As Two Former Guantánamo Prisoners Disappear in Libya After Repatriation from Asylum in Senegal, There Are Fears for 150 Others Resettled in Third Countries

25.4.18

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.

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Congratulations to the New York Times for not giving up on the story of the two former Guantánamo prisoners who were recently repatriated to Libya despite having been given humanitarian asylum in Senegal two years ago, on the understanding that they would not be sent back to Libya, as it was unsafe for them. The story is particularly significant from a US perspective, because of the role played — or not played — by the State Department, which, under President Obama, facilitated the resettlement of the men, and many others, and, in general, also kept an eye on them after their release.

The story first emerged three weeks ago, when I was told about it by former prisoner Omar Deghayes, and the Intercept published an article. My article is here. A week later, the New York Times picked up on the story, reporting, as Omar Deghayes also confirmed to me, that one of the two men, Salem Ghereby (aka Gherebi) had voluntarily returned to Libya, as he desperately wanted to be united with his wife and children, and because he hoped that his connections in the country would prevent him from coming to any harm. My second article is here.

Unfortunately, on his return, Salem Ghereby was imprisoned at Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport, where human rights abuses have been widely reported, and the British NGO CAGE then reported that the other Libyan, Omar Khalifa Mohammed Abu Bakr (aka Omar Mohammed Khalifh), who didn’t want to be repatriated, had also been sent back to Libya, where he too was imprisoned at the airport. I wrote about that here, and then exclusively published Salem Gherebi’s letter explaining why he had chosen to be repatriated.

That was eight days ago, and since then the trail has gone cold, as the New York Times noted in its most recent article, ‘Deported to Libya, Ex-Gitmo Detainees Vanish. Will Others Meet a Similar Fate?’ written by Charlie Savage, Declan Walsh, and, in Senegal, Dionne Searcey, and published on April 23.

The Times article stated that the Senegalese government’s decision to deport the two men “to their chaotic birth country of Libya” has “raised the prospect that the resettlement system is starting to collapse under President Trump,” explaining how, after “a traumatic journey,” the two men “apparently fell into the hands of a hard-line militia leader who has been accused of prisoner abuse — and then they vanished.”

As the article’s authors recognize, the resettlement program, part of “President Barack Obama’s drive to close the Guantánamo prison,” involved “deals with about three dozen nations to take in lower-risk detainees from dangerous countries.” The article added that officials argued that “[r]esettling them in stable places would increase the chances they would live peacefully … rather than face persecution or drift into Islamist militancy.”

Current and former officials told the Times that the case “sets a worrisome precedent,” the danger being that other countries “may follow Senegal in forcibly moving more of the nearly 150 Obama-era resettled former detainees home to unstable places where they risk being killed — or could end up becoming threats themselves.”

With an inexplicable sense of understatement, the Times stated that the breakdown of the Senegal resettlement also “appears to be at least partly a consequence of the disorganization that has afflicted the State Department since Mr. Trump took office.” It would make more sense, I think, to have stated that the breakdown of the Senegal resettlement is a direct “consequence of the disorganization that has afflicted the State Department since Mr. Trump took office.”

President Obama, as the Times noted, “set up a high-level, centralized office charged with monitoring former detainees indefinitely and dealing with any problems” — the office of the special envoy for Guantánamo Closure. However, under Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, that office was shut down, its function “added to the long list of things individual embassies are supposed to track.”

Daniel Fried, Obama’s first special envoy for Guantánamo Closure, pulled no punches in criticizing the Trump administration, telling the Times, “This is what is going to happen when you close down the Office of Guantánamo Closure for political reasons. Countries conclude that we don’t care anymore, and there is no follow-up.”

A State Department official, speaking anonymously, refuted this assessment, but his protestations, to be frank, sounded feeble.

Analyzing the resettlement program, most of which took place under Obama, although some prisoners were also resettled under George W. Bush, the Times noted that some “have gone well,” explaining, “Former detainees learned their new local languages, found jobs and even married. Others have been rockier. In countries like Uruguay and Kazakhstan, former detainees have struggled to fit in while complaining of inadequate support, distance from relatives and heavy-handed security. In still other countries, like Ghana, the former detainees appear to be doing better, but the government there was heavily criticized by political opponents for agreeing to resettle them.”

As the Times also explained, “Nearly all resettled detainees impose some level of headache on host governments, which generally provide basic assistance while monitoring them. Typically, the receiving countries also agreed not to let the former detainees travel for two or three years, leaving ambiguous what would come next. Against that backdrop, there are reasons to believe Senegal may be the first of many nations that could seek to shed that burden by deporting resettled detainees.”

This is deeply troubling, of course, not just because of the vulnerability of the men in question, but also because of the context — stripped of their rights as human beings in Guantánamo, redefined as “enemy combatants,” who could be held forever without charge or trial, and who, even when released, continue to be regarded by the US as “enemy combatants,” no body of law provides for their treatment. If they become disposable chess pieces, no legislation is in place to stop their abuse, a situation that clearly needs to come to an end now they are facing such a horrendous threat under Donald Trump, and it’s a situation which I fervently hope that lawyers and the United Nations are looking at closely.

The Times specifically mentioned “a Yemeni man resettled in Serbia in 2016,” who “has struggled to learn the local language while complaining that a Guantánamo stigma was wrecking his job and social-life prospects.” That man is Mansoor Adayfi, a talented writer, who, most recently, was interviewed by BBC Radio 4 for a powerful and moving program about the prisoners’ artwork, which the Pentagon recently announced its intention to destroy, after an exhibition in New York revealed the prisoners as human beings with emotions and sensibilities.

As the Times noted, Adayfi “was resettled alongside a former detainee from Tajikistan, who has more readily adapted.” Crucially, however, “both lack legal status, and a Serbian official told one of their lawyers that the government is reviewing whether to deport them this summer, after the two-year travel ban ends,” although a government spokesman “said no decision has been made.”

Beth Jacob, Adayfi’s lawyer, said her client “fears repatriation but she could ‘not even find someone in the US government to discuss our concerns with.’” Matthew O’Hara, who represents the other former prisoner, from Tajikistan, “said his client would likely be persecuted or tortured in Tajikistan, which revoked his citizenship.” As O’Hara put it, “My level of concern went through the roof when I saw what happened in Senegal.”

Regarding the two men resettled in Senegal, the Times noted that it was “a favor to Mr. Obama by its president, Macky Sall,” and that they “were given apartments in Dakar, with a minder living nearby.” Although they had complained about aspects of their treatment, the Times noted that “there were also signs the resettlement was working,” with Khalifa, who “said he was engaged,” being “warmly greeted by his neighbors.”

Senegalese officials, in the Times’ words, “have refused to discuss what prompted them to consider deporting the men,” although the newspaper noted that “[r]elations between African countries and the United States have generally deteriorated under Mr. Trump, especially since reports surfaced in January that he insulted African nations using a crude term.”

Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who represents Khalifa, told the Times that his client “was first told in January he might not be allowed to stay in Senegal.” Kassem said he emailed the US Embassy “but received no reply.” The men were told in writing that they would be deported on March 26.

While Ghereby did not object because at least in Libya he could be reunited with his family,” Khalifa “was terrified,” telling the Times reporter who visited the two men “that he feared he would be killed.” Neighbors said that the two were taken away by Senegalese security officials just after the interview.

Nothing was heard of them until later that week, when Ghereby “called a human rights organization, from an airport in Tunisia, apparently during a layover to Libya.” Khalifa’s fate “was even more mysterious.” Lee Wolosky, Obama’s second special envoy for Guantánamo Closure, who had negotiated the Libyans’ resettlement, was told by a Senegalese official that Khalifa “would not be forcibly deported,” but that was evidently untrue.

The Times noted that “it now appears that he, too, was sent to Tunisia,” with both men then “flown on to Tripoli and taken into custody by a hostile militia, according to both an intelligence official with Libya’s Government of National Accord, an interim body that is backed by the United Nations but exercises little real authority, and a Libyan airline employee.”

Separately, a spokesman for Libyan Airlines told the Times that “both men took its flight from Tunis to Tripoli, although he did not know what happened to them after,” while Lee Wolosky was eventually told by the Senegalese official that Khalifa was no longer in Senegal.

The intelligence official and the airline employee also explained to the Times that, while in Tunis airport, “one of the men — it was not clear which — began protesting loudly and bloodied his head by banging it against a hard surface,” also explaining that both men had wanted to be flown “to Misrata, a city about 130 miles east of Tripoli,” and “sought to avoid the Tripoli airport because it is controlled by Abdulrauf Kara, a militia commander who runs a counterterrorism detention camp where human-rights groups say mistreatment is rife.” However, “Mr. Kara was determined to take the two men into custody, and sent a group of guards to Tunis to escort them back.”

However, “adding to the murkiness,” in the Times’ words, “Ahmed bin Salam, a spokesman for Mr. Kara’s group, later denied it was holding the men.” In English, he said, “I think they are with the mukhabarat” (the intelligence service), although he “declined to elaborate.”

After the Times article was published online, Stephen Yagman, who had represented Salem Ghereby many years ago, “said his former client and his wife told him last week that Mr. Ghereby was in eastern Libya with his family,” although that could not be independently verified. Yagman said they “did not discuss his journey,” and he “refused to detail how they had communicated.”

Ramzi Kassem, meanwhile, stressed that international law “prohibits forcibly sending people to places where they are likely to be abused,” and “said he held both Senegal and the United States responsible for any harm Mr. Khalifa might suffer.”

However, he also pointed out that the issue at stake “was bigger.” As he put it, “If the other countries that took in Guantánamo prisoners interpret the deafening US silence throughout the Senegal debacle as a signal that the Trump administration no longer cares about past undertakings, then it could soon be open season on those former prisoners. Nothing could be less conducive to the humanitarian ideals the United States professes, nor even to the security objectives it often proclaims.”

The State Department made a woolly statement about who it had “reiterated to the Government of Senegal our expectation that it will uphold its international obligations with respect to both individuals,” which literally means nothing.

Lee Wolosky, in contrast, “said he believed the State Department, under previous administrations, would have persuaded Senegal to take steps to keep the men safe while making its leaders feel like the United States still cared about successfully resettling them.” He added that “[t]he human-rights concerns raised by the fact that the two men apparently ended up in cells in Tripoli … should be cause for alarm.”

As he put it, “The last two administrations tried to responsibly release individuals in a way that took into account both legitimate US security interests and also human rights and the rule of law. This result just utterly frustrates that policy.”

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.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, revisiting the sad story of the two former Guantanamo prisoners sent back to Libya from Senegal, where they were given humanitarian asylum two years ago. The two men have subsequently disappeared, and the blame lies squarely with the State Department under Donald Trump, which has shut down the office of special envoy for Guantanamo, which dealt with resettlements and monitored prisoners afterwards. Former envoy Lee Wolosky told the New York Times that “he believed the State Department, under previous administrations, would have persuaded Senegal to take steps to keep the men safe while making its leaders feel like the United States still cared about successfully resettling them.” There are now fears for the nearly 150 prisoners resettled in third countries, and, as I explain, former prisoners have always continued to be regarded by the US as “enemy combatants,” fundamentally without rights, and if, under Trump, they they now “become disposable chess pieces, no legislation is in place to stop their abuse, a situation that clearly needs to come to an end now they are facing such a horrendous threat under Donald Trump.” I add that “it’s a situation which I fervently hope that lawyers and the United Nations are looking at closely.”

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    My friends, PLEASE, if you can, print off the latest Close Guantanamo poster marking 5,950 days of Guantanamo’s existence (tomorrow, April 26), take a photo with it, and send it to info@closeguantanamo.org: http://gtmoclock.com/posters/GTMO-Clock-5950.pdf
    Lets show Donald Trump that we’re not happy Guantanamo is still open!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalya Wolf wrote:

    aarrghhhhhhhh

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Sorry, Natalya. I keep writing articles that make you go, “aarrghhhhhhhh,” although in my defense, I think it’s clear that it’s fundamentally Donald Trump’s fault.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalya Wolf wrote:

    reading the news makes me go “arrrrghhhhh” – it just never gets better … and that nasty piece of sh*t 45 doesn’t help, he’s like the cherry on top of the dog sh*t pie …

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Couldn’t have put it better myself, Natalya!

  7. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, thanks for your work on these important issues!

    My news alerts make me think the men sent to Ghana may also face deportation. Opposition legislators there maintain the President should have got the legislature to endorse his offer to host former Guantanamo captives.

    Journalists and human rights workers have tried to track down and contact former captives. We hear about others when security officials level new allegations against them. But a lot of the former captives aren’t being heard from.

    I am afraid many are no longer living. We heard about that one guy who died of medical neglect. I am afraid that Guantanamo was so soul-crushing, some of these men may have killed themselves, or neglected their health so badly, they also died, in circumstances where there was no press coverage.

    But, I also suspect a notable number of these men have been, well, assassinated.

    Guantanamo authorities seem to have tried to bully every departing captive, shortly before their departure, to sign a draconian contract, agreeing to never associate with anyone suspected of terrorism.

    When convicts are parolled parole boards sometimes impose upon them a restriction that they should not associate with other ex-convicts. If their parole officer decides they have breached this condition they can go back to jail, to serve the rest of their sentence.

    Of course former Guantanamo captives aren’t convicts. They were never charged, never sentenced.

    And, of course, most people recognize that a contract signed under duress is worthless.

    I am concerned that, once released, JSOC and the CIA regard those contracts as a potential death sentence. I remember Saber Lal Melma’s death. Hamid Karzai had appointed the Afghanistan High Peace Council, including elder statesmen, like former Presidents, to try to negotiate a peace with the Taliban. The Afghan High Peace Council turned to former members of the Taliban, to try to reach the Taliban’s current leadership, to start those negotiations. They turned to Lal Melma to help them reach the current Taliban leadership, and news of his contacts got back to JSOC.

    JSOC put him on the Joint Prioritized Effects List. They kept conducting their terrifying night raids on his home, busting everything up, terrorizing his family, and dragging him to their base for renewed interrogation.

    Even though US diplomats assured the High Peace Council that JSOC would quit with the night raids, JSOC ignored those promises. They claimed that on the last night raid Lal Melma met them armed with a gun, and that they shot him in self-defence.

    The Joint Prioritized Effects List is colloquially called the “Kill or Capture List”. From my reading the Special Forces guys conducting the raids are given a nudge-nudge, wink-wink indication as to whether their superiors really want the individual in question to be captured, or whether he should be “shot in self-defence”, like Lal Melma.

    Every year the DIA publishes a report as to how many former captives have returned to supporting terrorism. Every year the number they claim keeps growing, but they have only released the actual names of a few dozen of these men. Why are they keeping the identities of the other men secret?

    I am afraid that the secret version of this list includes men killed in night raids, or who died during post-Guantanamo interrogations. Even after thirty years I doubt historians will know what really happened to these men, even if the raid where they were killed was documented, and those documents weren’t destroyed during the subsequent thirty years, I suspect the death will be described as JSOC soldiers firing in justifiable self-defence.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, arcticredriver, and thanks for that very dark, but possibly very accurate analysis.
    Your reminder of the death of Sabar Lal Melma is very powerful, and I also suspect you’re right when you say that, “Even after thirty years I doubt historians will know what really happened to these men.”
    What a terrible mess.

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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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