Tunisians Call for the Release of Prisoners in Guantánamo

15.9.11

On Wednesday, in Tunis, Reprieve, the legal action charity whose lawyers represent prisoners in Guantánamo, held a conference to bring together “key policymakers and members of civil society to discuss Tunisia’s role in bringing about the release of its citizens from Guantánamo Bay.” Speakers included representatives of Tunisia’s major political parties, former Guantánamo prisoners, lawyers and family members of current and former prisoners, and, as Reprieve noted, “Members of the interim government, international and national human rights activists, lawyers, ex-detainees and family members have all pledged their support for this cause.”

The conference was convened to “examine how this support can be turned into action,” and Kamel Eddine Ben Hassan, representing the Tunisian Ministry of Justice, announced that the government was “ready to set up a legal framework” with the US authorities “to study the situation of five Tunisian citizens” still held at Guantánamo, as the website Tunisia-live.net explained. “The state is now taking up the cause of its nationals in Guantánamo,” he told the conference, according to the Associated Press, which explained that he had stated that “Tunisia will soon send a mission to the United States to plead for the repatriation of its five remaining citizens held at the Guantánamo Bay detention center.”

According to Reprieve (as the AP described it), “one of the barriers to the repatriation of the remaining Tunisians” was Ben Ali’s “reputation for torture and human rights abuses,” but Cori Crider, the NGO’s legal director, said “Tunisia’s willingness now to accept the detainees should pave the way for their release.”

This position was also supported by Mokhtar Trifi, previously the president of Tunisia’s League for the Defense of Human Rights, who said his organization “now supports” the repatriation of the remaining prisoners in Guantánamo. “Before,” he said, “we were against their return, and we sought a safe place to go. Now that place is Tunisia.”

Mehrezia Ben Shaaban, the 70-year old mother of Hisham Sliti, one of the remaining Tunisians in Guantánamo, “cried as she said she just wanted to see” her son back at home. “His father and I are praying for Hisham to return after such a long absence and live at home with his family,” she said.

In January, after the overthrow of Tunisia’s long-term dictator, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, I wrote an article, “What Does Tunisia’s Revolution Mean for Political Prisoners, Including Guantánamo Detainees?,” in which I looked in detail at the stories of the twelve prisoners held at Guantánamo throughout its history. At that time, three had been freed in other countries, fearing what would happen if they were repatriated, two had been sent to Italy, where they were imprisoned pending trials on allegations that they were involved with terrorism, two had been returned to Tunisia, where they had been imprisoned after show trials, and five were still held in Guantánamo.

After Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia, Abdallah Hajj (aka Abdullah bin Amor), the one Tunisian returned from Guantánamo in 2007 who was still imprisoned, was freed “as part of a promise by the interim government to free all political prisoners.” or, as Tunisia-live.net explained after Wednesday’s conference, as a result of an amnesty declared by the interim government, which “put an end to all lawsuits based on the 2003 anti-terrorist law.” All twelve prisoners had been convicted in absentia in Tunisia on trumped-up charges, or charges derived through the torture of other prisoners, in show trials, but the website noted that no case had been established that any of the Tunisians at Guantánamo were a threat to their home country.

As a result, after Abdallah Hajji was released, and one of the Tunisians held in Italy had the case against him dismissed by the presiding judge in his case, he too returned  to Tunisia, where he was interviewed in May, and at Wednesday’s conference another former prisoner, Rafiq al-Hami, who had been freed in Slovakia in January 2010, but who recently returned to his newly liberated homeland, spoke about his experiences.

“The years I spent in detention were unimaginable,” he said. “I never knew if I would be able to return to my family and my homeland, and I was never informed of why I was being held, or given a chance to defend myself at trial. Since my return to Tunisia, I have finally been reunited with my family and have been able to experience normal life again. I have very high hopes for my future here.”

Polly Rossdale, who heads Reprieve’s “Life After Guantánamo” project, told me on Thursday that she was reassured that the conference had raised the profile of the prisoners in Tunisia, and was hopeful that this would indeed lead to pressure being exerted on the Obama administration.

As Reprieve noted in its press release about the conference, “171 prisoners remain detained at Guantánamo Bay. The Obama administration has publicly stated that 89 of these men have been cleared for release and pose no threat whatsoever to the United States or any other nation. Despite this fact, over the past year only a small handful of men have actually been released. With the upcoming elections in October, there is an opportunity for Tunisia to correct the wrongs of the past and open negotiations with the American government for the release of its citizens.”

With no one released from Guantánamo since January, and, as Reprieve noted, 89 cleared prisoners still held, it is to be hoped that President Obama will rise to the opportunity presented by the Tunisian government, to overcome the inevitable barriers raised by Republican lawmakers, who have cynically decided to oppose the release of prisoners from Guantánamo under any circumstances, and to free the last five Tunisian prisoners, following the example of the amnesty declared after Ben Ali’s fall, and providing Tunisia’s interim government, and its new political parties, with a clear example of support and understanding after so many years of demonizing political prisoners as terrorists.

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 June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, 700,000-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see 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.

14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I just Dugg this. It worked at once.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Glad to hear it, George. Thanks.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Tamzin Jans wrote:

    Why aren’t Sarkozy and Cameron trying to bring freedom to some of the prisoners in Guantanamo, instead of making speeches about freedom in Libya?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, I guess because that wouldn’t be nearly hypocritical enough, Tamzin. The triumphant visit of Cameron and Sarkozy was nauseating, wasn’t it?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Tamzin Jans wrote:

    Like Emporers claiming their thrones!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly. What was particularly galling was that no one got to point out how the British had been rendering and torturing Gaddafi’s opponents while he was our friend in the “war on terror.” The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Tamzin Jans wrote:

    Sarkozy also helped Gadhafi while he was in power. Now he is suddenly the reason to stay in Libya until they get him! How is it that neither Cameron nor Sarkozy said much about Ben Ali or Mubarak when there were riots in Tunisia and Egypt? Perhaps, some huge petrol deals have something to do with their “freeing” Libya?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    And also making up for missing out on what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Last night the BBC — without comment — noted the oil deals that will benefit British and French companies, as though it was some sort of bonus added on to our pure humanitarian concerns. Unbelievable!

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Joelle A How wrote:

    Andy thank you for being their beautiful sad voices. Guantanamo might be a different ignominy as of the Hitlers camps but it still is an ignominy.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s very beautifully put, Joelle. Thanks.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Tamzin Jans wrote:

    Nothing “pure” about those concerns, methinks. Those gentlemen still don’t say anything about Ben Ali or Mubarak, though they think nothing of inciting the murder of Gadhafi.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    “Pure humanitarian concerns” should have been in inverted commas, of course, Tamzin. Nothing pure about them at all, and our recognition of humanitarian aims only applies so long there’s money to be made first of all.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Tamzin Jans wrote:

    There is still a lot to be exploited in Libya and not just oil. They have huge fields of uranium too. Then there is the man-made river project that is giving water to a land that was dry. Unfortunately, it is also a project that is drying up the aquifers of places like Chad, who will suffer in the long run. The oil, of course is what gets these people motivated to give “humanitarian help”. Gadhafi was selling his oil via many foreign companies in Libya, but he recently decided that 35% of the profits had to be returned to Libya and not the previous *15% (I am not sure about the figures).

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tamzin.

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