The Anguish of Hedi Hammami, A Tunisian Released from Guantánamo in 2010, But Persecuted in His Homeland

28.2.17

A recent photograph of former Guantanamo prisoner Hedi Hammami (Photo: Youssef Bouafif).Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the first two months of the Trump administration.

 

I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

The media circus has currently taken one of its darker turns regarding Guantánamo, after an evidently troubled former prisoner, Jamal al-Harith, a British citizen released 13 years ago, blew himself up in Iraq. Too much of the coverage has focused on the UK’s alleged failure to keep him under surveillance, and on the financial settlement he (and all the other released British prisoners) received from the British government in 2010, and not enough on how disgraceful and unacceptable his treatment was in the first place, and how that might have caused lasting damage.

The full-time surveillance of individuals is an expensive matter, and not one that states that respect the rule of law undertake lightly, especially in relation to individuals against whom no case for wrongdoing was ever established. Al-Harith is one of a number of individuals who were only sent to Guantánamo after they had been liberated by the US from a Taliban prison, where they had been held — and abused — because the Taliban thought they were spies, and it is inconceivable that these men were not damaged in some way by being subsequently sent to Guantánamo to be “held in extrajudicial detention for years and subjected to torture on a regular basis,” as the Guardian described it, adding, in al-Harith’s case, that this was “with the complicity of the UK.”

As the Guardian spelled out, the official reason given for al-Harith’s transfer to Guantánamo was “because the US thought he might have useful information on the treatment of prisoners by the Taliban – who had held him as a suspected British spy – not because he was considered dangerous,” and in the end, although the US authorities “thought some questions remained” about al-Harith, they “concluded he had no links to the Taliban or al-Qaida,” an assessment that seems accurate. It is not yet certain what led him to travel to Syria in 2014 to join Islamic State fighters, but it would be unwise to rule out the effects of the time spent in brutal prisons run by both the Taliban and the United States.

If Western countries have shown an important unwillingness not to persecute former Guantánamo prisoners when no proof was ever presented of their engagement in wrongdoing, the same is not, unfortunately, true of everywhere else in the world, and as the story of al-Harith’s death was being reported, the New York Times ran an important article by Carlotta Gall, with whom I wrote a front-page story in 2008 about a prisoner who had died at Guantánamo in December 2007.

The story of Hedi Hammami

Carlotta Gall’s story, “After Eight Years in Guantánamo, He Yearns to Return,” was about Hedi Hammami (known in Guantánamo as Abdulhadi Bin Hadiddi), a 47-year old Tunisian who was released from Guantánamo in March 2010, but who is now so depressed at the extent to which he is persecuted by the authorities in his homeland that he has said he would prefer to be back in Guantánamo.

As Carlotta Gall put it, “the pressures of living in Tunisia’s faltering democracy, under harassment and enduring repeated raids by the police, have driven him to make an extreme request.” As he described it, “It would be better for me to go back to that single cell and to be left alone. Two or three weeks ago I went to the Red Cross and asked them to connect me to the US foreign ministry to ask to go back to Guantánamo.”

As Gall proceeded to explain, Hammami said that the Red Cross “refused to take his request,” but “he insist[ed] nevertheless that at this point, that would be best for him.” As he stated, “I have lost my hope. There is no future in this country for me.”

Hammami is married with two children, and is employed as a nighttime ambulance driver, and as Gall explained, on the surface, he “seems to have rebuilt his life,” but “he walks with a limp and sometimes pauses midspeech and screws up his face in pain,” explaining, “That’s Guantánamo.” After eight years as a prisoner at Guantánamo, he says, “he still suffers from headaches, depression and anxiety attacks from the torture and other mistreatment he says he suffered there.”

The son of a farmer from the poor northwest of Tunisia, Hammami’s journey to Guantánamo was far from straightforward. He originally left for Italy in 1986 in search of work, where he became involved with Tablighi Jamaat, a huge missionary organization that the Bush administration accused of being a front for terrorism, even though it has millions of members worldwide. As a result of his involvement with Tablighi Jamaat, he subsequently “traveled to Pakistan, where he obtained refugee status,” but in 2002 he was seized by Pakistani forces — almost certainly for reasons connected with the bounty payments that the US was making to its allies in exchange for handing over al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects — and transferred to Guantánamo, where he was accused of training in Afghanistan and being involved with al-Qaeda, accusations that he denied, and that he continues to deny.

Hammami’s journey back to Tunisia was also far from straightforward. As Carlotta Gall explained, at the time of his release, “Tunisia was still a dictatorship under the rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and notorious for torturing prisoners, in particular Islamists.” Instead of sending him home, therefore, the Obama administration, having approved him for release via the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office, sent him to the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Gall added that, “After the popular uprising in 2011 that overthrew Mr. Ben Ali and set off the Arab Spring, Mr. Hammami negotiated his return to Tunisia. He timed it well, benefiting from a national amnesty for political prisoners and a program of compensation that gave him a job in the Ministry of Health.”

In one of several interviews conducted “in his rented home in a working-class suburb of Tunis,” Hammami told Gall, “I hoped very much that after the revolution everything would get better.”

However, as Gall reported, “soon after he began work in 2013, the police raided his apartment with dogs at 3 a.m., breaking the door and hauling him down to the police station.” Adding insult to injury, Hammami noted, the police “made me crawl on all fours down the stairs.”

At the police station, he reported that the police “said they just wanted to get to know him, and let him go after 15 minutes,” but, as he put it, “That was just the beginning.”

Since then, as Gall explained, he “has lived under a constant regimen of police surveillance, raids and harassment. His cellphone and computer were confiscated. When he moved to a new house, the police followed him, turning up at all hours to question him.” Just over a year ago, in December 2015, the harassment increased. Hammami “was placed under house arrest, told he no longer had the right to work and ordered to sign in at the police station morning and evening for six weeks.”

This punitive and unfair regime remains in place. Gall noted that Hammami is under what is described as “administrative control,” and that the police “enforce the order at will.” He is not allowed to travel outside Tunis, and “[e]very so often, like on Sept. 11, the police order him to sign in with them.” Hammami described this last particularly charged humiliation as follows: “I feel someone is doing it for revenge.” It is hard not to escape that conclusion, when his harassment increases on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, even though Hammami, of course, had nothing to do with those attacks.

Hammami also told Gall that the police have “scared landlords from renting to him, forcing him to move six times in three years,” and that his Algerian wife’s residency card has been confiscated, which has prevented her from working to supplement his meager salary. She asked not to be named “for fear of further police harassment,” but told Gall that the family was “barely managing” to get by.

As Gall described it, “Stress and tension from the police actions have intensified the psychological problems Mr. Hammami brought with him from Guantánamo.” Describing it to her, he rubbed his temples, and said, “I feel too much pressure,” adding, “All that blackness comes back.”

Rim Ben Ismail, a psychologist working for the World Organization Against Torture in Tunisia, who has provided counseling to the 12 Tunisians who have been returned from Guantánamo, described his wish to return to his cell as being “fairly typical of the Guantánamo detainees.”

“They lived with suffering, physical suffering,” she said, adding that “now there is a psychic suffering, and often they say, ‘Take me back there.’” She also stated, “Because of their past they are all presumed guilty and it is unlivable for all of them and their families. The families are being threatened and harassed.” She further explained that the former prisoners’ parents, in particular, “fear the Tunisian security forces and say they think their sons would be safer in Guantánamo.”

Ben Ismail also noted that raids on former prisoners’ homes “have often been needlessly violent,” and that “police officials break down doors and wake a suspect with a gun to his head, often in front of his wife and children.” As she said, “Everything is being done to create aggression in a person. They do not need to raid the house at 2 a.m.”

She also explained that one of the former Guantánamo prisoners, who she treated, “was harassed so relentlessly by police that he became suicidal and ran off to Syria, where he was killed.” Far from portraying him as a terrorist, however, she said, “He was such a gentle person. By treating these people like this you create a climate of revenge and the sense that they have no place at home.”

No one would deny that there is a problem with terrorism in Tunisia — which, in 2015 and 2016, led to attacks on foreign tourists at a national museum and at a beach resort hotel that contributed to a death toll of over 70 people — and it is also noteworthy that Tunisians “reportedly make up the largest number of foreign fighters to have joined the Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq” — but the kind of random persecution to which Hedi Hammami is subjected serves no useful purpose.

After an attack on the Presidential Guard in November 2015, in which 12 soldiers were killed, a state of emergency was declared, and at least 139 Tunisians “have been placed under house arrest since, according to Human Rights Watch, which documented the cases in a report released in September,” in which it was also noted that, although these responses “have been justified in the context of countering terrorism,” they have also “left people facing stigmatization and unable to pursue studies and work.”

Rights groups are becoming increasingly concerned by reports of increasing repression in Tunisia, which had an appalling human rights record before the Arab Spring and the toppling of the dictator Ben Ali. In “‘We want an end to the fear’: Abuses under Tunisia’s state of emergency,” a report published on February 10, Amnesty International “accused the Tunisian police and security forces of employing repressive measures used by past dictatorships, including torture, deaths in custody, arbitrary house raids and often unlawful harassment of suspects, their families and communities,” and, on a recent trip to Tunisia, Ben Emmerson, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights while countering terrorism, reminded the Tunisian government that “human rights should be central to counterterrorism operations, noting that torture and other repressive measures fuel radicalism.”

For Hedi Hammami, however, the Tunisian authorities’ counter-terrorism measures are making his life intolerable. “I never committed a crime,” he said, adding, “I don’t have a record, no theft, no ethics problems, nothing. My only demand is to be stable, but they don’t let me live my life in stability. They are pushing you towards death.”

Note: Hedi Hammami was also recently interviewed by Fairfax Media, which publishes the Sydney Morning Herald, and, discussing the harassment he faces from Tunisia’s security services, he told reporter Farid Farid that “each time he is detained, his interrogators repeat inane questions for several hours about the times when he prays and which mosques he frequents.” Comparing the situation to the US, he added, “At least Trump has to abide by the law, but here there is no rule of law or anything resembling it.”

Hammami also spoke about how “his mental health is deteriorating from the stress of feeling under constant surveillance, invoking haunting memories of his time in Guantánamo.” As he explained, “I am talking to myself when I am with my kids. They tug at me and say ‘Baba, who are you talking to?’. It is demeaning that we cannot even go for short walks anymore for fear of being arrested. My country has hurt me more than anybody else.”

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’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). 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.

5 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    In my latest article, cross-posted from Close Guantanamo, I look at a recent powerful article in the New York Times, by Carlotta Gall, about Hedi Hammami, a Tunisian, released in 2010, who is facing such relentless persecution in his homeland that he has said that he would prefer to be back in Guantanamo. This is a terrible situation for anyone to find themselves in, but it is clear that many released prisoners – men against whom no case of wrongdoing was ever established – have found that life after Guantanamo involves loneliness, suspicion, unemployment and/or harassment by the authorities, with the “taint” of Guantanamo clinging to them even though they were never charged with a crime, and were held and abused by the US as people with no rights whatsoever.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Rose Ann Bellotti wrote:

    The despair never seems to end….

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I certainly think it’s very sad how many released prisoners have ended up feeling that they’ve only exchanged one prison for another, Rose.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Tracie Christine Generous wrote:

    This makes me so mad!!!! xx

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I think that’s an entirely appropriate response, Tracie. One saying that sums up the state of the world, it seems to me, is, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”

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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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