Cleared but still held in Guantánamo: Moroccan prisoner Said al-Boujaadia

2.4.08

The flag of MoroccoIn the first of an occasional series looking at prisoners in Guantánamo who have been cleared for release after multiple military reviews, but are still held in the notorious offshore prison, Andy Worthington, author of The Guantánamo Files, and Communications Officer for Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity that represents prisoners in Guantánamo, looks at the case of Said al-Boujaadia, a Moroccan prisoner who was cleared for release in 2006.

There are, at conservative estimates, at least 50 prisoners in Guantánamo who have been cleared for release by military review boards from 2005 to the present day, but who are still held in appalling isolation. The majority are held in Camp VI, a maximum-security cell block, completed in December 2006, where they remain for 22 to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, in metal cells without windows. They have no opportunity to socialize with other cleared prisoners, have extremely limited opportunities for education or entertainment (no TV, no radio, and limited access to books), and their ability to communicate with their families by letter is subject to the whims of the authorities, who frequently delay the delivery of letters or misplace them altogether.

In the cases of dozens of these prisoners — from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan — they continue to be held because the Bush administration (which is usually more than willing to shred its international obligations) has, for the most part, agreed to be bound by international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture, although there are notable exceptions.

Last year, in an attempt to bypass its obligations, the US administration signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the government of Tunisia, which purported to guarantee the humane treatment of cleared prisoners released from Guantánamo, even though Tunisia is regularly condemned for endemic human rights abuses by the US State Department. When two men — Lotfi Lagha and Abdullah bin Omar (aka Abdullah al-Hajji) — were returned to Tunisia from Guantánamo, they were reportedly subjected to ill-treatment in Tunisian custody, and were then convicted and imprisoned after trials that were regarded by observers as woefully inadequate. A US District judge then intervened to prevent the return of a third cleared Tunisian, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, and another court recently intervened to prevent the return of another cleared prisoner, Ahmed Belbacha, to Algeria, another country with which the administration has been pursuing dubious “diplomatic assurances” of humane treatment.

While these cases account for the majority of the cleared prisoners who are still held in Guantánamo, others have been overlooked for other reasons, and one of these men is Moroccan national Said al-Boujaadia.

A father of three, al-Boujaadia, who is 39 years old, is from Casablanca. In 2001, he traveled to Afghanistan with his Afghan wife, whom he had met and married on a previous visit, and their three children. In the chaos that followed the US-led invasion in October 2001, he managed to secure the safe escape of his family, but was himself captured, as he attempted to help another family cross the Pakistani border to safety.

Hundreds of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay were seized at this time in a similar manner, and it has since become apparent that many were then sold by their Afghan captors to US forces, who were offering bounty rewards, averaging $5,000 a head, for al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects. When offered these rewards, many of the Americans’ allies seized stray foreigners, in the knowledge that they could be packaged as “terror suspects” and sold.

Al-Boujaadia was cleared for release from Guantánamo in late 2006, when a military review board decided that he did not pose a threat to the United States or its allies — including Morocco. He was reportedly scheduled to leave Guantánamo in April 2007, with another cleared prisoner, Ahmed Errachidi. At the last minute, however, while Errachidi was flown to Morocco to be reunited with his family, the US military decided to keep al-Boujaadia at the prison, not because of anything he had done, but because he had been requested as a witness at the trial by military commission of another prisoner, Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who had been a driver for Osama bin Laden.

Hamdan’s defense counsel offered alternatives that would have allowed al-Boujaadia to be released. These included videotaping a statement from him, or allowing him to testify from Morocco, but these options were all refused. The authorities continued to hold al-Boujaadia and failed even to explain to his lawyers, or to al-Boujaadia himself, that he was being held because he was required as a witness.

On December 6, 2007, al-Boujaadia finally testified on Hamdan’s behalf. Despite an eight-month wait, it was clear that he had little to offer, and that Hamdan’s defense counsel had acted correctly in trying to find ways to allow him to make a statement without having to remain in Guantánamo. Although he was seized on the same day as Hamdan, al-Boujaadia recalled only that the first time he saw Hamdan was when he was taken to a makeshift Afghan prison and found Hamdan lying face down on the floor. In response to further questioning, he explained that he had no idea whether Hamdan was an al-Qaeda member, and that he had not seen his car, which allegedly contained a number of rockets.

Since he has already given his testimony, there has been no reason for the US authorities to continue holding Said al-Boujaadia, but four months later he remains in Guantánamo, still separated from his family, and with no indication of when, if ever, he will finally be released.

In an attempt to address this oversight, lawyers from Reprieve (including the charity’s director, Clive Stafford Smith) recently traveled to Morocco to raise his plight with the Moroccan government. In meetings with government representatives, and at a well-attended press conference in Rabat, Stafford Smith urged the government and the media to take action on Said al-Boujaadia’s behalf. He noted that ten Moroccan prisoners had already returned home from Guantánamo Bay, and that each had been dealt with in a just and appropriate manner.

The lawyers also asked the government to assist the US authorities in their stated aim of closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay by making representations on behalf of two other Moroccan prisoners, Younis Chekkouri and Abdullatif Nasser, who have not yet been cleared for release.

Younis Chekkouri, who is 39 years old, traveled to Afghanistan in 2001, with his Algerian wife, after many years in Pakistan, where he had first traveled in search of work and education. The couple lived on the outskirts of Kabul, working for a charity that ran a guest house and helped young Moroccan immigrants, and had no involvement whatsoever in the country’s conflicts. Chekkouri has repeatedly explained that he was profoundly disillusioned by the fighting amongst Muslims that has plagued Afghanistan’s recent history, and has also expressed his implacable opposition to the havoc wreaked on the country by Osama bin Laden. In his military tribunal in Guantánamo, he described bin Laden as “a crazy person,” adding that “what he does is bad for Islam.”

Abdullatif Nasser, who is 43 years old, had worked as a small-scale businessman in Libya and Sudan, and had also spent time in Yemen and Pakistan. He was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001, and has explained that he was attracted to the country because of its Islamic scholars and its piety. In Guantánamo, he has experienced particularly harsh treatment, because he stands up for the rights of his fellow prisoners, and refuses to keep silent in the face of injustice.

All three men are represented by Reprieve, and Clive Stafford Smith made it clear, both in public, and in representations to the King and the government, that they are all happy to submit to any investigations that the Moroccan government thinks appropriate. “The men are perfectly willing to stand trial to face any charges your government feels are warranted,” he explained to Moroccan officials. “They have been asking for a trial, after all, for six years. These men merely seek justice — justice denied them for far too long by the American government.”

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, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on the Huffington Post and CounterPunch.

Note: Said al-Boujaadia was released from Guantánamo and transferred to Moroccan custody in May 2007.

5 Responses

  1. Linda G. Richard says...

    I like the new look of the place! Well done!

  2. thinkbridge says...

    I wish this could be circulated, even in abbreviated form, as a pamphlet to the general population of the US, and maybe a change in public opinion/outcry would happen. It’s totally unconscionable.

    It also reminds me of the situation of Cuban exiles who were convicted of crimes, served their time, but cannot return to Cuba and so spend their time in “work camps” throughout the US, esp. Florida, playing cards and doing nothing in particular, in virtual no-man’s land. They also cannot be assimilated into the U.S., some of them lacking the papers, money, or other essentials to gaining residency, a process becoming even more formidable as anti-alien sentiment grows.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    After this article was published on CounterPunch, I received the following message:

    Dear Andy,

    Some quick and positive feedback. “Bravo and well done”. Not just for your latest article in CounterPunch (The Ordeal of Moroccan Prisoner …) but the very many articles of yours I have read. I for one read all your articles that I see and circulate them to friends around the world.

    Your documentation of the abuses, absurdities, lack of due process, maltreatment and injustice there does you great credit. I think your work will stand as research material for future students examining this sordid chapter of US history.

    Writing about Guantánamo in the current climate generated by the Bush regime is, in my mind, also a demonstration of your courage and values that are to be admired and respected.

    The information you reveal is important and I have faith that it will contribute to the restoration of values we’ve lost after the hysteria, heavy-handed fear mongering and loss of perspective following the 11th of September incident (my first guess was that that was carried out by a Chilean group in reprisal for the 11/9/1973 but I was clearly wrong).

    Now if only the same could be done for Diego Garcia, Camp Cropper, Bagram, etc.

    And I will be buying your book very soon.

    Again — well done and thank you.

    Chris Houtman
    Australia

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    I also received the following message from law professor Brian J. Foley:

    Hi Andy,
    Love your work on Guantánamo, and I’m looking forward to reading your book.
    Here is an article of mine that is coming out any day now in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (and quotes you and mentions your book). Hope you like it. I plan to get it onto SSRN very soon so that it may be downloaded.

    This was a few weeks ago, and I was unavoidably distracted (holiday, and then work), but when I got back to Brian today, he let me know that his excellent and detailed article, “Guantánamo and Beyond: Danger of Rigging the Rules,” was now available online:
    http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1124626

    Thanks very much for your comments, Brian, and for making your article available.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Tony Duncan sent the following message to a group that he emails about impeachment and related issues:

    A LOT of my information comes from Counterpunch.org. It is one of the best sources for political and social information that I know of. Almost all the contributors really deeply know what they write about, and there is a broad diversity of perspective, though almost all progressive.

    I am trying to figure out what people are thinking: the Administration, Congress, the media and the American public that is aware of this. It has been clear for a number of years that many “detainees” at Guantanamo are innocent of any crime, and that the vast majority cannot be proven to have done anything wrong, even if they are “bad guys”.

    I assume the Administration will not do anything because they won’t admit that they really screwed this up, and they don’t want their wacko right wing base to go ballistic about releasing these terrorists. But why doesn’t Congress act? For the same reason? Can’t be soft on terrorism? And the media? What is their excuse? These are innocent people in a prison camp. Innocent people.

    If one American is picked up and put in jail when there is NO evidence against them, there would be howls of indignation and calls for American retaliation against the barbaric country that subverts the rule of law for political purposes. That person almost always gets released. The cases I know of where that hasn’t happened, like Lori Berenson in Peru, actually had contact with Shining Path members, though there is no real proof she aided them. Does anyone know of any other case?

    If we do NOT do anything to undo this travesty, the precedent for incremental abuse is going to be hard to resist. It is already happening with the detention of illegal aliens, and there is not attention to that situation either.

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