A Dream of Freedom Soured: Former Guantánamo Prisoners in Tunisia Face Ongoing Persecution

8.8.17

Salah Sassi, in a screenshot from the Associated Press's interview with him in June 2017.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 next three months of the Trump administration.

 

Back in February — as part of a ongoing effort to cover the stories of former Guantánamo prisoners, as well as maintaining pressure on the Trump administration to close Guantánamo once and for all — I covered the story of Hedi Hammami, a Tunisian who, on release from Guantánamo in March 2010, was given a new home in Georgia, because, at the time, it was regarded as unsafe for Tunisian prisoners to be repatriated. However, after Tunisia’s dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was overthrown in the first optimistic flourish of the Arab Spring, in January 2011, Hammami “negotiated his return to Tunisia,” as Carlotta Gall described it in an important article for the New York Times.

Gall’s article proceeded to reveal, however, how, although his return began positively, with him “benefiting from a national amnesty for political prisoners and a program of compensation that gave him a job in the Ministry of Health,” the tide soon turned, and Tunisia once more became a repressive regime, with Hammami subject to “a constant regimen of police surveillance, raids and harassment” to such an extent that he told Gall that he had recently visited the Red Cross and “asked them to connect me to the US foreign ministry to ask to go back to Guantánamo.”

Six months on, nothing has improved for Hammami. Reporting for the Associated Press, Bouazza Ben Bouazza found him “on the outskirts of Tunis in a rented room he describes as smaller than his Guantánamo cell.” He told Ben Bouazza,  “I was in a small prison and today I find myself in a larger one in Tunisia.”

Ben Bouazza explained how his room “is subject to search at any moment and Hammami himself must check in with police daily. His work as an ambulance driver is tenuous, as is his living situation more generally.” As Hammami explained, “In three years, I’ve moved seven times because of the pressure police put on landlords for renting to someone who was imprisoned in Guantánamo.”

When Hammami met Carlotta Gall, she also met his Algerian wife, with whom he has two children. He told Gall that his wife’s “residency card has been confiscated, which has prevented her from working to supplement his merger salary.” Gall added that his wife “asked not to be named ‘for fear of further police harassment,’” but said that “the family was ‘barely managing’ to get by.”

Speaking to Ben Bouazza, Hammami said that now his “wife and their two children spend much of their time in Algeria to escape the constant stress,” adding that he, however, “is not allowed to travel.”

As he said, echoing what he told Carlotta Gall, “I feel like I’m living in a larger sort of Guantánamo. I want to live free and with dignity, or to go back to a prison without ambiguity. I can’t stand this twilight life. When I am in prison, even in isolation, at least it’s clear in my head and I’m resigned to it. Where I can regain my freedom and dignity, that will be my country. That’s not the case for Tunisia.”

Ben Bouazza also revisited the midnight raid by police that Hammami had told Carlotta Gall about. Rym Ben Ismail, a psychologist who works with former Guantánamo prisoners, told Ben Bouazza, “Hedi called me at 2 in the morning. He was afraid. His wife and daughter were in a state of shock. The next day the entire neighborhood was talking about how police came in, the show of force, with officers who were climbing the balconies.”

Salah Sassi: “Guantánamo is better than this place”

Ben Bouazza also spoke to Salah Sassi, another former prisoner who has not spoken publicly before, noting that he and Hammami “remain close, complaining that constant police harassment has left them few alternatives for companionship.”

Sassi (also identified as Saleh Sassi, and also known in Guantánamo as Sayf bin Abdallah or Saleh bin Hadi Asasi) was cleared for release by a military review board under the Bush administration, and by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, set up after Obama first took office in 2009. As I described his story on his release in Albania in February 2010:

A welder and a skilled laborer, he moved to Italy in 1998, hoping to find work and a better life, and settled in Turin, where he secured a work permit and found employment in the construction industry. Apparently persuaded to travel to Afghanistan during a vacation from work, he reportedly spent some time at a mountain outpost north of Kabul, and was later wounded when a truck he was traveling in was shot at. Hospitalized, first in Kabul, and then in Khost, he was transported to the Pakistani border, where he was seized by the Pakistani authorities.

As I also explained:

In Guantánamo, as his lawyers at Reprieve noted, he was often held “in brutal conditions.” The vast majority of his imprisonment was spent in isolation, which caused him to suffer clinical depression. In discussions with his lawyers, he explained that his imprisonment was “a long and unending nightmare.” He was also visited by teams of foreign interrogators — both Italian and Tunisian. In late 2002, Tunisian agents came to Guantánamo and left no doubt about what awaited him if he were to be returned to Tunisia, which included “water torture in the barrel.”

As Ben Bouazza described it, Sassi “was freed the same year as Hammami after the Defense Department concluded he was of limited intelligence value and posed little threat.” He showed the AP journalist “the signed guarantee of good treatment that the Albanians demanded from the Tunisian government before Sassi was finally allowed to return home.”

However, as he described it, “His nine years in American detention still haunt him,” and, like Hammami, he has faced persecution in his homeland, despite the assurances given to the Albanian government.

As Ben Bouazza described it, “Sassi’s problems in Tunisia began within two months, when masked police officers surrounded his neighborhood, bound him and tossed him into a car.” As Sassi explained, “As we were driving, the officers hit me and insulted me, saying ‘You are a terrorist.’”

Ben Bouazza added, “He was freed a few days later, but said the house searches continue without cease. Hope faded of landing work or even developing a relationship with his neighbors. His wife left.”

Sassi told him, “Maybe, as my friend Hedi says, Guantánamo is better than here. There at least it’s clear — I am in prison. But here, I’m in a big prison with people I can’t even deal with.”

In an Associated Press video filmed in his hometown of Tinja, Sassi spoke further about his woes.

Describing his arrest and detention for three days, he said, “They raided my house using dogs. [There was] a large number of masked officials. When they arrived in front of the house they beat me and took me to the security centre and they came into my house. I did not know what happened to my family until I was released.”

In notes accompanying the AP video, it was stated that Sassi “was convicted in absentia by a Tunis court on charges of receiving military training in Afghanistan and having links to [the] militant group al-Qaida,” and “was sentenced to 11 years in prison.” This was a typical story under President Ben Ali, and prisoners released in Tunisia before his overthrow (two were freed in 2007) were imprisoned on false charges, as I explained at the time — see “I’m innocent,” says Guantánamo detainee Lofti Lagha, sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in Tunisia and Out of Guantánamo, and into the fire: conviction of ex-detainee in Tunisia casts doubts on US motives. As a result, a judge intervened to prevent further releases to Tunisia, which was why third countries had to be found for Hedi Hammami and Salah Sassi while Ben Ali was still in power.

Speaking of his return to Tunisia, Sassi stated that, “after the Tunisian revolution he … believ[ed] that the authorities would not restrict his movements and would guarantee his personal rights.” However, reiterating a familiar theme, he said he has gone from “a small prison in Cuba, Guantánamo to a big prison in Tunisia.”

He added, ”In Guantánamo I was a scapegoat, but in Tunisia I am what?”

As he explained to the AP, he “raises poultry and pigeons to earn a living,” but “claims he is regularly stopped at checkpoints, insulted in public, and beaten.” As he concluded, “Guantánamo is better than this place.”

The other Tunisians released from Guantánamo

In total, 12 Tunisians have been held at Guantánamo throughout its disgraceful 15 and a half year history, and, of the 12, only one, Ridah al-Yazidi, is still held. However, as Bouazza Ben Bouazza described it, “the fate of those who have been freed and returned home has hardly proved encouraging, either for the government or the men themselves.”

However, it should be noted that it is uncertain whether that reference to the government is fair. Although Ben Bouazza explained that two released prisoners “went to Syria after being freed from Guantánamo,” and that one, Rafiq al-Hami, “was killed there,” and the other, Lotfi Lagha, “returned and was convicted of terrorism charges,” Rym Ben Ismail, the psychologist, explained that it was the actions of the Tunisian government that drove Rafiq al-Hami to his death.

She explained to Carlotta Gall that one of the former Guantánamo prisoners, who she treated (which was evidently al-Hami), “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.”

I can only concur, having seen videos of al-Hami after his release, which led me to describe him as a “quiet, bookish man with an almost secret smile that his long years of torture could not erase.” I added that “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 in 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.” Do also check out this Tunisia Live report by Nazanine Moshiri.

Most of the Tunisians freed from Guantánamo are “scattered around the world, in the countries that agreed to U.S. requests to take them in,” as Ben Bouazza put it. Another exception is Abdullah al-Hajji (aka Abdullah bin Amor, imprisoned after his return in 2007), but he “is no longer reachable, according to the lawyer Samir Ben Amor, who handles many of the Tunisian cases.”

Ben Amor added that Tunisia today “has returned to the police state that was prevalent under the former regime, with all the same ingredients of repression, injustice and arbitrary actions, [and] with the addition of an impossibility of countering these abuses with legal means.”

In the AP video, Marouen Jeda, Executive Director of the Observatory of Rights and Freedoms in Tunis, confirmed that some of the former Guantánamo prisoners had been “unable to leave their homes for a year and a half, their homes are threatened and those who secure jobs quickly lose them when pressure is put on their employers,” and confirmed that some were so unhappy that they were “seeking to return to a prison that everyone is escaping from.”

Amna Galali, Tunis director of Human Rights Watch, also “condemn[ed] the way the prisoners are being treated.” She said, “These people are continuously harassed by security forces and subject to radical measures based on intangible reasons. They believe that their lives are intolerable in Tunisia.” As the AP reported, “She is calling for education programmes for the security forces and the public to change their attitudes towards former prisoners like Sassi,” because, as she described it, “the Tunisian people deal with them with prejudgments without knowing the reality of the case and its relationship to terrorism.”

As Ben Bouazza also noted, “The United States has given Tunisia millions to help fight terrorism.” However, “[d]espite its efforts to combat extremism, the country is believed to be the single largest source of volunteers for extremist groups fighting in Syria, including Islamic State.” A month ago, when the article was published, it concluded with an observation that Tunisia’s prime minister, Youssef Chahed, was about to visit Washington, D.C. for discussions that were “expected to center largely upon security concerns.”

Perhaps they should also have involved reflections about how repression only creates more enemies, rather than contributing to peace, as the sad story of Rafiq al-Hami seems only to confirm, and as the example of Guantánamo ought also to demonstrate in no uncertain terms.

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 music is available 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).

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8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, an update on the terrible situation for former Guantanamo prisoners in Tunisia, who face regular police harassment, and even night-time raids on their homes. Back in February, I focused on the story of Hedi Hammami, freed in Georgia in 2010, who then returned to Tunisia after the promise of the Arab Spring, only for that dream to sour, and for him to say he’d prefer to be back in Guantanamo. In an update, via the AP, Salah Sassi has also spoken. A former resident of Italy, he was resettled in Albania in 2010, and also mistakenly believed post-dictatorship Tunisia would offer him a new life, but his wife has left him, and, he says, he is “regularly stopped at checkpoints, insulted in public, and beaten.” As he concluded, echoing Hammami, “Guantanamo is better than this place.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kieran wrote:

    Sharing. Thank you Andy. Px

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Pauline. Thanks for your interest!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil McKenna wrote:

    Desperate.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, mostly I’d say that, despite the stories of those who have survived remarkably well, Neil, Guantanamo is principally a destroyer of lives.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil McKenna wrote:

    Well if you get out of that hell hole and then you’re run round demented by the police you’ve hardly been liberated at all. Guantanamo and misguided reactionary police are enough to radicalise anyone …

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Especially after they had such high hopes on their return, Neil – a national amnesty for political prisoners, or those subjected to convictions in absentia, and the hope we all, I’m sure, remember from that time of brief but considerable optimism.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m trying to work out what happened to all the Tunisians who ended up back in Tunisia, but drawing a bit of a blank. This is what I have:
    Adel Ben Mabrouk (ISN 148) was sent back to Tunisia in April 2011 from Italy, where he had been sent for a trial in November 2009, but had been given a suspended sentence. This report followed his return to Tunisia, but I have no idea how he is faring now: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2011/05/11/tunisian-freed-from-guantanamo-and-sent-home-from-italy-reflects-on-his-imprisonment/
    In 2015, a dubious Italian newspaper article claims the had “died in combat” in Syria: http://www.ilgiornale.it/news/politica/quei-tagliagole-ritorno-liberati-dalle-nostre-galere-1098631.html
    It is also worth noting that reports that refer to Ben Mabrouk as a senior member of the Islamic State are referring not to him, but to an individual named Moez Fazzani who was held by the US at Bagram for many years, and then sent to Italy to face a trial. What happened then is unclear from the Tunisia Live report I found, but he allegedly ended up with IS in Tunisia, Syria and Libya and was captured by Italian agents in November 2016 in Sudan:
    http://www.tunisia-live.net/2016/11/16/top-tunisian-terror-convict-arrested-in-sudan/
    Mohamed Ben Riyadh Nasri (aka Mohammed Tahir Riyadh Nasseri) (ISN 510), also sent to Italy to face a trial, was convicted of terrorism, but that conviction was overturned on appeal in February 2012. I expect as a result he too was repatriated, but can find no other information about him: http://www.thejournal.ie/italian-court-releases-former-guantanamo-detainee-348254-Feb2012/
    The other Tunisians were sent to third countries, where, from what I can ascertain, they remain – Hisham Sliti (174) was sent to Slovakia in Nov. 2014, Abdul Bin Mohammed Bin Abess Ourgy (ISN 502), who later got married to a Muslim convert, was sent to Uruguay in Dec. 2014, and Adel bin Ibrahim Hkimi (aka Hakeemy) (ISN 168) and Lufti Bin Ali (aka Lutfi Bin Ali) (ISN 894) were sent to Kazakhstan, also in Dec. 2014.

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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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