Last week, the enforced repatriation of Abdul Aziz Naji, an Algerian prisoner in Guantánamo, diverted attention from the stories of three other men who were released in less worrying circumstances: a Syrian who was rehoused in Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony off the west coast of Africa; an Uzbek rehoused in Latvia; and an Afghan rehoused in Spain.
With Abdul Aziz Naji now apparently home with his family (also see this interview here), valid concerns still remain about whether he is safe from extremists, about whether the Algerian government can be trusted, and about whether the Obama administration has been sufficiently stung by international criticism to call off its planned repatriation of other Algerians in Guantánamo who fear returning home. These are questions that I discussed in a recent article, and I’d like now to run through the stories of the other men released last week, which, yet again, demonstrate that those who insist on flagging up all the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo as terrorists are either cynical opportunists, preying on the message of permanent fear that was promoted by the Bush administration, or blinkered ideologues, incapable of separating fact from fiction.
Abdul Nasser Khantumani: A 50-year old economic migrant from Syria, resettled in Cape Verde
Abdul Nasser Khantumani (identified on his release as Abd al-Nisr Mohammed Khantumani, and also known in Guantánamo as Abdul Nasir al-Tumani), a 50-year old Syrian, was released at the same time as Abdul Aziz Naji, but, given undisputed fears about what would await him if he was repatriated to Syria, he was, instead, given a new home on the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, an archipelago of islands off the west coast of Africa.
Well respected as a stable democracy, Cape Verde has a population of 500,000, but only a very small Muslim population, so it will be difficult for him to adjust to his new life, especially as he is alone, with no members of his family or fellow ex-prisoners to provide any support. What is unusual about this arrangement is that his son, Muhammed, who was seized with him in Pakistan in December 2001, was given a new home in Portugal last August, and it would, therefore, have made sense for him to have been rehoused in Portugal as well.
As economic migrants to Afghanistan, the Khantumanis never posed a threat to anyone, and it is distressing that it took so long for both men to be released. In my book The Guantánamo Files, I discussed their story, based on accounts that they gave in their military review boards at Guantánamo (the Combatant Status Review Tribunals) in 2004-05:
The father had traveled to Afghanistan in 1999 in search of work, finding a job in a restaurant in Kabul and bringing ten members of his family over in June 2001, including Muhammed, his grandmother and an eight-month old baby. Another six family members — [Muhammed]’s uncle’s family — arrived a week before 9/11, but after hearing about the attack on America the family fled to Jalalabad, where they stayed for a month, and then made their way on foot to Pakistan. On the way, their guide advised [Abdul Nasser] to let the women and children travel by car, to make them less of a target for highway robbers, but when he and his son arrived in Pakistan the local villagers handed them over to the Pakistani army.
In his tribunal, Abdul Nasser also spoke about his reasons for traveling to Afghanistan, stating, “I was always looking for an alternative country that I could immigrate to and live with my family. I thought about going to the free world, which is the Western world, especially after I heard a lot about freedom, stability and justice in these countries, but all the doors were closed.”
Unfortunately, both father and son experienced brutal treatment after their capture, both in Pakistani and US custody. Muhammed explained that, while in Pakistani custody, in three separate prisons, he and his father were “subjected to beatings and harsh torture,” and his nose was broken. He added that throughout this ordeal “there were Americans present,” and this account was echoed by his father, who said that the Pakistanis “were torturing us really hard,” and the Americans “were looking and standing right there. The Americans were present. I am sure about that because they were the ones who interrogated us.”
In addition, Muhammed explained that, in the US prison at Kandahar airport (where the prisoners were processed for Guantánamo), his father’s forehead was fractured “and the Red Cross saw this and wrote a report,” and he added that he received a fracture to his left hand, as well as suffering “many diseases” and “other methods of psychological torture,” including sleep deprivation.
He also explained that, during interrogation at Camp X-Ray (the rudimentary first prison at Guantánamo), “one of the interrogators brought two wires connected to electricity and said that if you do not say that you and your father are from al-Qaeda or Taliban, I will place these in your neck,’” and that the abuse continued in Camp Delta (Camp X-Ray’s more permanent replacement), where he said that he was “threatened with violence,” and that “an interrogator threatened to send him to torture in a foreign country.”
Muhammed’s story is also notable for a number of false allegations made by one of his fellow prisoners, which were exposed by his Personal Representative (a military officer assigned to him in place of a lawyer) during his tribunal. As I explained in an article in 2007, based on a series of ground-breaking stories by Corine Hegland for the National Journal:
In his tribunal, [Muhammed Khantumani] denied an allegation that he had attended the al-Farouq training camp [the main training camp for Arabs, associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before 9/11] with such vigor that his Personal Representative decided to investigate the matter further. When he looked at the classified evidence, however, he found that only one man … claimed to have seen him at al-Farouq, and had identified him as being there three months before he arrived in Afghanistan. As Corine Hegland described it, “The curious US officer pulled the classified file of the accuser, saw that he had accused 60 men, and, suddenly skeptical, pulled the files of every detainee the accuser had placed at the one training camp. None of the men had been in Afghanistan at the time the accuser said he saw them at the camp.”
Even so, the Personal Representative’s protestations were in vain, because, as I explained on Muhammed Khantumani’s release, he was “judged to be an ‘enemy combatant,’ and had to wait for nearly five years before President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force finally conducted a comprehensive review of his case, and … established that the evidence against him was unreliable.”
The same conclusion, it should be noted, was also reached by the Task Force in Abdul Nasser’s case. As the Center for Constitutional Rights explained to me, although his habeas corpus petition had not been heard by the time of his release, he was “cleared to leave Guantánamo on the basis of a unanimous determination” by the Task Force, which suggests that the lurid allegations against him that can be found in publicly available documents — including claims that he “was identified by a senior al-Qaeda operative as reportedly being part of a terrorist group,” and that he was “commonly known as an explosives expert” — were conjured up either by the same prisoner who caused his son such problems, or by other patently unreliable witnesses whose lies have been regularly exposed by judges in the District Court in Washington D.C., in their rulings on the prisoners’ habeas petitions.
With Abdul Nasser’s release, the long years of torture, lies and brutality are now behind him, but as CCR also noted, “father and son’s profound hope now is for the day when they may finally be reunited as a family.”
An Uzbek resettled in Latvia
Last Thursday, following the release of Abdul Aziz Naji and Abdul Nasser Khantumani, the Pentagon announced that two more prisoners had been released, in Latvia and Spain, bringing the prison’s population to 176. Neither was publicly identified, but in February this year RFE/RL reported that Latvia had “agreed to accept an Uzbek citizen currently held at the US detention center at Guantánamo Bay.” The report added, “The name of the Uzbek citizen was not disclosed, although it was reported that he speaks fluent Russian, is single, has relatives in Uzbekistan, and is prepared to learn the Latvian language.” In addition, Latvian Foreign Minister Maris Riekstins told journalists at the time that the government “will provide the man with refugee status, a monthly allowance, and an apartment.” It was also reported that the Latvian security service would “monitor” the ex-prisoner.
Given that, at the start of the year, just two Uzbeks remained at Guantánamo, and that one of these men, Ali Sher Hamidullah, was reportedly the Uzbek rehoused in Switzerland on January 26, it seems likely that the man given a new home in Latvia is Kamalludin Kasimbekov, who was cleared for release in 2006 by a military review board under the Bush administration, but who continued to be held because of well-founded fears that he would be tortured if returned to his homeland.
24 years old at the time of his capture, Kasimbekov told his tribunal at Guantánamo that he and a friend had fled Uzbekistan after his friend accidentally killed a policeman while driving his car, and had ended up in a training camp run by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a militant group aligned with the Taliban, where, he said, those in charge of the camp took away his military ID, which he needed to go home, and flew him and five or six others to Kabul, where he worked in an auto shop.
He went on to explain that in 2001 he requested to go home, and asked for money and his military ID, but that when he received no response he decided to run away, only to be captured while traveling from Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif in a minivan taxi, imprisoned by the IMU for six months and then released on September 16, 2001 “with agreement that I will help in a battle.” Sent to the front lines in Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan, he explained that he was “helping with all kinds of household work for about a month or so,” but that, after the aerial bombardment of Kunduz by US forces, when there were “lots of dead bodies” and a surrender was negotiated between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, he refused to retreat with the IMU and instead went to Abdul Mumin, a Northern Alliance commander, and handed himself in with his gun. He added, “There were no bullets shot from my weapon.”
An Afghan resettled in Spain
For now, the remaining mystery regarding the prisoners released last week concerns the man released in Spain. In February this year, the Spanish government agreed to accept five men from Guantánamo. On the basis that none of them must have criminal record, the government pledged to give them a residence permit and the right to work, and also pledged that they would have freedom of movement within Spain, but would not be allowed to leave the country.
The first of these men, Walid Hijazi, a Palestinian, arrived in February, the second, Yasim Basardah, a Yemeni, arrived in May, and the third, who arrived last week, has, to date, only been identified as an Afghan. With no clues as to his identity, it is difficult to speculate as to why he was not released in Afghanistan, but as a website, The Americas Post, explained this week, confirming his arrival at the military base of Torrejón de Ardoz, the Spanish government’s arrangement with the US “has not been easy for the hosting country, because most of the former prisoners have deep psychological problems and their insertion into society is difficult,” and, perhaps as a result, “no more arrivals are expected at least until after the summer.”
Updating the story of Walid Hijazi, which I reported in May, the blog explained that he arrived with “serious psychological” problems as a result of his detention, “and lived [for] several months in a room [in] a small family hotel in a city in northern Spain. He was offered a transfer to a flat, but the NGO in charge [was] unable to reach an agreement with him. Finally, the city government moved him and brought him to live in a residence of the same NGO.” The blog added that Hijazi is having problems learning Spanish, a “fundamental issue that can truly integrate him in Spain and get a job.”