“It was better in Guantánamo,” Complains Egyptian Held in Slovak Detention Center

1.7.10

Last week, Amnesty International in Slovakia revealed that three men released from Guantánamo to Slovakia in January had embarked on a hunger strike to protest about the conditions in which they are being held. Pending relocation, the men have been held since their arrival in a detention center in Medved’ov, in the south west of Slovakia, and the spokesman for the three, Adel Fattough Ali El-Gazzar, a former Egyptian army officer, “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.” In addition, he explained that they “are not allowed contact with anyone except for personnel in the facility and their lawyer.”

The Slovak authorities denied El-Gazzar’s claims, but on Saturday Tomas Vasilko, a Slovakian journalist, told me that he had spoken to El-Gazzar by phone, and provided a further explanation of why he and the other men are so frustrated. “He was really upset about the conditions they live in here,” Vasilko 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 a town with a 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.”

In an article published in the Slovak newspaper SME (mentioned and quoted from in an English language article in the Slovak Spectator), Tomas Vasilko added that, in his phone conversation with El-Gazzar, the Egyptian had reiterated his complaints, and had also described the conditions in which he and the other two former Guantánamo prisoners were living as “a 100-percent prison.” “Even in Guantánamo it was better,” El-Gazzar told Vasilko. “We could communicate with everyone, here we cannot.” He added, “Now, I think the best way would be to leave Slovakia. We want our freedom, we are not criminals, and we are not here illegally.”

Via Tomas Vasilko’s article, the Slovak Spectator also explained more about the plans to move the men to another detention camp, which had caused them such anguish. El-Gazzar stated that they were told they would stay in the detention center in Medved’ov for six months, but had recently been informed that they “are to be transferred to Zvolen where they will spend another six months in a facility for asylum seekers.”

El-Gazzar also pointed out that the conditions in which they are being held are noticeably worse than in other countries in which former prisoners have been released. As the Slovak Spectator described it, he “said they are in contact with other Guantánamo detainees who were transferred to other countries such as Hungary, who have said they are free to move about and have received proper accommodation and financial support.”

In my communication with Tomas Vasilko, he asked me about these claims, and a version of the following interview appeared in his article at the weekend:

Tomas Vasilko: What do you think about the conditions in which the men are currently held?

Andy Worthington: Former prisoners need support and care, especially if, as with the men in Slovakia, they’re alone in a new and unknown country. I have to say that from the moment I heard that they were being held in a detention center, I didn’t think that it sounded like the most supportive kind of environment, and I very much hope that, with the spotlight on the Slovak government following the announcement of the hunger strike, senior officials will move swiftly to rehouse the men in more appropriate conditions.

Tomas Vasilko: They say the restrictions at Medved’ov are worse than in Cuba.

Andy Worthington: Given what Adel said about expecting to be rehoused, I can understand how this would be very upsetting. I think five months is more than enough time for the government to find them better accommodation, and would suggest that the impression given by this long delay is that the government doesn’t care much about the needs of these men. I’m not saying that’s the case; just that it’s the impression given.

Tomas Vasilko: Adel El-Gazzar says that in other countries the men were free from the beginning, and have been provided with housing. Can you confirm this?

Andy Worthington: It is certainly true that in Belgium, France, Ireland, Portugal and Switzerland (and Bermuda and Palau), the men have been given houses immediately and help with integrating into society. I believe this is the case in Bulgaria, Georgia and Hungary as well, and in Spain, a Palestinian who arrived in February is currently in a hotel, awaiting the availability of a house. Only in Albania, from what I understand, are the men in some kind of refugee center.

Tomas Vasilko: El-Gazzar also says that the United States provides money to look after the men — apparently up to 1,000 Euros per person. Do you have any information about this?

Andy Worthington: I don’t know about the men being given money personally, as I haven’t heard about that, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. As for the figure of 1000 Euros a month from the US for looking after them, that seems plausible, although this is money that would be given to the government to provide accommodation and support for them — and if this is what has happened in Slovakia, of course, then the government so far appears to have done very little to justify the provision of those funds.

In an update yesterday, Tomas Vasilko addressed another of the men’s complaints — and the only one conceded by government officials. On Friday, I explained that a representative of Amnesty International Slovensko had told the dpa news agency that the men not only “felt isolated and badly looked after,” but were also concerned because, after five months, their legal status “was still not clear.” I also explained that Bernard Priecel, the chief officer at the Interior Ministry’s Migration Bureau, conceded that “the lack of clarity on their legal status could be a burden for them,” and quoted the dpa news agency as stating, “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.”

Yesterday, Tomas Vasilko informed me that the men have just met with the Slovak chief of UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), who explained that the men had asked for asylum two months ago. According to Slovak law, this means that they are supposed to receive an answer within 90 days, so that the government has one more month to respond.

This is progress of a sort, but it still remains apparent, as it did last week, that whether through individual inertia on the part of the Slovak government, through a failure on the part of the EU, or through a failure on the part of the US government, which bears the primary responsibility for securing the men’s welfare, something is not entirely right when, five months after arriving in Slovakia from Guantánamo, Adel El-Gazzar and his two companions have had to resort to extreme measures to try to sort out their status in their new home country, even though this is something that should surely have taken place before their arrival.

Note: For an update on this story, including accounts of the two men living with Adel El-Gazzar (Poolad Tsiradzho, an Azerbaijani, and Rafiq al-Hami, a Tunisian), see: 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.

Cross-posted on Eurasia Review and The Public Record.

6 Responses

  1. the talking dog says...

    Thanks, Andy, for telling us about the plight of yet three more un-persons who, thankfully for Obama Administration policy, are now someone else’s un-persons, and hence, someone else’s problem, in this case, Bratislava’s.

    While the three men (al-Gazzar from Egypt, Tsiradzo from Azerbaijan and al-Hami from Tunisia) can suggest “things were better at Guantanamo”… I suspect things could also be worse, as well; they might have been repatriated to their native countries.

    And while it’s clearly regrettable that Slovakia has chosen to hold these men in this way, what we don’t know are the political conditions “on the ground” in Slovakia, such as whether these men actually could be able to “live in peace” there. It’s plausible that some domestic constituency there might want to make an issue out of their presence (as has been the case in the United States, which has taken in three fewer detainees than tiny Slovakia has) in such a way as to pose an actual danger to them if they are not held in detention. It’s not as if the United States government, eager to reduce the Guantanamo census by any means possible except of course by releasing men into the United States (or evidently, to Yemen) would have asked too many questions on this score.

    Still, just as one ponders the 180 or so men still held at Guantanamo (some of them long “cleared” by the Government, the courts, or both), and the hundreds more at Bagram and elsewhere, just how many of those 600 or so men “released” from Guantanamo have only found themselves in yet another perpetual prison, somewhere else. It’s an interesting question, even if most Americans (and certainly their government) could not care less.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi TD,
    Great to hear from you. I was just thinking that I hadn’t heard from you for some time. I hope all is well.
    Good points re: the conditions on the ground in Slovakia, of course, and about the overall US responsibility for looking into that, but evidently not caring very much.
    As for your question about the number of prisoners who have ended up back in detention of some sort, I believe that most countries have either accepted that the conditions in which the Guantanamo were held precludes any kind of prosecution, or, more importantly, have concluded independently that there was no basis for the men’s detention in the first place anyway.
    The big exceptions to that are Algeria (where post-release treatment may be fair or may be brutality followed by a show trial), Tunisia (where releases were stopped after two men were imprisoned after show trials), Russia (which has imprisoned two former prisoners and killed another, all under dubious circumstances) and Saudi Arabia, where the successfully touted rehab program is only part of the picture, and other men seem to have been imprisoned arbitrarily. More on this soon, hopefully …

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Over on Facebook, Camilla Jelbart wrote:

    Woah, hadn’t heard they were being detained in Slovakia. Do we think the detention is motivated by financial or security concerns? Now working at the Medical Foundation, I’m seeing evidence of the re-traumatising effect that being held in detention causes torture survivors who arrive in the UK as asylum seekers.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    Hi Camilla,
    Good to hear from you. Security concerns are a possible explanation, although anonymity doesn’t seem to be impossible in some other European countries. Perhaps the best explanation is that the government is struggling to work out how to settle the men properly within a decent time frame, but as you point out, of course, the danger is that it is only exacerbating the trauma these men must already be carrying with them.

  5. the talking dog says...

    Andy:

    Things are quite well on my end, thanks (we shall have to correspond under my alternative identity, via the Bat Phone). I appreciate your recounting of the nations who have been less than “liberating” vis a vis their “released” GTMO citizens,but I was kind of wondering about a more basic matter, I suppose: the number of prisoners returned to Afghanistan who have found themselves detained (under American custody, no less) at Pol-e-sharki and still as yet undetermined detention facilities in molybdenum rich Afghanistan , where I suspect a not insubstantial number of ex-Guantanamo prisoners have gone from a frying pan to another frying pan.

    Have there been any reports or statistics kept on that?

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Forgive the temporary fog in my mind, TD. How could I forget Block “D” of Pol-i-Charki, the government-refurbished wing of the main Afghan prison in Kabul that was used to re-imprison returnees from Guantanamo from 2007 onwards?
    I think some sort of investigation is in order, certainly. Our friend Kent was keeping track of things for a while, and once some decent folk with some influence put pressure on Karzai, there was – lo and behold! – a Karzai commission that led to the release of many of the dozens of returned Guantanamo prisoners.
    I agree, though, that it would be good to know the latest news.

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