Who Are the Two Guantánamo Prisoners Released in Algeria?


I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012 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. The portrait on the left is by the artist Molly Crabapple, who has been visiting Guantánamo this year, and is one of seven portraits, with accompanying text, commissioned and published this week by Creative Time Reports and also published by the Daily Beast

Last week, President Obama released the first two prisoners from Guantánamo since he promised to resume releasing cleared prisoners in a major speech on May 23. That speech was prompted by high-level domestic and international criticism, which, in turn, arose in response to a prison-wide hunger strike that the prisoners embarked upon in February, in despair at ever being freed or receiving justice.

The release of these two prisoners, both Algerians, is to be applauded, as President Obama has been so paralyzed by inertia for the last few years that only five prisoners were freed between October 2010 and July 2013 (either through court orders or through plea deals in their military commission trials) and the last prisoners to be freed as a result of the president’s own intentions were released three years ago, in September 2010, when two men who could not be safely repatriated were released in Germany.

Since then, Congress has raised serious obstacles to the release of prisoners, and the administration was required to certify to lawmakers that it was safe to release the men. As the Miami Herald reported after their release last week, “Last month, the White House announced that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, for the first time, had certified the release under requirements imposed by Congress’ current National Defense Authorization Act with the approval of Secretary of State John Kerry and the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.”

Although the president and his administration are to be applauded, that applause will be short-lived if it is not followed by further releases. The two men who were released, Nabil Hadjarab and Mutia Sayyab, were cleared for release in January 2010 by the inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force, established by President Obama when he took office in January 2009, and, crucially, 84 of the remaining 164 prisoners were also cleared for release by the task force but are still held.

Those 84 prisoners also need to be released, as swiftly as possible, either to their home countries, or to third countries of it is unsafe for them to be repatriated, and if third countries cannot be found then they must be given new homes in the US.

In the weeks and months to come, we at “Close Guantánamo” intend to maintain the pressure on President Obama to release these 84 men, but in the meantime we believe it is important to tell the stories of the two men who were released, as one of the lies used by lawmakers and right-wing pundits in an attempt to justify their opposition to the release of prisoners is that they are all dangerous men who, given half a chance, will return to the battlefield. This has never been true, and it is clear that the sober and responsible officials of the task force only approved prisoners for release if they concluded that they did not pose a threat to the US. Moreover, the stories of Nabil Hadjarab and Mutia Sayyab make this clear.

We have previously covered Nabil’s story here on “Close Guantánamo,” in a profile published in May 2012 entitled, “Nabil Habjarab, the “Sweet Kid” in Guantánamo, Was Cleared in 2007 But Is Still Held,” and in July I publicized his account of the hunger strike, the first in which he had taken part. Now 32 years old, he was just 21 years old when he was first seized.

As I explained in the profile last year, Nabil’s father, Said, served in the French army, and then ran a café in Lyon and had seven children. He then remarried, and Nabil is the only child from that second marriage. Nabil lived in France until he was nine years old, but then his father then took him back to Algeria, although he spent every summer in France with his uncle Ahmad. Disaster struck in 1994, when Nabil’s father died of cancer, and he was taken in by an abusive aunt.

Nabil’s lifeline was his uncle Ahmed, who sent him money, treating him as though he was one of his own children, and when he turned 21 Nabil returned to France and his uncle’s family, hoping to secure French residency.

However, fearful that he would be deported while waiting for his paperwork to be processed, Nabil made a fateful decision to travel to the UK, and from there to Afghanistan, where he stayed with an Algerian man in Kabul, and then fled to Jalalabad after the US-led invasion began. He then tried to reach the Pakistani border, but was wounded in a US bombing raid and ended up in a hospital in Jalalabad. From there he was sold to US forces, as were many of the men and boys who ended up, pointlessly, in Guantánamo. As one of the guards in Guantánamo explained, Nabil was no soldier and no terrorist; instead, he was “a brilliant artist, a keen footballer, and a sweet kid.”

First cleared for release by a military review board under President Bush in April 2007, Nabil had to wait nearly six and a half years to be freed. Responding to the news, Cori Crider, his attorney and the Strategic Director at Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity, said, “After a dozen years of needless detention and abuse in US custody, Nabil is embarking on the greatest adventure of his adult life — freedom. He arrives in Algeria weakened from his hunger strike, but with high hopes for the future. He is grateful to the Algerians for accepting him, although he dreams one day of rejoining his family who await him in France. We hope to be able to see him very shortly to help him and the authorities smooth his transition to a free life.”

Less is known about 37-year old Mutia Sayyab (identified at Guantánamo as Motai Saib), although he too was cleared for release twice — first under George W. Bush, in February 2008, and then under Barack Obama in January 2010.

Like Nabil, he had been living in Jalalabad prior to his capture, and had traveled to Afghanistan via France and London. As I explained in a short profile of him three years ago, the only allegation against him in the publicly available documents at the time was that he had been accused of “receiving small arms training” near Jalalabad, something that was unexceptional in Afghanistan. The classified military file released by WikiLeaks in April 2011 failed to provide any serious allegations against him, and what is perhaps most pertinent is a section explaining how a man he met in France “told [him] about Afghanistan, how well people lived there, and a visa was not needed for travel,” implying that, like many others who found life in Europe difficult, he was sold Afghanistan as a dream destination.

Speaking to the Miami Herald, his attorney, Buz Eisenberg, said of his client, “His No. 1 priority was getting out of Guantánamo,” adding that “he was perfectly happy going home to Algeria.” He also said, as the Miami Herald described it, that he “was a hunger striker who avoided tube feedings by occasionally eating bread, fruit and yogurt and drinking a can of Ensure,” and that he is “a single man who prior to his capture had worked as a trained chef in Syria and France.”

In a statement, Eisenberg called Sayyab “a poster boy for all that is wrong about Guantánamo Bay,” and an “unwitting and undeserving victim of a misguided response to terrorism.” He described him as “innocent of any conduct remotely related to terror, and in fact abhors and deplores such conduct,” adding, “He has nevertheless been beaten, forced to live in isolation, and stripped of his inalienable right to freedom.”

He also said the United States should pay his client compensation for the lost “11½ years of his young life” and to help him “readjust to life as a free Algerian citizen.”

It remains to be seen how Nabil and Mutia will be treated in Algeria, as it is customary for prisoners to be held incommunicado for 12 days by the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), as permitted under Algerian law. Of the eleven Algerians previously released from Guantánamo, a pattern is discernible — the majority of the men have put forward for trials, but have not been convicted, a long-winded and no doubt deeply stressful experience, but one that does not involve a new prison sentence. However, in the case of Abdul Aziz Naji, returned in July 2010, this did not happen, and in January 2012 Naji, an amputee, received a three-year sentence after a profoundly unfair trial.

At the time, I wrote an article entitled, “Why Algeria Is Not A Safe Country for the Repatriation of Guantánamo Prisoners,” and although it is clear that both Nabil and Mutia returned voluntarily, it is understandable why the remaining cleared Algerian prisoners — Ahmed Belbacha and Djamel Ameziane — do not want to be repatriated. Both fear persecution, and Belbacha, who lived and worked in the UK prior to his own ill-advised trip to Afghanistan, has particular reason to be fearful, as, in November 2009, he received a 20-year sentence in absentia, based, it seems, solely on his well-publicized unwillingness to be returned to the country of his birth.

Like the other 82 cleared prisoners who are still held, these men need to be freed as soon as possible, and if Cliff Sloan, President Obama’s recently appointed envoy for Guantánamo, cannot find a third country to take them, then they must be given new homes in the US. Further delays in releasing all 84 of the cleared prisoners — two-thirds of whom are Yemenis — are completely unacceptable.

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, “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.

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the 71 prisoners released from February 2009 to September 2012, 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 (herehere 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 (herehere 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 Somalis4 Afghans6 Yemenis; January 2010 — 2 Algerians, 1 Uzbek to Switzerland1 Egyptian1 Azerbaijani and 1 Tunisian to Slovakia; February 2010 — 1 Egyptian, 1 Libyan, 1 Tunisian to Albania1 Palestinian to Spain; March 2010 — 1 Libyan, 2 unidentified prisoners to Georgia, 2 Uighurs to Switzerland; May 2010 — 1 Syrian to Bulgaria, 1 Yemeni to Spain; July 2010 — 1 Yemeni (Mohammed Hassan Odaini); July 2010 — 1 Algerian1 Syrian to Cape Verde, 1 Uzbek to Latvia, 1 unidentified Afghan to Spain; September 2010 — 1 Palestinian, 1 Syrian to Germany; January 2011 – 1 Algerian; April 2012 — 2 Uighurs to El Salvador; July 2012 — 1 Sudanese; September 2012 — 1 Canadian (Omar Khadr) to ongoing imprisonment in Canada.

8 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Sharing this, Andy.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, George. Good to hear from you.

  3. Thomas says...

    So is Nabil free now?

  4. Suze says...

    Hi Andy hope u r refreshed from ur hols and ready to take on the world again… Please tell me where the media coverage of this was? Rt? Presstv.ir? Wouldn’t u think it wld be all over the media? Particularly us mainstream promoting Obama holding on to his words and releasing…..oh wow 2 of the 166, 2 too little…

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi, Thomas. He’s under “judicial control,” a type of “supervised parole,” as the Associated Press described it in a news release just published. See here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/algeria-puts-ex-guantanamo-prisoners-under-supervised-parole/2013/09/06/789950a6-170a-11e3-961c-f22d3aaf19ab_story.html
    The typical pattern has been for returned prisoners to be held by the security services for up to 12 days and then released, and then, around a year later, for a trial to take place, ending, in most cases, in acquittal.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    It was covered, Suze, but only in the way that the mainstream media cover so many stories – a quick announcement, a short mention, as part of the padding around whatever the big “breaking” story is, and then we all move on and forget about it. 24-hour rolling news is like life in a hamster wheel, or going round and round in the goldfish bowl. It’s why I stopped watching it.

  7. freedetainees.org – Clive Stafford Smith’s Support For Independent Medical Evaluation For Shaker Aamer In Guantánamo says...

    […] president promised to resume releasing cleared prisoners. Since then, just two cleared prisoners have been released, which is a major disappointment, of course, but those of us campaigning for the cleared prisoners […]

  8. Singer Esperanza Spalding against Guantánamo torture prison | Dear Kitty. Some blog says...

    […] an Algerian national, who, Grisham discovered, had been prevented from reading his books. Nabil was freed soon after, although sadly the decision by the British singer-songwriter P.J. Harvey to record a song about […]

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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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