On Tuesday evening — the day before Colonel Muammar Gaddafi marked the 41st anniversary of the coup that brought him to power — 37 political prisoners were released from the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, site of a brutal massacre of prisoners in 1996, when up to 1,200 men were murdered.
Although the release of the 37 men was obviously timed to shift attention from protests marking the anniversary by the regime’s many opponents — including family members of those whose deaths or disappearances have never been acknowledged — it is, nevertheless, a sign of progress, as well as political opportunism.
Under the influence of Saif al-Islam, one of Gaddafi’s sons and the head of the Gaddafi Foundation, a charity that includes a human rights committee, the Libyan regime has, in recent years, sought to reconcile itself with former political opponents, leading to the release of hundreds of prisoners since 2007. As Reuters explained, “Saif al-Islam has campaigned for reconciliation with Islamists who promise to lay down their arms. His initiative has met resistance from conservatives in his father’s entourage with whom he is competing for influence.”
According to official Libyan figures, 705 prisoners have been released as part of the initiative. Tuesday’s release followed the release of 214 men in March, and on Tuesday Mohamed al-Allagi, the chairman of the human rights committee of the Gaddafi Foundation, stated, “These releases come in the context of national reconciliation and social peace,” adding, as AFP reported, that ”these people had completed their rehabilitation program, which was aimed at getting the prisoners to renounce violence and reintegrate them into Libyan society.” Although over 300 prisoners “accused of having ties to Islamist militant groups” are still imprisoned, al-Allagi also explained that the foundation was “working to free the other detainees so that there will no longer be any prisoners of opinion in Libya.”
As Reuters explained, five of the prisoners released on Tuesday had links to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), according to Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former leader of the group who was freed in March. Formed by former Libyan mujahideen who had traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union, the LIFG was formed in 1995, and dedicated to the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. In 2007, as AFP explained, “Al-Qaeda announced that the LIFG had joined the jihadist network and Abu Laith al-Libi, one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants, was thought to be directing it for a time from Central Asia. Libi was killed in a 2008 US missile strike in the tribal zone of northwest Pakistan and last year, the Gaddafi Foundation announced that Islamists being held in Libyan prisons that had previously had links with Al-Qaeda had renounced those ties.”
Belhadj, one of three significant LIFG figures released in March, along with “military chief” Khaled Sharif and “ideological official” Sami Saadi (as AFP described them) also said that the rest of the prisoners released on Tuesday had been detained “because they sympathized with Islamist militant movements, but were not LIFG members.”
The release of ex-Guantánamo prisoner Abu Sufian Hamouda
They included a former Guantánamo prisoner transferred to Libyan custody nearly three years ago, in October 2007, named by AFP as Abu Sofian Ben Guemou, and by Reuters as Sofiane Ibrahim Gammu. Reuters noted that media reports had “quoted an official in the Gaddafi Foundation as saying Gammu was a former driver for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden,” but as he left the prison on Tuesday, he stated, “I am not bin Laden’s driver. It’s a misunderstanding.”
This was almost certainly true. Identified in Guantánamo as Abu Sufian Hamouda or Abu Sufian bin Qumu, his story, as revealed in publicly available documents, suggests that the bin Laden connection was only relevant in relation to a job that he took in Sudan for a company owned by bin Laden, when the al-Qaeda leader was involved in construction work and other activities unrelated to terrorism between 1992 and 1996, prior to his expulsion from Sudan and his return to Afghanistan.
As Hamouda explained in Guantánamo (and as I reported at the time of his transfer to Libyan custody):
[H]e had served in the Libyan army as a tank driver from 1979 to 1990, but was “arrested and jailed on multiple occasions for drug and alcohol offenses.” Having apparently escaped from prison in 1992, he fled to Sudan, where he worked as a truck driver. In an attempt to beef up the evidence against him, the Department of Defense alleged that the company he worked for, the Wadi al-Aqiq company, was “owned by Osama bin Laden,” and also attempted to claim that he joined the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group … even while admitting that an unidentified “al-Qaeda/LIFG facilitator” had described him as “a noncommittal LIFG member who received no training.”
After relocating to Pakistan, [he] apparently stayed there until the summer of 2001, when he and a friend crossed the border into Afghanistan, traveling to Jalalabad and then to Kabul, where [he] found a job working as an accountant for Abdul Aziz al-Matrafi, the director of al-Wafa, a Saudi charity which provided humanitarian aid to Afghans, but which was regarded by the US authorities as a front for al-Qaeda.
In the years since Hamouda’s transfer to Libyan custody, everyone connected to al-Wafa, including Abdul Aziz al-Matrafi, has been released, but in any case, as I also explained at the time:
[His] involvement with the organization centered on its humanitarian work … In the “evidence” presented for his Combatant Status Review Tribunal — under factors purporting to demonstrate that he “supported military operations against the United States or its coalition partners” — it was stated that, while working for al-Wafa, he traveled to Kunduz “to oversee the distribution of rice that was being guarded by four to five armed guards.” In Guantánamo, it seems, even the distribution of rice can be regarded as a component in a military operation.
I also explained:
Captured in Islamabad, after fleeing from Afghanistan following the US-led invasion, [he] was held for a month by the Pakistani authorities, and was then handed over to the Americans, who began mining him for the flimsy “evidence” of terrorist activities outlined above. Earlier this year , he was cleared for release, and, despite misgivings on the part of his lawyers, stated that he was prepared to return to Libya, even though what awaits him may not be any better than what he was suffered over the last five years. Perhaps, as one of Guantánamo’s truly lost men, he has decided that, if he is to spend the rest of his life in prison for no apparent reason, he would rather be in Libya, where his wife and his family might be able to see him, than in Guantánamo, where, like every other detainee, he was more isolated from his relatives than even the deadliest convicted mass murderer on the US mainland.
In September 2008, Human Rights Watch stated in a report that, according to the US State Department, officials had visited Hamouda in December 2007, and that, although the Libyan security forces “were holding him on unknown charges and apparently without access to a lawyer … he did not complain of maltreatment [and] was scheduled to receive a family visit” at the end of the month. The Gaddafi Foundation subsequently claimed that he had indeed been “granted a family visit,” and added that the foundation was providing an apartment for his family in Tripoli.
As a result, Hamouda may indeed be regarded as fortunate, given that, two years after the Human Rights Watch report, he has eventually been released, and also because so many of the men held with him in Guantánamo are still there, are still totally isolated from their families, and have no notion of when, if ever, they will be released. However, it should also be noted that being returned to Libya from Guantánamo — or from any of the secret prisons operated by the Bush administration — is no guarantee that prisoners will finally be released after three years in Abu Salim prison.
Not released: Muhammad al-Rimi, transferred from Guantánamo to Libyan custody in December 2006
In December 2006, Muhammad al-Rimi (also identified as Muhammad al-Futuri or Abdesalam Safrani), a 40-year old who had been held at Guantánamo for four years, also voluntarily accepted repatriation. Accused of being a member of the LIFG, al-Rimi had denied the charges (and had been approved for release from Guantánamo by a US military review board), although he did tell the authorities, “I have a problem with the Libyan government and it is a long story.”
According to the Human Rights Watch report in September 2008, the Gaddafi Foundation stated that al-Rimi was treated for tuberculosis upon his return. An official also said that he would “go back to his family soon,” but by all accounts he is still held in Abu Salim prison, three years and eight months after his return. The US State Department told Human Rights Watch in January 2008 that US officials visited al-Rimi in August and December 2007 and stated that “Libyan security forces were detaining him but were treating him well.” Human Rights Watch also noted that, at the meeting in December 2007, which took place in the presence of Libyan officials and an official from the Gaddafi Foundation, al-Rimi was not informed of the charges against him, and apparently explained that he “had not seen a lawyer since his return” and “had received no family visits.”
Reasons to be wary: the death of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi
Moreover, al-Rimi is not the only returnee from US custody who might be tempted to regard Abu Sufian Hamouda as fortunate. The most horrendous recent story is that of Ali Mohamed Abdelaziz al-Fakheri, more commonly known as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a former CIA “ghost prisoner,” who, notoriously, was sent to Egypt by the CIA after his capture on the Pakistani border in December 2001, where, under torture, he made a false confession about connections between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, regarding the use of chemical weapons, that was used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Al-Libi was subsequently held in a variety of secret prisons in a number of different countries, either directly run by the CIA (in Afghanistan) or on behalf of the CIA (in countries including Jordan and Morocco), but was finally returned to Libya in 2006, where, last May, he reportedly died in Abu Salim prison by committing suicide, even though most observers concluded that this was highly unlikely — and also noted that, with suspicious timing, the US embassy in Tripoli reopened just three days after his death.
Al-Libi’s death, in such dubious circumstances, reinforces the warnings contained in recent reports by Amnesty International (PDF, June 2010) and Human Rights Watch (December 2009) that, although improvements have been made in recent years, “The human rights situation in Libya remains dire” (as Amnesty International described it), and Libya’s human rights record “remains poor, despite some limited progress in recent years,” as Human Rights Watch explained.
Other Libyans held in secret CIA prisons
For cases involving the United States, al-Libi’s remains the bleakest of benchmarks for suspicion of all the parties involved, but questions also remain about the fate of a number of other men repatriated after being held in secret CIA prisons. As the UN explained in a major report on secret detention earlier this year, four other Libyans (along with al-Libi) were returned to Libya in 2005 or 2006. The four men were:
Hassan Raba’i and Khaled al-Sharif, both captured in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2003, who had “spent time in a CIA prison in Afghanistan”; Abdallah al-Sadeq, seized in a covert CIA operation in Thailand in the spring of 2004; and Abu Munder al-Saadi, both held briefly before being rendered to [Libya]. In May 2009, Human Rights Watch reported that its representatives briefly met Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi on a visit to Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, although he refused to be interviewed. Human Rights Watch interviewed four other men, who claimed that, “before they were sent to [Libya], United States forces had tortured them in detention centers in Afghanistan, and supervised their torture in Pakistan and Thailand.” One of the four was Hassan Raba’i, also known as Mohamed Ahmad Mohamed al-Shoroeiya, who stated that, in mid-2003, in a place he believed was Bagram prison in Afghanistan, “the interpreters who directed the questions to us did it with beatings and insults. They used cold water, ice water. They put us in a tub with cold water. We were forced [to go] for months without clothes. They brought a doctor at the beginning. He put my leg in a plaster. One of the methods of interrogation was to take the plaster off and stand on my leg.”
In a visit to Abu Salim prison in May 2009 (the details of which were not reported until June 2010), representatives of Amnesty International confirmed that the four men discussed above were held, and also that two other men previously held in secret CIA prisons — al-Mahdi Jawda, aka Ayoub al-Libi, and Majid Abu Yasser, aka Adnan al-Libi — were also held. These were important revelations, as the whereabouts of both men were previously unknown, and they provide a few more crucial details for the handful of researchers — myself included — who continue to regard the fate of the 94 prisoners held in secret prisons, and the unknown number rendered to prisons in other countries, as an outstanding crime of the Bush administration that needs exposing, and that President Obama has lamentably failed to address.
Noticeably, three of these men were released in March this year, as AFP mentioned: in their report, Khaled Sharif is Khaled al-Sharif, Sami Saadi is Abu Munder al-Saadi (also identified as Sami Mustafa al-Saadi) and Abdelhakim Belhadj is Abdallah al-Sadeq. Their release apparently brings to an end their long, extra-legal detention as a result of cooperation between the US and Libyan authorities, although it is of concern that the other three are still held, and as the Amnesty report pointed out, “To the best of Amnesty International’s knowledge, before they were released Abdelhakim Belhadj was sentenced to death and Khaled al-Sharif aka Abu Hazem was facing trial proceedings for terrorism-related offences” that could also lead to a death penalty being imposed. Although these sentences have now been suspended, their imposition obviously means that a great weight still hangs over both men.
During visits by Amnesty representatives in 2009 and 2010, only one of these men, Khaled al-Sharif, agreed to speak to them, and his descriptions of his treatment are worth repeating, if only to emphasize how a full accounting for the Bush administration’s program of rendition and detention in secret prisons remains of the utmost importance. As Amnesty described al-Sharif’s testimony:
He described his arrest by US and Pakistani forces in Peshawar on 3 April 2002 along with Mohamed Shu’iya, known as Hassan Ruba’i, and his detention in various facilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan — in Peshawar, Islamabad, Kabul and Bagram. He recounted being tortured in a detention facility in Peshawar, where he spent a week, by Pakistani officials who beat him with a leather belt and stepped on his injured foot, while being questioned by an American man. He also said that he was tortured while detained in Kabul for about a year [perhaps in the CIA’s “Salt Pit” prison], including by having icy water poured on him and being punched in the stomach. He also described being attached to the ceiling and left suspended for days and being handcuffed to an iron bar in an uncomfortable position for months — the handcuffs were only removed for 15 minutes during meals, either once or twice a day. He was not allowed to shower during the time spent attached to the iron bar. He said that in Kabul, he was interrogated and tortured by US officers. After about a year, he was transferred to Bagram in Afghanistan, where he spent another year before being taken to a US airbase and flown to Libya with Mahdi Jawda, aka Ayoub al-Libi in April 2005.
What this means for the future
The lesson from all this — beyond the hope that calls will be made for President Obama to reveal the names of all those held in Bush’s secret program, and what happened to them — is that, although Saif al-Islam and the Gaddafi Foundation are to be cautiously congratulated for their reforms, the release of the 37 men on Tuesday — and of Abu Sufian Hamouda in particular — cannot be regarded as providing the Obama administration with a viable rationale for repatriating any of the four remaining Libyans in Guantánamo, unless they are clear about what awaits them.
This year, two Libyans who feared repatriation were given new homes — one, Abdul Ra’ouf al-Qassim, who had been fighting against enforced repatriation since 2007, was sent to Albania in February, and Abdul Hamid al-Ghizzawi was sent to Georgia in March. As I have recently heard uncomfortable rumors that the US authorities are sounding out the possibility of repatriating other Libyans from Guantánamo, the lesson of Abu Sufian Hamouda and Muhammad al-Rimi should not be forgotten — unless, of course, the men in question have concluded, as Hamouda and al-Rimi did under George W. Bush, that anything is better than remaining in Guantánamo with less chance of being released under Barack Obama than existed under his predecessor.
And that, sadly, is a very real possibility.
Note: For a good report on the re