To Mark 10 Years of Guantánamo, Stern Magazine Profiles Five Former Prisoners


Last week, when I cross-posted an article written for the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo by my friend Todd Pierce, I also noted that when I visited the US in January to campaign for the closure of Guantánamo Bay, I was so busy that I did not have time to cross-post other articles of interest that were published at the time, and added, “In the hope of keeping alive some of that spirit of awareness about the ongoing injustice of Guantánamo that flickered briefly to life around the anniversary, I’m planning to cross-post some of these articles.”

After starting with Todd’s article, I’m now moving on to a detailed article that was published in Germany’s Stern Magazineavailable here as a PDF, and helpfully translated into English for Cageprisoners, via Google Translate, in a translation that I have tidied up.

The article features interviews with five former prisoners — Sami al-Laithi (aka el-Leithi), an Egyptian; Omar Deghayes, a British resident; Mohammed el-Gharani, a Chadian and former child prisoner; Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, an Afghan and a former Taliban ambassador; and Abu Bakker Qassim, a Uighur (a Muslim from China’s Xinjiang province) released from Guantánamo to Albania. The stories of all of these men have been reported before, but fresh eyes and ears are also ways useful to continue to expose the horrific history of Guantánamo, and its ongoing injustices, and the Stern article also featured a collection of powerful photos, as well as quotes from other prisoners — David Hicks (from Australia), Murat Kurnaz (from Germany) and Moazzam Begg (from the UK).

The photos accompanying the article, and available separately on Vanity Fair, are by the celebrated photographers Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer, and, in addition to the three photos posted below, also include photos of Moazzam Begg, Lahcen Ikassrien (ISN 61, Spain), Khaled Ben Mustapha (ISN 236, France), Omar Deghayes, Feroz Abbasi (ISN 24, UK), David Hicks, Ezatullah Nasratyar (ISN 977, Afghanistan), Murat Kurnaz, Ali Shar Hamidullah (ISN 455, Switzerland), Mamdouh Habib (ISN 661, Australia), Sami al-Hajj (ISN 345, Qatar), and Ayub Mohammed (ISN 279, Albania).

By Cornelia Fuchs and Eli Rauss, Stern Magazine, January 2012

Story 1: Sami al-Laithi

He must have been an impressive lecturer — tall, sharp-witted, of natural authority. A sharp intellect is the only thing that remains for Sami al-Laithi.

He sits slumped in a wheelchair, back and neck in pain with every movement. For six years he has lived in this dark room in his late grandfather’s mansion in al-Gharbia, Egypt. The columns at the front door are witness to a past fortune. It is raining through the ceiling, black mold spots spread on the walls.

In addition to Sami, 56, his mother and his younger brother, with his wife and four children, live in the house. The brother lost his job as a translator in the Ministry of Defence, because Sami was trapped in Guantánamo. The family has hardly enough money to buy food.

In his rickety wheelchair Sami al-Laithi cannot maneuver without help on the muddy path outside the house. Trapped in a room, he stares at the walls. “The Americans,” he says, “have destroyed me — my health, my soul, my future.”

When al-Laithi speaks, one hears his love of language, of Arabic poetry and  English sonnets. He is one of 38 Guantánamo prisoners whom the US formally declared to be “no longer enemy combatants.” Neutrally, his [military] file [released last year by WikiLeaks] states that he “represents a low risk due to his medical situation.”

The troops broke his back, as they stormed into his cell, with batons and pepper spray, again and again. They kicked al-Laithi, prisoner number 287, with their boots until he could no longer walk. They beat him because he did not want to go into the yard — for him the “humiliation yard.” He refused treatment at the hospital. Torturers, he insisted, could not simultaneously be doctors. They pressed his head between his legs and pulled it back, hard. One of the vertebrae in his neck broke. “I asked why they do these things. Why? No answer,” he says. “For years only the walls listened to me.”

Sami al-Laithi says what he thinks. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, he calls it. Over 20 years ago, he had to flee the authoritarian regime of Egypt because of his constant complaints about corrupt officials. He traveled first to Pakistan to his sister, and from there to Afghanistan.

In Kabul, he taught Arabic and English at the university and clashed again, this time with the Taliban on their requirements for the length of beards. Then came September 11, 2001, and the war in Afghanistan with its bombing. Al-Laithi was seriously injured. He fled to the Pakistani border. There he was arrested and handed over to the U.S. military. Under questioning, his interrogator grabbed him by the shirt, and, appalled by the rudeness of the younger man, he retaliated. From that time onwards, he was considered a troublemaker.

In spite of this, the Americans seem to have lost interest early on in the man who once believed in the US Constitution. During his time at Guantánamo, Sami al-Laithi says, he was hardly interrogated at all.

When he is sitting at home today, sore from the thin piece of leather of his wheelchair, he is hoping for a life after death, the reward of a just God. Without this belief, he would have long ago put an end to his suffering: “Animals would not be treated like this. It is shameful that I should be treated like this, as a part of humanity.”

“Guantánamo is an excellent institution. Many prisoners live better there than in their home countries.”
Dick Cheney, former Vice President of the United States, 2011

Story 2: Omar Deghayes

Omar Deghayes missed seeing the white cliffs on the coast of southern England, the snowflakes, the sunset. When he was released from Guantánamo in December 2007, he sat in his family home in Brighton, often in complete darkness and listened to the silence. His right eye is blind, since a guard rubbed pepper spray into it. His nose was broken, his ribs as well. A finger was crushed in the food flap of a cell. He can no longer move it.

Deghayes, 42, a man of powerful figure, speaks softly: “Every day, every week, they brought me in for questioning, for six years. At the end there was nothing, no charges, nothing.” When you read his file from Guantánamo, you could think of him as a dangerous terrorist. He is said to have fought in Chechnya and to have been a member of a terrorist cell in Spain. But on the video that supposedly shows him in Chechnya, experts recognized a now dead Chechnyan fighter. And for the connection to Spain, a judge in Madrid found no evidence.

Nevertheless Deghayes was seen in Guantánamo as “very interesting” — so interesting that Libyan agents were allowed to interrogate him. The men of the dictator Gaddafi threatened Deghayes with torture, when he would be sent to Libya from the US. His father had been murdered there in the 1980s by Gaddafi’s henchmen, and the family fled to Britain. Omar studied law and wanted to be a lawyer like his father.

In 1999, after a particularly stressful period of study, Deghayes traveled to Malaysia, Pakistan and on to Afghanistan — part adventure and part self-discovery trip. He had become religious during his studies. He liked living in Kabul, in the country of the Taliban: “Life was much slower, much more natural. These beautiful landscapes, nice people.” Finally he stayed because he had fallen in love. He married and wanted to open a law practice to become a mediator, he says, between sharia and Western law. On September 11, 2001 his wife was nine months pregnant.

Deghayes fled the war to Pakistan with her. In spring 2002, an army of black-clothed soldiers surrounded the house in Lahore. Deghayes disappeared in American military prisons, first in Kandahar, then in Bagram and finally Guantánamo.

He has accused the government in London of facilitating torture, as British agents knew of his abuse. In an out of court settlement, the government paid him and 15 others an unknown sum. The men may not talk publicly about the sum, which is said to be in the range of millions. Omar uses his share to help the remaining inmates in Guantánamo.

“If it were up to me, I would not close Guantánamo tomorrow, but this afternoon. We have destroyed the confidence of the world in America’s legal system.”
Ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell, 2007

Story 3: Mohammed el-Gharani

In a secret location in West Africa, Mohammed el-Gharani uses the phrases of young US soldiers when he speaks English: “Do you hear, man?” at the end of every sentence. He was 16 when he arrived in Guantánamo. He was accused of being part of a terrorist cell in London in 1998, when he was twelve years old.

As one of 63 prisoners to date, el-Gharani’s case was investigated by a judge in the US, who came to the conclusion that the accusations were based almost exclusively on “unreliable witnesses,” and mostly from interrogations in Guantánamo. The judge ordered his immediate release. In fact, it took another six months before he was delivered to Chad.

Although a citizen of the country, el-Gharani had never lived here. He was born in Saudi Arabia. At the age of nine, he sold stuff to pilgrims in Medina, a little soldier of the road: “If there were problems, I took care of it, you know? It was about respect.”

Precocious and enterprising, el-Gharani recognized that he needed better education for a better future. As a foreign national in Saudi Arabia, he had no access to higher education. Just 15 years of  age, he managed to travel to Pakistan with a false passport and the savings of many years of street graft. After 9/11, he was arrested at a mosque in Karachi. “At my first interrogation, I still thought I might clarify the apparent misunderstanding,” he says. At the second interrogation it was clear: no one was looking for the truth.

Mohammed’s Guantánamo file notes 60 attacks on guards and 385 disciplinary sanctions. “They gave us nothing without a fight,” he says. “No blanket, no common prayer times, no sleep.” Once he was injected with something — he woke up three days later. The first soldier who came near him after that, he headbutted: “You want to break me, but I will not be broken. I fight as long as you fight me.”

To date el-Gharani has not seen his family in Saudi Arabia. In their cables, US diplomats stated that he should be prevented from traveling. He has not received a passport. How he has managed to get to West Africa, where he now lives with his wife and a newborn daughter, he does not say: “We are in Africa, man!” When he needed surgery on his stomach, an NGO organized the operation. The permanent after-effects are stomach pain from Guantánamo, he says. He is now 24. He spent one-third of his life in Guantánamo. He would like to study pharmacy.

“What happened in Guantánamo shamed the United States. It is not the reason for terrorist acts, but it gave terrorists an excuse to attack our country.”
Ex-President Jimmy Carter, 2005.

Story 4: Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef

His face made Abdul Salam Zaeef ideal prey for the US. Black turban, glasses, thick, long beard — he was the face of the Taliban after September 11, 2001. As the last Taliban ambassador, Mullah Abdul Salam represented the regime in Pakistan. TV stations carried his defines live around the world. The cleric was 33 back then, and was said to be in the leadership circle around Mullah Omar. His appearances in the limelight of the world press ended in January 2002. Pakistani intelligence officers arrested Zaeef and handed him over to the Americans.

That ten years have passed since then cannot be seen in Abdul Salam Zaeef’s features — he looks as distant as before, the beard is still black. He speaks softly, but confidently. “The Pakistanis threw me to the Americans like a sheep to the wolf,” he says. He finds this “indescribable,” because he grew up in Pakistan as a refugee child, Pakistan’s intelligence service trained him as a teenager to fight against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan, and Pakistan was the protector of the Taliban.

Among the first ordeals of his captivity was that, amid the laughter of GIs in Peshawar, he had to strip naked, that he was locked in a cage on the warship USS Bataan, that he was tortured in Bagram with mock executions, and attacked in Kandahar by drooling military dogs.

“Guantánamo was different,” says the ex-prisoner number 306. The system there was “aimed at the psyche.” He explained: “The inmates get physical penalties, but there are worse things. We are Muslims. If they cut my beard or throw us naked in these cages, it is absolutely humiliation. They give prisoners no water for washing. I have seen prisoners there who for 20 days could not eat anything. Many of these never recovered from this treatment. ”

For many prisoners in Guantánamo, Mullah Abdul Salam was a hero. US intelligence agents made the attempt to win him over as an informant; the Karzai government campaigned for his release. He has been back in Afghanistan since September 11, 2005. ” I was in Kabul for two years under house arrest, with the secret service NDS watching me around the clock,” says Zaeef. However, the longer the war in Afghanistan lasts, the more intense become Western efforts to negotiate with the Taliban. “Diplomats and dignitaries come to my house; President Karzai is talking to me as a consultant,” says Zaeef. He does not do politics, but business, he says: “I buy and sell houses and small estates.” So, he explains, that he can care for his two wives and eleven children.

He is also able to travel abroad again, since his name has been removed from the UN list of terror suspects. He was in Oslo, London and Berlin in 2011. “The Americans”, he says, “have brutally captured and killed many human beings. They must stop humiliating people. Only then they can come to negotiate for peace.”

“The principle of our rule of law does not apply to non-American citizens. That is so.” 
Richard Perle, former advisor to the Bush government, 2005

Story 5: Abu Bakker Qassim

Abu Bakker Qassim has never experienced the rule of law firsthand. The qualified saddler comes from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in China. He is one of 22 Uighurs who fled from the dictatorship of the communist rule and were sold by bounty hunters in Pakistan to the US military.

In Guantánamo, Qassim and other Chinese citizens were soon seen as a special case. In China, the security apparatus suppressed the Muslim minority of nine million Uighurs systematically and brutally. Their struggle for freedom was supported by the US for years, It finances, for example, a radio station of exiled Uighurs. Nevertheless, the prisoners could not return to China, where they faced a possible death penalty. The US, which abducted them, should have been morally obligated to take them, but above all US Republicans do not want Guantánamo prisoners on American soil out of principle.

So US diplomats had to beg foreign governments to take them. More than 100 countries refused. The German government did as well, because economic relations with China were more important than making a humanitarian gesture. Finally, five of the Uighurs were rehoused in Albania [in 2006], ten on the islands of Bermuda and Palau [in 2009], and two in Switzerland [in 2010]. Five Uighurs are still in custody at Guantánamo.

Abu Bakker Qassim now lives in a three-room apartment on the fifth floor of a building in Tirana. The rent is paid by the Albanian government, the lease must be renewed every year. The apartment is a big step forward. After he landed in May 2006, in leg irons on Albanian soil, officials drove him to a refugee camp on the outskirts of the capital. “A former barracks with police guards and three mandatory meals a day and a curfew after 10 o’clock,” says Qassim. China’s embassy intervened three times opposing the settlement of the Uighurs. Once Chinese security came to the barracks and demanded access to the Uighurs. “The guards also protected us,” said Qassim.

Over the Internet, he has now met a Uighur. She moved from Qatar to be with him. His marriage in China has been dissolved; he has never seen his twins. Through a temporary job at the pizzeria Hallal he has earned money for an old moped. The Uighurs cannot find regular work in Albania. Although they have a permit to stay on, they have no passport — and Guantánamo on their CVs.

“The prisoners who are still sitting in Guantánamo are the worst of the worst. If we do not hold them, we would have to kill them.” 
Dick Cheney, former Vice President of the United States, 2009

There’s nobody at Guantánamo today who does not regularly get depressed,” says the British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, [the director of the legal action charity Reprieve]. He has represented 85 prisoners  and has visited the camp several times. “They are all depressed — after ten years, how could it be any different?”

779 inmates have been held in the prison. Today there are still 171 left. Of these, 89 are cleared for release. But they remain incarcerated because no state is willing to take them or their home countries are deemed unsafe. The Pentagon says that at least 14 percent of ex-detainees  are engaged in terrorism. Stafford Smith disagrees: “The US government has published 44 different lists. And every time they delivered other, contradictory figures. Independent experts were able to verify less than 20 cases by name.”

“Guantánamo has become a political football,” says Stafford Smith. Barack Obama decided that the domestic power struggle was more important than the eradication of Bush’s legacy. To get the approval of the Republicans for the military budget, the US president has just signed a law that makes it almost impossible to close Guantánamo. Thus the military can now “legally” run prisons outside the country, security forces may detain terror suspects in and outside the United States – and hold them indefinitely. And no tax money can be spent for the release of Guantánamo detainees.  [Note: This is not quite true. Although a truly dreadful piece of legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act contains a waiver allowing the President to release prisoners without being obstructed by Congress, as has been the case for the last year].

Anyway, the end of Guantánamo would be only a beginning. In the Bagram military base in Afghanistan alone, the USA has been holding 1500 prisoners without charges, without trial, for years.

The legacy of Bush’s camps, says Stafford Smith, was not only torture but secrecy. Even as a lawyer he could not talk to all his clients. “I would so gladly defend a really guilty man,” he says, “because we must finally learn to understand what really motivated the terrorists.”

Quotes from former prisoners

David Hicks, prisoner No. 2
Citizenship: Australian
Duration of captivity: 5 years, 5 months
Lives in: Australia
Marital status: Married

“I would never plead guilty, but after more than five years in Guantánamo my lawyer said that I must sign this document, if I ever wanted to get out. This has destroyed me. At that moment, something died in me. I still believe that they would have simply let me rot, if I had not co-operated. I was at the end. My country, Australia, calls me a terrorist, and my co-detainees called me a traitor. Both accusations are wrong. I was lost. Today, I have to deal with panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. Guantánamo is eating me from inside. ”

Sami al-Laithi, 56, prisoner No. 287
Citizenship: Egyptian
Duration of captivity: 3 years, 10 months
Lives in: Egypt
Marital status: Single

“My words are not enough to describe what happened to me. They took us completely naked across the tarmac, dogs attacked us. Incredible, such inhumanity. As a teacher, I taught English to the Afghans and told them about the American dream. The US should have been grateful to me.”

Murat Kurnaz, 29, prisoner No. 061
Citizenship: Turkish [but born in Germany]
Duration of captivity: 4 years, 9 months
Lives in: Germany
Marital status: Married, one daughter

“I was in the American prison in Kandahar for weeks. In the end I would not have objected to simply dying. There was no normal interrogation. They only asked questions while they beat you, kicked you, tortured you with electric shocks. During my time in Guantánamo, I was just hoping that I would not go crazy. ”

Abu Bakker Qassim, 42, prisoner No. 283
Citizenship: Chinese
Duration of captivity: 4 years, 5 months
Lives in: Albania
Marital status: Married

“I was involved in protests against the government in Beijing. 20 people were sentenced to death. 4,000 were sent to prison. I spent seven month there. I left my home, my wife, my twins. In Pakistan we were sold to the Americans. We have never waged war against them. They are our allies against China’s government. ”

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, prisoner No. 306
Nationality: Afghan
Duration of captivity: 3 years, 8 months
Lives in: Afghanistan
Marital status: Married, 2 wives and 11 children

“I was the representatives of prisoners. At that time, there was a hunger strike. We requested a few books, better food and that guards treat us as humans. Nothing more. The Americans agreed to change the menu, and offered us samples of the new menu. The food was good. As we came back into the cell block, it became clear that the Americans only given us a good meal as the prisoners’ representatives to break the hunger strike. The strike continued. They put me in a cell block in response, that was worst isolation. I do not trust the Americans. Yes, I hate them. ”

Moazzam Begg, 44, prisoner No. 558
Nationality: British
Duration of captivity: 3 years
Lives in: United Kingdom
Marital status: Married, 4 children

“I understand why the Americans wanted to question people like me after 9/11, a foreigner who had lived in Kabul. I understand that they had to protect themselves. But I will never understand why they held us for so long — in a legal state of emergency and without the opportunity to defend ourselves against the accusations. ”

Mohammed el-Gharani, prisoner No. 269
Nationality: Chadian
Duration of captivity: 8 years, 6 months
Lives in: West Africa
Marital status: Married, 1 child

“In Pakistan, they tortured me for a month, hung me on the ceiling, asked me repeatedly about al-Qaeda. I had never heard of this group. I was only 16. Guantánamo was even worse, for seven years. One night I was about to give up, because they had beaten me four times in one day, sometimes with up to ten men, while they knew that I never was in Afghanistan, that I did not have anything to do with terrorism. They told me so in the interrogations. Now I live in West Africa, where I do not know anyone. I have no work, no pass, and I must lie down often, because my stomach hurts so much.”

Omar Deghayes, prisoner No. 727
Nationality: Libyan
Duration of captivity: 5 years, 7 months
Lives in: United Kingdom

“I always resisted. They should not have treated me like a criminal, which I never was. They beat me up for each word. Once they pinched my fingers in the small flap of the cell door and held it down until the bone broke. They looked at me the whole time. How inhuman do you have to be to look a man into the face while you break his bones? I did not scream, I did not want to give that to them.”

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) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Sara Naqwi wrote:

    Thank you for sharing this, and not letting them become forgotten voices and faces.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Sara. Thanks for caring.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    Sharing, thank you, Andy.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Sara Naqwi wrote:

    Please don’t mention it. Your dedicated work has greatly helped me in my research re this heinous institution, and Omar Khadr in particular.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Dejanka. Good to hear from you. And thanks again, Sara.

  6. Launching, 3..2..1..: Citizens As “Enemy Combatants” » DebatingChambers says...

    […] feature on Guantanamo (link is to a PDF version of the German original), which was highlighted and reprinted by Andy Worthington on 2/29, using a translation by Guantánamo By Cornelia Fuchs and Eli Rauss, Stern […]

  7. Desde Guantánamo, Shaker Aamer cuenta a su abogado hechos inquietantes sobre la huelga de hambre. | Moncadista says...

    […] paralíticos por los golpes que recibieron en la Bahía de Guantánamo. (Nota: El egipcio fue Sami al-Laithi, interno número 287, representado por Reprieve, que quedó paralítico de una paliza en el […]

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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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