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. As Dale 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.

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9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read more of Tariq al-Sawah’s story after my initial article last week. I hope to be able to highlight more stories of individual prisoners in the months to come. That earlier article is here:

  2. Thomas says...

    He’s no danger to anyone and so ill that he could pass an ATOS test. Why bother to keep him?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    A very good question, Thomas. His case ought to be similar to that of Ibrahim Idris, the Sudanese prisoner who is severely mentally ill, but al-Sawah was recommended for a trial by Obama’s Guantanamo Review Task Force, even though he had apparently been a very helpful informant. For that alone he should have been freed, but as he’s also so physically ill that he wouldn’t be able to harm the US even if he wanted to, and has been regularly described as not posing a threat by those in charge of Guantanamo, the logic for his ongoing imprisonment vanishes. However, justice and fairness no longer play a part in the ongoing detention of the majority of the Guantanamo prisoners, a fact that ought to be a source of shame for the Obama administration, Congress and those parts of the judiciary that have also been involved in authorizing the ongoing detention of men who don’t actually pose any sort of threat. I remain deeply saddened that such a thorough disgrace fails to attract commensurate outrage in the US media.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Jamila Sani Yaro wrote:

    Oh so sad

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Jamila. Yes, very sad.

  6. Mark Erickson says...

    Good info and a big thanks to Tom Dale for his original reporting. I’m curious as to what info al-Sawah could provide. I can’t imagine Bosnian links from the 1990’s or a one year stint with the Taliban would make him particularly valuable. It could be the explosives knowledge made him stand out, but more likely his small intelligence value towered over the zero value of almost all prisoners before 2006. From the info here, it seems he was mostly used as a prop for government visitors. I’ll have to read the original articles.

    The larger question is besides Slahi and al-Qatani, who else at Gitmo knew anything about al-Qaeda before the arrival of the high value prisoners?

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Mark. It was supposedly his stint as an explosives trainer that attracted attention to him – although what was more important was how he was fed up with it all and was willing to talk. How much did he know? Not too much, I suspect. No one who came to train used their real names, and I wonder how many – if any – genuinely engaged would-be terrorists he encountered. On the other hand, his willingness to talk was invaluable at Guantanamo, where the authorities knew so little about so many of the men they were holding, and – realistically, objectively – had no reason to believe that the vast majority of them were anything more than foot soldiers in the Afghan civil war.
    That said, two questions remain: if he was so useful, why is there little evidence of him in the Detainee Assessment Briefs, the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011, and why, as with Slahi, was it not suggested at a high level that he should be freed, to encourage more informants in future? On one level, I understand that there is a vindictiveness at Guantanamo that is counter-productive (in fact, the whole place could be described as vindictively counter-productive), but perhaps Slahi and al-Sawah, though touted as major informants, ultimately delivered little of consequence. Slahi, after all, was a nobody, despite his tangential connections to terrorism, and al-Sawah may not have known much after all.
    As for your larger question, the answer is that, before the arrival of ten prisoners from “black sites” in September 2004 (most of whom are now on the list for the PRBs), the 14 “high-value detainees” who arrived in September 2006 (some of whom are also on the list), and the 2 HVDs who arrived after (both on the list, although Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi has been charged), US intelligence analysts put the number of mid-level al-Qaeda operatives at a few dozen – and I believe that was a generous assessment!

  8. Mark Erickson says...

    Thanks. Very generous I’d say. Less than 10 from what I can tell. Out of 760 or so non-HVD. So less than 2% had anything to do with AQ. What is stunning to me is that this just wasn’t a policy declared from on high, not involving very many people carrying it out, and so physically removed from the situation like drones, but at least thousands and close to tens of thousands, mostly military, were needed to make it happen. From the battlefield to the Afghan prisons to transportation to Gitmo guards. I’ve heard of a few Gitmo guards who questioned the hate they were programmed to feel for the prisoners. But for most it came quite naturally. Think of all the Captains, Majors and Lt. Colonels who should have known better. How could they all have failed so miserably?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Great question, Mark, and not one that I recall having heard before. When you look at it that way, it really is extraordinary that so many thousands of people in the US military obeyed the new post 9/11 paradigm initiated by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld and their lawyers – no rules, no Geneva Conventions, everyday torture.
    I just updated my definitive Guantanamo prisoner list, in which I suggested that my previous estimate of the percentage of innocents and foot soldiers at Guantanamo – 93 percent – was probably a little low, so I’ve revised it to somewhere between 95 and 97 percent, which I believe is more accurate.

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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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