Yesterday, former Guantánamo prisoner Adel al-Gazzar (aka Adel El-Gazzar), who had been living in Slovakia since being freed last January from America’s notorious prison on Cuban soil, returned, for the first time in ten years, to his home county, Egypt, where he was promptly arrested.
This was not because of anything he had done, but because, as a critic of the regime, he had left the country in 2001, and had been in Pakistan, undertaking humanitarian work in a refugee camp when he was caught in a US bombing raid (which, with subsequent medical neglect on the part of the US authorities, led to him losing a leg). As a result, following his departure from Egypt, he had been given a three-year sentence in absentia by the Egyptian State Security Court for his alleged part in a supposed plot that was known as al-Wa’ad.
This, as the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm explained, was “the first major terrorism case in Egypt” after the 9/11 attacks, in which the defendants — 94 in total — were charged with “attempting to overthrow former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime and infiltrate Palestinian territory.”
However, the case “was widely condemned as an attempt by Mubarak to suppress his Islamist opponents,” and this was an interpretation that carried considerable weight, as “[m]ore than half of the suspects were subsequently released.”
From America, Adel al-Gazzar’s attorney, Ahmed Ghappour, “call[ed] for the charges to be dropped.” By phone from New York, he told Al-Masry Al-Youm, “I think primarily they should be dismissed on humanitarian grounds because of what he suffered.” That was an assessment of al-Gazzar’s time in US custody, but reflecting on the Egyptian side of his story, and the trumped-up charges that led to his in absentia sentence, he added, “Such cases were often used as a tool by the Mubarak regime to silence dissent.”
Al-Gazzar’s story, in his own words, can be found in an extraordinary interview conducted in Slovakia last year by former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg, but to recap briefly, as Ahmed Ghappour explained in a press release yesterday:
Mr. al-Gazzar was handed over to the US while recovering in a Pakistani hospital from injuries sustained while volunteering with the International Committee of the Red Crescent on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. He was hit by a US air strike while helping refugees displaced by the onset of war.
In the midst of his recovery, he was transferred to a US prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was subject to severe beatings, exposure to freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation for days on end, and suspension by the wrists. He received no medical attention during his time in Kandahar, and as a result, his leg was infected with gangrene so severe that it had to be amputated.
Ahmed Ghappour stated, “Mr. al-Gazzar has literally lost life and limb as a result of his unlawful detention by the United States. The last thing he deserves is to return to prison for a sham prosecution that was initiated by the abusive Mubarak regime.”
Nevertheless, he told Al-Masry Al-Youm of his concerns that al-Gazzar would be convicted and imprisoned after another sham trial, even after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s hated regime. “The Egyptians have a track record of abuse and one that we’ve seen continued in the post-Mubarak era,” Ghappour said, reflecting on the mixed record of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over the government after Mubarak’s resignation in February — on the one hand, the announcement of the trial, in August, of former President Mubarak, his two sons Gamal and Alaa and businessman Hussein Salem, who will face charges of “intentional murder, attempted murder of demonstrators, abuse of power to intentionally waste public funds and unlawfully profiting from public funds for them and for others,” but, on the other, the sentencing of at least 7,000 civilians in military courts since Hosni Mubarak was ousted, a much higher number than before the dictator’s fall.
“I think there is a bigger picture here, to be honest,” Ghappour added. “The question is: how will the transitional regime receive him, considering that the prosecution was based on a political crime of dissent? Does Mubarak’s departure mark a game change for the post-9/11 cases? Will he be treated differently because he was in Guantánamo Bay?”
That question has not yet been answered. As Al-Masry Al-Youm reported, “Following his arrest, the officers allowed [al-Gazzar's] wife and four children to meet with him and check up on him at the airport after his lengthy absence from the country. The authorities then proceeded to begin the legal paperwork needed to send Gazzar to the prosecution so they could determine their position regarding his case.”
Abdul Ghappour also explained that he had spoken with al-Gazzar on Sunday, as he was preparing for his flight. “He seemed really hopeful to come back home,” he said, adding, “Mr. al-Gazzar, you’d call him a true patriot. He loves Egypt and he has been dying to go back home for 10 years to be reunited with his countrymen and his family.” As his London-based lawyers at Reprieve also explained:
He had not seen his family, including his wife and four children, for a decade. Efforts by his family to visit him in Slovakia were thwarted. And, recently, his mother suffered a cerebral haemorrhage which has left her paralysed and requiring full time care.
It is to be hoped that Adel al-Gazzar will be released soon, as he has already suffered more than enough. Held at Guantánamo for nine years despite being cleared for release back in 2004, he then found himself imprisoned again — in a detention center in Slovakia, described by local media as “a police detention facility for illegal migrants.” He and two other men released in Slovakia were held there while the government failed to sort out their status in the country, obliging al-Gazzar to embark on a hunger strike to raise awareness of their plight and secure them proper housing and residential status, but as another of his lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve, explained:
This is the third time Adel has been punished for completely unsubstantiated allegations. [His] persecution … makes a mockery of everything the revolution stands for. Where is the new dawn? Justice and the rule of law must return to Egypt. We hope the Egyptian military will put an end to Adel’s decade-long ordeal.
This is my hope too, as it would be deeply disturbing if, after all he has gone through, and everything that was done to avoid him being tortured in Egypt, he were to end up abused by the successors to Mubarak’s reign of terror.
Dark ironies nevertheless pepper this case. At the time of his release from Guantánamo, for example, when the US government complied with his request not to be repatriated to Egypt, as he feared torture at the hands of the Mubarak regime, everyone who supported his release — relieved that he had been freed after a six-year wait — politely refused to point out how grimly ironic it was that al-Gazzar — and another cleared Egyptian, Sharif al-Mishad, who was released in Albania in February 2010 — couldn’t be repatriated because of fears that they would be tortured by the same torturers who had been some of the Bush administration’s closest friends when it came to torturing other prisoners seized in the “War on Terror.”
Two of those unfortunate prisoners were Mamdouh Habib, the Australian citizen rendered by the CIA from Pakistan, whose torture was personally directed by Mubarak’s spy chief Omar Suleiman, and Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, a Pakistani religious scholar rendered to torture from Indonesia, where he had been sorting out his late father’s affairs, on nothing more than the vaguest of hunches that he was involved in some way with terrorism (which he wasn’t).
There were others, detailed in an account I compiled for the United Nations in 2010, and undoubtedly others whose stories have not yet surfaced, but the most celebrated prisoner sent by the US to be tortured in Egypt was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the emir of a training camp in Afghanistan, who, after being picked up crossing into Pakistan form Afghanistan in December 2001, was sent to Egypt, where, under torture, he falsely confessed that two al-Qaeda operatives had been meeting with Saddam Hussein to discuss the use of chemical and biological weapons. Although he recanted his false confession, it was used to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003. As for al-Libi, after his usefulness was finally exhausted, he was rendered back to Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi disposed of him in May 2009, telling the world that he had committed suicide in a prison cell.
On Tuesday, the next step took place in Adel al-Gazzar’s case, as reported in the Egyptian media. Via Mohamed Za’er, the director of the Egypt-based Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners, Daily News Egypt explained that, on Tuesday, military prosecutors had referred him to “an appeals prison not usually used for political prisoners.”
Daily News Egypt also reported that the verdict against al-Gazzar was “contested … before the military court” on Tuesday, noting also that the court “is expected to look into the case within 60 days.” Mohamed Za’er explained, “If approved, al-Gazzar will be granted a re-trial, though it is no longer a crime to be a member in an Islamist group following the January 25 Revolution. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood now has an official political party after being banned for years.”
That ought to be a good sign, but in Egypt, still caught between the end of Mubarak’s rule and a hoped-for transition to free and fair elections, nothing is certain.