As part of my ongoing coverage of Guantánamo, I try, wherever possible, to keep track of the stories of former prisoners, especially those who were resettled in third countries, either because the US government refused to send them home, or because it was considered unsafe to do so — or, in the case of Palestine, because the Israeli government would not allow them to be repatriated, even if the US government wanted to.
Many of those resettled in third countries are Yemenis, and third countries had to be found for them because, since the start of 2010, the entire US establishment has regarded the situation in Yemen as too unstable from a security perspective to allow any Yemenis to be repatriated. Amongst those for whom repatriation was regarded as too dangerous are the Uighurs, 22 men from China’s Xinjiang province, historically oppressed by the Chinese government, who were found new homes around the world between 2006 and 2013, and a handful of men from other countries including Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia.
In March, for Middle East Eye, the journalist Lidia Kurasinska wrote an article about Tariq al-Sawah, an Egyptian, who had been resettled in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the capital, Sarajevo, in January 2016. Before his capture in Afghanistan in late 2001, al-Sawah had been living in Bosnia, where he had been granted citizenship, and had married a Bosnian woman, with whom he had a child, so this was not a random resettlement based solely on whichever country could be persuaded, through a combination of cash and favors, to give a former prisoner a home.
Al-Sawah’s release had been recommended, in February 2015, by a Periodic Review Board, a parole-type process introduced by President Obama, which began reviewing the cases of 64 men in November 2013, and concluded the first round of those reviews in September 2016. That recommendation reversed the US government’s earlier position — that he should face a trial by military commission on “charges of conspiring with known members of al-Qaeda and providing material support for terrorism,” as Lidia Kurasinska described it.
The charges were eventually dismissed, in 2012, but the decision to charge him in the first place was, frankly, idiotic, as al-Sawah was regarded as a helpful informant, and, as a result, had been housed separate from the other prisoners, and given a somewhat easier life, along with the Mauritanian Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who used his time to write the memoir that eventually became his best-selling book, Guantánamo Diary.
Al-Sawah had become seriously ill at Guantánamo. His weight more than doubled — to 420 pounds — and, as his classified military file, released by Wikileaks in 2011, explained, he was “closely watched for significant and chronic problems” that included high cholesterol, diabetes and liver disease, so I was particularly interested to see if his health had improved after his release, and also to ascertain if he was being looked after by the Bosnian authorities.
Unfortunately, as Lidia Kurasinska’s article — “Life after Guantánamo: Egyptian ex-detainee stuck in Bosnia limbo” — made clear, he was “stuck in a legal no-man’s land.” As she explained, “Slowly strolling through a housing estate on the outskirts of Sarajevo, al-Sawah cut “a sombre figure.”
“They didn’t even say sorry,” he told her. “They just dropped me off at Sarajevo airport after 14 years, and all I had with me was a t-shirt. I live in limbo. Even though Sarajevo is a big city, I don’t have any papers, and I can’t get a job and take care of myself.”
He also told her about his suffering in Guantánamo, explaining how he was “shackled 24 hours a day and kept in solitary confinement despite suffering from poor health and depression.”
He explained that life was “a constant economic struggle,” and that he “survives by living off donations from local mosques and charities.”
Kurasinska added that “an agreement made between the Bosnian state and the US government promised him shelter and financial assistance from the Bosnian government,” but “the living allowance of $125 a month he recently started receiving is too meager to live on by Bosnian standards.”
He also claimed that the US government “had offered him $200,000 in compensation before his release from Guantánamo,” but that he has not received any money, a claim reiterated by Jelena Sesar, Amnesty International’s researcher for the Balkans and the EU, who said, “We understand that the US government promised financial and legal assistance as a part of Mr al-Sawah’s resettlement, but that assistance never materialized.” Kurasinska also noted that the US State Department “did not confirm or deny whether any support package had been put in place.”
Speaking about how he came to be imprisoned in Guantánamo, al-Sawah told Kurasinska that “he travelled to the Balkans in the early 1990s as the region was engulfed in a war caused by the break-up of Yugoslavia,” and “initially worked for the media office at the International Islamic Relief Organisation, known locally as IGASA, in Zagreb, Croatia.” From there, he said, “he moved to Bosnia and worked as a truck driver distributing humanitarian aid before joining the Bosnian army and serving in the 1992-95 war.”
When the war ended, with the 1995 Dayton agreement, al-Sawah said that he “settled alongside other former foreign fighters and aid workers in the central Bosnian village of Bocinja.” As Kurasinska noted, “Many of the new arrivals, of whom the vast majority were of North African and Middle Eastern origin, married local women and started families.”
This is also what al-Sawah did, and his daughter “is now a teenager attending high school in Bosnia.” Although Kurasinska didn’t make it clear in her article, one of his US lawyers, federal defender Mary Petras, told me that he “was living with his daughter when he was first released,” and confirmed to me that “their financial circumstances were dire.”
Reminiscing with Kurasinska about “how good his life was in Bosnia during the post-war period,“ al-Sawah said, “We had land and chickens.”
Kurasinska added, “The exact number of former foreign fighters who stayed in Bosnia following the ceasefire is estimated at anywhere from 700 to more than 1,000.” She also noted thatmany of them, like al-Sawah, “were given Bosnian citizenship as a reward for their service in the army,” although their presence “was later frowned upon by the Bosnian government who said they were endorsing a radical form of Islam.” As she put it, “The Bosnian government did not want to be seen as a refuge for Islamic militants and caved in under diplomatic pressure from its international partners to deport the community.” As she also notes, the Dayton agreement “stipulated that all forces of foreign origin were to withdraw from Bosnia,” and “[e]ven though many of the men had started families and held Bosnian citizenship, they were still considered a security threat.”
I think Kurasinska rather understates the extent to which foreign pressure was put on Bosnia, as the Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights article linked to above makes clear. It is entitled, “Revoking Citizenship in the Name of Counterterrorism: The Citizenship Review Commission Violates Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
However, she does note that, after 9/11, the US “reportedly intensified pressure on the tiny Balkan country to hand over men it deemed a security threat,” mentioning the case of the Algerian Six, the six men who were kidnapped by US forces and taken to Guantánamo after an investigation by the Bosnian authorities — instigated because of pressure exerted by the US — found nothing to warrant their arrest. Two of the six, Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir, have just had a book of their experiences published, Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantánamo, which I wholeheartedly recommend.
Back in 2000, when Tariq al-Sawah heard rumors that Bosnia was “about to commence deportations,” he “left for Afghanistan, rather than Egypt,” and “was not the only one who headed for Kabul,” as Kurasinska explained, adding, “Having served in the Bosnian army during the war, many believed going back to their countries of origin carried a risk of prosecution and imprisonment,” which, with Egypt, was certainly true.
Turning to al-Sawah’s life in Afghanistan, Kurasinska noted that he “was reluctant to elaborate on his choice of destination and the nature of the activities he engaged in,” but also noted that his Wikileaks file explains how he became engaged in bomb-making, a period of his life which, of course, he renounced in Guantánamo.
Al-Sawah also told her about his suffering in Guantánamo, explaining how he was “shackled 24 hours a day and kept in solitary confinement despite suffering from poor health and depression.”
Turning to his situation now, Kurasinska noted that, while he was in Guantánamo, his “Bosnian citizenship was revoked and thus he is currently living in a state of limbo.” She added that “Bosnia’s citizen revocation process drew widespread criticism as it allowed no appeal and subjected the individuals concerned to immediate deportation, at times due to minor bureaucratic omissions.”
As a result, alhough Bosnia “agreed to take back Sawah in the deal struck with the US government, it is limited to subsidiary protection only, allowing him to stay in the country with limited rights.” When she asked him “whether he still holds Egyptian citizenship or if he receives any support from Egypt,” he “said he no longer has any links to the country” and confirmed he “is trying to rebuild his life in Bosnia, where his daughter lives.”
However, he is clearly dissatisfied with “the lack of substantial support from Bosnia and his desperation at the legal state of uncertainty he is living in,” although “his most bitter complaints are reserved for the US government.”
Jelena Sesar of Amnesty International stated, “Amnesty International strongly believes that the US government has the primary responsibility for resolving the problem it has created at Guantánamo.” She added that the US “must work with host countries to ensure that detainees are successfully resettled after their transfer from Guantánamo, and that their human rights are respected. This includes financial assistance to aid successful integration, including for housing, transportation, medical and social support, ensuring access to educational and employment opportunities so that former detainees can learn a trade and/or earn a living wage. This is particularly important for countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are struggling to address the needs of their own vulnerable populations.”
Kurasinska also noted that, “Despite numerous requests for comment, Bosnia’s Ministry of Security, the body responsible for handling Sawah’s case, refused to respond to any questions regarding his status in the country.” She also noted that a US State Department official told her that they “cannot discuss the specific assurances” they receive from foreign governments, but that they include requirements for threat mitigation and “ensur[ing] humane treatment.”
Unfortunately for Tariq al-Sawah, it is not entirely clear to me that ensuring humane treatment has been a priority for the US government — and now, of course, under Donald Trump, the situation seems only to be worse, as Trump has not even appointed replacements for the two envoys in the Pentagon and State Department who, under President Obama, were not only responsible for making safe arrangements regarding the release of prisoners, but also, afterwards, monitored their resettlement and their transition to civilian life.