News from Albania: One Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Becomes A Father, While Another Is Not Allowed to Return Home

28.3.12

In the last week, two Guantánamo stories have emerged from Albania, home to ten former Guantánamo prisoners — all prisoners who could not be safely repatriated after being cleared for release from Guantánamo. Four men are Uighurs (Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province) released in May 2006, three others — an Algerian, an Egyptian and a Russian — were freed in December 2006, and three others — a Libyan, a Tunisian and another Egyptian — were released in February 2010.

One of the stories, cross-posted below, concerns Abu Bakker Qassim, one of the Uighurs, who recently became a father, and was interviewed by Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star on a recent visit. The other concerns Sherif El-Meshad, the Egyptian released in February 2010.

On March 23, the website Balkan Insight explained that El-Meshad (described as Sherif Almeshad), who is 35 years old, is being prevented from returning to Egypt by the Albanian government, even though “the post-Mubarak government in Egypt says he is welcome to come back.” Representatives of the legal action charity Reprieve, whose lawyers represent El-Meshad, told Balkan Insight that the “Albanian authorities have repeatedly denied El-Meshad’s requests to return home although the new government in Cairo has provided written assurances that he will be welcome in Egypt and faces no risks there.” In addition, the Albanian border police have twice prevented El-Meshad’s Albanian wife from traveling to Egypt, even though she has a valid Egyptian visa.

Katie Taylor, Reprieve’s “Life After Guantánamo” caseworker, said that by denying El-Meshad’s “right to freedom of movement,” the government in Tirana was “breaking Albanian and international law.” She added that other European countries that had provided new homes for former Guantánamo prisoners “have permitted them to return to their homelands in response to the positive political changes created by the Arab Spring.”

Albania’s Interior Ministry “declined to explain” to Balkan Insight why El-Meshad was being prevented from returning to Egypt, or why his wife has also been prevented from traveling, but Taylor appealed for them to lift their unexplained ban.

“It has been a more than decade since Sherif has been able to return to Egypt and he misses his family desperately, particularly his mother, who is ill,” she said. She added that he “sees a bright future for himself in Egypt, where he has obtained a scholarship to study in Cairo and had planned to split his time between continuing his education and supporting his family,” as Balkan Insight described it. Taylor also explained, “Sherif has been through so much this past decade, and his best chance of rebuilding his life is with his family in his homeland.”

Two other ex-Guantánamo prisoners, Rafiq al-Hami and Adel Ben Mabrouk, who were resettled in Slovakia and Italy, were able to return home to Tunisia after the revolution that toppled the dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali last January, and Taylor noted that there should be no obstacles preventing Egyptian ex-prisoners from returning home if they wish to do so — although there was, surprisingly, no mention of Adel El-Gazzar, who returned to Egypt from Slovakia last June, and was then imprisoned until his release in January this year. “We would have been concerned if Sherif had an in absentia sentence against him or any other sort of charges or history in Egypt,” she said, but added that the “Egyptian authorities have made it clear again and again that he would be welcomed back to Egypt and afforded all the rights that any Egyptian citizen is entitled to.”

She also maintained that Albania has “no legal grounds” to deny El-Meshad his “right to freedom of movement,” explaining that, as well as being granted permission to return by the Egyptian government, he “has every right to return as he has never been accused of any crime in Albania,” because Article 13 of Albania’s Law on Foreigners stipulates that foreign citizens are allowed to leave the country if their home country will accept them, and they have not been accused of committing a crime in Albania, and also because “Article 12, paragraph four of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Albania has ratified, states that ‘no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.’”

“Albania did the right thing when it took in Sherif when he had nowhere else to go, but now that the situation has changed in Egypt, and it is time to let him go home,” Taylor said. “Letting him go will cost Albania nothing and would be a fitting conclusion to the important part they have played in righting the wrongs of Guantánamo.” She added that, although the Albanian government would not say why it was refusing to allow El-Meshad to travel to Egypt, the reason may be that Guantánamo is “still a ‘political issue’ in the United States” and the government “may fear harming its close ties with Washington if it grants El-Meshad’s request.”

As Reprieve described El-Meshad’s story, he “was an upwardly mobile young businessman living in Italy when he was seized following the 9/11 terrorist attacks after crossing the border into Pakistan as he fled the fighting in Afghanistan.” Specifically, the charity explained that, before his capture, “he had been a legal Italian resident for over four years, running a painting and decorating business in Cuomo,” in northern Italy. In 2001 he traveled to Afghanistan, where he had plans to befriend a wealthy Kuwaiti businessman, but was obliged to flee the violence following the US-led invasion in October 2001, and was arrested and turned over to the US authorities for a bounty.

He was then taken to the US prison at Kandahar airport, where the violence to which the prisoners were subjected included “severe beatings, exposure to freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation for hours on end, and suspending prisoners by their wrists,” and, in February 2002, was transferred to Guantánamo, where he was held for eight years.

Speaking at a press conference in Tirana, Sherif El-Meshad appealed for the Albanian government to allow him to return to Egypt with his wife and child. “I am innocent by law from Guantánamo and there is no pending case for me in Egypt,” he said. “I would like the Albanian government to understand my right for a normal life back in Egypt too now that the Hosni Mubarak regime has fallen.”

Guantánamo’s legacy and pizza on the outside
By Michelle Shephard, Toronto Star, March 24, 2012

TIRANA, ALBANIA — The secret is in the crust, Abu Bakker Qassim explains, his hands rolling two perfect mounds of dough with ambidextrous ease.

It is Saturday night, early, so the rush hasn’t started and Qassim is prepping in the pizzeria’s immaculate side kitchen, which doubles as a closet. His eyes, obscured behind thick glasses, never leave the dough; his rounded belly brushing against the floured marble countertop.

Qassim is wearing a white T-shirt with short green sleeves, which he says his Boston lawyer gave him nearly six years ago to replace his prison clothes.

It is a rare reminder of the 34-year-old’s past. He doesn’t dwell on those four years detained by the U.S. in Guantánamo, or the first difficult year here in the bustling capital of Albania. Figuring out how to survive outside the wire, how to put Gitmo behind him, means enjoying the present. Pizza is part of that.

“It took me a month to learn,” he says proudly about the crust, as he brushes oil on the dough balls at Piceri MeGusto, which like most of the pizzerias in Albania makes halal pizzas for their Muslim clientele.

Every day since Qassim tasted his first slice in 2007 and had his epiphany, he has eaten pizza. It sounds almost comical, too contrived a narrative, but there is nothing disingenuous about Qassim’s pride, or dream of one day opening his own restaurant.

“I learned this from my heart. I can never get bored,” he says.

Qassim is Uighur, a Muslim minority from China’s restive and oil-rich Xinjiang province, which Uighurs call East Turkestan. There are roughly 8 million Uighurs living in the northwestern region that borders Pakistan and Afghanistan — many struggling for independence from their communist Chinese rulers.

Since his 2006 release, Qassim has lived in Albania with three other Uighurs, like him, former prisoners of Guantánamo. A fifth, who came with them six years ago, was recently given refuge in Sweden [...]

Qassim’s story — and that of the 22 Uighurs the U.S. has held captive in Guantanamo — is easy to tell.

Qassim was persecuted in China and, like other Uighurs targeted by the government, decided to flee. He said he had hoped to get to Turkey and send for his family. He was in Afghanistan waiting for a visa, in an area called the “Uighur village,” when the post-9/11 bombing began and the men scattered. Pakistani forces captured 22 Uighurs as they tried to escape across the border, and they were sold to the U.S. for a $5,000 bounty each. They told their Pakistani captors they were from Uzbekistan — terrified they would be handed over to China if they admitted to being Uighurs.

When they were given instead to the Americans they were relieved and revealed their nationality.

“The moment we saw the American flag and American soldiers, we thought, ‘They know us! We’re Uighur. We are from China, China’s an enemy of America,” Qassim said. “If you go to America, America’s a great country … We were so happy.”

But they were taken instead to the American Kandahar base in Afghanistan, where they were labelled Taliban terrorists, stripped naked, beaten and then sent to Gitmo as enemy combatants.

Most of their interrogators knew their capture was a mistake and told them privately they would be released. The Bush administration even agreed in late 2003 that they clearly weren’t “enemy combatants.” The deputy assistant secretary of state under Bush, the most senior official on dealings with China, called the Uighurs’ detention in Guantánamo “nothing short of tragic.”

But it took four years, until 2006, to correct that mistake, their release complicated by America’s wooing of China to support the Iraq war. Another 12 Uighur captives would languish in Guantánamo until 2009 and 2010 and they were released to the only other countries willing to offer refuge — Bermuda, Palau and Switzerland. (Negotiations had been ongoing with Canada, but Ottawa backed out.)

Five Uighurs remain in Guantánamo, a decade after their capture. They are no longer the only ones the Pentagon says should not be held there.

Eighty-nine of the 171 remaining detainees have been “approved for transfer” by the U.S. defense department. When Barack Obama first took office, releasing such detainees was a top priority. Dozens were settled in Ireland, Portugal, France and other countries happy to curry favour with the new president.

But Congress soon imposed restrictions and all transfers ceased. Negotiations may start again thanks to the National Defense Authorization Act, which last year eased those conditions slightly. “In the first year of the Obama administration, we were able to accomplish a fair amount — in the end, this administration moved 67 people out of Guantánamo,” said the State Department’s Daniel Fried, Obama’s Gitmo czar.

“Then Congress made it impossible. Now it is just possible, but it will be very difficult.”

What Fried won’t say, but what has also complicated his job, is that today Obama now barely mentions the place.

And that’s what makes Qassim’s group a remarkable story in a post-9/11 era, when fear still often trumps facts. Quite simply, they were able to do what the Obama administration couldn’t.

They have convinced the public they are not terrorists.

Albania, a former communist nation of 3.2 million on the Adriatic Sea, just north of Greece, was the first to step up in 2006 when the Bush administration asked countries to accept Guantánamo’s Uighur detainees — and with them China’s anger.

Albania also agreed to settle detainees from Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, who also feared persecution if returned to their homelands.

The initial reaction was largely a question: Albania? There were jokes that the men were exchanging one gulag for the other.

Albania was long known as an impoverished hermit state under the communist grip of Enver Hoxha, a mysterious country largely cut off from foreigners. But Albania is shedding its dark past, enjoying a tourist boom after topping Lonely Planet’s list of travel destinations last year.

The capital, Tirana, is a mix of coffee shops and casinos, hijabs and hot pants, wide boulevards, parks and potholes; a clothing boutique featuring a Spanish designer is just a short walk from side streets that are crowded with second-hand bazaars and desperate vendors. And pizzerias, there are lots of pizzerias.

“The first time I walked around the city everybody was looking at me,” says Ahtar Qasim Bassit [aka Akhdar Qasem Basit], perhaps the most gentle and shy of the group, and the only one still single. “They were scared and I was scared, too.”

That first year was rough. They were lonely, confused and lived with the “Guantánamo” stigma in a guarded refugee camp.

Albanians were not as outraged by Guantánamo as others in predominantly Muslim countries. Albania is a staunch U.S. ally and one of its downtown streets has been renamed “George W. Bush.” Bush received a stars-and-stripes-flag-waving, rock-star welcome in 2007 as the first U.S leader to visit. The Uighurs were treated with suspicion.

One day after Bush’s visit, Qassim was lost — literally and metaphorically — and he wandered into Ahmet Dursun’s restaurant.

“He came asking me for directions … I asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’” Dursun said, as he sipped Turkish coffee on a recent afternoon.

Dursun came from Turkey in 1991 to study at Tirana’s famed opera school. He looks like he would be comfortable on stage. Six-foot-two, mop of messy hair, with a broad frame that fills his cable knit turtleneck. But his passion for opera turned to food, writing and philanthropy, once he realized his ambition was greater than his voice.

“I am singing, but in the kitchen,” he smirks. “I was not a great talent like Pavarotti, so I understood.”

Dursun listened to Qassim’s story and wanted to help. “It is not only their story, it is our story. You are from Canada, I am from Turkey but we could have been from East Turkistan. You cannot say it was destiny.”

Dursun convinced Qassim to appear live on the country’s top news station and educate Albanians about the Uighurs. He also asked him to cook traditional Uighur food for an environmental fundraiser, raising enough to plant 5,000 trees in elementary schools.

The public relations offensive worked. The Uighur men tried hard — integrating themselves not just at the mosque but throughout the city, learning Albanian and the art of pizza, taking classes at the city university. They sought Uighur wives the way so many people meet these days — online. The women (who asked that they not be quoted or photographed for fear of their relatives would be targeted by Chinese authorities) were given residency in Albania so they could marry. Three couples have had babies, including Qassim, whose wife recently gave birth to a little girl they named Zeynap.

None of this is to suggest theirs is a fairy-tale ending. In Albania, their options are limited and most of the work they do is volunteer (Qassim does not get a salary but tips, if there are tips, for his pizza skills). They do not have citizenship so remain status-less, in limbo, and unable to travel.

Albania remains mired in poverty. The door of the apartment building where Qassim lives was stolen one night. The light bulb in the hallway unscrewed and pocketed.

And Qassim’s recent marriage was at first bittersweet. He was married and a father of three when he was captured and sent to Guantánamo a decade ago. He lost four years to Guantánamo but as soon as he arrived here he tried to get his wife a passport — through proper diplomatic connections and with bribes. But she was watched by Chinese authorities and trapped. Eventually, she encouraged him to move on.

“She told me it has been 11 years of not seeing each other. ‘You are there, I am here. We tried everything’ … she said, ‘Look for a wife, get married.’

“Eleven years to wait, and after time we gave up. It’s not easy but we did not have another choice,” he said.

Qassim met his second wife through friends and the first time they talked he was honest, almost blunt: “I got her phone number and I told her directly, ‘I have a wife and children at home. I tried to get them here.’”

But she already knew his story and through an Albanian connection, a friend of Qassim’s, they managed to get her a visa. She came to Tirana. They married soon after. Their baby was born Jan. 30.

Qassim keeps in regular contact with his first wife and kids, Skyping so they can see their new half-sister.

The last detainee freed from Guantánamo was sent to Algeria in January 2011.

But transfers may again resume due to the easing of Congress’ restrictions, the Arab world’s shifting geopolitical landscape and a potential deal to send five Taliban detainees to Qatar as part of reconciliation efforts between Afghanistan and the U.S.

Fried says the majority of upcoming transfers will be “repatriations, rather than resettlements.”

“We resettle people when they cannot be sent home because of humane treatment concerns. Because of what has happened in countries like Libya and Tunisia, those treatment issues may not be germane any longer with respect to those countries — and who knows what’s going to happen in Syria?”

The men in Albania follow the Guantánamo news closely. They still feel trapped in many ways — especially when thinking of the five Uighurs remaining.

“Of course, we can never forget them … We were more than brothers,” said Bassit. “I can say, for me, Guantánamo Bay has not ended.”

Qassim confesses to having survivor’s guilt, too.

“We were all together. We’re innocent, they’re not?”

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 please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Digg, cosmicsurfer wrote:

    Bad enough to have kidnapped or bought these innocent men; taken them from their lives, their homes and their families; held them for up to a decade (or more) in an alien concrete and steel cage; abused, tortured but found to be totally innocent (the American way – Guilty until proven innocent for anyone not us); then put on a plane to go to another alien place where they are expected to learn a foreign language, rebuild a life, find gainful employment and forget they ever had a family.
    Aren’t we something?
    I know the tiny group of small minded love to jump on these facts as if their spin makes them any different.
    As long as we continue to abuse people, we will be hated; as long as we continue to bully, we will lose any trust of other nations and as long as we deny our action, excuse the actions of our elected officials and hide from the truth of our nation’s behavior (over the past 30 years and longer) we will be shocked and angered by retaliation for our abuse of others.
    As long as those “officials” act as war criminals and are excused and not held accountable by the people of this nation then those crimes become ours.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, cosmicsurfer. That’s a powerful analysis, and it made me think about the trajectory of that particular type of US exceptionalism that has been functioning since 9/11, and that is enshrined as a dark icon of lawlessness at Guantanamo, although it permeates detention everywhere outside the US in the last 10 years — in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the CIA’s “black sites.”

    These men are in such a mess because of the arrogance and stupidity of the Bush administration, which didn’t believe that there were good reasons for having established laws regarding the detention of prisoners in wartime. Largely, the “war on terror” produced refugees and scapegoats — some released to places like Albania, and some, of course, still in Guantanamo, where the 171 men still held have watched as antipathy towards Bush turned into a brief hope of enlightenment under Obama, and then became a full-blown retreat to the politics of fear, and the reduction of Guantanamo — and the men still held — to the margins of sensible discourse, as a tool to be cynically played by lawmakers and the media, and to be brushed aside as politically inconvenient by President Obama.

    It’s time for this cynicism to end, and for more prisoners — many more prisoners — to be released.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    cosmicsurfer wrote:

    Since there are dozens who are still sitting in those cells but have been cleared of any possible charge and have been cleared for some time, I have to agree wholeheartedly. Even those who may have evidence against them deserve a jury trial and the right to confront their accusers – not a sham created to keep the facts from being heard
    The issue remains – JUST what the hell are the Pentagon, the CIA and the POTUS still trying to hide?
    The most obvious answer is an attempt to hide more crimes against humanity that have yet to be uncovered by those who keep researching and pushing.
    ACLU FOIA requests are still being fought; Erased interrogation tapes – could it be that there is a fear of what these men know? Could these remaining prisoners, held against all accepted protocols and procedures of anyone claiming to be a free society or close to a democracy, actually be witness to more than has come out so far?

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi cosmicsurfer,
    Some of the men, sadly, have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. After all, Obama’s interagency Task Force concluded that the US had no interest in indefinitely detaining or putting on trial 89 of the 171 men still held, and yet they’re all still there.
    As for the others – yes, you’re absolutely right. There are torture issues that Obama, looking forward and not back, wants to keep hidden, although my feeling is that you can’t keep evidence of torture hidden forever, although there has been a concerted effort to do so for the last ten years.

  5. Obama Is Right To Apologize; Gingrich Wrong In His Assessment | Living History says...

    [...] Dan Emmett, former Secret Service agent, criticized Clinton administration staff in a controversial new bookHotfile targeted by Hollywood following similar action against MegauploadThe Phenomenal Adele HiteGoogle Chrome hacked in 5 minutes at a hacking conference in VancouverPresident Obama Rallies in VermontVIDEO: Santorum Calls President Obama ‘Anti-War, Government N—erGingrich revamps campaign to deny Romney delegatesNews from Albania: One Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Becomes A Father, While Another Is Not Allowed to Ret… [...]

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