Who Are the Two Guantánamo Prisoners Freed in Germany?

21.9.10

On Thursday, two Guantánamo prisoners were released, to start new lives in Germany, bringing the prison’s population to 174. Announcing their arrival, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière stated that, by taking them in, Germany had “made its humanitarian contribution to closing the detention center.” He also noted that the two men had asked for their identities to be withheld from the public, but one man’s identity was revealed when the London-based legal action charity Reprieve issued a press release congratulating the government on offering a new home to their Palestinian client Ayman al-Shurafa (and his arrival was then confirmed by a spokesman for the Hamburg government).

The identity of the second — Mahmoud Salim al-Ali, a Syrian — was then revealed by Der Spiegel, which stated that he had arrived in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in central-western Germany. In fact, the identities of both men should not have come as a surprise, as Der Spiegel devoted a major article to their stories back in July, after the German government had confirmed that it would take two prisoners from Guantánamo.

The release is good news not only for Ayman al-Shurafa and Mahmoud al-Ali, but also for the many campaigners and commentators — myself included — who have been trying to keep Guantánamo on the mainstream media’s radar. Although President Obama briefly discussed Guantánamo on September 9, in his first press conference since May, apologizing for failing to meet his self-imposed deadline of January 2010 for the prison’s closure, progress towards belatedly fulfilling his promise has been horribly slow this year. Although the President’s interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force recommended that over half of the remaining prisoners should be released, just 21 of the 111 prisoners cleared for release at the start of the year have been freed in the last nine months, and 90 cleared men still remain.

Dozens of these men — like Mahmoud al-Ali — cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture in their home countries, and must wait for third countries to rehouse them (a difficult task, given that the Obama administration, Congress and the judiciary have all made sure that the United States will not take any of them), and one, like Ayman al-Shurafa, is a stateless Palestinian. However, 58 others are Yemenis, who could be sent home tomorrow were it not for an indefensible moratorium on releasing any Yemenis that was issued by President Obama in January, following hysterical overreaction to the news that the failed Christmas day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen.

Clearly, the President has no chance of fulfilling his promise to close Guantánamo until this moratorium is lifted, and those who wish to see the prison closed must do more to challenge this cynical knee-jerk ban which effectively tars all Yemenis as terrorist sympathizers. For now, however, the German government must be congratulated for offering new homes to Ayman al-Shurafa and Mahmoud al-Ali, and for bringing their long and unjust imprisonment to an end.

Ayman al-Shurafa, a stateless Palestinian

Ayman al-Shurafa, who is now 34 years old, was cleared for release by a military review board in 2007, but remained at Guantánamo because of the particular problems facing the handful of Palestinians held in the prison, who are — or were — literally stateless. In al-Shurafa’s case, although his family is from Gaza, his parents settled in Saudi Arabia with their four children when he was a young child. He spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia, where his family still lives, but because he does not have a Saudi passport, the Saudi government refused to press the US authorities for his repatriation. Instead, he holds documents issued by the Jordanian government (as part of his family’s long search for refuge), which are suitable only for travel purposes, and until Germany agreed to accept him, he was, therefore, literally a man without a home.

Around ten years ago, al-Shurafa traveled to Gaza to enroll in a Palestinian university to finish a business degree that he had started in Saudi Arabia. However, after the intifada broke out, he feared for his life and decided that he had to leave. He returned to Saudi Arabia, but, as with all Saudi residents, discovered that his educational opportunities were more limited than those available to Saudi citizens. It was then that, like many other young men, he found himself taking poor advice from a Saudi sheikh who stated that he needed to be “prepared” to defend Muslims from those oppressing them — a religious duty known as e’dad, which is conceptually distinct from jihad or any participation in combat.

As a result, he traveled to Afghanistan in summer 2001, but, like many young men recruited by religious figures, he was unaware that the Taliban’s enemies were other Muslims. Throughout his detention, he maintained that, although he was in Afghanistan, he never took up arms against the Northern Alliance — or against the United States after the US-led invasion of October 2001. In meetings at Guantánamo with his lawyers, he explained that “he hadn’t the faintest idea of what he was getting himself into; he knew nothing about the Taliban’s long inter-Muslim struggle with the Northern Alliance, and had no knowledge whatsoever of al-Qaeda.”

In 2007, a military review board agreed with this assessment, but although al-Shurafa was cleared for release, and was compliant throughout his detention, he still ended up held in isolation in a cell in Camp 6 for 22 to 23 hours a day. Throughout his life, he has suffered from vitiligo, a painful skin complaint, and his permanent isolation from sunlight made his skin condition flare up horribly, causing maddening discomfort, as well as permanent skin damage. According to his lawyers, although he was well regarded by both the guards and by his fellow prisoners, leading prayers in his cell block, he was deeply concerned that he would never see his elderly mother again, and also showed signs of depression, asking the authorities for medication to “let the days go by without feeling anything.”

Mahmoud Salim al-Ali, a Syrian seized by an Afghan warlord

As Der Spiegel explained in July, Mahmoud Salim al-Ali, who is 36 years old, had been living in Kuwait before he made an ill-fated trip to Afghanistan in October 2001. His last job had been in a fruit and vegetable market, but he also had “experience working in the service sector and in industry, as a salesperson in the Sultan Shopping Center and with the Al-Fahad Aluminum & Glass Works.”

However, in late September 2001, he traveled to Afghanistan, via Syria and Iran, apparently because, as the US authorities alleged at Guantánamo, he “had a desire to join the jihad after viewing videos depicting the situation in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.” Nevertheless, as Der Spiegel also explained:

[H]e never received any military training or saw any combat. After a few days in Kabul, al-Ali contracted a serious case of diarrhea, for which he was treated in a hospital. He then spent the night in the house of a doctor. By the next day, as he was fleeing from the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban, his big adventure was over. Al-Ali and his companions were captured by an Afghan warlord and robbed. The bandits took his money, his wedding ring and his watch, and he was later turned over to the Americans.

New life in Germany

For both these men, life in Germany promises to present them with an excellent opportunity to rebuild their lives. As Der Spiegel explained in July, Mahmoud al-Ali “has a wife and a 10-year-old daughter living in Syria who apparently want to come to Germany to live with him, to which the state politicians dealing with the case have no objections,” and Ayman al-Shurafa, whose immediate physical and psychological needs appear to be more acute, is already receiving attention in a medical clinic, where, as Der Spiegel reported on Thursday, “he will be given an extensive check-up over the next few days.” Hamburg government officials stated that “the goal was to help reintegrate the former prisoner into society, with the hope that he will ultimately become self-sufficient.”

Accepting these two men has not been without problems for the German authorities. There was fierce opposition from conservative ministers, for example, and, in response, plans for the state of Brandenburg to take a third prisoner, Mohammed Tahamuttan, the last Palestinian in Guantánamo, were quietly dropped. In July, Rainer Speer, the state’s interior minister, told Der Spiegel, “We were up to the task,” and the newspaper also noted that “the Interior Ministry task force charged with the issue had apparently concluded that accepting all three candidates was fundamentally justifiable.” However, Der Spiegel speculated that the rejection of Tahamuttan was “probably intended primarily to send a political message at home in Germany, where de Maizière felt that he had to show the many members of his party who had opposed reaching an agreement with the United States on Guantánamo that he was not blindly obeying the Americans.”

Noticeably, the government in Berlin also refused to proceed with the resettlement of Ayman al-Shurafa and Mahmoud al-Ali without written guarantees from the Obama administration. As Der Spiegel noted, Germany was “probably the only ally to have done so.” According to a joint declaration signed by the two countries, “The United States will not release any inmates if this could jeopardize the security of the United States or our friends and allies.” Der Spiegel added that “the Germans also have it in writing that the US government would not permit any individuals deemed a threat to the national security of the United States to ‘enter the country,’” explaining that what this means is that the men being released and sent to Germany “are not dangerous and could even enter the United States as tourists.”

As Der Spiegel also explained, this was “a delayed victory for Wolfgang Schäuble who, as interior minister in Berlin’s former grand coalition government, refused to accept Guantánamo inmates because, as he noted, they would not even be given a tourist visa for the United States.”

Will other countries now help?

While this will send shockwaves though the more paranoid parts of the US establishment (and should, if there is any justice, lead to calls to revoke the various bans on bringing cleared prisoners to live in the US), the impact of Germany’s acceptance of two prisoners should be most marked in Europe, where hopes for rehousing other cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated are most sharply focused.

Although ten other countries in Europe (Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland) have taken in 23 prisoners over the last 16 months, who had no prior connection to their new homes (and 15 others have been settled in Bermuda, Cape Verde, Georgia, Latvia and Palau), other countries have failed to be swayed by the entreaties of Daniel Fried, President Obama’s Special Envoy to Guantánamo.

Ambassador Fried’s thankless task has been to persuade other countries to overlook US hypocrisy regarding the resettlement of prisoners, and to help President Obama close Guantánamo by taking in men like Ayman al-Shurafa and Mahmoud al-Ali. However, despite his success to date, certain prominent countries in western Europe — Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the UK — have so far refused to help, even though, in some cases, persuasive arguments can be made that they should be involved as part of a tacit acknowledgment of their involvement in the crimes committed in the “War on Terror.”

In Norway’s case, this arose because of the involvement of AkerKvaerner, the country’s largest commercial company, which, as filmmaker and journalist Erling Borgen has noted, “had 700 people working on the Guantánamo base,” providing logistical support that included “fueling the rendition flights.” In Sweden’s case, the complicity centers on the government’s involvement, in December 2001, in the CIA-directed kidnap and rendition to torture in Egypt of two Egyptian asylum seekers, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed Alzery. In Britain’s case, the true scale of the complicity of the Bush administration’s closest ally has not yet been revealed, but enough has been exposed to indicate that providing new homes for a handful of cleared Guantánamo prisoners who cannot be repatriated is the least that the government should do.

The British government’s complicity includes former foreign secretary Jack Straw’s recently-revealed support for Guantánamo and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s interference in plans to provide consular access to a British citizen seized in Zambia (Martin Mubanga). It also includes involvement in the kidnap and rendition of two British residents in the Gambia (Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil El-Banna), its knowledge of the torture by US agents in Pakistan of British resident Binyam Mohamed, who was later sent to be tortured in Morocco (also with British knowledge), and the repeated visits made by British agents to British nationals and residents while they were held in Pakistan, and in US custody in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, even though it was apparent that the conditions in which they were being held did not meet internationally recognized standards of humane treatment.

Although Prime Minister David Cameron has announced an inquiry into British complicity in torture abroad, one way in which the government could atone for its deep involvement in the “War on Terror” would be to step back from the outrageous position taken by the previous government — that, in securing the return of nine British nationals and five British residents, the UK had “done its bit,” as foreign secretary David Miliband claimed in January 2009 — and accept that this was, in fact, nothing more than what was required.

The new coalition government already faces questions about why it cannot secure the return of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who was cleared for release in 2007 but is still held, and is also under pressure to explain why it will not accept Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who lived and worked in the UK between 1999 and 2001, who was also cleared for release in 2007, but is terrified of returning to Algeria. Perhaps it might now be worth asking if the British government will take up where Germany left off, and also offer a new home to Mohammed Tahamuttan, the Palestinian who is still waiting for someone to free him from Guantánamo.

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 July 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.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation, as “Two Freed Prisoners in Germany.” Cross-posted on The Public Record, Cageprisoners and New Left Project.

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 64 prisoners released from February 2009 to July 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 Uzbek to Switzerland, 1 Egyptian, 1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; 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; July 2010 — 1 Yemeni (Mohammed Hassan Odaini); July 2010 — 1 Algerian, 1 Syrian to Cape Verde, 1 Uzbek to Latvia, 1 unidentified Afghan to Spain.

9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Over on Facebook, Mui J. Steph wrote:

    So Germany wrestled future tourist visas out of the Obama administration? Amazing!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    Yes, that is something isn’t it, Mui? Perhaps that should have been my headline …

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, thanks. As you say, (Norway’s) “700 people working on the Guantánamo base,” providing logistical support that included “fueling the rendition flights.” The sordid story of European complicity in the CIA’s dark business has a long way to go.

    We might need to start with “Jack Straw’s recently-revealed support for Guantánamo and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s interference in plans to provide consular access to a British citizen seized in Zambia”. Jack Straw, we all remember, was the great friend of General Pinochet.

    Sadly, many of the documents, those not already destroyed or tampered with, will not show up in the National Archives at Kew for thirty years, perhaps some fifty years. This will be long after the scoundrels have died peacefully with their peerages intact.

    Proactive historians might need a form of WikiLeaks to crack the armoured facade of British secrecy.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    Hi Willy,
    Thanks for noting the work done in Norway by my friend Erling Borgen, who is fighting hard against a government in cahoots with AkerKvaerner, which has been blocking him as much as possible from revealing the truth.

    As for the UK, you’re right in general about the National Archives, but there’s a rogue element in the story of British complicity in torture – the High Court judges who have been compelling the government to produce the documents that included these revelations about Jack Straw and Tony Blair, as part of a civil claim for damages being pursued by six former Guantanamo prisoners. As has been reported, the government has identified up to 500,000 documents that may be relevant to the prisoners’ claim for damages, and has 60 lawyers working on the case:
    http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/07/15/uk-sought-rendition-of-british-nationals-to-guantanamo-tony-blair-directly-involved/

    No wonder David Cameron is seeking an out of court settlement with the men. It would enable him to stop this 60-lawyer search, and is also intended to make his torture inquiry toothless by securing the silence of its victims. What will happen is completely up in the air at present, but it remains clear that no inquiry can legitimately take place while Shaker Aamer is still held, so demands for his return are still potent.

    I don’t suppose there’s any hope for Ahmed Balbacha or any of the men, like Ayman al-Shurafa and Mahmoud al-Ali, who don’t have any connection to the UK, but I’ll keep banging on about the UK’s moral responsibility, as I will with Norway and Sweden.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Mark C Lord wrote:

    It’s great that the Germans have stepped up and taken a small lead on this though, hopefully we can follow, with others such as our Scandinavian friends. It would be nice if the Americans themselves would offer sanctuary also, but sadly I cannot see it happening any time soon. Keep up the good work Andy

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Guantanamo Justice Centre (GJC) wrote:

    lets hope they are in a better position than many others that have been released to u.k and some european countries, who are being treated as if they are criminals although they are innocent men, with no documents, no passports, no right to travel, no masjid near them, many dont speak the language at all, very little financial or moral support, no muslims in the vicinity, fathers and sons are split up and put at opposite ends of the planet with no right to travel or be united with their mothers, wives , children and families. many people think that once prisoners are freed from these torture camps, they are free men as they were before, but this is simply not the case. they are years later still referred to as “suspected terrorists” in the media, and there is nothing normal about the way they have to live. you would think after all they have been through, some sort of redress to this continued mental torture – because thats what it is – would be the least that could be done for them.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    This was my reply:

    Thanks, Mark, and thanks also to the GJC for highlighting how the “taint” of Guantanamo clings to released prisoners, who are often still a long way from anything recognizable as “freedom.”

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Mui J. Steph wrote:

    Any chance of a list of former prisoners in need? I know cageprisoners periodically sends out stuff. I had no idea one of the Uighurs sent to Palau was in need of prosthetics. I’m spitting mad at myself.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Guantanamo Justice Centre wrote:

    GJC collected enough money to provide a prosthetic limb for Ahmed in palau. A medical team was flown out to the island operate on his amputated limb, and to fit him with a new prosthetic limb.

    http://www.guantanamojusticecentre.com/appeals/Ahmad%20Abdulahad%20palau.html

    please check GJC appeals section for current appeals.The work of GJC is centred solely on providing assistance for former prisoners of the Guantanamo Bay and Bagram torture camps, every penny donated to GJC goes solely to those in need. please check our website for further details. http://www.guantanamojusticecentre.com/

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