Saudi who suffered brain damage in Guantánamo gets married in Medina

3.8.07

The English-language Arabic daily newspaper Asharq al-Awsat recently ran an intriguing article, Life After Guantánamo, about a released Guantánamo detainee, Mishal al-Harbi, which I only came across because it was mentioned on John Burgess’ well-balanced Crossroads Arabia website.

Al-Harbi, who is now 27 years old, but who was only 21 when he was captured after a mass surrender by Taliban soldiers in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in November 2001, was typical of many of the Guantánamo detainees. A low-level Taliban recruit, he admitted during his initial Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantánamo –- and his annual review a year later (the Administrative Review Board) –- that he went to Afghanistan to fight Shiites and not to fight Jews and Christians, as alleged. This suggests –- as with many other recruits –- that someone misled him while recruiting him in his homeland, as, with the exception of the Shia militias, the majority of the Northern Alliance –- the Tajiks and Uzbeks –- were Sunni Muslims like himself. Al-Harbi also admitted that he had received weapons training in Afghanistan, and had been on the Taliban front lines for three days, although he denied an allegation that he fought against US forces, and also denied an allegation that he drove a “rocket launcher mounted truck” in combat against the Northern Alliance, telling his tribunal that he drove a food supply vehicle instead.

After surrendering with several hundred other foreign fighters, al-Harbi survived a massacre at the Qala-i-Janghi fort in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif (discussed in detail in my book The Guantánamo Files), and arrived at Guantánamo on one of the first flights in January 2002, but it was what happened to him in Guantánamo that raised his profile above that of many other Taliban recruits. On 16 January 2003, during a particularly fraught time in the prison, when there was conflict between the detainees and some of the guards, who were abusing the Koran, al-Harbi suffered permanent mental and physical damage after his brain was deprived of oxygen for several minutes. According to the US authorities, he had attempted to hang himself, but according to a Washington Post report in March 2007 by Faiza Saleh Ambah, his brother claimed that his injuries were the result of a severe beating by some of the prison’s guards, and his family was “seeking not only financial compensation but also concrete answers from the US government –- either an admission that Mishal was injured by guards or proof that he tried to kill himself.”

Mishal al-Harbi (right), and his brother Fahd

Mishal al-Harbi (right), and his brother Fahd (photo by Faiza Saleh Ambah).

Quite what happened that night is unclear, but Faiza Saleh Ambah provided details which suggested that al-Harbi had indeed been set upon by guards. Hammad Ali, a released Sudanese detainee, recalled that his injuries took place shortly after he had been transferred to the isolation block India. He explained that one evening, after the guards had forcibly taken the Koran off another prisoner, prompting a half-hour protest by the detainees, who banged on their cell doors and shouted “Allah-u-Akbar” (God is great), riot guards entered the block, and, according to released Bahraini detainee Abdullah al-Noaimi, “started beating prisoners in their individual cells.” A short while later, al-Noaimi added, one of the guards shouted, “Turn on the lights!” and al-Harbi was carried out of his cell. He then spent three months in a coma, kept alive on an artificial respirator, and after he regained consciousness, according to records released by the Department of Defense, his weight dropped from 116 pounds (his weight on arrival, after six weeks of malnutrition in various Afghan prisons) to just 98 pounds (seven stone, or 44 kg).

For his part, however, al-Harbi was unsure of what happened on the night of 16 January 2003. As Faiza Saleh Ambah described it, “Sitting cross-legged on the carpet in the family guest room, his frayed black leather wheelchair to his left, Mishal said he remembers that after the desecration of the Koran, a guard entered his cell. ‘He was carrying a shield. He pushed me with it. I don’t remember anything else,’ he said, speaking with a heavy tongue.”

Although he recovered sufficiently to write letters to his family, and was helped by physical therapists, al-Harbi was not released from Guantánamo until July 2005, and is still “partially paralyzed” and confined to a wheelchair. Taking up his story after his return to Saudi Arabia, the Asharq al-Awsat profile, by Turki al-Saheil, focuses on the rehabilitation programs established by the Saudi government to “raise the [ex-detainees’] spirits and reintegrate them back into society.” Al-Saheil notes that al-Harbi, who “until recently had been receiving treatment at a hospital in Medina … required more time by reason of the incapacity he suffered while inside the US detention facility,” but adds that he “has managed to overcome his feelings of despair,” and, with the blessing of the Saudi Interior Ministry, married a Saudi woman last month, “whom he sees as the most beautiful thing in his life.”

While this is clearly a happy outcome for al-Harbi, who is being paid 3,000 Saudi Riyals a month [approximately $800] “as a means of assistance until he fully recovers,” al-Saheil’s article, like a previous article about released detainee Sa’ad al-Bidna, is rather vague about the constraints imposed on the released detainees in terms of surveillance and restrictions on their liberty, although there seems little doubt that the rehabilitation programs are principally designed to reintegrate the former detainees into society, through a form of “reprogramming,” in the case of the former jihadis, and then through more direct means –- including returning them to their former jobs –- in the cases of both the ex-Taliban recruits and the many men who were in Afghanistan as humanitarian aid workers or missionaries. Curiously, this latter category of ex-detainees is mentioned only in passing in the article, in the following rather blank sentence: “Facts show that a portion of those who returned from the Guantánamo facility were not involved in armed movements in areas of conflict.”

For those in the former category, al-Saheil explains that, after initial investigation, “The Interior Ministry’s philosophy in dealing with the Guantánamo returnees depends on several chief factors, the most important of which is reforming them intellectually,” a process which is “handled by a number of religious specialists who apply a program that is especially prepared for this purpose,” and adds that during this process the ministry also provides them with schooling, “the opportunity to live outside the prison,” and involvement in “different social programs.” As a result, we are told that “the ministry has not witnessed any negative signals from the citizens returning from the detention facility and whom it has recently released after completing the rehabilitation programs that seek to restore their psychological, social and religious well-being and reintegrate them back into society.”

Although this is not a full picture by any means, it remains to be seen whether any of the Saudi ex-detainees will ever be allowed to talk freely about their experiences, and whether the cause of Mishal al-Harbi’s injuries will ever be adequately explained. In the meantime, as two of the few English language reports to deal with the returned Saudi detainees, the articles by Faiza Saleh Ambah and Turki al-Saheil are some of the only glimpses we’re likely to be granted into the lives of the 72 Saudi detainees who have been released from Guantánamo.

Note: Throughout his detention, al-Harbi was referred to by the US authorities as Mishal Alhabiri.

Andy Worthington is the author of 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.

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