Will Egypt’s Military Government Free Former Guantánamo Prisoner Imprisoned Since June?

13.12.11

Back in June, I wrote about the case of Adel el-Gazzar, who, after eight years in US custody, mostly at Guantánamo, and another 17 months in Slovakia (where he was held in prison-like conditions and only released after embarking on a hunger strike), had returned to his homeland, where he was promptly arrested and imprisoned on terrorism charges that were widely regarded as fabricated. Adel had been seized in late 2001 in Pakistan, where he had been working as a volunteer with the Saudi Red Crescent, and had been living in Slovakia since being freed from Guantánamo in January 2010, on the basis that it was unsafe for him to be returned to his home country while it was still under the control of Hosni Mubarak. As I explained back in June:

This was not because of anything he had done, but because, as a critic of the regime, he had left the country in 2001, and had been in Pakistan, undertaking humanitarian work in a refugee camp when he was caught in a US bombing raid (which, with subsequent medical neglect on the part of the US authorities, led to him losing a leg). As a result, following his departure from Egypt, he had been given a three-year sentence in absentia by the Egyptian State Security Court for his alleged part in a supposed plot that was known as al-Wa’ad.

This, as the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm explained, was “the first major terrorism case in Egypt” after the 9/11 attacks, in which the defendants — 94 in total — were charged with “attempting to overthrow former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and infiltrate Palestinian territory.” However, the case “was widely condemned as an attempt by Mubarak to suppress his Islamist opponents,” and this was an interpretation that carried considerable weight, as “[m]ore than half of the suspects were subsequently released.”

In the Miami Herald on Sunday, Hannah Allam, reporting from Cairo, explained that, after six months of pressure from his lawyers, at the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, Adel’s case will be heard on December 27, in an appeal for a new trial that will be held in a military court. Katie Taylor of Reprieve’s Life After Guantánamo project, said, “Egypt has an opportunity to, in a sense, wipe the slate clean when it comes to the human rights violations of the Mubarak years.”

Adel’s case is set to establish a precedent for how Egypt deals with former opponents of Mubarak’s regime who have been returning to the country since February, and it remains to be seen how the response of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will reflect developments in Tunisia and Libya, if at all. In Tunisia, as Hannah Allam explained, “one of the first decrees of the interim Tunisian government was amnesty for political prisoners, including former or current detainees from Guantánamo,” and in Libya, former opponents of Gaddafi, and members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who opposed him from exile in Afghanistan and elsewhere, took up positions in the rebellion that finally toppled Moammar Gaddafi.

As I explained in articles here, here and here, in Tunisia, the circumstances were so favorable that a companion of el-Gazzar’s from Slovakia returned home safely, another was freed after imprisonment and a trial in Italy, and another, as Hannah Allam described it, “was freed from a Tunisian jail where the old regime had kept him since his release from US custody in 2007.” The interim government then “pledged to send a delegation to the US to negotiate for the release of the remaining Tunisians held in Guantanamo,” as Katie Taylor explained, and as I reported here, which was a development that “received considerable support among political parties and civil society in Tunisia.”

As Allam also explained:

Few analysts expect similar tolerance from Egypt’s ruling military council, which for years hyped the threat of Islamist extremism to Western allies as justification for Mubarak’s repressive police state. Since taking power in February, the council has outraged human rights advocates by subjecting about 12,000 Egyptians to military trials — more than in Mubarak’s entire time in office.

On the ground in Egypt, Adel el-Gazzar’s family “warned him that the old regime’s vast security and intelligence apparatus remained intact,” as the Herald‘s article put it, and worried that, “If that’s how revolutionary Egypt treats its civilians … then a bearded Islamist fresh out of Guantánamo stood little chance for smooth repatriation.”

His wife, Umm Abdul Rahman, who had brought up “three teenage sons, and an 11-year-old daughter who was an infant when Gazzar was detained,” said, “They paid no consideration to his age or his health. If he was cleared and released by America, then why try him again and imprison him for three more years? They were supposed to have cleared him as soon as he got back.”

Instead, as I explained in June, he was arrested on arrival at Cairo airport, and, as Allam put it, “was allowed a few moments with his wife and four children, their first meeting in a decade, and then disappeared into Egypt’s prisons” — and, specifically, the notorious Tora Prison, where Mubarak’s two sons and some of the former dictator’s senior associates “are awaiting trial on corruption and other charges.” Mohammed Zarae, an Egyptian lawyer who is representing Adel in his appeal, explained that he is not being “abused or violated,” and has been allowed family visits, although “they’ve been curtailed because Egypt is on high alert for parliamentary elections.” In a report for Al-Jazeera, however, Katie Taylor noted that, despite this, “a prisoner was allegedly tortured to death three weeks ago” in the Tora prison.

Reporting on the case that led to his in absentia conviction, the Herald noted that the Egyptian authorities opened the al-Wa’ad case immediately after the 9/11 attacks, and that many of those rounded up and sentenced after cursory trials, and that some of the defendants, including Adel and his brother Ashraf, were not even in the country at the time. Ashraf el-Gazzar said that interrogators told the prisoners, “Sorry, it’s just bad timing for you guys. You’re Mubarak’s gift to the Americans.”

Egyptian political analysts told the Herald that “Mubarak’s government fabricated or greatly exaggerated the threat posed by the defendants to prove to Washington that it was a reliable ally in the fight against terrorism,” and it was noted that, under Mubarak, most of the convictions were overturned, while other defendants “served three-year sentences and are now free.”

Adel, however, is “believed to be the last of the Waad Cell suspects still in custody,” and a military court will have to decide “whether he should be freed, kept in prison or granted a new trial based on what his attorneys say is a conviction based on evidence obtained through torture.” A memorandum of appeal submitted by his lawyers states:

The evidence against the defendant is based on the statements of other defendants, which they subsequently recanted. The court ruled that statements had been the result of physical and moral coercion by state security agents. The coercive methods of the security services became clear in the scandal following the revolution when it was revealed that physical torture had led to false confessions.

The only government official who spoke to the Miami Herald was Maj. Mukhtar el-Mullah, a member of the ruling military council, who said that “he hadn’t heard of el-Gazzar by name and had no information about the case.”

Ashraf el-Gazzar said that his brother had left the prison just once, when “he was granted a day pass to visit his ailing mother at the family home in Cairo.” He added that the authorities “flooded their block with security forces and put snipers on the roof of the house,” which, his family said, “was absurd for a man with only one leg,” and “was designed to shame them among neighbors.”

Ashraf also said that the authorities “sent along a video crew,” but “the family refused to allow recording for fear the government would use it as propaganda.” Adel’s family added that the ruling will be “the only barometer they need to decide whether human rights are a priority in the post-Mubarak Egypt,” and, in conclusion, speaking of the authorities’ plan to video Adel’s visit, Ashraf said, “They wanted to pretend that they cared about prisoners’ rights. I told one officer to his face, ‘You’re an extension of Guantánamo. What the Americans do there, you do here.’”

In her concluding thoughts, Katie Taylor of Reprieve stated, “If the military prosecutor does not acquit Adel, it will be yet one further indication that, unlike Tunisia, Egypt has not broken with its illegal detention policies. Just last week, SCAF officials went on state television to urge Egyptians to stop comparing SCAF’s rule to the Mubarak regime. Clearly, the solution is for them to stop acting like the Mubarak regime.”

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, million-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.

2 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Digging, Andy.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. Good to hear from you. With the support of some friends here, I’m glad to say that my articles are getting much more interest on Digg, and regularly making the front page. Not sure what’ s happening on FB though, where less people seem to be sharing my work. Swings and roundabouts …

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