As it seems almost impossible to keep up with the many, hydra-like fronts of the US administration’s “War on Terror,” I was unaware of the story of Benamar Benatta until he wrote to me in response to an article I had written about the Algerian Guantánamo detainee Ahmed Belbacha.
An Algerian air force lieutenant, Benatta came to the United States with other Algerian soldiers to receive military training in December 2000, but later explained that he had no intention of returning, telling a Washington Post reporter in 2003, “I had a problem with the terrorists who wanted to kill me and with the military, which was beating and torturing people. My parents knew I did not intend to come back.” After moving to New York, where he worked as a busboy, he overstayed his visa, and, with desperately unfortunate timing, sought political asylum in Canada just six days before 9/11. Detained by the Canadian authorities, he was then handed over to the US after 9/11, and was held for four years and ten months in solitary confinement in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), a much-criticized “War on Terror” jail in Brooklyn, even though the FBI concluded, in November 2001, that he had no connection whatsoever with terrorism.
Because he had trained as an aeronautical engineer, Benatta was regarded with extreme suspicion by the authorities in charge of the MDC. According to a report on his website, “They wrote ‘WTC’ [World Trade Center] on the door of his cell. He was beaten. He was abused. He was held in conditions that the United Nations described as torture. He was forgotten.” In the Washington Post interview in 2003, he described being held in circumstances that resembled other “War on Terror” prisons, including Guantánamo. He explained that he was “placed in a solitary cell –- known by prisoners as ‘the box,’” which was “illuminated 24 hours a day,” and added that for several weeks the guards “would knock loudly on the door every half-hour to wake him up.” Deprived of access to a lawyer, to books or a television, he only ever left his cell “when FBI agents arrived to interrogate him about his job, ethnicity and religious beliefs,” and also explained that he was “forced to strip while guards mocked him.” On other occasions, he said that “guards knocked his head against the elevator wall while he was in manacles and one time pulled his waist chain so tight he had trouble breathing.“ Conditions at the MDC, which was “later criticized by the US Justice Department for its abuse of prisoners,” were also exposed in a video, from which an image is shown below.
When Benatta’s case was finally reviewed in a US court, in September 2003, Federal Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. concluded that not only was Benatta was “undeniably deprived of his liberty” in what he called a “sham,” but that the explanations offered for the sham “bordered on ridiculousness.” As the Washington Post described it, “Schroeder found ‘damning evidence’ that INS [immigration] lawyers improperly ‘colluded’ with the FBI and federal prosecutors to use immigration procedures as a ‘subterfuge’ to ‘spirit’ Benatta to New York City.” He condemned the government for not releasing Benatta despite the fact that he was officially cleared by the FBI of any connection to terrorism, and concluded, “To keep Benatta imprisoned would be taking part in the ‘charade that has been perpetrated’ against him.”
Despite Schroeder’s condemnation of Benatta’s treatment, it took another 33 months for him to be released. As one of the few newspapers to take an interest in his story, the Washington Post reported, after he was freed in July 2006, “He was among more than 1,200 mainly Muslim men who were arrested after the [9/11] attacks and held under tight security while authorities scoured their backgrounds for links to terrorist groups. It is believed that Benatta was the last to be released, though it is difficult to be certain because of the secrecy that surrounded some of the cases.”
Now seeking asylum in Canada, Benatta, as described on his website, “is seeking a judicial review regarding the legality of his transfer to the United States by the Canadian Authorities, and requesting that a judicial system be implemented to protect the human rights provisions of this country’s citizens and of foreigners entitled to the protection under the constitution of Canada and under international law.”
Visit his website for more. If, like me, you haven’t had much time to look at the stories of the “1,200 mainly Muslim men” rounded up in the United States after 9/11, it’s just the tip of an uncomfortably large iceberg.
UPDATE August 7, 2009: Two years on , Benamar is still seeking justice in Canada. See “Bitter anniversary for rendition victim,” an op-ed he wrote for the Toronto Star on July 20, 2009, for more. As he explained:
Three years have passed since that day and I still do not have any credible answers about why Canada handed me to the Americans. In fact, hurtfully, the Canadian government denies doing anything wrong in my case. But the government caused my nightmare …
I have no redress for the ruination of my career, for post-traumatic stress and depression, for reliving the nightmares of my detention every time I close my eyes. In fact, I still do not even have an “I’m sorry” from the government. “I’m sorry” for throwing all the laws of the land out the window. “I’m sorry” we ruined your life.
Why hasn’t the government done the right thing in my case? Why aren’t Canadian citizens putting pressure on the government to do the right thing? Maybe the government is more concerned about protecting its image than repairing the damage. Maybe, after the horrifying case of Maher Arar, Canadians can’t accept that their government could be directly responsible for an extraordinary rendition (something reserved for more sinister nations, like the US and Syria).
But it is true. It happened. And if Canada wants to continue forward as a nation that upholds the rule of law, and if Canadians want a government that promotes human rights, there must be acknowledgement of what happened. There must be redress. And least of all, even three long years since my return to Canada, there must be an “I’m sorry.”
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.
As published on American Torture.
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Writer, campaigner, investigative journalist and commentator. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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