The story of Guantánamo detainee Lofti Lagha, which I first broke here, and subsequently reported on here and here, reached a predictably sad conclusion last week when he was sentenced to three years in prison. The 39-year old, who had traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 after several years as an illegal immigrant in Italy, was captured in Pakistan at a time when bounty payments for Arabs were commonplace, and has claimed that his fingers, which were affected by frostbite as he escaped Afghanistan through the Tora Bora mountains, were unnecessarily amputated while he was in prison at the US airbase in Bagram.
Lagha’s trial –- four months after his repatriation from Guantánamo –- bore all the hallmarks of an unjust show trial. Allegations that he received military training in Afghanistan and fought with the Taliban regime were dropped, and he was, instead, convicted of “associating with a criminal group with the aim of harming or causing damage in Tunisia,” even though, as the Associated Press reported, the Tunisian authorities “did not name the group that Lagha was said to participate in or specify what its planned violence was,” and even though Lagha himself insisted during the trial, “I haven’t been involved in any terrorist activity. I went to Afghanistan for work.” Speaking after the verdict was announced, his lawyer, Samir Ben Amor, said he was “disappointed” with the verdict, and stated that he would lodge an appeal, adding, “We thought he would get justice in his own country after what he endured at Guantánamo.”
While casting the regime of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a predictably bad light, the verdict also does nothing to assure critics of the US administration that the “diplomatic assurances” received from Tunisia regarding the status of detainees returned from Guantánamo are anything other than worthless. This was, after all, a man that the US authorities had cleared for release after over five years in custody, as close to an admission of wrongful arrest as the notoriously unapologetic Bush regime ever gets.
Those concerned about the administration’s ongoing attempts to break international safeguards preventing the return of cleared detainees to the countries of their birth, where they face the prospect of torture, should keep a close eye on the authorities over the coming months, as they attempt to erase their many mistakes, sending cleared men not just to Tunisia, but also –- in a plot in which the British government is also complicit –- to Libya and Algeria.
A glimmer of hope was provided last month, when a principled judge, Gladys Kessler, acted to prevent the government from returning another cleared Tunisian, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, to his homeland, stating, unequivocally, that, in light of the forthcoming Supreme Court review of the detainees’ rights, which “cast a deep shadow of uncertainty” over previous rulings restricting these rights, “it would be a profound miscarriage of justice” if the court denied Abdul Rahman’s petition to remain in Guantánamo, because of “the grave harm [he] has alleged he will face if transferred.”
It’s too late for Lofti Lagha, but his case demonstrates, with appalling clarity, why the US administration must be kept under constant pressure to find other destinations –- in third countries, or even, dare I suggest, on the US mainland –- for the many men whose lives have been ruined by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unjustly imprisoned, held without charge or trial and subjected to wanton violence for nearly six years, they surely deserve better than this.
For more on the Tunisian detainees in Guantánamo, see Human Rights Watch’s recent report, Ill-Fated Homecomings (which demonstrates the arbitrary nature of Tunisian justice by establishing that eight other Tunisians in Guantánamo have been convicted in absentia on extremely dubious evidence), and my newly published 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.
Note: Mr. Lagha’s first name is spelled incorrectly. It is “Lotfi” not “Lofti.”
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