Back in January, in the first glow of the liberation of Tunisia from the iron grip of its long-term dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, I wrote an article about the 12 Tunisian prisoners held at Guantánamo, and followed this up, in the first week in February, with another article examining how, in Tunisia, one former Guantánamo prisoner, Abdallah Hajji, had been freed from prison, where he had been serving a sentence after a show trial on his return from Guantánamo, while, in Italy, another former Guantánamo prisoner, Mohammed Tahir Riyadh Nasseri, who was sent to Italy from Guantánamo to face a trial on charges related to terrorism, was convicted of “criminal association with the aim of terrorism” and sentenced to six years in prison.
This was, I believe, a harsh sentence, as Nasseri will have spent 16 years in prison by the time his sentence comes to an end, and on February 7, just days after the Nasseri verdict, another judge delivered a completely different ruling in the case of Adel Ben Mabrouk, the other Tunisian sent to Italy from Guantánamo in November 2009 (also identified as Adel Ben Mabrouk Bin Hamida Boughanmi). Although he too was “convicted of criminal association with the aim of terrorism,” as the Associated Press described it, the judge gave him a two-year suspended sentence and ordered his immediate release from jail, “citing time served at Guantánamo,” even though he did not, at that point, have a passport or any kind of travel or identity papers.
As the AP explained, Ben Mabrouk’s defense lawyer Giuseppina Regina “said she and prosecutors made a joint appeal to the judge to take into consideration the eight years Mabrouk spent in Guantánamo in ‘inhumane conditions,’ plus a year and a half in Italian prison.” She stated, “Both the defense and the prosecution asked the judge to take into account his illegal and inhumane detention at Guantánamo,” and this was indeed the case. Prosecutor Armando Spataro said that he “appealed for a lighter sentence,” because Ben Mabrouk’s detention at Guantánamo was illegal under Italian law, and because “the crimes of which he was accused occurred more than a decade ago.”
On April 20, Adel Ben Mabrouk was deported to Tunisia, after the Interior Ministry reached an agreement with Tunisian diplomats in Rome, and a few days ago the website Worldcrunch, which translates articles from around the world into English, published a fascinating article based on an interview with Ben Mabrouk, back home in Tunisia, that was originally published in La Stampa. Lazy readers, or those in search of a shock, might pick up on Ben Mabrouk’s respect for Osama bin Laden, whose death was reported while the journalist, Domenico Quirico, was with him, but what is more interesting is how Ben Mabrouk realistically defended his travel to Afghanistan in February 2001 as having nothing to do with militancy or terrorism, and also how Guantánamo, in his own words, was a place that contained both good and evil.
TUNIS — Adel Ben Mabrouk has seen the inside of Italian prison cells from Milan in the north to Benevento in the south. He also spent eight years behind the barbed wire of a certain US military prison on the island of Cuba.
Last February, a Milan Judge convicted this 40-year-old Tunisian of criminal association with terrorist intent, but then freed him from jail, citing the time he’d spent incarcerated at Guantánamo as “not democratic” and the conditions “inhumane”. Mabrouk is a survivor of Afghanistan, where he was arrested at the end of 2001 for his alleged associations with Al-Qaeda.
I met him at his house in Tunisia. By chance, it was this past Monday, soon after Osama Bin Laden’s death had been announced. On the television screen in his living room, France 24’s Arabic channel was broadcasting the images of the collapsing Twin Towers, Bin Laden, and the stories of some of his many victims.
Looking at the screen, with a strange smile on his face, Mabrouk says: “The Americans … they are smart and bastards at the same time.” He then picks up the remote control, and starts looking for the Italian Rai TV channel, in vain. “I love watching Italian soccer. How did Inter Milan do yesterday? What a team.”
I ask him what Bin Laden meant for him: Martyr? Madman? Killer?
“He was a respectable man. Even his enemies should recognize that he deserved respect,” Mabrouk responds. “He was a man of honor.”
After eight years in Guantánamo, American authorities handed Mabrouk over to Italy. In 2005, Italian authorities had issued an arrest warrant accusing him of international terrorism, falsification of documents, aiding illegal immigration, theft and drug trafficking.
Following Milan judge Armando Spataro’s decision to free him, Mabrouk was expelled from Italy. He now lives in the notorious Zahrouni neighborhood of Tunis, an area that is too dangerous to frequent at night.
Mabrouk spends his new life between the local mosque and the garage he runs with his brother. People who pass in front of the garage stop to say hello. They show a sort of respect and admiration for him. Mabrouk’s brother, who convinced him to accept this interview, had also been arrested in Afghanistan, accused of terrorism and jailed for seven years in Tunisia.
Prior to his release, Mabrouk spent a total of 10 years in jails. He has been incarcerated in the Italian prisons of Pesaro Asti, Fossombrone, Macomer, Benevento, and Milan, as well in the United States-run Guantánamo and Kandahar military prisons in Afghanistan.
His tales are related to life in jail. He speaks about the fetters used in Pakistan. “It’s like in the times of Christ. They put rings around your ankles which are connected by a bar and another bar across the legs. You have to raise the bar in order to walk,” he explains.
Does his body have the signs of all this tortures? “Maybe, but I don’t realize it. Perhaps Guantánamo inmates like me are all crazy without knowing it,” he says with a dry laugh. “It’s only when we are out surrounded by people, and we see them looking at us, that we realize.”
Every now and again, Mabrouk falls into impenetrable silences. He had said after the second question, “Look, it’s better if I just speak. I don’t like to answer questions, because I feel like if I am back there. I was interrogated 200 times in Guantánamo, by the CIA, the Italian special forces and those bastards of our Tunisian secret services — Ben Ali’s men. I knew all the questions. They were always the same. There were three questions to which I would never reply: what do you think about kamikazes? How did you become a radical Islamist? Have you ever fired a gun?”
On the question of his faith, he denies that radical imams he met during a stint in an Italian jail for drug-dealing had an impact on him. “This is bullshit. I just had many things to confess, that’s all. It was like to be born again. We Muslims have God inside, our faith comes from our souls … I stopped taking drugs, started working as a barber, then as a driver for a company in Cernusco. I had even applied for a regular visa, but there was that old conviction for drug trafficking. Always the same …”
He finally opens up about Afghanistan and why he went there in February 2001: “It was a place where good Muslims felt at home. I was scared that the Italian authorities would hand me over me to Ben Alì, accusing me of being a radical Islamist. [In Afghanistan] I lived in a shelter for foreigners. The Taliban took us in, they gave us a home.”
After 9/11, when the Taliban regime fell apart, Mabrouk crossed the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, under the US bombing. There, Pakistani authorities arrested him and 150 other people. “They sold me to the Americans for $5,000 just because Bush needed people to fill up the jails as part of the war on terrorism.”
He was jailed in Guantánamo. “Look, in Guantánamo there was a lot of good, not just evil. I would like to write a book about it. The title would be Guantánamo, Between Good and Evil. Yes, there we understood who the Americans really are, and we also understood our faith better. We were from 50 countries, and 80 percent of us learned the Koran by heart. That is not a prison. It is a war camp where psychologists and psychiatrists are in charge. If you do not have faith, you cannot survive in those conditions. I could tell about some amazing gestures, even from the guards. In Guantánamo I understood one thing: the human being is good, even there.”
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, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). 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, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, 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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