Former Guantánamo Prisoner Younous Chekkouri’s First Interview Since Being Released from Prison in Morocco

22.2.16

Former Guantanamo prisoner Younous Chekkouri points at the Atlantic Ocean during an interview with the Associated Press (AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar).Finally freed from prison in Morocco on February 11, 149 days after he was released from Guantánamo, Younous Chekkouri (aka Younus Chekhouri) spoke to the Associated Press last week on the terrace of a cafe in his hometown, Safi, with his younger brother Ridouane, who was freed from Guantánamo in 2004.

I have been covering Younous’s story for many years, as I recognized in my research for my book The Guantánamo Files, published in 2007, that he strenuously denied having had anything to do with Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, whose philosophy he despised, and in the years that followed nothing deterred me from this opinion, as I found out that Younous was one of the best-behaved prisoners in Guantánamo, and was also a Sufi Muslim, “whose form of religion,” as the AP described it, accurately, “is viewed with suspicion by extremist groups like IS and al-Qaida.” See my archive of articles about Younous here and here.

In its interview last week, the AP noted that, according to unclassified US military documents provided by Younous’s lawyers at the London-based legal organization Reprieve, and submitted to the US authorities as part of Younous’ habeas corpus proceedings, “he suffered serious abuse at the hands of the United States, in detention in Afghanistan,” part of which “involved threats made against his younger brother, Ridouane.”

Younous confirmed this. “They would try to use my brother against me,” he said, recalling on when the brothers were initially held Kandahar. While Ridouane “gaze[d] down,” as the AP put it, Younous said, “They broke his arm.”

He also explained — as he always maintained in Guantánamo — that “he went to Afghanistan after a number of years studying Sufism in various countries across the Mideast, including Sudan, Yemen, and Syria, among others.” The AP noted that, in court documents, he was “quoted as saying he was looking for work as a recently married 31-year-old, initially traveling with his wife,” adding that, in the course of their interview with him, conducted by Samia Errazzouki and Lori Hinnant, he described himself as “something of a tourist.”

After being “picked up by bounty hunters along with suspected al-Qaida fighters and others in December 2001,” Younous said that he was taken to Pakistan, and delivered to a room “where I was greeted by people with blonde hair and blue eyes. They immediately asked me which terrorist group I belonged to.”

Younous didn’t belong to any kind of terrorist organization, but it was not until 2009 that this was acknowledged by the US military, in Younous’ habeas proceedings, in which, as the AP described it, the US authorities “acknowledg[ed] in court documents that the allegations against him were trumped up by fellow detainees determined to be unreliable. They included one described as ‘a pathological liar’ and another who was repeatedly subjected to waterboarding, ‘parroting whatever his torturers wanted to hear.'” — accurate descriptions of torture victim Abu Zubaydah and the notorious liar Yasim Basardah, who told lies about at least 130 prisoners, and who said of Younous that he was the “big commander” for Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora.

The discredited claims against Younous also involved allegations that he had ties to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM, or Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain), although, as the AP noted, these were allegations the US “later withdrew.” However, the head of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations in Morocco has said that the Moroccan government “can choose to maintain the allegations dropped by the US,” even though that would be ridiculous, because of Younous’ Sufism.

Imprisoned for 149 days after his return, “without any charges or detailed explanation of why,” as the AP put it, he is not yet completely free. As the AP described it, his lawyer Khalil Idrissi has pointed out that he has a hearing on February 23, which “will determine whether or not he will face charges of ‘conspiring against national security.”‘

He also remains under scrutiny. As the AP noted, within 20 minutes of meeting its reporters, Younous “receive[d] a phone call from a local security official asking about the group’s authorization to film him, two plainclothes officers approache[d] him directly, and a uniformed officer request[ed] authorization from the AP.”

According to reports, as the AP noted, at least four Moroccans held in Guantánamo “have joined extremist fighters in Syria, including one later arrested in Spain for recruiting, and the North African kingdom keeps a close watch on the rest,” although, significantly, Younous has no interest in those fighting in Syria. He “vow[ed] not to be among the estimated 2,000 Moroccans who have chosen to join the Islamic State group,” and said, “Islam is innocent of this group and its actions. They are criminals.” He also explained that other Guantánamo prisoners “also followed the news” at the prison, which was where he heard about IS, and “widely echoed his condemnations” of the group.

Turning to his time in Guantánamo, Younous “breathe[d] deeply and request[ed] a break,” before recounting his experiences. “The only positive part about Guantánamo was that I ate three meals a day there,” he said, comparing life in the prison to “The Hunger Games,” which, as the AP noted, was a film he “watched during his imprisonment.”

He added, “I was subject to all sorts of dark torture and sexual abuse in Guantánamo and Kandahar,” as, in the AP’s words, his brother “hand[ed] him tissues for the tears streaming down his face.”

As he looked out at the ocean, he said, “I’m finally tasting freedom,” although since his release from prison, “he has been left to fend for himself, unable to purchase the proper medication to treat his depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” as the AP put it. Nevertheless, he “remains hopeful about his future,” and with good reason, as he is “due to be reunited with his Algerian wife, who is in her homeland, in about two weeks,” and theirs is a true love story, as he explained.

“Ours is a unique story, worthy of a Hollywood film,” he said, and “pull[ed] out a Valentine’s Day card his wife sent him while he was in Guantánamo, filled with hearts and a long, hand-written poem in Arabic.”

Now 46, Younous told the AP he was aware that he and his wife “are no longer the young couple they were when he was detained, and he feels robbed of the fatherhood he dreamed of while in Guantánamo, when he would write to an imagined daughter.”

He added, “I saw my niece yesterday and embraced her. I went to sleep that night thinking she was my daughter.” Holding back tears, in the AP’s words, he said of the US authorities, “They’ve deprived me of being a father.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and The Complete Guantánamo Files, an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, featuring former ‪Guantanamo‬ prisoner Younous Chekkouri’s first interview (via the Associated Press) since being freed from a Moroccan prison. The Moroccan government held him for five months after his release from Guantanamo, even though they had promised the US that they wouldn’t hold him for more than 72 hours. Younous talks about his mistreatment, and how the US has stolen from him the opportunity to be a father.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. I am reassured, reflecting on Younous’ story, that he will be reunited very soon with his wife, who he adores and has not yet seen since he was first seized over 14 years ago. See: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2014/02/22/a-love-letter-from-guantanamo/

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Sameera Farouk wrote:

    Thanking for sharing this story, Andy. It’s a heart breaking story, I pray the couple will be reunited soon. 🙂

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for caring, Sameera. Good to hear from you.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Sameera Farouk wrote:

    May God bless you & reward all your efforts in this worthy cause. We need more people standing up for justice & peace in the world. 🙂

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Sameera. That’s pretty much the first thing I’ve read today since switching on my computer – and I think it’s fair to say that you’ve made my day!

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Sameera Farouk wrote:

    The face of an innocent man.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I would say so, Sameera. They say that looks can be deceiving, and that’s certainly sometimes true, but it’s also apparent that some people’s goodness is written on their face – and I’ve seen that over the years with reference to a number of Guantanamo prisoners. Younous is one of them.

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Andy Worthington

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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