So many of the stories relating to Guantánamo are bleak that I thought it was worth mentioning a recent interview with Lakhdar Boumediene, who was released from Guantánamo two weeks ago after seven years and four months of pointless and brutal imprisonment.
I first reported the story of Boumediene and his five compatriots — Algerians who had settled in Bosnia in the 1990s, and who were kidnapped by US agents in January 2002, in connection with a non-existent plot to bomb the US embassy in Sarajevo, and flown to Guantánamo — in my book The Guantánamo Files. I also covered the Supreme Court case which bore Boumediene’s name — and which allowed the Guantánamo prisoners to challenge the basis of their detention in the US courts — last June, and followed up by reporting on the six men’s habeas corpus review last November, which led to the judge ordering the release of five of the men, including Boumediene, because the government had failed to establish a case against them.
I then watched, disheartened, as Boumediene and another of the cleared men, Sabir Lahmar, were left behind in Guantánamo when the other three men were released in December, because they did not have Bosnian citizenship, and because they had established that it was not safe for them to return to Algeria. And finally, two weeks ago, I was relieved when Boumediene was finally released in France, after the government of Nicolas Sarkozy offered to take him (and his family, who had returned to Algeria after he was seized) as a gesture of goodwill towards the Obama administration — and because he has relatives in France — although I still find it disturbing that Lahmar, and other prisoners cleared after their habeas reviews (including the Uighurs and a former child prisoner, Mohammed El-Gharani) are still held.
The opening lines of an article based on the first interview with Boumediene, published in both the Washington Post and Le Monde, were particularly moving:
When the nightmare finally ended — seven years at Guantánamo Bay, two years of force-feeding through a tube in his right nostril, the long struggle to proclaim his innocence before a judge, and finally 10 days of hospitalization — Lakhdar Boumediene celebrated with pizza for lunch in a little Paris dive.
“When we were at the restaurant,” Boumediene said Monday, shortly after the meal that marked his release from doctors’ care and reentry into normal society, “I told my wife that for the first time I felt like a man again, tasting things, picking things up in my fingers, eating lunch with my wife and my two daughters.”
Boumediene proceeded to explain that his imprisonment had been “an ugly mistake” on the part of the US authorities, based primarily on his limited association with Belkacem Bensayah, the only one of the six men who did not have his habeas petition granted last November. Although the Washington Post prefaced his account — rather unnecessarily, I thought — with the caveat that his “version of events is impossible to verify independently,” the former aid worker with the Red Crescent explained that he “did not know Bensayah well,” but had helped him out, as a fellow Algerian, when he came to his office “seeking help for his family.” He added that, after Bensayah was arrested, he provided his wife with money for a lawyer, and concluded that, as a result of these connections, the US authorities had linked him to terrorist activities in Bosnia. These appear to have been based solely on Bensayah’s purported relationship with Abu Zubaydah, the supposed senior al-Qaeda operative, who was, in fact, the gatekeeper for an independent training camp, Khaldan, which was closed down by the Taliban in 2000 after its emir, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (who recently died in a Libyan jail), refused to work with al-Qaeda.
Boumediene also explained that a visit he had made to Pakistan in the early 1990s had “aroused the suspicions of US investigators,” even though he had had nothing to do with any kind of military activity or training while there, and had, instead, been “a proctor at a Kuwaiti-financed school for Afghan orphans,” and added that, because he had his passport renewed at the Algerian Embassy in Islamabad during his stay, and because numerous Algerian mujahideen had also renewed their passports, he was probably marked by the Algerian security services as a potential extremist.
This, he said, was confirmed when he traveled to Algeria in December 1999 to visit his family, but was “stopped at the airport and told he was on a list of people wanted for questioning.” Although he denied any connection to Algerian extremists, he had his passport confiscated. In an attempt to retrieve it, he made what he regarded as a mistake that also counted against him when he ended up in US custody, securing its return by registering for an amnesty that was being offered by President Bouteflika to his Islamist opponents. “That,” as the Post explained, “solved his problem in Algeria. But a document listing him as a beneficiary of the amnesty was found in his home after his arrest in Bosnia and, Boumediene speculated, served to reinforce US suspicions about his ties to al-Qaeda.”
Moving on to describe his time in Guantánamo, Boumediene said that he was interrogated more than 120 times, and confirmed what he and his compatriots had maintained throughout their time in Guantánamo, whenever their accounts were made available to the public: that the interrogations focused not on the long-discredited embassy plot, but on mining the prisoners for intelligence about Arabs and other foreign Muslims in Bosnia. “At first I thought they were honest,” Boumediene said, “and when I explained they would see I was innocent and would release me. But after the first two years or so, I realized they were not straight. So I stopped cooperating.”
Boumediene also recalled that, during one 16-day period in February 2003, “the interrogations went on day and night, sometimes with tactics such as lifting him roughly from the chair where he was strapped, so the shackles dug into his flesh.” He added that the interrogators, “some dressed in military uniforms and others in civilian clothes, were assisted by Arabic interpreters who seemed mostly to be from Egypt and Lebanon … and later included a few Moroccans and Iraqis.” The activities of the interpreters prompted what the Post described as Boumediene’s “only show of anger.” “They were dogs,” he said. “They often started doing the interrogations themselves. They would tell the interrogators they could get more information.”
Boumediene also explained that, at Christmas in 2006, he began a hunger strike, which lasted until his release, “in an effort to get someone to listen to his pleas of innocence,” and was force-fed twice a day through a tube inserted through his nose and into his stomach, a horribly painful experience that it is difficult to imagine enduring for nearly two and a half years. He added that he only broke his fast on two occasions: “once when he learned of President Obama’s election and again when the judge ordered his release.”
As the interview wound up, he said, “I have no idea why this happened to me. I’m a Muslim like any other. I pray and I observe Ramadan. But I don’t have any hatred against anybody.” He added that he was grateful to the French government for its assistance in rehousing him, and pointed out that his first priority was “to draw close to his family again,” but he pledged that, at some point in the future, he wants to sue the senior US officials who were responsible for the loss of over seven years of his life. “I don’t know whether it will be possible,” he said. “But even if it takes 100 years, I am determined to bring suit.”
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 see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk.
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