On Thursday, Branislav Tichý, the director of Amnesty International Slovensko, told the press that three former Guantánamo prisoners, who had been released in Slovakia on January 25 this year, had embarked on a hunger strike. According to the Slovak Spectator, Tichý explained that they were “protesting bad conditions and the treatment they are receiving from Slovak authorities in a detention facility in Medved’ov in Trnava Region.”
The complaints are not entirely unexpected. As Reuters explained when the men first arrived in the country, a spokesman for the police stated that they “were being placed in a camp for asylum seekers in the eastern part of Slovakia, Humenné, which is run by the interior ministry.” No time limit was set for their removal from this camp to a location in which they might be able to rebuild their lives, establish ties with the local community and look for work, but RTT News, a New York-based wire service, suggested that they would be “released” after “an 18-month process of acclimatization to Slovakia, including language instruction and a search for employment,” but would remain “under surveillance for an unspecified period.” This was in spite of the fact that, the week before their arrival, the Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak had pointed out, “The three are not criminals, none of them has been either accused or convicted.”
The three men were not identified on arrival in Slovakia, but it appears that the complaints are being driven by Adel Fattough Ali El-Gazzar, a former Egyptian army officer with a master’s degree in economics, who was first cleared for release from Guantánamo by a military review board in 2006, and was then cleared again last year by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, which reviewed the cases of all the Guantánamo prisoners, and recommended that 97 of the remaining 181 men should be released.
El-Gazzar is also an amputee, who lost a leg in a US bombing raid while visiting a refugee camp on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he had traveled to conduct humanitarian aid, and, in Guantánamo, he had been respected as a natural leader, becoming part of a six-man “Prisoner’s Council,” which also included the British resident Shaker Aamer, during a brief period in the summer of 2005 when the authorities toyed with implementing the Geneva Conventions.
According to El-Gazzar, who called Amnesty representatives on Thursday morning, he and his colleagues “are not allowed contact with anyone except for personnel in the facility and their lawyer.” In addition, he “described their living conditions as poor — having only beds and a sink at their disposal and being allowed to leave their rooms for only an hour per day.”
El-Gazzar’s claims were disputed by Bernard Priecel, the chief officer at the Interior Ministry’s Migration Bureau, who said that there was “no reason” for the men to be on a hunger strike, because they “enjoy high standards in terms of both security and the re-integration process itself and are receiving personal treatment eight hours a day, including psychological care and lessons in the Slovak language.” He added that “they do socialize, use cell phones and have an internet connection available.”
On Friday, the dpa news agency spoke to a representative of Amnesty International Slovensko, who confirmed that the men “felt isolated and badly looked after,” and also explained that they were concerned because, after five months, their legal status “was still not clear.” While continuing to refute the men’s other claims, Bernard Priecel conceded that “the lack of clarity on their legal status could be a burden for them.” As dpa added, “At the moment they [are] simply foreigners, without asylum seeker status,” even though, when they arrived in Slovakia in January, Interior Minister Robert Kalinak had “promised that their residence permit status would be cleared up quickly.”
In light of the publicity generated by the story of the hunger strike — something which, ironically, the men may well have learned in Guantánamo — it is to be hoped that the Slovakian government will move swiftly to formalize their residence permit status and to rehouse them somewhere other than a camp for asylum seekers.
It is clear, however, that the blame for the men’s feelings of isolation and abandonment lies not just with the Slovak government, but also with the EU as a whole, which has failed to establish a coherent policy regarding standards of care for the 17 men who, since Barack Obama became President, have been resettled in Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain (15 others have been resettled in Bermuda, Georgia, Palau and Switzerland).
While most of these men seems to be coping reasonably well with their adjustment to life in a new country after the traumatizing effects of their long imprisonment in Guantánamo, former prisoners in the UK, who are in touch with released prisoners around the world, report that the man released in Hungary last December, a Palestinian, is also struggling to cope with his isolation.
Part of the problem lies with attempts — or the lack of attempts — to reunite these men with their families, if they are married. Although the French government succeeded in reuniting Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian released in France last May, with his wife and son, and the Irish government did the same for Oybek Jabbarov, an Uzbek released in Ireland last September, who was reunited with his wife and two sons in December, other ex-prisoners are still cut off from their families, and for the Palestinian in Hungary, who does not even have the companionship of other ex-prisoners, this is particularly hard to bear.
However, while some of these problems need addressing across the member states of the EU, the main responsibility for this generally chaotic state of affairs rests with the Obama administration, which has been remarkably opaque about what provisions it makes for former prisoners resettled in other countries, and which, moreover, has compounded these problems by refusing to accept its own responsibility for the Bush administration’s largely indiscriminate detention policies.
These problems began in earnest in April 2009, when President Obama called a halt to an admirable plan to provides homes on the US mainland for two cleared Guantánamo prisoners who could not be repatriated. The plan had been conceived by President Obama’s most senior legal advisor, White House Counsel Greg Craig, and was supported by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and defense secretary Robert Gates, but when the news was leaked, and the President came under pressure from Republican critics, the men in question — two of the 17 Uighurs in Guantánamo, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, whose release had been ordered by a US court in October 2008 — were cast back into a disturbing legal limbo.
Emboldened by the President’s capitulation, his critics in Congress — both Republicans and members of his own party — then passed a law preventing him from bringing any cleared prisoner to live in the US, putting all the pressure for rehousing these men into the hands of Daniel Fried, a senior diplomat who had been appointed as the Obama administration’s Special Envoy to Guantánamo in March 2009.
In a candid interview with the BBC in September 2009, Fried explained that, although he would “not criticize Congress … It is fair to say, as just an objective statement, that the US could resettle more detainees [worldwide], had we been willing to take in some.”
That, of course, is something of an understatement, but as the plight of the men in Slovakia and Hungary shows, the least the US can do now is to ensure that it is not just dumping former prisoners in Europe and walking away, but is prepared to ensure that they receive as much support as possible — in terms of housing, financial support, psychological welfare, cultural and linguistic integration, and the search for employment — to facilitate their transition to a normal, stable life after the long years of freedom that they were so unjustly denied.
POSTSCRIPT: A journalist friend in Slovakia has written to me to say that he has recently spoken to Adel Fattough Ali El-Gazzar. “He was really upset about the conditions they live in here,” my friend explained, adding, “He told me that firstly, in Guantánamo, the Slovak delegation didn’t mention the word detention — they told them that they would be free with some restrictions. When they arrived in Slovakia they told them they had to stay in a detention facility for asylum seekers for six months, but after that they would get a house in town with Muslim community. But one month ago they told the men that plan had changed and they would go to another detention facility for another six months. He was really frustrated and that’s the reason why they started the hunger strike.”
POSTSCRIPT 2: I wrote to my Slovak friend to ask if he could clarify whether the men had first been held in Humenné, an Asylum Seeker Reception Centre in the east of Slovakia, as Reuters suggested on their arrival in Slovakia in January, and had recently been moved to Medved’ov, a Detention Centre in the south west of the country. He replied that Adel “didnt mention anything about Humenné, so I assume they never have been there. They arrived on 25th January at Bratislava airport and the government accommodated them in Medved’ov.” Crucially, he also explained that Slovak officials “don’t want to comment their status,” and are claiming that the only reason that the men are upset is because they have post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t want to leap to judgment, but as I explained my Slovak friend, “It sounds as though the government officials are being rather insensitive regarding the men’s needs, both psychologically and emotionally, if they are so dismissive of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on men held in a Detention Centre in a new country, with very little support.”
Note: Please see the excellent Global Detention Project website for detailed information about detention centres around the world.
For updates on this story, including more information about Adel El-Gazzar, and the stories of the two men released with him (Poolad Tsiradzho, an Azerbaijani, and Rafiq al-Hami, a Tunisian), see: “It was better in Guantánamo,” Complains Egyptian Held in Slovak Detention Center, and Who Are the Three Ex-Guantánamo Prisoners on Hunger Strike in Slovakia?
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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. 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, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 59 prisoners released from February 2009 to May 2010, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; ; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; October 2009 — 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody; December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah); December 2009 — 2 Somalis, 4 Afghans, 6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Egyptian and 2 prisoners of undisclosed nationality to Slovakia, 1 unidentified Uzbek to Switzerland; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania, 1 Palestinian to Spain; March 2010 — 1 Libyan, 2 unidentified prisoners to Georgia, 2 Uighurs to Switzerland; May 2010 — 1 Syrian to Bulgaria, 1 Yemeni to Spain.
This is just sick–another six months of curtailed liberty? WHY? Where are the members of their community on the outside that will step forward and volubly agitate and vouch for these men? The hunger strike is admirable, noble even, but the pressure on the system has to be both internal and external. Clearly the everyday people have to get out in front and ahead of the bureaucrats who seem to require the political safety of the cloak of coverage as much as the “former” prisoners. So let’s give it to them–it’s easy enough to give.
I couldn’t help noticing that Slovakia won its most recent World Cup match against Italia and is being pegged as the “underdog” in tomorrow’s game. I read that midfielder Miroslav Stoch said they have “nothing to lose”. If only a single cup’s worth of enthusiasm (even half full) could be mustered for these other underdogs, the real and true stuck ones, I would root like crazy for the Slovakian team in Monday’s game against the Dutch.
Thanks for the comments, Frances. I think representatives of various concerned groups are visiting the men this coming week, so I’ll keep you posted on any developments, but for the moment it appears very much as though the Slovak authorities are indifferent to the men’s particular needs.
If these people are unhappy in Slovakia, they can board the first plane and go back home. But they cannot go home…why? Because they are considered terrorists in their home countries. This Al-Gazaar says, in an interview for Slovak daily SME, http://www.sme.sk/c/5440414/guantanamo-je-lepsie-ako-slovenske-mreze.html that his fellow prisoner from Gitmo who was sent to Hungary (the one mentioned on this blog, apparently) got an apartment paid for by the Hungarian government, all utilities paid, and 600 euro monthly pocket money. Yeah right! Why should my family’s taxes (not my taxes as I do not live in Slovakia) be spent on giving pocket money to former terrorists, or anybody else for that matter? Who gives ME a rent-free apartment in the Capital, utilities paid, and 600 euro pocket money every month? Nobody! And I don;t know of anybody else who would get that free-rider treatment. So if the citizens do not get that treatment, why should a foreigner, whom I AND MY NEIGHBOR AND THE COUSIN AND MY GRANDMA (who all pay taxes which are supposed to be used for his free-rider treatment) have NOT cleared of terrorist charges? When this Al-Gazaar and fellow men sign a release and allow all his file become a public domain for everybody to see and analyze (e.g. on the Internet) and the citizens of Slovakia THEMSELVES clear him and his fellow men of any terrorist ties, connection, actions, or thoughts, then, and only then, MIGHT they get treatment they so long for with free-riding paid for by taxes of the citizens and residents of Slovakia.
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