Afghanistan –- “to help the poor children and the women, and to partake in their calamity,” as he later told his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s legal director –- but soon discovered that there was nothing he could do to help the Afghan people, and returned to Pakistan, where he was promptly captured by bounty hunters and sold to the US military for $5,000.
For the next five years and five months, Errachidi was subjected to some of the more egregious excesses of the administration’s post-9/11 detention system. First he was “rendered” back to Afghanistan and held for 19 days in the “Dark Prison,” the CIA’s vile torture dungeon near Kabul, where, as well as enduring brutal interrogations, rotten food and dirty water, prisoners were held in total darkness, hung on the walls by their wrists and blasted with music 24 hours a day. He was then transferred to the military-run prison at Kandahar airbase, where Chris Mackey, the pseudonym of a chief interrogator in Afghanistan, who later wrote a book about his experiences (The Interrogator’s War, with the journalist Greg Miller), recalled interrogating him. Regarding his mental illness as a ruse, Mackey wrote, “The only thing that gave this claim even a modicum of credibility was the fact that he managed to name the pharmacological drug he was taking.”
After another 26 days at the prison in Bagram airbase, where, Errachidi said, he was “tortured and interrogated in his own hell,” because someone –- presumably another prisoner –- claimed that he had received military training at the Khaldan camp near Khost in August 2001, he was transferred to Guantánamo, where his mastery of English, and his refusal to remain silent in the face of injustice, meant that the prison authorities named him “The General.” Unable to understand that he had gained a reputation as an authority figure among the prisoners because of his language skills and his willingness to speak out about the prisoners’ treatment, the authorities concluded that his status confirmed the allegations about his “al-Qaeda training” that had been made in Afghanistan. “The cook has become the General,” Errachidi told Clive Stafford Smith, who related his story in his recent book Bad Men: Guantánamo Bay and the Secret Prisons. “In the minds of the Americans, the crack of an egg has become the explosion of a bomb.”
Held in isolation for two of his five years in Guantánamo, Errachidi was repeatedly interrogated about his alleged training in Afghanistan, even while suffering mental breakdowns. During February and March 2004, he became psychotic and was prescribed anti-psychotic drugs, but his interrogations continued, even though there was nothing to be gained from his claims that he was Jesus Christ, that Osama bin Laden was his student, and that a giant snowball was about to envelop the earth. He was only cleared for release after his lawyers found the documentation to prove that he had been working at the Westbury Hotel in London’s Bond Street when he was supposed to have been training at Khaldan.
Even then, however, Errachidi’s troubles were far from over. In February 2007, his lawyers were informed that both he and another British resident, Ahmed Belbacha, had been “approved to leave Guantánamo, after diplomatic arrangements for their departure had been made,” because they had been “cleared by a panel of military officers whose job was to determine whether a prisoner represented a threat to the US or its allies and whether there were other factors that could form the basis for continued detention, including intelligence value and any law-enforcement interest.”
Belbacha, like Errachidi, was innocent of any wrong-doing. A former professional footballer in Algeria, he had worked as an accounts clerk for a government-owned oil company, but had been repeatedly threatened by Islamic extremists. After escaping to the UK in 1999, he settled in the seaside town of Bournemouth, where he found a job as a waiter in a hotel. In autumn 2001, he took a month’s vacation to visit Damascus, Tehran and an Afghan refugee camp, but was captured in Pakistan and falsely accused of attending a training camp in Jalalabad and meeting Osama bin Laden on two occasions, even though, at the time, he was waiting to hear from the British government if his application for asylum had been successful. With a grim irony, his application was turned down, but he was granted exceptional leave to remain in the UK in June 2003, when he had already been in Guantánamo for over a year.
Despite both men’s innocence, the Foreign Office callously refused to accept them back. “We’re not making any moves with these individuals or the other British residents at Guantánamo,” a spokesman said in March. “Because they are not British citizens, we’re not providing any consular or diplomatic assistance.” When asked how he imagined they might ever be able to leave Guantánamo, the official replied, “It has got nothing to do with us.”
The outline of Errachidi’s story was well covered in the Times article, and Sean O’Neill, who interviewed him in Tangier, reported sympathetically on his long years of wrongful imprisonment. Where he was misled, however, was in accepting Errachidi’s explanation that he was now a free man. As O’Neill described it, “The Red Cross had asked him before he left Guantánamo if he would not rather stay than go back to Morocco where there was a risk of torture. He found the question insulting and says that in his homeland the police received him with kindness, courtesy and mint tea. After seven days, he was sent home to his family in Tangier.” What Errachidi failed to mention was that, before being returned to his family, he was arrested on terrorism charges and brought before a court on 2 May. Although the charges were dropped after representations by Moroccan lawyers acting on information provided by Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith told the BBC immediately afterwards that the Moroccan Interior Minister had announced that Errachidi would face new charges, relating to “membership of an unauthorized group,” in a trial that was scheduled to begin in July, and Zachary Katznelson confirmed to me on 19 June that this was still the case.
Morocco has a mixed record when it comes to dealing with its Guantánamo prisoners. Of the nine men returned prior to Errachidi, all but two are reportedly at liberty, although it has taken them many years to escape from the courts and prisons of their homeland, and there is a very real fear that Errachidi will suffer the same fate. Three of the five men transferred to Morocco in August 2004, for example, were only finally cleared of the “terrorist” charges against them in January this year, and three other men –- transferred in February 2006 and sentenced to between three and five years in prison in November 2006 for “membership of a criminal gang” and “falsifying documents” –- had to wait until last month for an appeal court to dismiss all the charges against them.
In the meantime, while Ahmed Errachidi waits to hear from the Moroccan courts, Ahmed Belbacha remains in Guantánamo, unsure whether, in the wake of the UK’s refusal to accept him, he will be returned to Algeria, where, according to Zachary Katznelson, the Algerian intelligence services have stated that they cannot ensure that he will be safe from their own personnel. In Belbacha’s case, what makes the British government’s intransigence all the more shocking is that, having insisted for five years that they would not act on behalf of British residents in Guantánamo, they had already broken their own rules, accepting the return to Britain, four weeks before Ahmed Errachidi was sent to Morocco, of Bisher al-Rawi, a 37-year old British resident from a wealthy Iraq family, who had fled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1984 and had come to Britain with his family. Having retained his Iraqi citizenship in the hope that the family might one day be able to reclaim their property in Iraq, al-Rawi –- who was kidnapped by CIA agents while undertaking a business venture in the Gambia, rendered to the “Dark Prison,” and held in Bagram and Guantánamo for over four years –- was freed because the British government could no longer disguise the fact that he had actually been working for the British intelligence services at the time of his arrest, and that –- with a callousness that beggars belief –- MI5 had, at the same time, fed false information about him to their American counterparts.
While al-Rawi has been reunited with his family, however, his business partner and fellow British resident, Jamil El-Banna, who has also been cleared for release, remains incarcerated in Guantánamo, and is yet another victim of the latest attempts by the Americans and the British to return prisoners to countries where they are at risk of torture and abuse. A 45-year old Jordanian refugee with a British wife and five children, El-Banna came to Britain in 1994 and was granted refugee status in 2000. His problems stem from the fact that, unlike al-Rawi, he refused to be enlisted by MI5, and has continued to do so in Guantánamo, where British and American agents have persistently tried to recruit him, using a mixture of bribery and threats to his family.
In an attempt to pave the way for his enforced return to Jordan, which, as in the case of Abdullah bin Omar and his home country, he left because of religious persecution, the British government has resorted to claiming that his leave to remain in the UK has expired. Last week, in a parliamentary written reply, the Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne, had the nerve to state, “Mr Banna was recognized as a refugee by the UK in 1997 and was granted indefinite leave to remain in 2000. That leave has now lapsed.” One of El-Banna’s son’s, 10-year old Anas, promptly delivered a letter to Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister-in-waiting, in which he declared, “I hope you won’t say that my Dad isn’t British so you can’t help him. My Dad was treated unfairly and kidnapped and even if he isn’t British, we, his five children, are. I hope you won’t say that my dad was away from the country for more than two years. My Dad was only out of the country because he was locked up over there.” El-Banna’s solicitor, Irene Nembhard, added, “As a refugee recognized by the UK, his status does not lapse. He has a legal entitlement to return to the UK.”
As with the cases of Abdul Rauf al-Qassim, Abdullah bin Omar, Ahmed Errachidi and Ahmed Belbacha –- and others whose stories will no doubt surface in the months to come –- it remains to be seen whether justice will triumph, when the governments of both the US and UK have so little regard for international treaties, and are dedicated, instead, to demonstrating a voracious appetite for sacrificing individuals to cover up their own mistakes.
For more on Guantánamo, “extraordinary rendition,” and the prisons at Kandahar and Bagram, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.
As published on CounterPunch.
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