Out of Guantánamo, and into the fire: conviction of ex-detainee in Tunisia casts doubts on US motives


The recent conviction, in a Tunisian court, of former Guantánamo detainee Abdullah bin Omar undermines claims by the US administration that it has found adequate ways of repatriating wrongly arrested detainees to their home countries.

A former railway engineer, bin Omar (51) left Tunisia because of religious persecution in 1989. Taking his wife and children with him, he moved to Pakistan, where he had been living for 13 years when he was seized at his home by Pakistani police in May 2002. He later claimed, as did numerous other detainees, that, as a result of bounty payments offered by the Americans for al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects, he was sold to US forces for $5,000.

Held for five years without charge or trial in Guantánamo, bin Omar was accused, in the “evidence” compiled against him, of traveling to Pakistan “under Osama bin Laden’s protection,” of running a guest house for fighters in Afghanistan, and of having various connections with al-Qaeda. He maintained, however, that he had never even visited Afghanistan, and had not been “a member of any type of group or organization while he lived in Pakistan,” and the allegations had evidently evaporated by early 2007, when he was cleared for release by a military review board.

In June, his lawyers at Reprieve, a London-based legal charity that represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees, discovered that in 1995 he had been convicted in absentia by a Tunisian court, and given a 10-year sentence. Some reports suggested that he had received this sentence for belonging to Ennahda (aka Al-Nahda), a moderate, non-violent Islamist political party, which has never been recognized by the regime run by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, although Human Rights Watch recently reported that the “primary evidence” against him “appears to have been the statement that one of his 19 co-defendants made to the police in 1993, in which he claimed that [he] had taken a leadership position in an organization known as the Tunisian Islamist Front while in Pakistan.” Based on his experience of similar cases, his lawyer, Samir Ben Amor, explained that he thought it “likely that this incriminating statement was the product of torture and abuse.” Before bin Omar’s lawyers from Reprieve could meet with him to reveal this information, however, he and another cleared Tunisian, Lotfi Lagha, were loaded onto a plane and flown back to Tunis, where they were promptly imprisoned.

Although both men were granted access to lawyers, they reported that they were mistreated in Tunisian custody. Both said that they had been held in solitary confinement, and bin Omar added that he was told that if he did not confess falsely to crimes, his wife and daughters would be raped. Last month, the Tunisian authorities further antagonized their critics by subjecting Lagha to what looked suspiciously like a show trial. Previous claims that he received military training in Afghanistan and fought with the Taliban regime were dropped, and he was, instead, convicted of “associating with a criminal group with the aim of harming or causing damage in Tunisia” and sentenced to three years in prison, even though the authorities did not name the group or provide any details about the alleged plot.

Bin Omar’s trial was no better. Convicted of “belonging in times of peace to a terrorist organization operating in a foreign country,” and of preparing for attacks intended to “change the state through violence,” replacing the government with a “fundamentalist regime,” he received a seven-year sentence. One of his lawyers, Zachary Katznelson, who was present at the trial, told me, “There was not a shred of evidence actually offered against him. No witnesses, no documents, nothing. Merely a statement from the intelligence services saying he was guilty. Accusation presented as fact.” He added that this was “all too familiar in the context of Guantánamo,” but that it was “horrible to see the consequences pronounced before my eyes.”

What makes these reports of rigged trials and abuse in custody so disturbing is that, after the Pentagon had cleared these men, they were supposed to have been guaranteed fair and humane treatment, under the terms of “diplomatic assurances” agreed between the American and Tunisian governments. These were required if the US administration was to avoid international censure for breaking international laws preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they faced the risk of torture or ill-treatment.

The rationale for coming up with these “assurances” is shocking, but simple to understand. Attempts to empty the prison of cleared detainees, leaving 80 to face trial, and another 120 to be held indefinitely without trial, are hampered by the fact that as many as 70 cleared detainees –- mostly from China and from various North African countries –- do not want to return to the countries of their birth. Unable to find other countries to accept them, and unwilling to grant them asylum in the United States, the “diplomatic assurances” seemed to the administration to be a convenient way to break the deadlock.

The trials in Tunisia suggest, however, that the strategy is not working, and last month, in an unprecedented decision in a US District Court, Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that another cleared Tunisian, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, “cannot be sent to Tunisia because he could suffer ‘irreparable harm’ that the US courts would be powerless to reverse.” It remains to be seen whether Kessler’s ruling will impact on other detainees, further derailing the integrity of the “diplomatic assurances.”

Two other cleared detainees who do not want to return home –- the Libyan Abdul Rauf al-Qassim and the Algerian (and British resident) Ahmed Belbacha –- have not been granted such protection, but have not yet been repatriated from Guantánamo, and attempts by the British government to replicate the Americans’ underhand behavior with its own alleged terror suspects –- held without charge or trial and subjected to “control orders” that amount to virtual house arrest –- have also suffered legal setbacks. Although some have been repatriated to Algeria, an appeal court ruled in April that two Libyans could not be returned because they were at risk of torture, and in July another appeal court reached a similar conclusion in the case of three Algerians, demonstrating that the British government’s “memoranda of understanding” with Libya and Algeria are as worthless as the Americans’ “diplomatic assurances” with Tunisia.

These legal struggles come too late for Lotfi Lagha and Abdullah bin Omar, who seem, as Zachary Katznelson explained, to have been used as “guinea pigs in a potentially deadly diplomatic experiment,” but they reveal that, after nearly six years, it is far more difficult to close down Guantánamo than it was to set it up in the first place.

Please note that, after receiving the following message from Ann Alexander regarding my last article about Mr. Lagha, I have corrected his name to Lotfi rather then Lofti: “My Tunisian friend, Abdul, has asked me to point out that the name of the man mentioned in this article is Lotfi not Lofti. He knew it wasn’t a typing error as you have spelt this man’s name the same way throughout the article. Abdul is blind and asked me to ask you if your book is on electronic mail so that he can read it. Abdul was a victim of torture in Tunisia and knows all about Tunisian ‘justice.’ He is now an Islamic counsellor in London. Watch out for him. He tends to shout, ‘Make way for a blind man.’ He’s a real character. Anyway, Andy, I felt sure that you would want to amend Lotfi’s name. Best wishes, Ann.”

For more on the Tunisian detainees in Guantánamo, see my book 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). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

A version of this article was published exclusively in the Daily Star, Lebanon.

7 Responses

  1. Fred Corron says...

    It seems that one motive behind this would be to manufacture “evidence” to support their original kidnapping/torture by the US and the UK. Manufacturing “evidence” has always been a major motive behind “coercive interrogation,” and in the “war on terror” (reign of terror), it has been used to produce evidence that there is such a thing as Islamic terrorism, and that these governments are waging war on it, when the nature of their actual target can be seen by looking at Iraq’s remains.

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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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