Three weeks ago, two Algerian prisoners were released from Guantánamo, who were the first prisoners to be released without a court order or a plea deal since September 2010, when Congress raised obstacles that President Obama refused to challenge or overcome until this year, when a prison-wide hunger strike, and widespread criticism of his inaction, both domestically and internationally, obliged him to promise, in a major speech on national security issues in May, that he would resume releasing prisoners.
This was the very least that he could do, given that, at the time, 86 of the remaining 166 prisoners had been cleared for release, since January 2010, by an inter-agency task force that the president had established when he took office in 2009, and many of these men had also been cleared for release years before, under the Bush administration. With the release of the Algerians, that number is down to 84, but this is clearly no occasion for satisfaction on the part of the Obama administration, and every day that these 84 men are still held further erodes President Obama’s credibility.
As for the Algerians, all that has been heard about the two men since their repatriation is that, back in Algeria, they were placed “under ‘judicial control,’ a type of supervised parole,” after being “detained pending interrogation by a prosecutor.” Joseph Breham, the French lawyer for one of the men, Nabil Hadjarab, who was featured in a New York Times op-ed by John Grisham just before his release, told the Associated Press that he was “working on getting him resettled in France, where his whole family lives.” Breham said, “We are overjoyed he has been cleared (for parole) and now we are going to work to return him to France.” He added that Hadjarab “would have to check in with [the] authorities every month.”
If the experiences of the majority of the eleven men previously repatriated are anything to go by, Nabil Hadjarab and the other released man, Mutia Sayyab, may eventually face trials that will end with them being acquitted. On their return, all the former prisoners were held by the intelligence services, who are allowed to hold them and question them for twelve days. Katie Taylor of Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity, has stated that although some “were freed after a series of interrogations,” others “are still awaiting trial.” Most worrying, however, is the case of Abdul Aziz Naji, an amputee released in July 2010, who was convicted on January 16, 2012 of “belonging to a terrorist group abroad,” and is now serving a three-year sentence.
For Nabil Hadjarab and Mutia Sayyab, Abdul Aziz Naji’s experiences were not enough to deter them from returning home, but the other two cleared Algerians — Djamel Ameziane and Ahmed Belbacha — are unwilling to follow them, and still seek third countries to offer them new homes. Belbacha in particular has reason to worry. Cleared for release in 2007, he was so terrified of returning home — fearful of the government, and of the Islamists who had prompted him to flee the country in the first place when they threatened him while he was working for a government-owned oil company — that he fought in the US courts to prevent his forcible repatriation, and was rewarded with an in absentia show trial, and a 20-year sentence, which his lawyers at Reprieve believe was based solely on his well-publicized fears of his home government.
The Swiss angle
As part of my mission to cover stories that I missed in the last few months, while working on stories relating to the hunger strike (also see here and here), I’m revisiting the story of Abdul Aziz Naji via an article published in June on the website swissinfo.ch. This article, “The long road from Guantánamo to Switzerland,” was written by Stefania Summermatter and Peter Siegenthaler, and was translated from the French by Sophie Douez. In it, the authors looked at the stories of the three prisoners released in Switzerland in 2010, and three others whose cases were looked at by the Swiss authorities but whose appeals for asylum were eventually refused. One of those three was Abdul Aziz Naji.
Summermatter and Siegenthaler explained that the asylum story began in 2008, when, with the support of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and Amnesty International, three prisoners who had been cleared for release by military review boards under George W. Bush requested asylum. Initially, they were turned down, but they appealed to the Federal Administrative Tribunal, and in 2009, “the federal judges accepted an initial appeal” — that of Abdul Aziz Naji.
In a ruling on December 10, 2009, the court “found the Migration Office did not guarantee him the right to be heard, a violation of federal law.” The court also said that “the reasons for rejecting the asylum request were too vague,” and that the Migration Office’s decision “was not a convincing and credible argument demonstrating that it was not in the interest of Switzerland to grant asylum.” In 2010, the court accepted an appeal by Abdul Rauf Omar al-Qusin (aka Abdul Ra’ouf al-Qassim), a Libyan, but turned down the appeal of the third man, Adel Noori, a Uighur (a Muslim from China’s oppressed Xinjiang province).
Although the court ordered the Federal Migration Office to review the cases of Naji and al-Qusin, it is now four years later and they “have yet to be resolved.” Migration Office spokesman Michael Glauser said that the cases were “particularly complex,” although he “declined to provide information on why the department delivered its initial negative decision, or on the measures taken to adhere to the orders handed down by the court.” In a statement, the office said, “The duration of asylum proceedings is dependent on various factors, notably possible additional investigations being done to clarify the case, but also the priority order in which cases are being treated.”
For the three men, it is too late, as they were all eventually released from Guantánamo, although the questions raised by the Swiss deliberations remain important as there are other men still held at Guantánamo who are seeking third countries to offer them new homes.
For the record, Noori, with five other Uighurs, was taken in by the Republic of Palau, an island nation in the Pacific, in October 2009. In February this year, however, it was reported that he had somehow managed to leave the island and travel to Turkey, to be reunited with his Turkish wife and child. Qusin was released in February 2010 in Albania, where he apparently “had difficulty integrating into local life.” After the fall of Col. Gaddafi, “he took steps to return to his country and has not been heard of since.”
“From bad to worse” for Abdul Aziz Naji
Summermatter and Siegenthaler noted that, for Naji, however, “things went from bad to worse after his release from Guantánamo” to Algeria, with the trial and conviction on “the same charges as those levelled by the US that were never proven.”
His Algerian lawyer Hassiba Boumerdassi said, “His mental and physical health continues to deteriorate. He is a very introverted and suspicious person. He doesn’t readily talk of Guantánamo, an experience which profoundly traumatised him and, in addition, he is not receiving adequate care. He is isolated from the other prisoners and, like all presumed terrorists, he is treated harshly by the guards.”
Summermatter and Siegenthaler also ran through Naji’s story, explaining how it “began in 2001 in Kashmir, Pakistan, where he was employed by a local humanitarian organisation working with poor Muslim and Christian communities, according to several organisations including Amnesty and the Geneva-based Human Rights Watch. One night, while delivering food to isolated villages, he stepped on a landmine and was gravely injured. He was transferred to a hospital in Lahore and later fitted with a prosthetic limb.”
In May 2002, after he had spent several months recovering, he traveled to Peshawar, in the North-West Frontier Province, to visit a friend. It was there that he was seized by the Pakistani police and delivered to US forces. He was then sent to Guantánamo, arriving on August 5, 2002, where he was accused of “having ties to a radical Islamist movement,” as Summermatter and Siegenthaler described it, and where, “according to his lawyers, he was tortured.”
In 2008, after he was told that he had been “cleared for release”, Naji “appealed to Switzerland for asylum.” However, as Summermatter and Siegenthaler described it, “On the basis of information provided by Washington, the Swiss rejected his request for asylum, believing him to be a dangerous combatant — a decision that failed to convince both human rights organisations and the Federal Administrative Court.”
That is a polite way of saying that, although the US government had, on the one hand, sought Swiss support in resettling prisoners, when it came to providing information about the men in question they had shown Swiss representatives information similar to, if not identical to the classified Detainee Assessment Briefs released by WikiLeaks in April 2011 — full of deeply untrustworthy information masquerading as evidence, and alarming descriptions of the alleged risks posed by the men. In Naji’s case, this was sufficient to deter the Swiss authorities from accepting him.
As Summermatter and Siegenthaler noted, the Swiss judges who were less credulous than their government’s representatives accepted Naji’s appeal in December 2009, when he was still in Guantánamo, although he was sent home just seven months later. Rachid Mesli, the director of the Alkarama Foundation, a Geneva-based NGO which fights for human rights in Arab countries, told swissinfo.ch, “Naji would have preferred to stay at Guantánamo rather than return to his country where he was afraid he would be arrested and tortured.”
Summermatter and Siegenthaler also noted that his case “found a particular resonance in the US, where it inspired an editorial in the New York Times titled ‘Fear of Freedom,'” which featured the powerful opening line, “A prisoner who begs to stay indefinitely at the Guantánamo Bay detention center rather than be sent back to Algeria probably has a strong reason to fear the welcoming reception at home.”
Naji had indeed fought to prevent his return, as had another man forcibly repatriated in January 2011, Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed, and with good reason. Despite “guarantees Washington says it received from the Algerian government,” Naji was detained and interrogated on his return, and after 20 days in prison — more than the 12 days allowed in Algerian law — he was only released and allowed to return to his home in Batna Province because of “the intervention of his lawyers and human rights organizations.” There, Rachid Mesli said, he was kept under “constant surveillance by the secret service,” and “was required to report regularly to the military barracks for interrogation.”
Then came the trial and the conviction. His lawyer, Hassiba Boumerdassi, explained that the prosecution presented no new evidence, and stated, “We are waiting for the verdict of the appeal. If the three-year sentence is confirmed, we will try to demand his release on health grounds because he will need a new prosthesis. The law allows for this possibility when half of the sentence has been served.” Despite the 18-month mark being reached in July, there has been no report of this happening.
What are the rules regarding the treatment of former prisoners?
In search of further information about agreements regarding the treatment of former prisoners, Summermatter and Siegenthaler tried to speak to the Algerian embassy in Bern, but noted that they “did not respond to swissinfo’s questions about the Naji case or the general policies about the reintroduction of former Guantánamo detainees to Algeria.”
They also “asked the American Embassy to Bern to explain the responsibilities the US assumes in relation to the ex-Guantánamo detainees, and what measures it takes to ensure they are not subject to new violations of human rights or of the Geneva Convention,” but the Embassy’s only response was, “No comment.”
Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch explained to swissinfo.ch that “bilateral agreements relating to the transfer of former detainees are confidential.” She added, however, that the US position “allows for a monitoring of the situation. Washington wants to know where these former detainees are, what they’re doing, if they have left the country and especially if they have engaged in illegal activities.”
Summermatter and Siegenthaler noted that it was “on the basis of a political agreement with Washington” that, in 2010, Switzerland “welcomed on humanitarian grounds (and with a residence permit) three former detainees — two Uighur brothers and an Uzbek.” They also noted, “It was a process of a completely different nature compared with the asylum requests presented by their three former companions.”
The Uighur brothers, Arkin and Bathiyar Mahmut, “live in the French-speaking canton of Jura in Switzerland’s north-west,” but are not speaking to the media. According to Endili Memetkerim, the president of the East Turkestan Association (the Uighurs’ name for Xinjiang Province) which “brings together some one hundred people of Uighur origin in Switzerland,” the brothers “are getting on quite well.” He explained, “The youngest, aged 37, found work first as a gardener, then in a watch company, while the eldest is still looking for work. They are learning to speak French, although not without difficulty.”
Denise Graf of Amnesty International added, “The scars left by Guantánamo are difficult to erase and the eldest brother, who is also suffering from the separation from his wife and children, is the most traumatized. In Guantánamo, he lived through the most unimaginable experiences. He dared to denounce the methods used in the prison and as a result, was placed in isolation for long periods of time.” Graf also stated that the Swiss authorities are happy for family members to join the brothers, “but the Chinese refuse to let them leave the country.”
Nor can the brothers return home. Endili Memetkerim explained, “Our Uighur refugees are considered terrorists by the Chinese authorities. Under the current regime, they risk the death penalty or a long prison sentence.”
Summermatter and Siegenthaler also noted, “Practically nothing is known about the Uzbek ex-detainee given refuge in Switzerland. A baker by trade, he was the first of the former Guantánamo detainees to arrive in the country. Authorities in canton Geneva have maintained an absolute silence about both his identity and his situation in Switzerland.” Caroline Widmer, a spokeswoman for Geneva’s justice office, stated, “It’s about respecting the right to forget.”
That is true, of course, but as Katie Taylor of Reprieve explained, “cases of human rights violations — such of that of Naji — must be reported to ensure that other people do not suffer the same fate.”
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. 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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