Why Algeria Is Not A Safe Country For Repatriation Of Guantánamo Prisoners – OpEd

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Since July 2008, when the first Algerian prisoners were repatriated from Guantánamo, the position taken by the US government — first under George W. Bush, and, for the last three years, under Barack Obama — has been that Algeria is a safe country for the repatriation of prisoners cleared for release.

Lawyers and NGOs aware of Algeria’s poor human rights record disagreed, as did some of the Algerian prisoners themselves, to the extent that the last two Algerians sent home — Abdul Aziz Naji in July 2010 and Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed in January 2011 — had actively resisted being sent home, and had taken their cases all the way to the US Supreme Court, which had paved the way for their enforced return by refusing to accept their appeals.

In assessing whether or not it was safe for Algerians to be repatriated from Guantánamo, the US government was required to weigh Algeria’s established reputation for using torture against the “diplomatic assurances” agreed between Washington and Algiers, whereby, as an Obama administration official told the Washington Post at the time of Naji’s repatriation, the Algerian government had promised that prisoners returned from Guantánamo “would not be mistreated.” The US official added, “We take some care in evaluating countries for repatriation. In the case of Algeria, there is an established track record and we have given that a lot of weight. The Algerians have handled this pretty well: You don’t have recidivism and you don’t have torture.”

According to research I undertook after Abdul Aziz Naji’s enforced repatriation, by speaking to the men’s attorneys, the US government was able to justify its claims because there had been no recorded incidents of torture amongst the ten Algerians previously released from Guantánamo. Although they were held incommunicado for 12 days by the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), as permitted under Algerian law, none of them reported being physically abused. In addition, although they all faced dubious trials after their return — generally about 15 months after their repatriation — and although they also suffered prejudice because of the perceived “taint” of Guantánamo, they had not been convicted on trumped-up charges, and had been released after their trials.

I cannot guarantee that I was able to ascertain the exact details of what happened to each of the ten men, but until two weeks ago the most troubling information from Algeria relating to the Guantánamo prisoners appeared to be the 20-year sentence delivered in absentia against Ahmed Belbacha, one of the four Algerians cleared for release but still held, on trumped-up charges of “membership of a terrorist group active overseas.” As far as his lawyers can ascertain, this sentence only came about because Belbacha had been vocal in his opposition to being repatriated, based on his fears about the government, and about the Islamists who had prompted him to flee the country in the first place when they threatened him while he was working for a government-owned oil company.

On January 16, however, any comfort to be gleaned from the Algerian government’s refusal to imprison those returned from Guantánamo for the other Algerians who do not wish to be repatriated — and who, by my reckoning, are Nabil Hadjarab (PDF), Motai Saib and Djamel Ameziane (PDF), who were all cleared for release by military review boards under the Bush administration — dissipated when, as AFP reported, Abdul Aziz Naji received a three-year sentence “for membership of an extremist group active overseas.”

As AFP explained, “The prosecution had sought a 10-year prison sentence and a 5,000-euro ($6,330) fine” for Naji (described as Nadji Abdelaziz). Following the ruling, Naji’s lawyer, Hassiba Boumerdassi, said she would appeal, describing it as “an unprecedented ruling” in Algeria, although AFP pointed out that there was a precedent — the in absentia sentence against Ahmed Belbacha, and those who have studied what happened when Algerians were repatriated from the UK with “assurances” a few years ago are even less convinced. As a friend with close knowledge of the Algerians’ cases explained to me, one of them “was given the same sentence with the same accusation in 2007 when he returned home and another is still serving an 8 year sentence on his return.” She added, “Yet the Home Office claims that Algeria is now a country where it is safe to return the Algerian detainees here despite some of them still bearing the torture marks of Algeria’s torture chambers,” and the echoes with the US government’s view of the “safety” of Algeria are surely not coincidental.

Neverthless, this was the first sentence delivered in person against a former Guantánamo prisoner, and, as the legal action charity Reprieve noted in a follow-up report, Naji, an amputee “who is suffering from serious health complications due to the amputation of his leg,” has had his worst fears confirmed with his conviction. As Reprieve also noted, the charge against him “derived from the unsubstantiated accusations the US administration made against him in 2002.”

In an appeal, the NGO Cageprisoners also noted that, although Naji “returned to his family and tried start a new life,” he “was deprived of any identity documents and suffered from depression, anxiety and other symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder due to his treatment in American custody.” Cageprisoners also explained that he was under “judicial supervision” and “had to sign a register every week at the local police station,” and also explianed that on the day of his trial he had been arrested without warning and taken to the court.

Reprieve added that, during his trial, “the prosecutor presented no evidence of Mr. Naji’s guilt — rather, the judge simply questioned him and produced a guilty verdict,” and also noted that he “is being held in the notorious El Harache prison in Algiers, where violent abuse of prisoners has been reported by Amnesty International.”

Reprieve also stated:

His family is deeply concerned about his rapidly deteriorating health, and his lawyer reports that his condition has become critical and is worsening by the day. He has not had access to adequate medical treatment while in prison.

Mustafa Bouchachi, the president of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, visited Mr. Naji in prison on Wednesday and attested to Mr. Naji’s critical health condition. He reports that Mr. Naji is on hunger strike as “the only way that he has to protest his unjust treatment — first by the US authorities in Guantánamo and now in his own country.” Mr Naji further explained that his imprisonment in Algeria is bringing back to him his horrible and unjustified years in Guantánamo.

Katie Taylor, of Reprieve’s “Life After Guantánamo” project, added, “It is outrageous that Mr. Naji is being punished again for the same discredited accusations that the US used to hold him in Guantánamo for eight years without charge or trial — this time in his own country. Algerian authorities must restore his right to a fair trial and overturn his conviction on faulty charges for which the prosecutor did not even bother to introduce evidence.”

As Reprieve also noted, Abdul Aziz Naji is represented in the US by Ellen Lubell and Doris Tennant, who prepared the following profile with the Center for Constitutional Rights:

Mr. Naji was born in Batna, Algeria in 1975. After sixth grade, he began work in his father’s blacksmith shop and later completed his required military service in the Algerian Army. After his service, Mr. Naji, like many young Muslims, travelled to Mecca on pilgrimage and then, during early 2001, worked briefly with a reputable Pakistani charity, providing humanitarian assistance to needy Muslims and Christians in Kashmir. Offering to volunteer his services was important to his religious beliefs. While carrying food and clothing to poor villages one night with a group of other volunteers, Mr. Naji stepped on a landmine (one of many unexploded ordnance that lace the region) and sustained a serious injury, resulting in the loss of his lower right leg. He was taken to a hospital in Lahore, Pakistan where he was treated for several months and fit with a prosthetic leg. He spent many months after that in rehabilitation, living with a few generous families in the city who offered to board him.

An amputee with few resources and in need of the most basic assistance, Mr. Naji was directed by acquaintances to an Algerian in Peshawar to help find a wife. While visiting this man in May 2002, he and his host were arrested during a raid of the man’s house by Pakistani police, one of the many house raids in the area. The reason for the arrests was never explained. In fact, the Pakistanis told Mr. Naji that they would release him. But instead, he was taken by Americans stationed in Peshawar and transferred first to Bagram and then to Guantánamo where he was held for eight years without charge or trial before being forcibly repatriated to Algeria.

Note: In the hope of securing clemency from the Algerian government, Cageprisoners has drafted the following message to the Algerian Minister of Justice:

Monsieur le Ministre,

A la suite d’informations reçues de l’organisation britanique de défense des droits de l’Homme CagePrisoners, je vous exprime ma vive préoccupation concernant l’affaire d’Abdel Aziz Naji arrété le 16 janvier 2012 et condamné le jour même à trois ans de prison, accusé d’appartenir à un groupe terroriste opérant à l’étranger. Il apparaît que cette condamnation n’a pas été prononcée dans des conditions compatibles avec celle d’un procès équitable.

Alors que l’Egypte a mis fin à la détention injuste d’Adel Al-Gazzar, alors que des anciens détenus tunisiens de Guantanmo ont pu regagner leur pays d’origine en toute sécurité et alors que les nouvelles autorités tunisiennes se sont engagées à tout faire pour obtenir la libération de ses cinq citoyens toujours détenus sur l’île cubaine, l’Algérie incarcère un homme qui a déjà passé 8 ans à Guantanamo sans procès, et ce sur la base de vagues accusations et, semble t-il, de manière expéditive.

Je vous demande donc la libération immédiate d’Abdel Aziz Naji.

Je vous prie de recevoir l’expression de mes salutations distinguées.

The message can be sent by email, or by post to: M. Tayeb Belaiz, Ministère de la Justice, 8 Place Bir Hakem, El-Biar, Alger. The phone number is (213) 021-92-41-83 and the fax number is (213) 021-92-17-01.

Andy Worthington

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 his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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