Guantánamo: A Tale of Two Tunisians

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Two weeks ago, in light of the uprising in Tunisia that brought to an end the 23-year reign of terror of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, I wrote an article about the twelve Tunisians held in Guantánamo throughout the prison’s nine-year history — the two men transferred to Tunisia in June 2007, who were subsequently imprisoned after show trials, the two men transferred to Italian custody in December 2009 to face terrorism-related charges, the three men freed in third countries in 2010, and the five still held in Guantánamo — and wondered what would happen to them in light of the startling developments in their homeland, which they had all fled many years before their capture in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and their subseqent rendition to Guantánamo.

In the last week, there have been two significant developments. In the first, former Guantánamo prisoner Abdallah Hajji (also identified as Abdullah bin Amor), who is 55 years old, was freed from prison in Tunisia “as part of a promise by the interim government to free all political prisoners.” A former member of the previously banned Islamist political party Ennahdha, whose leader, Rachid Ghanouchi, returned from exile in France just two days earlier, Hajji, who was seized in April 2002 in Pakistan, where he had been living with his wife and children since fleeing Tunisia in 1989, had, in 1995, been sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison, on terrorism-related charges that his lawyer was convinced had been extracted through the torture and abuse of other prisoners in Tunisian custody. When Hajji was forcibly returned to Tunisia in June 2007, he was abused and threatened in custody, and then subjected to a show trial in which he received a seven-year sentence. His release therefore overturns this sentence, and confirms that he was being held as a political prisoner.

In the press report announcing Hajji’s release, it was also noted that the other man repatriated from Guantánamo with him, who was not named but is Lotfi Lagha, is also a free man, having been freed last June, three years after his return and a show trial in October 2007, in which he was given a three-year sentence.

While the freeing of a political prisoner formerly held in Guantánamo vindicates Abdallah Hajji, and must provide hope for many other Tunisian political prisoners, both inside Tunisia and elsewhere, the news from Italy, which coincided with the announcement about Hajji, was rather less encouraging. Mohammed Tahir Riyadh Nasseri, who was transferred from Guantánamo in December 2009 with another Tunisian, Adel Ben Mabrouk bin Hamida Boughanmi, was convicted on Monday of “criminal association with the aim of terrorism and sentenced to six years in prison.” His lawyer, Roberto Novellino, said he would appeal the verdict.

Nasseri may well be guilty of the charges against him, but what concerns me is that, on his transfer to Italy, it was made clear that Italian prosecutors were relying on a key witness, Lazhar Ben Mohamed Tlil, a terrorist suspect turned informant, who was apparently having second thoughts about his co-operation.

What also concerns me is the weakness of the evidence against Nasseri from Guantánamo which, essentially, boiled down to a single claim that he was “the head of the Tunisians in Afghanistan.” As I explained at the time of his transfer to Italy:

[This] may, of course, be true, but what makes it suspicious in the context of the intelligence-gathering at Guantánamo is that it comes from an allegation that he was “identified by a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant as having trained at the Khaldan camp and that he eventually took over as the Emir of the Tunisian Group in Afghanistan.”

References to “a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant” in proceedings at Guantánamo invariably refer to “high-value detainees,” who, at the time, were held in secret CIA prisons where they were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel; in other words, where they were tortured.

There is, of course, no indication as to who this particular “high-value detainee” was, but as the reference is to the Khaldan training camp, it seems likely that the allegation was made either by Abu Zubaydah (the gatekeeper of the camp, and the CIA’s most well-known torture victim, along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) or by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the CIA’s most famous “ghost prisoner.” Tortured in Egypt in 2002, al-Libi made a false confession about links between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Rendered to various other prisons run by or on behalf of the CIA in the four years that followed, he was returned to Libya in 2006, where he died in May [2009], reportedly by committing suicide.

As for the other Tunisians held — or formerly held — in Guantánamo, the signs, as anticipated, are that the three men released in third countries (because of their legitimate fears that, if returned, they would be abused, subjected to show trials and imprisoned like Abdallah Hajji and Lotfi Lagha), would now like to return home, although, as yet, there is no sign that any formal application to do so has been made — or, indeed, if their host countries, or the US, would object. These men are Rafiq al-Hami, who was released in Slovakia last January with two other men (from Egypt and Azerbaijan), Saleh Sassi, who was released in Albania in February last year (with an Egyptian and a Libyan), and Hedi Hammamy, who was released in Georgia last March (with two Libyans).

Of the five men still held in Guantánamo, I noted two weeks ago the likelihood that only one, Lotfi bin Ali (also identified as Mohammed Abdul Rahman) has been cleared for release by the Obama administration’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, which reviewed the cases of all the Guantánamo prisoners throughout 2009, and recommended that, of the 173 men still held, 89 should be released, 33 should face trials and 48 should continue to be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

I also noted that, since a judge intervened to prevent his involuntary repatriation in October 2007, “no new home has been found for bin Ali in the last three years and four months, although now, presumably, there is no obstacle to his release, which should be demanded immediately,” and I maintain that there should be immediate calls for his repatriation, as it is, presumably, no longer unsafe for him to return. On this point, however, it may be that the Obama administration, or Congress — which has unconstitutionally asserted that it has a right to review prisoner releases before they occur — may conclude that, although a US judge ruled that Tunisia under Ben Ali was an unsafe destination for the return of Tunisian prisoners, post-dictatorship Tunisia may not yet be regarded as a safe option on the basis of “national security” concerns. I sincerely hope that this is not the case, as it will only demonstrate, as wth Egypt, how much America loves its dictators, but I have to concede that it is not beyond the realms of possibility.

The other four men, however, remain in limbo. One, Ridah al-Yazidi, was cleared for relase under the Bush administration, although it is unclear if Obama’s Task Force reached a similar conclusion, and the other three apparently face extradition to other countries to face trial. The Belgian govermment has expressed an interest in extraditing Adel Hakeemy (also cleared for release under President Bush) in connection with terrorist allegations in Belgium, as it has with Hisham Sliti, who, in addition, lost his habeas corpus petition in December 2008, and the Italian government has expressed an interest in extraditing Abdul Ourgy (who was also cleared for release under Bush).

Given that four of the five men remaining in Guantánamo were cleared under President Bush, there is clearly an argument to be made that the simplest solution would be to repatriate all four men, but, as mentioned in relation to Lotfi bin Ai, there is no guarantee that, given the current political climate in the US, President Obama has any interest in proposing that any of the men currently held in Guantánamo should be released, and it may well be that the Tunisians will remain imprisoned — victims not of anything resembling justice, but of a state of political expediency on Obama’s part, and of hysteria in Congress and the right-wing media, which is preventing any moves being made to bring the sordid history of Guantánamo to an end.

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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