To mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, both Al-Jazeera and the Guardian turned their attention to the fate of the five Tunisians still held in Guantánamo, who I wrote about almost exactly a year ago, after the unexpected fall of the dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, and the beginning of the revolutionary movements in the Middle East.
At the time, seven Tunisians had left Guantánamo, to face a variety of fates. Two had been repatriated in 2007, although both had then been imprisoned following show trials, two others were in Italy, where they had been delivered from Guantánamo to face trials in November 2009, and three others had been resettled in early 2010 in three other countries — namely, Slovakia, Albania and Georgia.
Soon after the fall of Ben Ali, the interim Tunisian government announced an amnesty for all political prisoners, paving the way for the return of exiled members of the Islamist party Ennahdha, and also the release of 55-year old Abdallah Hajji (also identified as Abdullah bin Amor), the former Guantánamo prisoner who was still imprisoned after a show trial. It also transpired that the other returned and imprisoned ex-Guantánamo prisoner, Lotfi Lagha, had actually been freed under President Ben Ali in June 2010.
Around the same time, one of the Tunisians sent to Italy, Mohammed Tahir Riyadh Nasseri, was convicted of criminal association with the aim of terrorism and sentenced to six years in prison, which seems harsh, especially as, just days later, on February 7, another judge delivered a completely different ruling in the case of Adel Ben Mabrouk (also identified as Adel Ben Mabrouk Bin Hamida Boughanmi), the other Tunisian sent to Italy from Guantánamo in November 2009. Although he too was convicted of criminal association with the aim of terrorism, the judge gave him a two-year suspended sentence and ordered his immediate release from jail, after taking into account “the eight years Mabrouk spent in Guantánamo in ‘inhumane conditions,’ plus a year and a half in Italian prison,” as his lawyer described it, even though he did not, at that point, have a passport or any kind of travel or identity papers.
On April 20, he returned to Tunisia, and after his return an Italian journalist traveled to Tunis to interview him, as I reported here.
On the third anniversary of President Obama’s failed promise to close Guantánamo, and the first anniversary of the fall of President Ben Ali, another Tunisian who returned home — Rafiq al-Hami, also identified as Rafik Hammi and Rafik al-Hammi — who had been released in Slovakia in January 2010, and had returned to his home country last March, appeared in a report on Guantánamo’s Tunisians on Al-Jazeera, and also in a longer video on the Guardian‘s website, both of which are posted below.
Al-Hami had spoken at a press conference in October last year, called by the interim government to campaign for the release of the remaining Guantánamo prisoners, when he said, “The years I spent in detention were unimaginable. 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.”
However, I had never seen what he looked like until these films were released. A quiet, bookish man with an almost secret smile that his long years of torture could not erase, he was clearly never a threat to anyone, and it is salutary to recall that he was actually brutalized not only in Guantánamo, but also in three “black sites” run by the CIA, where, as he explained in a lawsuit 2009, “his presence and his existence were unknown to everyone except his United States detainers,” and, at various times, he was “stripped naked, threatened with dogs, shackled in painful stress positions for hours, punched, kicked and exposed to extremes of heat and cold.”
Many years before, he had told his tribunal in Guantánamo that he was tortured for three months in the “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan, where, he said, “I was threatened. I was left out all night in the cold … I spent two months with no water, no shoes, in darkness and in the cold. There was darkness and loud music for two months. I was not allowed to pray … These things are documented. You have them.”
In the two and a half minute feature on Al-Jazeera, al-Hami spoke briefly about his experiences, and the report also noted the story of Adel Hakeemy, still held in Guantánamo, who was “accused of training al-Qaeda members, but all charges against him were dropped last year,” as Al-Jazeera explained. His brother Imad also spoke, as did Polly Rossdale of Reprieve, the legal action charity whose lawyers represent most of the Tunisians at Guantánamo.
In the seven minute video for the Guardian, in which Rafiq al-Hami spoke about his abuse, Adel Hakeemy’s brother appeared again, as did his mother. Most poignantly, his brother showed a photo of the daughter he has never met. Also included were the sister and mother of Hisham Sliti, also still held, and Cortney Busch of Reprieve was on hand to provide a good explanation of the circumstances surrounding the men’s ongoing detention, and the need for pressure to secure their release.
Ten years after Guantánamo opened, it is sad to see these stories of men still held, even though they were cleared for release by military review boards under President Bush, and even though the reason they fled Tunisia in the first place — because of their opposition to, and persecution by President Ben Ali — has come to an end, and they could be safely repatriated without any problems.
POSTSCRIPT: Below, via Tunisia Live, which reported on a press conference in Tunis on January 11 to call for the return of the prisoners, is another interview with Rafiq al-Hami, in which he described the forms of torture used by the US authorities, and also explained that he spent five years in solitary confinement:
POSTSCRIPT 2: On February 6, the Associated Press reported that an Italian appeals court had overturned the conviction of Mohammed Tahir Riyadh Nasseri. It was announced that the court would “release its reasoning for the ruling in 30 days,” but no further report has emerged in English.
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.
On Facebook, Ann Alexander wrote:
Thanks for this, Andy. The Tunisians’ story is heartbreaking especailly when you see their families. It is cruel beyond belief.
Thanks, Ann. Yes, the families help to focus how unacceptable all this should be. People who were clearly not “the worst of the worst,” still held, still thoroughly isolated from their families after ten years.
Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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