Three weeks ago, Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian who was kidnapped and sent Guantánamo just a week after the prison opened, was finally released. I had been following Boumediene’s story for years, first in my book The Guantánamo Files, in which I described the non-existent plot to bomb the US embassy in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where Boumediene and five of his fellow countrymen had been living for many years, which apparently formed the basis of the men’s capture. I also noted that they had been treated appallingly in US custody, even though the plot was never mentioned, and, instead, the US authorities sought to milk the men for information about Arabs and other foreigners who had settled in Bosnia.
In 2007 and 2008, I also reported on the progress of Boumediene v. Bush, the court case that bore his name, and last November was delighted when five of the six men’s claims of innocence were finally vindicated in a US court. In a habeas corpus review triggered by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Boumediene, the judge — Richard Leon, an appointee of George W. Bush — ruled that the government had failed to establish that Boumediene and four of his co-accused had been planning to travel to Afghanistan to fight the United States (a charge which had materialized out of nowhere during their long imprisonment) and ordered their release.
Although three of the prisoners were released in December, to be reunited with their families in Bosnia, Boumediene and another man — Sabir Lahmar — faced problems because they did not have Bosnian citizenship. Lahmar is still in Guantánamo, but Boumediene was finally released when President Sarkozy of France, in a gesture of support for Barack Obama, agreed to accept him, because he has relatives in France, and also accepted his wife and two daughters, who had returned to Algeria after his capture.
Two weeks ago, Boumediene was interviewed for the first time since his release, but yesterday ABC News broadcast another, more detailed interview conducted by Jake Tapper (in Paris), in which Boumediene began by confirming that, at the time of his initial arrest in October 2001, after the US authorities had put pressure on their Bosnian counterparts to investigate the supposed plot, he had been working for the Red Crescent, providing help to orphans. “I’m a normal man,” he said. “I’m not a terrorist.” He added that, from the beginning, the whole story of the plot was “false and ludicrous.” “They search my car, my office, nothing,” he said. “Cell phone, nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”
However, although the charges were dropped, and the Bosnian courts ordered the release of Boumediene and the five other men, the Bush administration once more put the Bosnian government under enormous pressure, and on the night of their release — January 17, 2002 — they were handed over to the US military and flown to Guantánamo.
Two weeks later, President Bush mentioned the men in his State of the Union address, stating, “Our soldiers, working with the Bosnian government, seized terrorists who were plotting to bomb our embassy,” even though the plot was never mentioned in Guantánamo, and even though, as Jake Tapper noted, “To this day, officials of the Bush administration have provided no credible evidence to back up that accusation.”
Describing his first few weeks at Guantánamo, Boumediene stated that “he thought that his cooperation, and trust in the United States, would serve him well and quicken his release.” As he explained, “I thought America, the big country, they have CIA, FBI. Maybe one week, two weeks, they know I am innocent. I can go back to my home, to my home.” But instead, as Tapper described it, “he endured harsh treatment for more than seven years.” When Tapper asked him if he thought that he had been tortured, the answer was “unequivocal.” “I don’t think. I’m sure,” Boumediene said.
He proceeded to explain that he “was kept awake for 16 days straight, and physically abused repeatedly,“ described “being pulled up from under his arms while sitting in a chair with his legs shackled, stretching him,” and said that “he was forced to run with the camp’s guards and if he could not keep up, he was dragged, bloody and bruised.”
After he embarked on a hunger strike in December 2006, to protest his seemingly unending imprisonment without charge or trial, he described the “games” the guards would play with him, “putting his food IV up his nose and poking the hypodermic needle in the wrong part of his arm,” and asked, pointing to scars on his arm from the use of tight shackles, “You think that’s not torture? What’s this? What can you call this? Torture or what? I’m an animal? I’m not a human?”
He added that “he had believed that the United States honored religious diversity but believed guards at Guantánamo took actions to disrespect his religious beliefs,” saying, “They shaved my beard, because they don’t respect me, because the guards they don’t let me sleep. They don’t let me read my Koran, they don’t let me pray normal like people like Muslim outside the Guantánamo.”
Boumediene also confirmed that no one at Guantánamo ever asked him about the supposed plot to blow up the embassy in Sarajevo, and asked him only about al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, about which he knew “nothing.” However, in a startling confirmation that the prison ran more on false confessions than on real intelligence (which, of course, still plagues the majority of those who are still held), he explained that “it was in his interest to lie to the interrogators, who would reward the detainees if they admitted guilt,” telling Tapper, “If I tell my interrogator, I am from al-Qaeda, I saw Osama bin Laden, he was my boss, I help him, they will tell me, ‘Oh you are a good man.’ But if I refuse? I tell them I’m innocent, never was I terrorist, never never, they tell me, ‘You are not cooperating, I have to punch you.’”
Despite “the harsh treatment and uncertainty over his fate,” Boumediene explained that “he did not want to die because he had something to live for back home.” He told Tapper, “Every day, I think about my wife and my daughters,” but he also explained how the authorities at Guantánamo did everything in their power to enforce his isolation (as part of the techniques designed to “break” prisoners), not only taking away his personal possessions — including his wedding ring — as they would in a “normal” prison, but also making sure that he had almost no communication with his loved ones. As Tapper described it, “He now has a stack of letters, that his wife wrote to him that never arrived, a ‘return to sender’ stamp on the envelope.” Reinforcing the notion that the authorities’ primary motive was to “break” the prisoners, Boumediene added, “Over there you lose all the hopes, you lose all hope. Any good news, they don’t want you to be happy.”
After his two resounding victories against the Bush administration — in Boumediene v. Bush and in his own habeas case — Boumediene revealed that he “made himself a T-shirt that, like a soccer scoreboard, reads, ‘Boumediene: 2, Bush: 0.’”
It was a rare moment of levity in a long and completely unjustifiable ordeal, but it couldn’t make up for all the years he had lost. As he explained to Tapper, his reunion with his family was overwhelming, in part because his daughters are now 13 and 9 years old. “I cried, just cried,” he said. “Because I don’t know my daughters. The younger, when I moved from Bosnia to Gitmo, she had 18 months, only 18 months. Now 9 years. Now she’s big. Between 18 months, baby and 9 years, she walking, she’s talking, she play, she’s joking. It’s a big difference.”
In conclusion, Boumediene said that he understood, “to a degree,” how the 9/11 attacks prompted “strong reactions” from the US government, but was unable to accept that mistakes made would be uncorrected seven years later. “The first month, okay, no problem, the building, the 11 of September, the people, they are scared, but not 7 years,” he said. “They can know whose innocent, who’s not innocent, who’s terrorist, who’s not terrorist. I give you 2 years, no problem, but not 7 years.”
Although Tapper noted that he “stressed that he has no problem with the American people,” he added that he “could not hide his anger against Bush and other senior administration officials,” who he called “stupid.” “Myself, I try to forget Guantánamo,” he explained, “[but] I can’t forget the four or five people, they are stupid, they are very very stupid. I can’t forget them.” He added that he and his attorney, Rob Kirsch of the law firm WilmerHale, were “considering a lawsuit against the US government,” but, more importantly, he “needs money to survive.”
Reparations for Guantánamo have not yet become prominent — although it is surely only a matter of time, and it is a topic that was also raised today by Thomas Hammarberg, the Council Of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner — but as Rob Kirsch explained, “I think that he needs to have an income paid to him for the rest of his life. His family essentially has been thrown into poverty because of a mistake that we made seven-and-a-half years ago. What he needs is a chance to get back where he would have been.”
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.
All of the proceeds from the next one hundred copies of Cooperative Village sold through the publisher http://www.carolmrp.com in the US will be donated to Mr. Boumediene and his family. That will be $1,495 he would not have otherwise had. I’ll report back when we’ve reached the goal.
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