In the first detailed interview with a prisoner released from Guantánamo to Algeria, Abdul Aziz Naji, forcibly repatriated last week, has spoken to the Algerian newspaper El Khabar, describing his experiences during his eight years in US custody. While this is a welcome demonstration of transparency on the part of the Algerian authorities, it is also indicative of what can be achieved through international criticism. After the Obama administration and the US Supreme Court conspired to repatriate a cleared prisoner against his will, for the first time, human rights groups and the United Nations all expressed their disgust with the United States’ actions, and their fears that a “diplomatic assurance” with the Algerian government, guaranteeing Naji’s humane treatment on his return, was fundamentally untrustworthy, given Algeria’s poor human rights record.
As a result, although this interview is good PR for both the Algerian government and the Obama administration, it should in no way be construed as a green light for the forcible repatriation of five other Algerians in Guantánamo who are unwilling to return home, as I explained in an accompanying article, “Guantánamo Algerian Returns Home; Will Obama Suspend Further Transfers?” and should also not be taken as proof that Abdul Aziz Naji will not, in future, be put on trial, as has happened to other prisoners who returned voluntarily from Guantánamo.
The interview began by explaining that Naji “[a]rrived on Monday to his neighbourhood in Batna province” (overlooking the fact that he spent a week in Algerian custody prior to being released), and that he “tells the suffering he endured there under the pretext of alleged international terrorism charges,” and “says the world has to know the truth about abuses against humanity committed by US soldiers in the Guantánamo detention camp.”
“They force detainees to take some medicines for three months to drive them crazy, losing [their] memory and committing suicide,” Naji told El Khabar, adding, “I still remember how a Yemeni prisoner killed himself [because] he couldn’t resist the torture and sexual abuse practiced by the prison caretakers.” That man is not identified, but it may have been Abdul Rahman al-Amri, who died on May 30, 2007, reportedly by committing suicide. As I explained in an article on the third anniversary of his death, former prisoner Omar Deghayes “recalled a devout man who was deeply troubled by the kinds of humiliation that were used on him at Guantánamo.”
The interview also explained that Naji said that in Guantánamo “prisoners suffered different kind[s] of torture to force them [to] confess [to] terror charges” that were falsely leveled against them, and that he criticized the International Committee of the Red Cross because they reportedly “avoided evoking the bad treatment of the soldiers against the prisoners,” and “the majority of detainees accused the Red Cross of collusion with the US soldiers.” This is a common complaint, but it seems to me that it may be based on a misunderstanding of the basis on which Red Cross representatives are allowed access to prisoners — on the understanding that they are prohibited from publicly reporting on the conditions they encounter — and it certainly fails to acknowledge the uproar caused in October 2003, when Christophe Girod of the International Committee of the Red Cross broke with protocol, telling the New York Times, “The open-endedness of the situation [at Guantánamo] and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.”
Perhaps the most revealing section of Naji’s interview was his discussion of “how some detainees had been promised to be granted [a] political asylum opportunity in exchange [for] a ‘spying role’ within the detention camp,” and how, after their release, they were “maintained as spies serving for the US, under the cover of political refugees.” He specifically mentioned one Algerian, known as “Bavardad,” who “was forced to become a spy within a mosque in a European country, because he was told [that if] he return[ed] to Algeria, [the] intelligence services would consider him a traitor and would kill him. He concluded, however, that once he returned to the country, he had been well treated by [the] Algerian security services.”
Clarifying the circumstances of Naji’s capture, El Khabar also reported that he was “arrested in Pakistan with another Algerian, Mustapha Hamlili, who had lived there for 15 years with his Afghan wife,” and that he was “taken to Bagram military base in Afghanistan, for cross-examinations and torture, before flying to Guantánamo.” The interview neglected to mention that Hamlili’s voluntary repatriation from Guantánamo in July 2008 — along with seven other Algerians between July 2008 and January 2009 — received little international criticism, and that, along with other released men, he was subsequently charged with “membership in a terrorist organization abroad and using forged travel documents.” The interview also neglected to mention that it took another 19 months until he was finally cleared, after a trial that concluded in February this year, or that, in the cases of two other men who were cleared after trials that took place 15 months after their repatriation, the prosecutor had called for prison sentences of 20 years.
Welcome though it is to see Abdul Aziz Naji safely at home, and interviewed by an Algerian newspaper, it is the fate of Mustapha Hamlili and the other returned Algerians that is more generally indicative of what awaits former Guantánamo prisoners in Algeria, and that should give pause to the Obama administration as it contemplates forcibly repatriating five other prisoners from Guantánamo.
Personally, I hope that Abdul Aziz Naji is able to stay in contact with his lawyers, and that he can establish contact with representatives of human rights groups, to ensure that his appearance in the Algerian media is indicative of a new openness on the part of the Algerian government, as is not just a PR stunt, and also, hopefully, to avoid the farcical charges and long-winded trials to which all the other returned Algerians have been subjected.
Note: The El Khabar interview no longer appears to be available online, but I suspect that this is a problem with the website archive, rather than anything more sinister. If readers are interested, the original is mirrored here.