Betrayal: Senegal Prepares to Send Two Former Guantánamo Prisoners Back to Libya, Where They Face Imprisonment, Torture and Even Execution

2.4.18

Omar Khalifa Mohammed Abu Bakr (aka Omar Mohammed Khalifh) and Salem Gherebi (aka Ghereby), Libyans resettled in Senegal in April 2016, who are now threatened with being sent back to Libya, which is not safe for them. The photos are from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! 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.

 

Dreadful news from Senegal, where two former Guantánamo prisoners, both from Libya, have been told that their resettlement in the country in April 2016, which they had been led to believe was permanent, is to be brought to a sudden end tomorrow, with their unwilling — and potentially fatal — repatriation to Libya.

For the Intercept, Murtaza Hussain and Glenn Greenwald reported the story on Saturday night, focusing on the story of one of the men, Omar Khalifa Mohammed Abu Bakr (aka Omar Mohammed Khalifh), whose release in Senegal was “the by-product of a deal negotiated by his attorneys with the U.S. government.” His lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, a professor at CUNY School of Law in New York, told the Intercept that the agreement “expressly guaranteed that the Libyan would have the right to permanently settle in Senegal and rebuild his life there, rather than be returned to war-torn Libya.”

As the Intercept explained, “In addition to the deteriorating security situation in his home country, Khalifa’s status as a former Guantánamo detainee as well as his tribal background meant that being sent back to his country of origin would mean an almost certain death sentence.”

At the time of the two men’s release, exactly two years ago, Senegalese officials made it clear that neither they nor the Pentagon viewed Khalifa — and Salem Gherebi (aka Ghereby), the other Libyan sent from Guantánamo to Senegal — as a threat. At the time, former prisoner Omar Deghayes, a Libyan-born British resident, described Salem as “a friend of mine, married to a Pakistani woman, with two young boys and a daughter,” and “a great personality, kind, learned, generous and humble.” He added, “He taught me a lot inside prison when we were at Camp Five,” a notorious block of isolation cells at Guantánamo. Following his release, his attorney Rick Wilson said that Gherebi “looks forward to being reunited with his family as soon as possible … including a 15-year-old daughter who he’s never met in person,” as the Miami Herald explained, adding, “His wife is Pakistani but she and their three children have been living in Libya with the Gherebi family.”

Confirming at the time of their release that neither man was regarded as a threat by the Senegalese government, Sidiki Kaba, Senegal’s Minister of Justice, said, “These are simply men who we must help because they are African sons who have been tested for years. It is important, under the conditions of American law, that these detainees be able to have access to humanitarian asylum.” He added that “the two were not known to be jihadists.”

In addition, an official statement from the government of Senegal announced at the same time that “the Government of the Republic of Senegal granted today humanitarian asylum to two Libyan nationals, including one disabled, detained without trial for 14 years, even though no charge is held against them,” adding, “This asylum, granted in accordance with the relevant conventions of international humanitarian law, is also part of the tradition of Senegalese hospitality and Islamic solidarity with two African brothers who have expressed the wish to be resettled in Senegal after being granted their liberty.”

When Khalifa was approved for release by a Periodic Review Board (a parole-type process) in 2015, I wrote how the decision brought “freedom within sight for an amputee with numerous other health problems,” who, Omar Deghayes told me in 2010, “was not who the Americans thought he was.”

Deghayes told me, “They call him ‘The General,’ not because of anything he has done, but because he decided that life would be easier for him in Guantánamo if he said yes to every allegation laid against him.” 

I also stated, “Even so, as Deghayes also explained, this cooperation has been futile, as Khalifh has been subjected to appalling ill-treatment, held in a notorious psychiatric block where the use of torture was routine, and denied access to adequate medical attention for the many problems that afflict him, beyond the loss of his leg.”

As Deghayes described it, “He has lost his sight in one eye, has heart problems and high blood pressure, and his remaining leg is mostly made of metal, from an old accident in Libya a long time ago when a wall fell on him. He describes himself as being nothing more than ‘the spare parts of a car.’”

The Intercept also noted that, when the Periodic Review Board panel approved his release, they noted that he has a “significantly compromised health condition” and also commented approvingly on his history of “mediating concerns raised between other detainees and guard staff.”

Last week, however, as the Intercept described it, “the US State Department appears to have abandoned its commitments when releasing Khalifa. A handwritten note in Arabic, delivered to him on Wednesday by Senegalese authorities, informed him that his two years of permitted residency in the country had expired and that he would be deported to Libya on April 3rd.”

As well as putting his life at risk, this letter also “directly contravened assurances given to him by State Department officials when he was released from Guantánamo, promising that he would be allowed to stay in Senegal permanently and not be returned to Libya under any circumstances,” promises that “were made as part of a negotiation between Khalifa’s lawyers and the now-defunct State Department office tasked with closing the detention camp.” Last year, I highlighted the problems with the shutting down, under Trump, of the role of the envoy for Guantánamo closure, in an article entitled, Shutting the Door on Guantánamo: The Significance of Donald Trump’s Failure to Appoint New Guantánamo Envoys.

As the Intercept noted, in other cases prisoners “have resisted being sent to various countries for fear of what would happen to them as ex-Guantánamo detainees,” which is the reason that lawyers “have carefully negotiated conditions to secure their safety upon their release.”

After noting that Salem Gherebi “received a similar notice last week informing him of his impending deportation,” the Intercept explained that both men “now face an uncertain but very dangerous future upon their return to Libya.”

Ramzi Kassem told the Intercept that, “without immediate intervention on the part of the U.S. State Department to uphold its commitments by halting his deportation from Senegal, Khalifa faces the prospect of imminent death in Libya.”

As Kassem stated, “My client and I relied on [the] US government’s assurances two years ago that Mr. Khalifa’s resettlement in Senegal would be permanent and that he would face no risk of a forced repatriation to imprisonment and torture in Libya. But now, the US State Department is nowhere to be found. Irrespective of who sits in the White House today, the United States should honor its promises. For Mr. Khalifa, this is a matter of life or death.”

Since being released from Guantánamo, Omar Khalifa Mohammed Abu Bakr has, in the Intercept’s words, “managed to rebuild some semblance of a normal life in Senegal.” The website added, “Despite crippling physical ailments and psychological trauma suffered as a result of his detention, Khalifa became engaged to a Senegalese woman and had begun making plans to settle and work in the country for the long-term.”

And in the meantime the situation in Libya has become severely chaotic following the revolution in 2011 and the NATO-led overthrow of Col. Gaddafi. “Today,” as the Intercept explained, Libya “is under the control of an array of divided armed groups, political factions and tribes that are often in conflict with one another,” adding, crucially, “Were Khalifa to be returned to any of the two major airports in the country, both of which are presently in the hands of hostile tribes and political factions, he would likely be immediately detained, subjected to torture, and even executed. If Khalifa were to fly to Tripoli, the factions in control of the capital would assume he were an Islamist by virtue of his due-process-free detention by the US, and would thus regard him as a threat. But his other option, Misrata, is controlled by a tribe that he says is adverse to his, putting him in at least as much danger upon his return.”

For Khalifa, as the Intercept put it, “the apparent betrayal by the US government of its promises to him upon release from Guantánamo has put him in an impossible position. Two Libyan government officials who met with him in Senegal to discuss his pending repatriation conceded that it would be impossible to guarantee his safety in Libya, telling him during a meeting that they ‘couldn’t even guarantee their own safety in Libya, let alone his.’” Omar Deghayes confirmed this to me. “Returning to Libya was something that they looked forward to in the past,” he said, “but recently the conditions have changed and can be very dangerous for them. Sending them to Libya will cause a risk to their lives and liberty, locked up in the most dreadful of conditions.” Deghayes also said, “They are asking that if Senegal does not want them anymore can they let them arrange to leave to any third country.”

In a statement to the Intercept, Khalifa said, “If the US government told me two years ago that I would remain in Senegal temporarily, only to be sent to Libya after two years, regardless of the situation in Libya, I would have refused resettlement in Senegal. I would have even chosen to remain at Guantánamo over torture and death in a dungeon in Libya.” He added, “I have grown to love Senegal and its people. The Senegalese friends I have made here invite me to their weddings and festivities. I have learned about the different Islamic practices people follow here, including Sufism. I expected to marry here and to make my life in Senegal — that is still what I want.”

The Intercept noted that State Department and Senegalese officials had not responded to requests for comment about the cases, but, in an email to me, Ramzi Kassem explained how important it was for both the Sengalese and US governments to be made aware that their plans are unacceptable. 

Kassem pointed that “Mr. Khalifa is a refugee and should not be sent anywhere against his will,” and reiterated what he told the Intercept, that the US government “can’t simply wash its hands and do nothing when it made promises that my client relied on when he accepted resettlement in Senegal.”

He added that he was hopeful that pressure on both governments can prevent the unjustifiable deportation of the two Libyans to an alarmingly dangerous situation in Libya.

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 see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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, The Complete Guantánamo Files, 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.

26 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following on from the Intercept reporting some terrible news from Senegal on Saturday night – the intention, by the Sengalese government, to repatriate two Libyans (Omar Khalifa Mohammed Abu Bakr and Salem Gherebi) who were resettled in Senegal from Guantanamo two years ago on the understanding that their resettlement was permanent, and whose permanent resettlement was supposed to have been absolutely guaranteed by the US State Department. The situation in Libya is so dire that they could be imprisoned, tortured or even killed if returned.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Radmila Mastic wrote:

    Horrible business

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes indeed, Radmila. These poor men resettled in third countries essentially have no rights. They are “enemy combatants” resettled via secret deals made by the US with not a single international law document providing for their protection, or determining how they must be treated. Shameful.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    I hope that they will be safe

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Me too, Tashi. I’ll provide updates as soon as I hear anything.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    If they are deported, the credibility of the deal will be lost. Thank you Andy for your work.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, exactly, Aleksey. And that ought to be the key to why the US, via the State Department at least, ought to be exerting pressure on Senegal. But this is Trump’s America, sadly, so we’ll have to wait and see.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevi Brannelly wrote:

    Is the U.S. doing anything (she asked with depressingly little hope)

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Lawyers for the prisoners have obviously been seeking support from the State Department, Kevi, and I’m sure there are still people there who know that it’s important not to break your word on issues like this, but it’s an indictment of Trump, isn’t it, that it’s impossible not to see the main gov enrolment departments as half-broken at best under this inept president.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Geraldine Grunow wrote:

    Terrible….

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes indeed, Geraldine. Thanks for caring.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Beverly Hendricks wrote:

    Is there anything that can be done? Any pressure that could possibly be significant?

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s all been to such a tight deadline that I didn’t consider a petition, Beverly, although otherwise I would have thought that would be helpful. We must all hope that the State Department hasn’t entirely been gutted of decent officials by Trump, and that there are people who realise how important it is to stick to one’s word. If anyone has any info about contacting the State Department, even just to call up to mention the two men, that may be more satisfying than doing nothing.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    It’s heartbreaking to see the hell for this men hasn’t come to an end. Guantánamo destroys lives.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    It certainly does, Natalia. For so many of those released, the prison continues to haunt them.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy do you think there will come a day when the torturers will be held accountable? Maybe for some former detainees this can give them some peace. I feel so sad thinking about how their lives are broken.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    I very much hope so, Natalia, otherwise I think we will have moved beyond the time when human rights mean anything, and will have to conclude that all manner of international laws and treaties have become irrelevant.
    And as well as there needing to be accountability for torture, there also needs to be clarification at some point of the status of all the men held as “enemy combatants” – and still regarded as “enemy combatants” by the US. These men have no proper status as human beings, and when resettled in third countries, because of the US’s refusal to clean up its own mess, there is, as yet, no body of law defining what their rights are, and that really is profoundly unacceptable.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Following up on the dreadful news over the weekend that the government of Senegal, which gave humanitarian asylum to two former Guantanamo prisoners two years ago, but is now intending to send them back to Libya, where their lives are at risk, Witness Against Torture has created the following letter to the State Department urging the US to keep its promise to one of the men, Omar Khalifa Mohammed Abu Bakr, and to urge Senegal to do the same – namely, to abide by the 2016 agreement that their resettlement is permanent. If you represent a group – not individuals, sorry – please sign on by 5pm EST tomorrow. The letter states, “we urge the US government to fulfill its obligation to Khalifa and reaffirm the arrangements once made with the Senegalese government to let him stay in the country indefinitely. In addition, the US should provide support for his medical and social services and insist that he be provided valid official documents that enable him to function fully within Senegal and to travel wherever he desires both inside and outside Senegal.”
    See: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSc0MSL00BK2KYRHHAoRiPW4T2lFusedIMMTU87npeOyB7R9PQ/viewform

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote:

    Andy I am so upset but I do believe that capitalism and its true believers have no ability to feel the humanity of others. Their rape of this planet and belief in their “ordained” privilege have destroyed essential elements of their own humanity. We are looking down a very dark hole in human history.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, Deborah, I think your analysis is all too accurate – and a vivid reminder of why we must keep working to find ways to wake people up to the true nature of the world as it is now.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Deborah Emin wrote:

    Andy I admire your commitment and dedication. To know the evil of these institutions but to fight on for the dignity of these men shows how grace can be found in the world. Thank you.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    And thank you, Deborah, for providing a perspective I hadn’t articulated as such. I am honored.

  23. Tom says...

    Keep up your great work, Andy.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom. Yes, this is a rather horrible story – of how former Guantanamo prisoners in need of resettlement remain lamentably vulnerable – and how the State Department under Donald Trump has become particularly useless.

  25. Tom says...

    Trump wants Mike Pompeo to take over as Sec. of State. He thinks that people who torture are “patriots”.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    He is – and remains – an idiot, Tom.

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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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