On Saturday, I spoke by phone to Georgian journalist Ketevan Khachidze about the three men released from Guantánamo to Georgia last week, congratulating the country on its humanitarian gesture, and explaining why fears that the government is accepting “terrorists” are gravely misplaced, and are based on unsubstantiated propaganda by the Bush administration. In addition, I told the story of one of these men, Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi, whose identity was released by his attorney, Candace Gorman, and I was happy to talk to Ketevan about his case in the hope that it would provide just one salient example of the terrible mistakes that were made at Guantánamo. I reproduce the article below, as published in The Georgian Times, not just for my contribution, but also because it sheds light on how decisions to accept prisoners from Guantánamo are reflected in political maneuvering in the countries involved.
I also reproduce another article, published on today on EurasiaNet, written by Molly Corso, a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Molly interviewed me back in October last year, when it was first indicated that Georgia would accept prisoners from Guantánamo, and her latest article provides some updates, and also includes information I provided during a telephone interview on Monday.
Georgia Helps Close Guantánamo
By Ketevan Khachidze, Lizaveta Zhahanina, The Georgian Times, March 29, 2010
The transfer of three Guantánamo Bay prison inmates to Georgia has sparked controversy in Georgia. The Government has justified the move by saying it is part of the strategic relationship between Georgia and the US. Some opposition groups however have denounced the lack of clarity on the issue and voiced security concerns.
According to the Georgian Interior Ministry, the Guantánamo inmates arrived on Tuesday and will live in Georgia freely under the control of law enforcement bodies. They will not be allowed to leave the country.
The Obama Administration had pledged to close the Guantánamo prison by January 2010 but as the Western media noted missed the deadline due to a difficulty in finding countries which would host the prisoners.
In a statement released on Tuesday the Justice Department thanked Georgia for making its task easier: “The United States is grateful to Georgia for its willingness to support US efforts to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility.”
The nationalities of the inmates have been kept secret for security reasons but the Georgian authorities said they come from the Middle East. An Interior Ministry spokesperson said that the transfer was made after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs exchanged notes with the US State Department.
The August 2008 war created a big headache for the US, which had to stand by Tbilisi in its official rhetoric at least. Many analysts note that Georgia is now trying to prove it is still an asset for Washington rather than a liability. Georgia has become the highest per capita troop contributor to NATO’s operation in Afghanistan for the same reason and this is primarily why Georgia is accepting the Guantánamo inmates today.
Davit Darchiashvili, Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for European Integration, said that the decision carries serious political importance as “strategic partnership between countries is always a two-way process.”
“If a big part of [the Government’s message] is that we have a special relationship with the United States, you have to be able to demonstrate that. This is one way to do it,” Lincoln Mitchell, an Assistant Professor of International Politics at New York’s Columbia University, was quoted as saying by EurasiaNet.
Senior Interior Ministry official Shota Utiashvili said the presence of former terror suspects does not pose any threat to civilians. “We have carefully examined their profiles and are confident that they will not create any dangers. Many countries have received Guantánamo prisoners and there has not been a single case in which these prisoners have violated the laws of their host countries,” Utiashvili said.
Pro-Western opposition leader Irakli Alasania also brushed off concerns that the inmates pose security threats to the country but was not happy with the Government’s explanations. “I don’t think the transfer of the three former prisoners is dangerous for the country. However, the Government is obliged to give clear explanations regarding this, and take relevant security measures,” Alasania told journalists.
Other opposition figures were more critical. MP Gia Tsagareishvili says the explanations given by Government officials leave the public unable to assess the risks involved in the transfer. “If the risks were assessed by National Security Council Secretary Eka Tkeshelashvili, I do not believe they are reliable. She has held too many positions, and during the August war we all saw her skill at risk assessments,” Tsagareishvili said.
Andy Worthington is among those who believes that the transfer of former terror suspects would not jeopardize Georgia’s security. He is a British journalist and author of three books, including The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.
“There is absolutely no reason to worry whatsoever. The men who have been released have been cleared on two or three occasions in the United States. The Obama administration has been very careful about making sure that it does not release anybody who may constitute any kind of a threat,” he said in a phone interview with GT on Saturday.
Moreover, Andy Worthington believes that Georgia should be commended for what he calls “a humanitarian gesture” and joining the club of all those countries who help close Guantánamo.
The Prisoner’s Story: from Libya to Guantánamo
Andy Worthington said he knows the story of one of the inmates who was transferred to Georgia from the prisoner’s lawyer. His name is Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi and he comes from Libya.
“He is a Libyan who had travelled to Afghanistan in the 1980 to fight against the Soviet Union. But after that he settled in Afghanistan, he married an Afghan woman and had a child. He and his wife were running a bakery in Jalalabad at the time of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. He heard that Arabs were being targeted. So, he thought it was better to move to his wife’s family’s village where his wife’s mother and father lived. He thought he would be safer there. But he was captured by bounty hunters and he was sold to the United States and he ended up in Guantánamo.
“Now in 2004 in Guantánamo they held what were called Combatant Status Review Tribunals. They were tribunals of military officers who looked at what the government claimed was the evidence against the prisoners and decided whether they should still be held as enemy combatants, as men who could be held indefinitely. In that tribunal the three men who looked at Mr. al-Ghizzawi’s case said there is no case against this man. We know this because one of the men, Lieutenant Colonel Steven Abraham, said they did not use anything that rose to the level of evidence and should have let him go. He later submitted a document that went to the Supreme Court in which he explained essentially how the tribunals at Guantánamo were a sham process. Two other American officers [also] said there was no reason to continue holding this man [in custody].
“What happened was that the government dismissed them, set up another tribunal and told these officers to change the opinion. So, it convened another tribunal to get the right answer … So, essentially, there was never any reason to hold this man. He was somebody who was picked up and was sold to the Americans because the Americans were offering bounty payments averaging $5,000 a head for people who could be dressed up as al-Qaeda or the Taliban and Mr. Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi fitted this picture, he was an Arab living in Afghanistan. The fact is that he had not been involved in any fighting for over ten years, and when he had been, he had been fighting against the Soviet Union.”
Georgia Officials Say Guantánamo Prisoners Pose No Threat
By Molly Corso, Eurasianet, March 30, 2010
Eager to demonstrate its reliability as Washington’s strategic partner, the Georgian government is downplaying security concerns about three former prisoners dispatched from the United States’ Guantánamo Bay prison to Georgia.
US President Barack Obama’s administration has been under ongoing pressure to find new homes for prisoners housed at the US-run Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba after pledging to close the facility by January 2010. Over 180 prisoners remain in limbo.
Georgian opposition groups have raised concerns about potential risks from Tbilisi’s willingness to help house former Guantánamo detainees, but ruling party politicians and government officials have brushed aside worries that the three men pose any security threat.
“The Georgian government made the decision to accept several detainees as part of our strategic partnership with the United States,” Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Gigi Tsereteli commented to EurasiaNet.org. “Three or four people is [sic] not any threat for the Georgian state.” One senior Ministry of Internal Affairs official underlined that the trio will live “normal lives” in their host country.
A special group of ministry representatives traveled to the Guantánamo prison in December 2009 to interview possible detainees for relocation, said Shota Utiashvili, head of the ministry’s analytical department. The Georgian government was satisfied that the men are not dangerous, although wanted to confirm that they were not “psychologically damaged,” he added. The men have already contacted their families, and are free to bring them to Georgia if they wish, Utiashvili continued.
The men are currently housed in Tbilisi and have been provided with language tutors to help them learn Georgian. Utiashvili said that the Georgian government is not paying for the men’s accommodations or needs, but would not elaborate about who is covering the cost of their care. He would not identify any of the ex-prisoners.
The US attorney for one of the men, however, maintains that he is far from being a terrorist. In March 23 comments posted on her blog, Chicago-based attorney H. Candace Gorman identified one of the transferred prisoners as Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi. In published interviews, Gorman has described al-Ghizzawi as a Libyan baker in his mid-40s with an Afghan wife and small daughter. He allegedly fled Libya for Afghanistan in the 1980s, and opened a spice shop and bakery.
His story appears to be well known among anti-Guantánamo activists like British journalist and filmmaker Andy Worthington, who has made a documentary about the prison. Worthington claims that al-Ghizzawi was among scores of Arab nationals scooped up by bounty hunters looking to trade alleged al-Qaeda sympathizers for cash. Al-Ghizzawi was declared innocent by a military tribunal in 2004, but was not released [because a second tribunal was convened, which reversed that opinion — see above]. Attorney Gorman writes on her blog that he suffered health problems while in prison and was often in solitary confinement.
Utiashvili would not confirm or deny that al-Ghizzawi is one of the three former Guantánamo prisoners sent to Georgia.
Opposition figures like Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s former ambassador to the United Nations, have called for greater transparency about the transfer. Discussions about such a transfer were ongoing as of late autumn 2009, according to Georgian government statements made to EurasiaNet.org. But filmmaker Worthington noted that it is often in the men’s best interests not to be identified. Family members at home could face retribution, he said.
Another concern is the reaction in the host country. Detainees face “almost complete ignorance about any of the details of Guantánamo” in any host country, which can lead to misperceptions by the local population, Worthington claimed.
So far, however, ordinary Georgians, long used to riding the waves of larger powers’ foreign policies, appear to have responded to the trio’s arrival with equanimity. The three men have, in fact, already contributed to the country’s rich culture of self-deprecating jokes.
A cartoon published on March 29 by the weekly newspaper Kviris Palitra illustrated their reaction to being transferred to Georgia, a country still struggling to recover from the 2008 war with Russia and years of economic decline. Lament the men: “But we didn’t harm (America) that much!”
POSTSCRIPT/CORRECTION: Candace Gorman informs me that the US authorities never even attempted to back up its claim, mentioned many years ago in one of its “Summaries of Unclassified Evidence,” that Mr. al-Ghizzawi had been “encouraged to go to Afghanistan to fight with the Mujahideen,” and had “moved to Pakistan to take up the Afghan case.” In the fog of allegations masquerading as evidence, I’m sorry to report that I had given weight to this allegation, whereas it appears that Mr. al-Ghizzawi was, in fact, nothing more than a refugee from Libya who had settled in Afghanistan.
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 I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
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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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