Update on Senegal’s Dire Determination to Send Back to Libya Two Former Guantánamo Prisoners Granted Humanitarian Asylum in 2016


Omar Khalifa Mohammed Abu Bakr (aka Omar Mohammed Khalifh) and Salem Gherebi (aka Ghereby), Libyans resettled in Senegal in April 2016, who are now threatened with being sent back to Libya, which is not safe for them. The photos are from the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011.Please support my work as a reader-funded journalist! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.


Last week, I published an article, Betrayal: Senegal Prepares to Send Two Former Guantánamo Prisoners Back to Libya, Where They Face Imprisonment, Torture and Even Execution, looking at the terrible news that two Libyan nationals were being threatened with deportation to Libya. The two men, Omar Khalifa Mohammed Abu Bakr (aka Omar Mohammed Khalifh) and Salem Gherebi (aka Ghereby), were given humanitarian asylum in Senegal two years ago, on the understanding, agreed with the US State Department, that it was permanent, and that they would not, under any circumstances, be returned to Libya, where the security situation was so fraught that it was not possible to guarantee their safety as former Guantánamo prisoners tainted, unfairly, with the stamp of terrorism.

When I published my article, the Senegalese government’s threat was to send the two men back to Libya on April 3, and there were hopes that criticism might stop the plans from going ahead. However, on April 4, the Guantánamo Justice Centre, set up by former prisoners, posted the following update: “Regarding the situation of Omar and Salem previously given refuge in Senegal, we regret to report that eye witnesses have said one of the Guantánamo survivors was transferred today to Tripoli Mitiga Airport.”

On April 5, the New York Times picked up the story. On the ground in Senegal, Dionne Searcey confirmed that Khalifa had “disappeared from his once-guarded apartment in Dakar that now appears abandoned.” The Times added that the Senegalese government had said that Khalifa, identified as Awad Khalifa, “was not being deported.” However, neighbors said Khalifa and Salem Ghereby “were taken away on Tuesday afternoon.” The Times also explained that, hours earlier, “they had told a New York Times reporter visiting the apartment” — Dionne Searcey, presumably — “that they had received handwritten notices that they would be sent to Libya.”

“In Libya, I will have no life, and there’s no security there,” Khalifa had said, adding that, when he told friends that he was being repatriated, “They told me I’m going to my death.”

The Times also explained that Salem Ghereby, “who said he had family in Libya and connections protecting him there, apparently consented to repatriation,” and had “contacted the international human rights organization Reprieve on Thursday from an airport in Tunisia saying he was en route to Libya.” However, “No one had been in touch with him since, and neither the Senegalese nor the American government would disclose the whereabouts of either man.”

Former Guantánamo prisoner Omar Deghayes, who I got to know after his release in 2007, when he appeared in the documentary film about Guantánamo that I co-directed, and went on a UK screening tour with me, told me by email that sources in Libya told him that Ghereby was locked up by a militia force who he and others feared would imprison him. “One insider friend told us they took him to Tripoli Mitiga Airport,” Deghayes told me, adding that for three days his family had not been told where he was, even though two of his children, 16 and 18 years of age, had asked about his whereabouts. Deghayes added that he had spoken to his brother, who said  he had “no idea where to find him.” He also said that the militia holding him were running a notorious prison at the airport, where some people had died, and others, who had survived their imprisonment, sought to bring a case against their captors for the use of torture. 

Deghayes also indicated that, to the best of his knowledge, Omar Khalifa had not been repatriated, but was “locked up in Senegal” and “very likely to be forcibly deported.” He added that the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross) “said that they will search for him and are concerned about him.” He described the situation as “bleak and worrying,” but that “our hopes and thoughts are for them and their families.”

The New York Times article noted that the “murky fate” of the two former prisoners “put a spotlight on the Trump administration’s decision to shutter the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, which monitored resettled detainees and handled diplomatic issues that arose as they embarked on life after detention, seeking to reduce the risk of recidivism.”

Daniel Fried, a former ambassador who was the special envoy during President Obama’s first term in office, said, “We understood that we had an obligation to follow up with the receiving government on the detainees. It sounds great to abolish the office — ‘we are not closing Gitmo, therefore we don’t need a Gitmo closure office, ha-ha, look how clever we are’ — but what you in fact are doing is losing the ability to follow up on these people, which is essential to security.”

The Times also noted that several former officials involved in policies relating to Guantánamo prisoners said the US government “should have worked to prevent the movement of any former detainees to Libya because it is a chaotic country with a weak central government and active Islamist militias.” As the Times added, “International law also prevents forcibly sending people to a place where they have a credible fear of abuse.”

The State Department told the Times that it “continues to appropriately address issues that were previously tasked to the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure,” adding that it had “reiterated to the government of Senegal our expectation that it will uphold its international obligations” to the two men, but these came across as empty words, because, for specific details, the Times was referred to the Senegalese government.

Lee S. Wolosky, the special envoy in Obama’s second term, who “negotiated the 2016 deal to resettle the two men in Senegal,” told the Times on Thursday that he “had been told by a Senegalese diplomatic official that Mr. Ghereby had left the country but that Mr. Khalifa was not being forcibly deported, though he had been relocated within Senegal.”

It is difficult to know if there is any truth to the relocation story. As the Times noted, “Mr. Khalifa’s cellphone has been turned off since Tuesday, and his lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, said he was worried that the Senegalese government had taken his client into custody and may still intend to follow through on its threat to deport him.”

Kassem said, “Sending Mr. Khalifa to Libya would not only break the promise of safe asylum that both the United States and Senegal made to my client when he was at Guantánamo, but it would also violate the Convention Against Torture. Both Senegal and the United States would be responsible for any harm that would come to my client in Libya.”

Turning to the arrangements for the men’s resettlement in Senegal two years ago, the Times noted that “[r]esettlement agreements typically included a promise by the receiving country not to let former detainees travel abroad for two years,” but that Khalifa, according to Ramzi Kassem, “understood that the resettlement offer was for permanent residency.” The Times added, however, that “officials familiar with such agreements said they are ambiguous about longer-term prospects.”

The Times also explained that, after the men first received notification of the Senegalese government’s intention to deport them, and Ramzi Kassem began to publicize their plight, a phone call from Lee Wolosky to a diplomat “may have helped stop an attempt to deport Mr. Khalifa for now.” He “said his inquiry appeared to bring to the attention of high-level Senegalese officials that mid-level civil servants were trying to send both men to Libya.” Last Sunday, as a result, Omar Baldé, an official with the Senegalese ministry of communications, “said Mr. Khalifa was not going to be deported.”

Nevertheless, when the Times reporter met Khalifa and Ghereby on Tuesday, at Khalifa’s apartment, “both men said they had not been told the deportation was off.” This was when Ghereby was still expressing confidence that “his family ties would probably protect him from violent militias in Libya,” Khalifa, on the other hand, “said he had no such connections and feared for his life.” He also explained that “he was engaged to a Senegalese woman.”

The Times also noted that it was “unclear why Senegalese officials wanted to deport the men,” but suggested it may have been because they “had many complaints about their life in Senegal.” As the Times added, they had repeatedly visited the US Embassy “to air grievances,” including “a desire for larger meals,” and identification papers, “which they had been promised,” and which “would allow them greater flexibility for travel.” Ramzi Kassem also noted that “Khalifa’s requests to the Senegalese authorities for glasses and a better-fitting prosthetic leg took months to be fulfilled,” while Ghereby “said that his wife and children from Libya had not been permitted to stay with him in Senegal.”

Lee Wolosky stressed that “officials in the Obama administration centralized the monitoring of former detainees in a high-level State Department office to prioritize problem-solving and reduce the risk that something would go wrong,” adding that, “By closing his former office and foisting that responsibility on to junior embassy officials around the world, the Trump administration is effectively washing the United States’ hands of the matter.”

As he concluded, “The office should have stayed open. Any catastrophic failures that happen from this point forward are the sole responsibility of the Trump administration.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in 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), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from six years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of a new documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London.

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 six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions 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.

25 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s an important update on the two former Guantanamo prisoners resettled in Senegal two years ago, who understood that, with US support, they had been granted permanent humanitarian asylum, and would not be sent back to Libya, where there lives were in danger. Last week, however, the Senegalese government suddenly announced its intention to send them back to Libya.
    Via the New York Times, and with additional information from former prisoner Omar Deghayes, it now seems that Salem Gherebi, who wanted to return, was returned, but has now disappeared into the custody of a hostile militia force, while Omar Khalifh, who was desperate not to return, is no longer at his home in Senegal, but does not appear to have been sent to Libya – or not yet, at least. This is a troubling story, and one that reflects badly not only on Senegal, but also on Donald Trump, who shut down the office of Guantanamo envoy in the State Department, which dealt with resettling and monitoring former prisoners.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:


  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, both disappeared, currently, Natalia – Salem in Libya, Omar in Senegal. And the State Department? Silent. There’s no one there who actually has a mandate to deal with Guantanamo anymore. What a mess – and at least one man’s life at risk as a result.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia R Scott wrote:

    Andy, but how? Why would they have disappeared them? And I’m saying this coming from a country that disappears people.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I don’t know, Natalia. Salem’s decision to return to Libya seems unwise, but it seems to me that he just wanted to be with his family. As for Omar, I cant figure out what Senegal is up to. Are they perhaps not sending him back to Libya, but they moved him to prevent him speaking to anyone?
    Above all, though, it’s obvious that an actual State Department presence would almost certainly have made a significant difference.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    This is really sad, Andy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Unfortunately, yes, Toia.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    Thanks for the update Andy

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Ann, but it’s not a very pleasant update. I just asked Omar Deghayes if he had any further information, as I received this information from him on Friday, but he hasn’t heard anything.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Toia Tutta Jung wrote:

    The indifference that’s shown to these men is what we must not accept.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, Toia. It’s one of the many, many, many reasons that Trump must go. Across government, he’s crippling and disabling government departments because he has no interest in them, and yet there are repercussions.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Lindis Percy wrote:

    Thank you Andy for posting this troubling news.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Lindis. I just wish it wasn’t so troubling.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    So much for Obama’s transferring to “safe, friendly allies”

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    There was always something distasteful about the way the US bribed third countries to take in prisoners who couldn’t be returned home safely, wasn’t there, Jan? But at least Obama created an envoy for Guantanamo closure. Trump shutting that office down is so typical of his contempt for a functioning government.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Aleksey Penskiy wrote:

    Alarming news, Andy, keep us informed.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Jessy Mumpo wrote:

    Thanks for update, never ending nightmare for these poor guys

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Sadly, yes, Jessy. Good to hear from you.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Kai Sanburn wrote:

    It’s a long, ongoing horror – and infinitely sad, when I take the moment to recognize the cost to the real lives held in the balance. I am so sorry for these men and their families – wherever they may be.
    For Obama’s many failings, we could not anticipate what it would mean to have Trump in office, where contempt and spite have become the operating principles. Naked and cruel.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for your comments, Kai. Yes, government seems half-broken (at least) under Trump, who seems to have contempt for the very machinery of the state, and personally, of course, he’s disgracefully poisonous and unpleasant – racist, sexist and a bent businessman.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Ann Alexander wrote:

    I know it is very worrying. Fortunately we have Omar who perhaps will be able to track this poor man. I’m aware of this prison at the airport. One of their captives shared really distressing photos with me of the time he was held there. No point trying to appeal to the militia I assume.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m sure whatever can be done is being done by Libyans like Omar, Ann, but I imagine it’s extremely difficult dealing with the situation on the ground in Libya – hence the reason the men were supposed to have been guaranteed safety in Senegal. While I’m furious at how Trump is so clearly withering the office of the State Department, I’m at a loss to understand what the Senegalese government’s motives were. I’m also tempted to wonder if they thought that abusing these two men would endear them to the abuser-in-chief in the White House with his well-chronicled racist tendencies.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Anne McClintock wrote:

    Exactly as they feared. Such a silence in the US about this.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Apart from Charlie Savage, that is, Anne. But elsewhere in the desert of the US mainstream media, absolutely.

  25. Pat B. says...

    Andy, thank you for all that you do. Please read the following:

    1) archive.is/99tFS
    2) archive.is/eowFZ

    To access the torture documents above, please copy and paste the string as is without preceding it with ‘http:…” on the URL field. Then, please share them with as many living humans as possible. With all outlets to legal recourse blocked for unwitting interrogation torture victims, it is all I can do to expose this and hope that someone with a conscience somewhere, will do their part to end this.

    Thank you.
    Pat B.

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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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