Two Algerian Torture Victims Are Freed from Guantánamo


A guard at GuantanamoOn Friday, perhaps as a sop to critics — myself included — who have been complaining about President Obama’s failure to close Guantánamo by his self-imposed deadline of January 22, 2010, the Justice Department announced in a press release that two Algerian prisoners had been released.

Releasing prisoners to Algeria has always been a dubious business, akin to Russian roulette, as I explained when two men were released by the Bush administration in July 2008, because there appears to be no way of knowing whether these men will be released on their return or imprisoned and subjected to trials that fail to meet internationally recognized standards of fairness and objectivity.

As a result, frustratingly little is known about the eight Algerians repatriated from Guantánamo between July 2008 and January 2009, although one indication of how the Algerian justice system deals with returned Guantánamo prisoners was provided in November 2009, when the BBC reported that, 15 months after two of these men were repatriated, they had been acquitted after a trial in which the prosecutor had called for prison sentences of 20 years.

The stories of the two men released last week deserve to be heard, because, as so often with Guantánamo, they reveal how shockingly misplaced is the still prevalent rhetoric regarding Guantánamo’s role as a repository for the “worst of the worst” terrorists. Just as disturbingly, their stories also reveal how two men, who were unconnected to terrorism, were nevertheless tortured in an attempt to make them admit that they were.

Ahcene Zemiri: wrong place, wrong time (in Canada and Afghanistan)

Ahcene ZemiriThe first of the men released last week, Ahcene Zemiri (identified on his release as Hasan Zemiri), was born in Algiers on September 8, 1967, the youngest of ten children. At the age of 20, having completed his two years of mandatory military service, and finding no prospects for work in Algeria, he moved to France, where, for several years, he and his brother made money exporting electrical goods to Algeria.

In 1994, he moved to Canada, settling in Montreal, where he met his future wife, Karina. The couple married in May 1996, but life was difficult for Zemiri. Unable to find work, he hung out with other Algerian expatriates, including one man, Ahmed Ressam, whose future activities were to have a profound effect on Zemiri’s life. In December 1999, Ressam was seized as he arrived in the United States, and was charged with planning a terrorist attack on Los Angeles International Airport (the so-called “Millennium Plot.”). After a trial in 2005, he received a 22-year prison sentence.

Neither Zemiri nor the rest of his friends had any idea about the plot, but after his conviction, and before he was sentenced, when he was apparently exploited to make confessions in exchange for a sentence less than the 130 years that was proposed to him, Ressam claimed that Zemiri had lent him $3,500 and a camera in connection with the plot. Ressam recanted this claim in December 2006, sending a letter to the judge who had sentenced him, explaining that Zemiri had “no relation or connection to the operation I was about to carry out” and that he “didn’t know anything about it and he did not assist me in anything.” As Zemiri’s attorneys added, he also declared that his statements “had been misconstrued and were made under the severe psychological duress of an FBI interrogation and in the face of a lengthy prison sentence.” Nevertheless, the false claims were to haunt Zemiri for the next nine years.

First, Zemiri and his compatriots were repeatedly questioned by Canadian intelligence agents and the police. Zemiri himself was never arrested, but some of his friends were, and a few later fled the country. In early 2001, after being questioned about whether it would be safe for President Bush to visit Canada, Zemiri became convinced that he would be deported to Algeria, and that, if returned, his decade of globe-trotting in the West would not play well with Islamist groups in his homeland.

As a result, having been sold a rosy picture of Afghanistan by a friend, he decided to travel there with Karina, intending to establish himself and raise a family. Arriving in Jalalabad in August 2001, they lived in a house owned by an Algerian/Swedish family who had returned to Sweden, in an Algerian neighborhood that was relatively clean and safe. The house had electricity, water, and a walled compound, and although many Taliban lived in the area, it was also home to Europeans, Australians, Uzbeks and Chechens, and the offices of the UN, Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam were also nearby.

Nevertheless, the decision to relocate to Afghanistan was clearly a foolish dream. Zemiri “disliked Afghanistan,” as his attorneys stated in a court submission in October 2007. His wife explained that he had become used to Western society, and the poverty was too much for him. She “thought that he would make it a year, at most, before deciding that they should move elsewhere.”

The US-led invasion in October 2001 changed everything, of course, although the couple stayed put until the cities in northern Afghanistan fell, and the country was no longer safe for Arabs and other foreigners. Splitting up, for reasons of safety, Karina escaped to Pakistan, and then to Canada, where she gave birth to their son, Karim, on June 17, 2002, but her husband was less fortunate.

After hooking up with a group of around 200 mostly Arab men, who were seeking to leave the country, Zemiri — wearing the Hugo Boss suit that he had brought with him — found himself caught up on the fringes of the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora mountains, who were preparing for a final showdown with the US military’s proxy Afghan army, until two Afghan guides showed up, offering, for a price, to lead the men to safety in Pakistan.

Around 60 of the group accepted, but as they made their way through a valley, they were spotted by a US plane, and targeted in a bombing raid. One of the men, Ghanim al-Harbi, a Saudi, later explained that “40 of the Arabs with me were killed and 20 were injured,” and many of the survivors, including Zemiri, ended up in Guantánamo.

With a broken arm, Zemiri made it to an Afghan village after the raid, but was sold to Northern Alliance troops just a few days later. Soon after, he was sold to US forces, and, according to the court submission, was held in Kabul — possibly, for a brief spell, in the CIA’s notorious “Dark Prison” — and Kandahar before being flown to Guantánamo in April or May 2002. In statements to his attorneys, he explained that, while in custody in Afghanistan, he was “subjected to brutal physical abuse,” stating that he was “repeatedly beaten by guards,” and that he “lost a tooth as a result of one such beating.”

In Guantánamo, despite maintaining his story (as he did throughout his detention), Zemiri came under suspicion because of Ahmed Ressam’s allegation. and was subjected to the “enhanced interrogation techniques” introduced by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which, though nominally intended for use on Mohammed al-Qahtani (allegedly the 20th 9/11 hijacker), were actually applied to over a hundred prisoners.

As his attorneys explained, he was “tortured and/or subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including temperature manipulation, sleep deprivation, sound bombardment, and strobe lighting.” As they also explained, he was “splashed with fake menstrual blood, short-shackled, and forced to maintain a stress position for long periods of time.”

Despite this, Zemiri refused to accept that he was involved with either al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and also refused to accept Ahmed Ressam’s allegations, but it was not until Ressam wrote his letter, and another witness came forward, that, effectively, any case against him collapsed.

This second witness, Mokhtar Haouari, who was also convicted for playing a part in the “Millennium Plot,” wrote a letter from a prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he is serving a 24-year sentence, which first came to light during a military review board at Guantánamo in 2005, when it was submitted by Zemiri’s attorneys. In it, Haouari, stated, “As for these allegations leveled against Mr. Zemiri by Ressam, well I know they are false. Mr. Zemiri and I were close friends, unlike Ressam, who was not either of our friend. I never, in 5 yrs of knowing Mr. Zemiri, heard him speak of jihad, anti-American feelings or so-called terrorist activities … He’s never been a threat to America or any other country. Ressam is trying to use Mr. Zemiri like he used myself and others to decrease his prison term. The government doesn’t care if his accusations are true or false as long as it brings about a conviction.”

Adil al-Jazeeri: a child of the mujahideen

The second man released last week, Adil Hadi al-Jazairi Bin Hamlili (also identified in Guantánamo as Adil al-Jazeeri), was 27 years old when he was seized outside a restaurant in Peshawar on June 17, 2003 with five other men who were later released. Although almost everything about his story is confusing, it is clear is that he arrived in Pakistan with several family members in 1985, during the mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when he was just nine years old, and spent many years in Afghanistan, before relocating to Pakistan sometime in the 1990s, where he was married and had four children.

No explanation has ever been publicly provided for his capture, but it may be related to the interrogation of his distant cousin, Mustafa Hamlili (also transferred to Guantánamo, but released in July 2008), who was seized in a village near Peshawar in May 2002. In Guantánamo, al-Jazeeri claimed that the Pakistanis had told him that the FBI had ordered his capture, but he may have been seized because he was a convenient target for the Pakistanis to sell to US forces.

Certainly, it is noticeable that the younger Hamlili was an irritant to the Pakistani authorities, if his own words in Guantánamo are to be believed. At a military review board hearing in 2005, in response to an allegation that he had stolen a car with three Pakistani friends, had been imprisoned for a year and a half, and had then been expelled to Afghanistan, he explained that he had actually been expelled “because I did not have the legal papers.”

Whatever the truth was regarding his capture, it was obvious that allegations against him were taken seriously at some level in the US government, because, after a month in Pakistani custody, he was rendered to Afghanistan on July 13, 2003, and held for some time in a secret CIA prison near Kabul (either the “Dark Prison” or the “Salt Pit”), before being moved to Bagram. He was also one of ten supposedly significant prisoners — including the British resident Binyam Mohamed — who were flown to Guantánamo on September 20, 2004, after being held as “high-value detainees,” and then, it appears, being downgraded to “medium-value detainees.”

According to a news report published in 2006, the Pakistani authorities believed that he had “served as a contact between al-Qaeda and the Taliban and also as an aide to the former Afghan foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil in Kabul,” and although there may be something in this latter claim, as al-Jazeeri admitted in a review board that he had found a job with the Taliban working in their media and translation department, he refused to admit that he had any connection to al-Qaeda. Despite being presented with a barrage of allegations in his tribunal and review boards — including claims that he was involved with Algerian and Tunisian terrorist groups, and that he moved al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan to Pakistan — he refuted them all, saying that most were false statements that had been obtained under duress in Guantánamo, Bagram or Kabul.

Noticeably, however, he also pointed out that a few allegations were made prisoners who had some involvement with al-Qaeda. “All al-Qaeda members they lie,” he said, “and most of them they really apologized to me in Camp 5. [One] asked for my forgiveness because he had had to do so. He had to say something like this because he was under pressure.’”

Interviewed in 2006, his wife also denied the allegations. Speaking from “a crowded mud-brick house in the village of Regi,” near Peshawar, she insisted that her husband was innocent. “My husband had no links with al-Qaeda and if he had any links with al-Qaeda then al-Qaeda people would take care of us because we are living very miserable lives,” she said.

Presumably, the President’s Guantánamo Review Task Force would not have released al-Jazeeri had they too not concluded that somewhere along the line his story had been overblown. Certainly, he gave the authorities no cause for alarm during his five years in Guantánamo, when he was apparently a thoroughly cooperative prisoner throughout his imprisonment. It seems, therefore, as with Ahcene Zemiri, that, despite the promise of terrorist related activities — and the use of torture in an attempt to prove it — neither man, in the end, proved anything beyond Guantánamo’s most enduring truth: that when you round people up in a random manner, or on the basis of untested intelligence, and then fly them halfway around the world to an experimental prison intended to be outside the law, you end up with nothing.

I suppose, however, that both these men should count themselves fortunate that they don’t fit into a category of prisoner embraced by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, and, it seems, by the President himself: those regarded as too dangerous to release, even though the supposed evidence against them would not stand up to any kind of independent scrutiny. These men — 47 in total, as the Task Force announced on Friday — will continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Compared to that, the Russian roulette of Algerian justice may not be so bad after all.

POSTSCRIPT: Just as this article was being published, the Justice Department announced that, on Sunday, three more prisoners had been transferred to Slovakia. The men’s identities were not revealed, but Reuters reported that, according to Slovak police, the three men “were being placed in a camp for asylum seekers in the eastern part of Slovakia, Humenne, which is run by the interior ministry.” RTT News added that, “Following an 18-month process of acclimatization to Slovakia, including language instruction and a search for employment, the prisoners will be released. However, they will be under surveillance for an unspecified period.”

In addition, a Czech website added that the Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak pointed out last week, “The three are not criminals, none of them has been either accused or convicted.” The paper also explained that the men “cannot return to their homeland as they could face persecution there in view of a ‘low level of democracy and human rights protection,’” adding that Lajcak had made a point of adding that “Slovak residents face no risk in this connection.”

And finally, for now, as I was adding this postscript, Carol Rosenberg reported in the Miami Herald that a fourth prisoner had also been released, although she explained that US officials had stated only that he was being resettled in an “undisclosed location.”

These releases bring the total number of prisoners still held in Guantánamo to 192.

POSTSCRIPT 2: On Tuesday, the nationality of this man — and his new home — were announced by the Swiss government. An Uzbek (one of the last two Uzbeks in Guantánamo, who were cleared for release by military review boards under the Bush administration, and also by President Obama’s Task Force), he was resettled in the canton of Geneva. As a Swiss website, Swissinfo, explained, “The government stressed that he is a free man who has never been charged with any offence; he has committed to learning one of the national languages and intends to look for work to support himself. The man’s identity and location will be kept secret so as to protect his integration into the country.”

Swissinfo added, “The cabinet agreed in December to grant him asylum on humanitarian grounds,” and also explained, that “an Algerian, whose asylum application was rejected by the Swiss Migration Office, won an appeal to Switzerland’s Federal Administrative Court on December 18, and will have his case re-examined,” and that “Switzerland is also studying the case of two brothers from the Chinese province of Xinjiang.”

POSTSCRIPT 3 (June 22, 2010): According to a Swiss blog, the Uzbek released in Switzerland is Ali Sher Hamidullah (ISN 455). This information accords with what I was told when the Swiss government was considering accepting an Uzbek back in September last year.

POSTSCRIPT 4 (July 10, 2010): For information on the three men released in Slovakia (Adel Fattough Ali El-Gazzar, an Egyptian, Poolad Tsiradzho, an Azerbaijani, and Rafiq al-Hami, a Tunisian), see: Three Neglected Ex-Guantánamo Prisoners in Slovakia Embark on a Hunger Strike, “It was better in Guantánamo,” Complains Egyptian Held in Slovak Detention Center, and Who Are the Three Ex-Guantánamo Prisoners on Hunger Strike in Slovakia?

Andy Worthington is 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). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation. Cross-posted on The Public Record.

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 42 prisoners released from February to December 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here, here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs to Bermuda, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here); August 2009 — 1 Afghan (Mohamed Jawad), 2 Syrians to Portugal; September 2009 — 1 Yemeni, 2 Uzbeks to Ireland (here and here); October 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti, 1 prisoner of undisclosed nationality to Belgium; October 2009 — 6 Uighurs to Palau; November 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian to France, 1 unidentified Palestinian to Hungary, 2 Tunisians to Italian custody, December 2009 — 1 Kuwaiti (Fouad al-Rabiah), December 2009 — 2 Somalis, 4 Afghans, 6 Yemenis.

4 Responses

  1. Guantanamo update « The Lift – Legal Issues in the Fight against Terrorism says...

    […] Hadi al-Jazairi bin Hamlili had been held for five. (for more infos on the two detainees, see the link). Both men are Algerian nationals, bringing the total number of Algerians released from Guantanamo […]

  2. UN Secret Detention Report (Part Two): CIA Prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq « EUROPE TURKMEN FRIENDSHIPS says...

    […] Corpus Petition (December 2009), Dark Revelations in the Bagram Prisoner List (January 2010), Two Algerian Torture Victims Are Freed from Guantánamo (January 2010), UN Secret Detention Report Asks, “Where Are The CIA Ghost Prisoners?” (January […]

  3. In Abu Zubaydah’s Case, Court Relies on Propaganda and Lies « The 2012 Scenario says...

    […] Zemiri (aka Hassan Zemiri), falsely fingered by Ressam as an associate in the bomb plot, who was freed from Guantanamo in January this year), and the portrayal of Zubaydah accepted by the judges is fundamentally at odds with the one now […]

  4. In Abu Zubaydah’s Case, Court Relies on Propaganda and Lies « Revolutionizing Awareness says...

    […] Zemiri (aka Hassan Zemiri), falsely fingered by Ressam as an associate in the bomb plot, who was freed from Guantanamo in January this year), and the portrayal of Zubaydah accepted by the judges is fundamentally at odds with the one now […]

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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