Last week, in Mexico City, a symbolically powerful blow was dealt to the United States’ notion of itself as a nation founded on the rule of law, which respects the rule of law and also respects human rights.
The occasion was a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a key part of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose mission is “to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere,” and whose resolutions are supposed to be binding on the US, which is a member state.
The hearing last Wednesday was for Djamel Ameziane, an Algerian citizen, and an ethnic Berber, who was held at Guantánamo for nearly 12 years.
In the hearing last week, at which Ameziane was represented by the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the lawyers representing him urged the IACHR to “hold the US accountable for the abuse” of Ameziane and the “discrimination” against him. CCR explained, in a press release, that it was “a landmark hearing,” and the following brief explanation of his story: “For nearly 12 years, Djamel Ameziane, an Algerian citizen, was arbitrarily detained without charge at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. During his detention, Ameziane was tortured and suffered from other forms of abuse. In 2008, the US approved his release from Guantánamo, yet he remained imprisoned for another five years. In December 2013, Ameziane was forcibly repatriated to Algeria despite having fled from violence and persecution for belonging to a minority ethnicity.”
As CCR also explained: “The hearing marked the first time the IACHR was asked to issue a merits report based on human rights violations suffered by a former detainee at the Guantánamo Bay detention center. Throughout their presentation, the petitioners highlighted the importance of the Commission’s role in addressing the impunity and lack of reparations in Ameziane’s case, and also highlighted that his detention and torture were never contested by the State. Moreover, the petitioners noted that the decision itself would mark a historic victory for Ameziane and other victims of the War on Terror.”
Crucially, the lawyers also “voiced Ameziane’s own requests, which he had previously submitted in writing,” and which have particular relevance because Donald Trump has repeatedly stated his intention to not only keep Guantánamo open, but also to bring new prisoners there. In his statement, as CCR described it, “Ameziane urged OAS member states to remain involved in the issue given the current context in the US, and assist in the transfer of Guantánamo detainees and supporting efforts to close the detention center, among others.”
Ameziane stated, “Members of the Commission, what I respectfully ask of you today is this: Please issue a merits decision and decide my case. I ask you to order reparations and other relief so that I can get the assistance that I need and move forward with my life, and put Guantánamo behind me forever. I also want an apology. I ask the representatives of the US: Will you say on behalf of your government that you are sorry for what the US Government did to me?”
Speaking about the hearing, Elsa Meany, Senior Attorney at CEJIL, said, “This is not a case with complicated considerations of law, as all the violations detailed were committed against Djamel by state actors, while in state custody. The Commission has, in fact, already undertaken much of the legal analysis necessary to decide this case. However, the current legal framework in the US provides civil and criminal immunity for those responsible that effectively provides an amnesty for grave violations of human rights, in contravention of clear Inter-American standards. A decision by the Commission will constitute a decisive step towards accountability and recognition of Djamel’s fight for justice and reparations.”
Wells Dixon, Senior Staff Attorney at CCR, said, “Over the past 16 years, the Commission has not yet issued a Merits Report in relation to the violations committed by the United States within the framework of the War on Terror, despite having multiple pending cases regarding rendition, unlawful and arbitrary detention and torture at Guantánamo. We urge the Commission to build on existing jurisprudence and decide the present case, consolidating a set of standards that will have implications in this region and globally.”
CCR also explained that, at the hearing, “the Commissioners stated they would continue to study the issue and expressed consternation at Ameziane’s prolonged detention at the camp without any charges, indicating that reparations should be made, including, at a minimum, that his personal belongings be returned.”
CCR added, “If the IACHR rules in favor of Ameziane, it would be the first case regarding human rights violations committed at the Guantánamo Bay prison that a regional human rights body issues a decision on. The decision would mark a historic victory for him and Guantánamo Bay detainees and their right to judicial reparations.”
The IACHR and Guantánamo: the background
Djamel Ameziane’s case has, memorably, been before the IACHR before. In April 2012, as I reported at the time, the IACHR accepted jurisdiction over his case, the first time the organization had accepted jurisdiction over the case of a Guantánamo prisoner.
President Obama responded by forcibly repatriating Ameziane (and another Algerian) in December 2013, even though, when the IACHR was first notified go Ameziane’s case in 2008, they had stated, unambiguously, that “[a]ll necessary measures must be taken to ensure Djamel Ameziane is not transferred to a country where he would face persecution” — a requirement that, objectively, the Algerian government could not be trusted to uphold.
Since then, two more Guantánamo prisoners have submitted their cases to the IACHR. The first, as I reported in an article entitled, Guantánamo “An Endless Horror Movie”: Hunger Striker Appeals for Help to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, is Muaz al-Alawi, identified in Guantánamo as Moath al-Alwi, who, in February 2015, urged the IACHR to “issue precautionary measures to end his indefinite detention,” and the second, in March last year, as I reported at the time in an article entitled, US Military Lawyer Submits Petition to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Behalf of Mohammad Rahim, CIA Torture Victim Held at Guantánamo, was on behalf of one of the so-called “high-value detainees” at the prison.
In March 2015, the IACHR issued a resolution in al-Alwi’s case calling for the US to undertake “the necessary precautionary measures in order to protect the life and personal integrity of Mr. al-Alwi,” on the basis that, “After analyzing the factual and legal arguments put forth by the parties, the Commission considers that the information presented shows prima facie that Mr. Moath al-Alwi faces a serious and urgent situation, as his life and personal integrity are threatened due to the alleged detention conditions.”
Nevertheless, al-Alwi continues to be held, and in February, Judge Richard Leon, a district court judge, denied his efforts to be released based on a plausible argument that, as Buzzfeed described it, “he could no longer be held because the US combat mission in Afghanistan was over,” in which he cited statements to that effect by President Obama.