Life After Guantánamo: Lakhdar Boumediene Speaks

29.5.09

So many of the stories relating to Guantánamo are bleak that I thought it was worth mentioning a recent interview with Lakhdar Boumediene, who was released from Guantánamo two weeks ago after seven years and four months of pointless and brutal imprisonment.

I first reported the story of Boumediene and his five compatriots — Algerians who had settled in Bosnia in the 1990s, and who were kidnapped by US agents in January 2002, in connection with a non-existent plot to bomb the US embassy in Sarajevo, and flown to Guantánamo — in my book The Guantánamo Files. I also covered the Supreme Court case which bore Boumediene’s name — and which allowed the Guantánamo prisoners to challenge the basis of their detention in the US courts — last June, and followed up by reporting on the six men’s habeas corpus review last November, which led to the judge ordering the release of five of the men, including Boumediene, because the government had failed to establish a case against them.

I then watched, disheartened, as Boumediene and another of the cleared men, Sabir Lahmar, were left behind in Guantánamo when the other three men were released in December, because they did not have Bosnian citizenship, and because they had established that it was not safe for them to return to Algeria.  And finally, two weeks ago, I was relieved when Boumediene was finally released in France, after the government of Nicolas Sarkozy offered to take him (and his family, who had returned to Algeria after he was seized) as a gesture of goodwill towards the Obama administration — and because he has relatives in France — although I still find it disturbing that Lahmar, and other prisoners cleared after their habeas reviews (including the Uighurs and a former child prisoner, Mohammed El-Gharani) are still held.

The opening lines of an article based on the first interview with Boumediene, published in both the Washington Post and Le Monde, were particularly moving:

When the nightmare finally ended — seven years at Guantánamo Bay, two years of force-feeding through a tube in his right nostril, the long struggle to proclaim his innocence before a judge, and finally 10 days of hospitalization — Lakhdar Boumediene celebrated with pizza for lunch in a little Paris dive.

“When we were at the restaurant,” Boumediene said Monday, shortly after the meal that marked his release from doctors’ care and reentry into normal society, “I told my wife that for the first time I felt like a man again, tasting things, picking things up in my fingers, eating lunch with my wife and my two daughters.”

Boumediene proceeded to explain that his imprisonment had been “an ugly mistake” on the part of the US authorities, based primarily on his limited association with Belkacem Bensayah, the only one of the six men who did not have his habeas petition granted last November. Although the Washington Post prefaced his account — rather unnecessarily, I thought — with the caveat that his “version of events is impossible to verify independently,” the former aid worker with the Red Crescent explained that he “did not know Bensayah well,” but had helped him out, as a fellow Algerian, when he came to his office “seeking help for his family.” He added that, after Bensayah was arrested, he provided his wife with money for a lawyer, and concluded that, as a result of these connections, the US authorities had linked him to terrorist activities in Bosnia. These appear to have been based solely on Bensayah’s purported relationship with Abu Zubaydah, the supposed senior al-Qaeda operative, who was, in fact, the gatekeeper for an independent training camp, Khaldan, which was closed down by the Taliban in 2000 after its emir, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (who recently died in a Libyan jail), refused to work with al-Qaeda.

Boumediene also explained that a visit he had made to Pakistan in the early 1990s had “aroused the suspicions of US investigators,” even though he had had nothing to do with any kind of military activity or training while there, and had, instead, been “a proctor at a Kuwaiti-financed school for Afghan orphans,” and added that, because he had his passport renewed at the Algerian Embassy in Islamabad during his stay, and because numerous Algerian mujahideen had also renewed their passports, he was probably marked by the Algerian security services as a potential extremist.

This, he said, was confirmed when he traveled to Algeria in December 1999 to visit his family, but was “stopped at the airport and told he was on a list of people wanted for questioning.” Although he denied any connection to Algerian extremists, he had his passport confiscated. In an attempt to retrieve it, he made what he regarded as a mistake that also counted against him when he ended up in US custody, securing its return by registering for an amnesty that was being offered by President Bouteflika to his Islamist opponents. “That,” as the Post explained, “solved his problem in Algeria. But a document listing him as a beneficiary of the amnesty was found in his home after his arrest in Bosnia and, Boumediene speculated, served to reinforce US suspicions about his ties to al-Qaeda.”

Moving on to describe his time in Guantánamo, Boumediene said that he was interrogated more than 120 times, and confirmed what he and his compatriots had maintained throughout their time in Guantánamo, whenever their accounts were made available to the public: that the interrogations focused not on the long-discredited embassy plot, but on mining the prisoners for intelligence about Arabs and other foreign Muslims in Bosnia. “At first I thought they were honest,” Boumediene said, “and when I explained they would see I was innocent and would release me. But after the first two years or so, I realized they were not straight. So I stopped cooperating.”

Boumediene also recalled that, during one 16-day period in February 2003, “the interrogations went on day and night, sometimes with tactics such as lifting him roughly from the chair where he was strapped, so the shackles dug into his flesh.” He added that the interrogators, “some dressed in military uniforms and others in civilian clothes, were assisted by Arabic interpreters who seemed mostly to be from Egypt and Lebanon … and later included a few Moroccans and Iraqis.” The activities of the interpreters prompted what the Post described as Boumediene’s “only show of anger.” “They were dogs,” he said. “They often started doing the interrogations themselves. They would tell the interrogators they could get more information.”

Boumediene also explained that, at Christmas in 2006, he began a hunger strike, which lasted until his release, “in an effort to get someone to listen to his pleas of innocence,” and was force-fed twice a day through a tube inserted through his nose and into his stomach, a horribly painful experience that it is difficult to imagine enduring for nearly two and a half years. He added that he only broke his fast on two occasions: “once when he learned of President Obama’s election and again when the judge ordered his release.”

As the interview wound up, he said, “I have no idea why this happened to me. I’m a Muslim like any other. I pray and I observe Ramadan. But I don’t have any hatred against anybody.” He added that he was grateful to the French government for its assistance in rehousing him, and pointed out that his first priority was “to draw close to his family again,” but he pledged that, at some point in the future, he wants to sue the senior US officials who were responsible for the loss of over seven years of his life. “I don’t know whether it will be possible,” he said. “But even if it takes 100 years, I am determined to bring suit.”

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 also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

8 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    Pizza in a Paris dive sounds like a slice of heaven. My only hope is that when Mr. Boumediene sues, as he should in the name of justice, the papers are served behind bars to already sitting criminals doing time.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    That would be appropriate, Frances.
    I only really put this article together to focus on that one particular line that Lakhdar said about his new-found freedom:
    “I told my wife that for the first time I felt like a man again, tasting things, picking things up in my fingers, eating lunch with my wife and my two daughters.”
    I’m also curious, because the Post said that it had conducted an extensive interview, although not much surfaced in the article, and I’d like to hear what else he had to say. Perhaps one day I too can buy him pizza in Paris.

  3. Life After Guantánamo: Lakhdar Boumediene Speaks by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad http://www.andyworthington.co.uk 27 May [...]

  4. the talking dog says...

    Lakhdar has shown the kind of equanimity, grace and downright class that most of the ex-detainees who have managed to make it to countries where they are allowed to talk about their ordeal have demonstrated. Of course, speaking out at all, I suppose, will be interpreted as just one more terrrrrrorist returning to the battlefield.

    The Washington Post does indeed add that zinger qualifier “of course it can’t be confirmed”… But notice what is not discussed in the WaPo article (because then, perhaps, Americans might actually not be able to deny it): Lakhdar was not merely a successful litigant before the United States Supreme Court, he is one of 25 out of 29 detainees who have had habeas corpus hearings (in American federal court, by American judges) determine that the United States simply has no legal reason to hold them. And for those who fear “liberal activist judges”, he was so found by Judge Richard Leon, a George W. Bush appointee who has given the government every possible benefit of the doubt (and is indeed the only judge to have found that there was a legal basis to hold anyone).

    Despite detainees winning over 86% of their legal cases, the Obama Admin. has released a pathetic two in four months; at this rate, detainees will trickle out over the next 3 or 4 decades, making that “close GTMO in one year” promise about as empty as everything else associated with “the excuse for tyranny nebulous thing formerly known as the war on terror”.

    President Obama’s rhetoric on the subject has been laudable; his actual action on the subject to date has been anything but. I recognize that there may be “pragmatic” political reasons for this, and the President may still be in his “honeymoon phase” for many people. Neither ia an excuse for we, the citizenry, to engage in the least bit of complacency in the face of an egregious ONGOING injustice being committed by our own government right in front of us.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    The Dog is barking this Saturday!

    Thanks for the comments, TD. I did wonder about adding something to the Post’s unnecessary proviso, along the lines of asking if it was editorial policy to state, every time a civilian court failed to convict someone, that the defense’s “version of events is impossible to verify independently” — and also to point out that, in federal courts, prisoners are also not kidnapped and held for nearly seven years before their cases are dismissed — but decided that would be an unwieldy intrusion into the flow of the article. So thanks for giving me the excuse to point it out.

    And thanks also for pointing out, as should happen every day, accompanied by some sort of loud siren, that the courts have, to date, cleared 86 percent of the prisoners whose cases have been heard, and that Obama has so far released only two prisoners — and, I might add, that 21 of those 25 prisoners whose habeas petitions were successful are still held.

    Many months ago, I toyed with the idea of setting up a campaigning website, “Free the Guantanamo Uighurs,” to canvas support for the release of the 17 Uighurs, and to put the spotlight on Judges Randolph and Henderson, the appeals court judges who dismissed Judge Ricardo Urbina’s order to release the Uighurs into the US last October.

    The more their distressing limbo is maintained, the more I’m thinking that it really needs to be done …

  6. acn09 says...

    Is there a way to get in touch with him? I just want to apologize to him, and all the others who were unnecessarily imprisoned and tortured as a result of red tape and inept government officials, for not looking into this issue further and taking action. It seems like our country has a tendency to proclaim it’s integrity, make horrific mistakes, and then take a mighty long time to actually prove it or even own up to them. I am more than fortunate to live here, and I believe in the United State’s potential to be a model among nations, but we aren’t there yet, and it seems that no one really wants to dig deeper and find out the whole story. I hope people start realizing that the future of our country (or my country if you’re from somewhere else) lies in whether or not we sit back and complacently watch our government make mistakes and even commit egregious wrongs (we are a nation made of human beings after all, and we are NOT perfect) or whether we start taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions, and actually work on improving ourselves through thoughtful reflection and sure action.

  7. mr. nichols says...

    not sure if anyone still reads this, but you all should use a little more caution when praising this guy. please dont believe everything you read, ON BOTH SIDES. this man is NOT completely innocent, i assure you. ive seen some of his actions in the past, and they were not the actions of a man with class, and grace.

    its a tough issue, just be careful who you praise.

  8. Moazzam Begg Interviews Former Guantánamo Prisoner Saber Lahmer « Eurasia Review says...

    [...] three to Bosnia-Herzegovina in December 2008, Lakhdar Boumediene to France in May 2009 (also see here and here), and Saber Lahmar to France in December 2009. The sixth man, Belkacem Bensayah, [...]

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