How the Egyptian Media Has Reported the Story of Tariq Al-Sawah, a Severely Ill Prisoner in Guantánamo

Last week I reported the story of Tariq al-Sawah, the last Egyptian prisoner in Guantánamo, whose lawyers are seeking his release because “his health is too poor for him to pose any kind of threat.” Al-Sawah (also identified as Tarek El-Sawah), an explosives expert for al-Qaeda who became disillusioned with his former life and has cooperated extensively with the authorities in Guantánamo, is “in terrible shape after 11 years as a prisoner at Guantánamo Bay, a fact even the US military does not dispute,” as the Associated Press explained in a recent article. He is 55 years old, and as the AP also noted, his weight “has nearly doubled” in his long imprisonment, “reaching more than 420 pounds at one point, and his health has deteriorated as a result, both his lawyers and government officials concede.”

Al-Sawah’s request has not yet been ruled on, but, noticeably, it follows the recent success achieved by lawyers for Ibrahim Idris, a Sudanese prisoner who is severely schizophrenic. In Idris’s case, the Justice Department decided not to contest his habeas corpus petition — a first for the DoJ lawyers who are notorious for defending every detention, even those of prisoners cleared for release in January 2010 by President Obama’s inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force. Al-Sawah’s case is more complicated, because, although Idris was cleared for release by the task force, al-Sawah was recommended for prosecution – a decision that made no sense, as logic dictates that he should be released as a reward for his extensive cooperation, documented in this Washington Post article from 2010.

When I wrote about Tariq al-Sawah last week, I promised I would revisit his story to include further information from two detailed articles written by freelance journalist Tom Dale and published in the Egypt Independent in July last year and March this year, which shed more light on his case.

In the article from last July, “Egypt’s last Guantánamo detainee in fight for freedom and truth,” Tom Dale ran through al-Sawah’s story, drawing in particular on discussions with al-Sawah’s brother Jamal, and with his military defense lawyer, Marine Lt. Col. Sean Gleason, who is still retained as a result of al-Sawah being put forward for a trial by military commission in 2008, even though those charges were later dropped.

Tom Dale began by explaining how Jamal al-Sawah described his brother as “a broken man, bereft of hope, vastly obese and severely depressed,” and Lt. Col. Gleason “also says he is innocent.” Gleason told him that the US government have “never provided any evidence to support their allegations.” Assigned to the case in August 2011, he “immediately applied for a speedy trial so that Sawah could ‘have his day in court,’” but the prosecution “summarily withdrew its charge — ‘conspiracy and material support for terrorism’ — and thereby returned Sawah to the legal limbo of indefinite detention.”

In his article, Tom Dale reported that both Lt. Col. Gleason and al-Sawah’s brother saw “only one possibility of breaking that limbo: a formal request by the Egyptian government to repatriate Sawah.” Noting, correctly, that it was “the route home for the vast majority of the 600 Guantánamo detainees who have been released,” Dale added that the two men “had several meetings at the justice and foreign ministries” to “lobby for such a request” just before his article was published, and in August, as Reuters reported, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced that President Morsi’s government has asked the US to release him, although that obviously didn’t happen.

Tariq al-Sawah’s story

In his report, Tom Dale nevertheless pieced together al-Sawah’s story more throughly than in any previous account, noting how, in 1990, he left Alexandria where he had grown up, to work in Athens, and in 1992 he “became involved with a charity working in Croatia to assist Bosnian refugees fleeing sectarian violence.”

As Dale proceeded to explain, “The next year, he appears to have given up his charity work, and became involved with militias fighting against the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. After fighting ended at the end of 1995, Sawah married a Bosnian woman and settled down in the country for which he had fought. They had a daughter.”

He added, “According to the letters that Sawah and his family used to send his brother’s family, these were happy times. They worked a small farm, and Sawah taught Arabic in a local orphanage and mosque.”

Unfortunately for al-Sawah, his happiness “was not to last.” During the Dayton peace accord in 1995, the Bosnian government had bowed to a Serbian demand for foreign fighters to be expelled from Bosnia-Herzegovina. This took many years to implement, but from 2000 onwards the expulsions began, and al-Sawah, “in no uncertain terms,” as Dale described it, “was told he had to leave.”

Lt. Col. Gleason explained what happened next: “When he was forced to leave in 2000, he was unable to come back here to Egypt because he had fought in the Bosnian conflict — he was afraid if he came back here, the secret police would arrest him. He tried to emigrate to other countries in Europe, but that wasn’t approved. One of the few countries that would accept him at that time was Afghanistan.”

On arrival in Afghanistan, as Dale described it, he “was immediately arrested, and kept in prison for several weeks.” When Taliban interrogators discovered his military experience in Bosnia, they told him that “they were fighting a similar conflict against the Northern Alliance,” Lt. Col. Gleason explained, adding, “You know, ‘the tribes of the Northern Alliance are raping women, and they’re murdering innocent people, and would you help us fight against them?’ Tariq agreed to do that. And that’s the fight he was in when he was captured less than a year later.”

As Dale described it, al-Sawah “was captured after having been injured by US cluster bombs while attempting to flee, unarmed, across the border to Pakistan.”

He added that, although al-Sawah “was close to networks of Islamist militants in both Bosnia and Afghanistan,” and also “trained Taliban fighters in the use of military explosives” and “attended a meeting in July 2001 at which Osama bin Laden was present,” his lawyers contend that there is “no basis to convict him of terrorism or taking up arms against the US.”

Commenting on the classified military files from Guantánamo that were released by WikiLeaks in 2011 (on which I worked as a media partner), Dale accurately noted that they “provide insight into what seems to be disregard for both fact and coherence on the part of US interrogators.” In al-Sawah’s case, the original charge sheet for his proposed trial by military commission claims that he “traveled to Afghanistan and joined Al-Qaeda to fight against the United States,” even though, as Dale noted, “when he traveled to Afghanistan there was no US presence there, and he had just left Bosnia, where there were several US bases.”

The charge sheet also stated that he had admitted to membership of Al-Qaeda, although Lt. Col. Gleason insisted that he “has always denied that he was ever associated with Al-Qaeda.”

Dale added that two documents from 2008 “state that Sawah was a member of Al-Qaeda for ‘approximately two years’ in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the same documents record that he spent just 14 months in the country before entering US custody.’ Crucially, both documents claim that he “developed a shoe-bomb prototype that could be used to bring down a commercial airliner,” similar to the one used by the failed “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. AsDale noted, however, former FBI special agent Ali Soufan explained in his book The Black Banners that “the allegation was known to be unsound since 2004,” as Dale put it.

Soufan wrote:

I found out that the military interrogators had said to him: “You’re an explosives expert. If you were to build a shoe bomb, how would you do it?” He had drawn them a diagram. That diagram constituted their “proof.” It turned out that it was a bad drawing, unrepresentative of the shoe bomb Reid used … They were novice interrogators and didn’t understand that you can’t just jump to those kinds of conclusions. They admitted that they had messed up.

Dale noted that Soufan “added an untrue allegation of his own — that Sawah ‘fought in the original Afghan Jihad,’” which cannot be the case because he spent that entire period, in the 1980s, in Alexandria.

One clearly unreliable claim exposed in the files is that al-Sawah fought in Chechnya, “even though the same document records his presence in either Bosnia or Afghanistan during the period of both Chechen wars.” It was also noted that his former membership of the Muslim Brotherhood provided “evidence of his ‘commitment’ to ideas that would mitigate in favor of his continued imprisonment.”

Tariq’s brother

In discussing Tariq al-Sawah’s case with his brother Jamal, Tom Dale discovered that Jamal as-Sawah, who has lived in the US for over 30 years, has also suffered because of his brother’s detention. In summer 2002, when he flew to Egypt for a holiday, as he has done regularly for the last 30-odd years, he was seized at the airport and taken to a holding facility. He told Dale, “I was in a solitary cell, handcuffed, hooded in the cell for ten days before interrogation. And then the interrogation started.” Dale added, “At this time, his brother’s arrest was not public knowledge,” indicating to Jamal that “the US authorities must have passed his name to the Egyptian security services.”

Although he was released, “the security services wouldn’t leave him alone, coming for him at home every few days,” as Dale put it. Jamal as-Sawah said, “They turned our life into a nightmare. The way they used to come at night, knock on the door, three o’clock in the morning, dragging me down the stairs, in front of everybody in the house. You hear any voice, you think they’re coming for you. Anybody knocks on the door, you jump, tell the kids to hide.”

Jamal noted that the visits “became much more polite after Jamal complained to an FBI officer around 2008, who promised he would intercede,” but in the US he is also “under constant surveillance.” He told Dale he had “become friendly with the FBI officers that tail him,” stating, “They’re watching your house, they’re watching your wife, they’re watching your phone, they’re watching your car. You’re watched everywhere you go.”

Tariq’s chronic health problems

Reflecting on Tariq al-Sawah’s health, Lt. Col, Gleason told Tom Dale that, on arrival at Guantánamo in 2002, he weighed around 91 kilograms (about 200 pounds), but he now weighs nearly 204 kilograms (about 450 pounds). He added that al-Sawah’s health “is in serious danger,” and that he “can barely walk 10 feet without having to sit down.” As Gleason put it, “He can’t even lay down on the bed because he’s so big that it would cut off his supply of oxygen, so he sleeps sitting up.” said Gleason.

The military lawyer also told Dale that he had “asked for his client’s medical records so that they can be shown to an independent doctor,” and had also askedfor him to be able to “see a US military obesity specialist.” Although both requests had been denied at the time, Gleason understood that a doctor had “recently assessed” al-Sawah and “her conclusion was that he was receiving negligent medical care.”

Dale added, sharply, “Even leaving medical care aside, Sawah’s obesity raises questions about the duty of care being exercised toward him.” As Lt. Col. Gleason explained, “They can control what he eats, they can control what he does, and yet he’s gained over 250 pounds.”

Dale also noted that Ali Soufan had suggested that al-Sawah “was brought ice cream to lift his mood during interrogations in 2004, despite the fact that he was already overweight.” and the Washington Post article in 2010 noted, as Dale put it, that “he was ‘enticed’ with takeout meals to participate in show questionings for visiting officials.” According to Lt. Col. Gleason, “based on his weight, based on his age, he’s at a high risk of death.”

Jamal as-Sawah stated that, when he “first saw his brother, over Skype, he was shocked.” As he said, “He was delirious, he was dizzy, he was so … huge. He aged so much.” He added, “Of course, he’d been detained without hope.”

For Jamal as-Sawah, the death of hope for Tariq is profoundly depressing, because he “was once a man with a great many hopes.” The family “grew up in Ibrahimiya, a working-class neighborhood of Alexandria that was full of Greeks, Armenians and Italians,” and their father, a government employee, whose salary “wouldn’t always stretch to the end of the month,” used to “take the two boys to hunt birds in what were once the marshlands of Semouha, and fish in the sea.” Jamal recalled it as “a happy childhood,” and one “full of laughter.”

He said that he and his brother “used to dream of growing up and living in the US, ‘American cars, blonde women.’” He added, as Dale described it, “Even now, when the two talk — as they are allowed to for an hour every three months — their conversation turns to that boyhood dream. The two had wanted to move their families to Florida, and go fishing for barracuda in the deep blue sea off the Florida Keys.”

Dale concluded his article with the following poignant paragraph: “Sawah will now never live in Florida, nor will he cast his line into the waters that separate Miami from Cuba and Guantánamo Bay. These days, he sits in his cell, on the other side. Reportedly, among the few pleasures he is allowed, he paints pictures of the sea.”

In a follow-up article in March 2013, “Detention continues for last Egyptian in Guantánamo, despite deteriorating health,” Tom Dale noted that there were fears for his life, that the authorities were “refusing specialist medical treatment, or even to allow his lawyer to view his medical records,” even while “developments in his legal case provide hope that he may one day be released.”

He also noted that, following the Egyptian government’s official request for al-Sawah’s release last August, the government had hired a lawyer, Robert Tucker, to formally request a hearing for him. Dale explained that Tucker “was retained in December, but was unable to start work until funding was released to him on 25 January.”

On the legal front, al-Sawah still has a habeas corpus petition pending, although a request for him to be “freed on an interim basis, pending a Periodic Review Board hearing,” was turned down by a US court last November.

Turning to his medical problems, Dale confirmed that he is “morbidly obese,” and that he is “beset with respiratory and heart complications,” and is “at significant risk” of death, according to a doctor. Although the US authorities “have refused him appropriate treatment, according to his doctor and lawyers, and continue to withhold his medical records,” Dr. Sondra Crosby, an associate professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health, has been able to examine al-Sawah on two occasions. Last October, in a letter to one of al-Sawah’s lawyers, which was provided to officials at Guantánamo and filed in a federal court the same month, she wrote that his “extreme obesity” has left him at “an increased risk of death from all causes.”

Noting that he has “a body mass index of more than 40,” Dr. Crosby also noted that al-Sawah “is so obese that he cannot sleep lying down, lest the soft tissue from his neck block his airway,” as previously reported, adding that he is “at great risk of coronary artery disease and heart failure,” and his “functional status is extremely limited.” Dale added, “Associated with these conditions, and with his long internment, he is described as depressed and hopeless, with impaired neurocognitive functionality.”

Dr. Crosby also noted that, to her knowledge, al-Sawah “has not received appropriate specialized evaluation or treatment for his condition.” Lt. Col. Gleason, who “has the appropriate security clearance” to view his clients’ medical records, but has not been allowed to do so, despite first submitting a request in August 2011, told Dale that he has “received no official explanation.” Gleason also explained that he had requested “a specialist physician to develop a treatment plan for his client,” but that this proposal “has been ignored by the military commander at Guantánamo,” and he is “unaware of any steps” being taken to treat his client’s “life-threatening heath concerns.”

He added that he had been told that the prisoners “are fed the same food as the guard force, leading him to believe Sawah’s weight problem is underpinned by other factors.” He cited references to claims that al-Sawah “was fed unhealthily at times to encourage compliance,” as in the Washington Post report in 2010, which, drawing on a statement made by an unnamed US official, noted, “the overweight Egyptian was enticed with takeout from the Subway franchise on the base.”

Dale added that Ali Soufan, mentioned above, had describing al-Sawah in 20004, who he interviewed him, as “overweight and happiest when we’d bring him ice cream.”

By email, Gleason told Dale, “It is clear to me that Sawah’s health has been declining over the 18 months I’ve been seeing him. It doesn’t appear that his weight has increased or decreased during the time I’ve been meeting with him, but his energy levels have been steadily declining.”

He added that al-Sawah “is also experiencing memory loss,” noting that his daughter and one of his sisters “spoke to him via Skype early last month from Alexandria and, his brother Jamal says, his sister had the impression that he is in a worse condition than on any of the previous occasions on which she has spoken to him in captivity.”

The Bosnian connection

Dale also noted that in February this year, Darryl Li, an anthropologist at Columbia University, interviewed a Bosnian man who had fought alongside al-Sawah in the Mujahideen Brigade in Bosnia in the 1990s — which, it should be noted, received support from the US — and that Li “agreed to put a question to the Bosnian source on behalf of Egypt Independent.” This source stated, “He had a big body, big hands, big hair. He looked dangerous, but was actually a very good person. He didn’t get into discussions much, was quiet. He found himself in jihad because it was a simple challenge. [He] used to say, ‘You should be patient until the action.’”

He added, “I’m absolutely sure that he’s not a guy who should be in Guantánamo … Maybe he’s a dangerous-looking guy [but] he wants to do some practical good in the world.”

The Bosnian said that he “last saw Sawah at Sarajevo airport as he left the country for the last time,” en route to Afghanistan as he was unable to return home. 13 years later, Lt. Col. Gleason appealed for his long imprisonment to be brought to an end. Noting that his client “has now been held by the United States for over 11 years without being tried or convicted of any crime,” Gleason said, “He looks forward to having an opportunity to clear his name and to be reunited with his family in Egypt. Based on his declining health condition, he hopes that day comes soon.”

Hopefully, the Periodic Review Board will pay attention to all the cases that come before them, and will recognize why Tariq al-Sawah’s imprisonment should come to an end.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — 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 four-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 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.

Lawyers Seek Release from Guantánamo of Tariq Al-Sawah, an Egyptian Prisoner Who is Very Ill

Two weeks ago, when lawyers in the US Justice Department decided — for the first time — not to contest the habeas corpus petition of a prisoner in Guantánamo, it was a cause for celebration. The man in question, Ibrahim Idris, a Sudanese man in his early 50s, is severely mentally ill, as he suffers from schizophrenia, and is also morbidly obese. As his lawyer Jennifer Cowan explained, “Petitioner’s long-­term severe mental illness and physical illnesses make it virtually impossible for him to engage in hostilities were he to be released, and both domestic law and international law of war explicitly state that if a detainee is so ill that he cannot return to the battlefield, he should be repatriated.”

As I explained in my most recent article, “Some Progress on Guantánamo: The Envoy, the Habeas Case and the Periodic Reviews,” it is disgraceful that the Justice Department lawyers responsible for dealing with the Guantánamo prisoners’ cases have “vigorously contested every petition as though the fate of the United States depended on it.” I have long been outraged that, in particular,  “petitions have been fought even when the men in question have been cleared for release by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force,” as I described it.

I added:

I am unable to explain why there has been no cross-referencing of cases between the task force (which involved officials from the Justice Department) and the Civil Division of the DoJ, or why Attorney General Eric Holder has maintained the status quo, and no other senior official, up to and including the President, has acted to address this troubling lack of joined-up thinking. However, it is to be hoped that it signals the possibility for further successful challenges by prisoners who are ill — as well as opening up the possibility for cleared prisoners to call for their release through the habeas process. Read the rest of this entry »

EXCLUSIVE: Guantánamo Scandal: The 40 Prisoners Still Held But Cleared for Release At Least Five Years Ago

This investigative report is published simultaneously here, and on the website of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, which I established in January with 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.

One of the greatest injustices at Guantánamo is that, of the 169 prisoners still held, over half — 87 in total — were cleared for release by President Obama’s interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force. The Task Force involved around 60 career officials from various government departments and the intelligence agencies, who spent the first year of the Obama Presidency reviewing the cases of all the remaining prisoners in Guantánamo, to decide whether they should be tried, released, or, in some cases, held indefinitely without charge or trial. The Task Force’s final report is here (PDF).

Exactly who these 87 men are is a closely held secret on the part of the administration, which is unfortunate for those of us working towards the closure of Guantánamo, as it prevents us from campaigning as effectively as we would like for the majority of these men, given that we are not entirely sure of their status. Attorneys for the prisoners have been told about their clients’ status, but that information — as with so much involving Guantánamo — is classified.

However, through recent research — into the classified military files about the Guantánamo prisoners, compiled by the Joint Task Force at the prison, which were released last year by WikiLeaks, as well as documents made available by the Bush administration, along with some additional information from the years of the Obama administration — I have been able to establish the identities of 40 men — 23 Yemenis, and 17 from other countries — who, between 2004 and 2009, were cleared for release by the Joint Task Force at Guantánamo, by military review boards under the Bush administration, or by President Obama’s Task Force, and to identify the official documents in which these decisions were noted. Read the rest of this entry »

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, filmmaker, photographer and Guantanamo expert
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