Here at “Close Guantánamo,” in the latest article in our ongoing series telling the stories of prisoners cleared for release but still held at Guantánamo, we are focusing this week on Nabil Hadjarab, a 30-year old Algerian, who has been held for nearly a third of his life at Guantánamo, despite being cleared for release over five years ago — in April 2007 — when the US authorities acknowledged that he was not a threat, and had no useful intelligence.
Unfortunately, although Nabil spent much of his life in France, where most of his family members live, and are French citizens, he has been spurned by the French government, despite pleading for assistance from President Sarkozy in September 2010 — and being swiftly turned down.
Nabil’s connections to France are considerable. His grandfather, Mohamed Ben Said Ben Sliman, who was born in Algeria in 1894, spent three years during the First World War fighting for France, and his father, Saïd Hadjarab, fought for France during Algeria’s War of Independence, and was a member of General de Gaulle’s Republican Guard.
After the war, he returned to France, settling in Lyon, where he ran a small café, married and had seven children. He then married again, and Nabil, born in July 1979, is the only child from that second marriage. Because of family difficulties, he grew up with a foster family, and only saw his father at weekends, but he has told his lawyers at Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity, that he “remembers this time as the happiest of his life — he enjoyed being with his foster family and flourished at his primary school in Savigny.”
However, when Nabil was nine years old, his father took him back to Algeria, although he spent the summer holidays in France with his Uncle Ahmad and his family. Then, in 1994, when Nabil was just 15 years old, his father died of cancer. Nabil was taken in by an aunt in Algeria, but she was abusive. At this point, having lost his father and in the care of an abusive woman, he reached the lowest point in his life, although his Uncle Ahmad intervened to help him.
A hard-working French citizen, Ahmad Hadjarab, who has five grown-up children of his own, has worked for a variety of well-known companies in France, most recently as a welder at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN). When he learned of Nabil’s difficulties, “he was determined to help his nephew,” as Reprieve put it, because “he regards him as his own son,” and began sending him whatever money he could to assist him in Algeria.
In 2000, when Nabil turned 21, he returned to France and was reunited with his siblings, his uncle and his foster family. He then sought legal advice, hoping to obtain French residency, but after his lawyers told him that it would take up to six months for his submission to be dealt with, he worried that, in the meantime, he could be found without papers and deported. Irrationally, he decided to leave France, and traveled to London, on the advice of friends, who told him that it would be easier for him to live and work there, but it turned out that this was poor advice, as the situation was no better in the UK.
In fear of deportation from the UK, Nabil heard that Afghanistan was a good place for those in difficulties, and traveled there in March 2001, staying with an Algerian man in Kabul to whom he had been referred, who took him in. After the 9/11 attacks, however, it was no longer safe for Arabs in Afghanistan, and he and others from the house fled to Jalalabad. When that city fell to the Northern Alliance, they retreated to the mountains outside the city. Nabil then tried to reach the border, but was wounded in a US bombing raid and ended up in a hospital in Jalalabad.
From his hospital bed, Nabil was sold to US forces, as Arabs could be sold for $5,000 a head, a vast amount of money in Afghanistan, equivalent to about $250,000 in the US. As his lawyers described it:
He had never attended a training camp, nor had anything to do with terrorism, yet Nabil was sold to the Americans and shipped to the US-run prison at Kandahar airport. He explained repeatedly that he was innocent. He strenuously denied the accusations levelled at him, which were based on the interrogations and forced confessions of other prisoners. Nabil knew that his was a case of mistaken identity. Several US interrogators told him the same thing.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration insisted that every Arab who ended up in US custody had to be sent to Guantánamo, and so Nabil was flown there in February 2002, where, as his lawyers explained, he was “subjected to all kinds of torture and inhuman treatment: sleep and sensory deprivation, temperature extremes and prolonged isolation,” and “spent years with little or no access to sunlight, recreation or medical care in a tiny, windowless, steel cell.”
Moreover, all of this, as well as being illegal, was completely pointless, as Nabil knew nothing of any value, As his lawyers explained, one of the guards in Guantánamo summed him up as follows — “a brilliant artist, a keen footballer, and a sweet kid.”
In April 2007, as noted above, Nabil was finally cleared for release by a military review board, and yet he remains held. As his lawyers noted, he “wishes to return to France so that he can quietly rebuild his life and be reunited with his family,” as “he has a loving uncle and aunt, both of whom care for him deeply and pray for his return.” His lawyers also explained that he “dreams of finding work as an interpreter or translator,” because he now speaks three languages fluently — English, French and Arabic — and noted, in addition, that he had “repeatedly stated that he feels much more cultural affinity with Europe than North Africa,” and “has no strong connection or support structure in Algeria.”
His half-brothers and sisters, who are all French citizens, also hope for Nabil’s safe return to France. One of his half-brothers, who won the national medal of honour when he served in the French army, has “expressed a particularly strong desire to support Nabil upon his return to France.” In September 2010, his Uncle Ahmad said, “I am asking America for humanity, and asking France for gratitude.”
As with Ahmed Belbacha, profiled last week, it seems that Nabil will need another country to offer him a home, if he is not to remain in Guantánamo for the rest of his life.
One option, as we have been discussing over the last few weeks (also see here and here) is for the United States to offer him new home. If you live in a community that might be interested in offering Nabil a new home, and would be prepared to pass a resolution to that effect, and also to ask Congress to drop its ban on accepting any cleared prisoners into the US, then please visit the website of “No More Guantánamos,” and feel free to contact the director, Nancy Talanian, for advice and support. Resolutions have been passed in Amherst and Leverett, Massachusetts, and also in Berkeley, California.
I wrote the above article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January with US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.