On Wednesday, four prisoners were released from Guantánamo: an Egyptian, a Libyan and a Tunisian arrived in Albania, and a Palestinian arrived in Spain. All four had been cleared by military review boards at Guantánamo under the Bush administration, and had then been cleared by President Obama’s interagency Task Force, but, like dozens of prisoners in Guantánamo, they could not be repatriated because of fears that they would be tortured if returned to their home countries or subjected to other ill-treatment, or because they were effectively stateless.
The Spanish government, which declared last week that it would take up to five cleared prisoners from Guantánamo, announced that the first of these men arrived in Spain on Wednesday. The Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told reporters that the man is Palestinian, but would not give his name, citing privacy concerns.
According to the press agency dpa, Rubalcaba explained that he “would get a residence permit, the possibility to work and freedom of movement in Spain, though Guantánamo prisoners taken by European countries could not leave those countries.” He added that Spain would only accept prisoners “with no criminal charges in the European Union, the United States or their countries of origin.”
As well as accepting the Palestinian, the newspaper Periódico reported that other prisoners, “believed to include a Syrian and a Yemeni citizen,” were “expected to arrive in Spain shortly,” adding that they will be “placed in different locations under the care of NGOs,” and will also be “placed under surveillance not only to protect the Spanish public, but also to protect the individuals from al-Qaeda reprisals over their possible revelations to US intelligence services.”
Cementing its role as America’s closest ally when it comes to clearing up “the mess” that is Guantánamo (to quote President Obama’s words from last May), the Albanian Ministry of Interior announced on Wednesday that it had accepted three cleared prisoners, who could not be repatriated because of the fears outlined above. Albania has now taken eleven cleared prisoners from Guantánamo, having accepted eight in 2006, when no other country in the world was prepared to do so (five Uighurs, an Algerian, an Egyptian and an ethnic Uzbek from the former Soviet Union).
Announcing the arrival of three prisoners in Albania, the Ministry of the Interior stated, “This transfer is a result of the engagement of the Albanian government in backing the Obama administration’s policy to close the detention center in Guantánamo and transfer prisoners to friendly and safe third countries.” In a press release, the US Justice Department identified the three men as: Abdul Rauf Omar Mohammad Abu al-Qusin, a Libyan; Sharif Fati Ali al-Mishad, an Egyptian; and Saleh bin Hadi Asasi, a Tunisian.
Their stories, like those of the majority of the 584 prisoners released from Guantánamo, demonstrate, yet again, that, behind the blustering rhetoric of former Vice President Dick Cheney and his swarming acolytes, the majority of the men held at Guantánamo had no involvement with terrorism, and that a disturbingly large number of them were innocent men seized by mistake.
Of the three men rehoused in Albania, for example, one was a businessman, living in Europe, who had traveled to Afghanistan to provide humanitarian aid, one was a veteran of Afghanistan’s war against the Soviet Union, who had married an Afghan woman, and was seized in a house in Lahore, Pakistan, far from the battlefields of Afghanistan, and the other man, as was common in 2001, before the 9/11 attacks, had been persuaded to travel to Afghanistan to help the Taliban defeat their enemies, the Northern Alliance, in a long-running civil war that had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or international terrorism, and had not raised a finger against US forces.
Sherif El-Mashad: An Egyptian businessman and humanitarian aid worker
Sharif al-Mishad (also identified as Sherif El-Mashad) is an Egyptian, born in 1976. A talented athlete and carpenter in his youth, he enrolled in a technical school to learn woodworking, cabinetmaking, painting, tiling, plumbing and roofing, and, after graduating, spent three years working in Sinai at some of Egypt’s largest beach resorts. There, he began to learn Italian from the tourists, and in 1997, after his father died, decided to travel to Italy, to stay with his uncle, an Italian citizen who lived in Como, in the hope of finding better paid work to provide for the family.
Once he had secured a work permit, he worked in a restaurant and a bar, but soon found that his skills as a craftsman would pay better. After working as an apprentice with two painting companies, he obtained a license from the Chamber of Commerce in Como to work as an independent contractor, and set up his own company, “Sherif El-Mashad,” running the business out of his home.
In the spring of 2001, he met a wealthy Kuwaiti businessman, who encouraged him to travel to Afghanistan to do charity work. As he explained to his lawyers, at the London-based legal action charity Reprieve, he saw this as “a dual opportunity,” allowing him not only to network with a well-connected businessman, but also to help those less fortunate than himself by distributing humanitarian aid — food, clothes, and blankets. Providing an analogy to his lawyers, he explained that the plan was akin to “organizing a charity gala with a prospective business partner.”
As a result of this meeting, El-Mashad booked a round-trip ticket, intending to stay in Afghanistan for a couple of months, before returning home to work. It was obvious that he had no intention of staying any longer, because, as his lawyers, explained, two days before he left Italy in July 2001, he had billed a customer almost €15,000 for painting services to be collected on his return.
His mother, who is the deputy principal of a school in Egypt, explained in 2006 how she had advised her son against traveling to Afghanistan. “I never wanted him to go on that trip”, she said, “because I knew that the region was unstable and so many events were taking place there, but he was stubborn. He was very kind and grateful to his family, though.” A week after his arrival, according to his mother, “he called his uncle, who lives in Italy, and told him that he arrived and asked him to reassure me.”
After that, he effectively disappeared off the face of the earth, until his uncle called to say that he had received a postcard from Guantánamo (via the International Committee of the Red Cross), in which he wrote that “he had been visiting a friend in Afghanistan and subsequently enlisted in a ‘rescue organization’ that offered ‘humanitarian aid to the Afghani people.’” Although he ended up staying in Afghanistan for longer than he intended, helping his friend, who, as he explained in Guantánamo, “passed out donations to help the Afghani people,” they remained safe in Kabul until November 2001, when, with the Northern Alliance approaching, and rumors spreading that Arabs were no longer safe, they set off for the Iranian border, intending to return home. As he also explained, “I had a valid visa to Iran and a return ticket with an Iranian airline.” However, when they discovered that the border crossing was closed, they realized that they would have to leave via Pakistan, but were detained by Pakistani soldiers after crossing the border and arriving in a small village. El-Mashad then spent three weeks in a Pakistani prison in Peshawar, and was then flown to the US prison at Kandahar airport, where he spent several more months before being transferred to Guantánamo.
There seems to be no reason to dispute this story, and El-Mashad clearly explained it at length to his interrogators in Guantánamo, telling them how he traveled to Kabul, how he met up with the Kuwaiti businessman, how he “heard of the attacks in America while listening to the radio,” how he and “all who were present with him were sorrowful and none of them were happy,” and how he fled from Afghanistan and was seized.
However, once he was in US custody, he became the victim of patently false allegations made by other prisoners, either through coercion or torture, or through the promise of preferential treatment, of the kind that are disturbingly familiar to those who have studied closely the rulings in the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions over the last year and a half.
One of these allegations was made by a prisoner who was rescued by US forces from a prison in Afghanistan, and then transported to Guantánamo, even though he had been imprisoned as a spy by al-Qaeda and had been subjected to horrendous torture. This prisoner claimed that, in early 2000, El-Mashad “participated in torturing him through beatings and electric shocks”, even though, as El-Mashad pointed out, he was in Italy in early 2000 and had the documents to prove it.
He also told his lawyers that, in the early days of his imprisonment, “I was first accused of aiding the Arabs in Bosnia. Then they changed the accusation that I was there just for training. In both cases, it’s impossible that I was in Bosnia at the time of the war in 1991, simply because at that date I was 14 years old! From 1991-1997 (the duration of the Bosnian war) I was studying at my school and I never left my country to anywhere. I have the proving documents.” He also explained that another set of false allegations came about because the US authorities mistook him for a significant figure in al-Qaeda, which led to a number of other false allegations, including claims that he trained recruits in urban warfare at a military training camp. Another false allegation, made by an unnamed “source”, was that he sold videotapes of the bombing, in 2000, of the USS Cole.
“Throughout my life, I was never involved in any banned or illegal activities by any means,” he told Cori Crider of Reprieve in August 2008, during his first visit with a lawyer from the legal action charity, adding, “I don’t have any file with any police office or any bad record with any authority.” He also explained that Italian agents had visited him in Guantánamo and had confirmed that there was no case against him. “They told me they knew I was innocent and they would ask the United States to release me,” he said, adding, “My case is very clear. I have physical evidence to defend myself against these charges.”
Abdul Ra’ouf al-Qassim: A Libyan seized in Pakistan
Abdul Rauf al-Qusin (also identified as Abdul Ra’ouf al-Qassim, and named in court documents as Abu Abdul Raouf Zalita) is a Libyan, born in 1965, who was cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2006. A soldier in the Libyan army from 1983 to 1989, he had then deserted, traveling to Afghanistan “to immigrate and to start a new life,” as he explained to his military review board in Guantánamo in May 2005. After fighting with the mujahideen until 1993, when the last remnants of the Soviet regime fell, he “traveled back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan” — at one point studying at university in Quetta — and also met and married an Afghan woman, Rahima, with whom he had a daughter, Khiria, who has spent the whole of her young life without her father.
Al-Qassim was captured in Lahore in May 2002, at the house of a Pakistani, after escaping from war-torn Afghanistan with his pregnant wife, but although it was clear that he had not taken up arms against the Americans, it was far less clear that he would not be regarded as a threat by the government of his home country. At his review in 2005, he explained (via a military officer assigned to him instead of a lawyer) that he had received military training at two Libyan camps in Afghanistan, but only because he was living there, and also admitted that he had joined the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group — exiled opponents of the Gaddafi regime — but only “out of desperation — he was broke, had no place to go, was hungry, unemployed and had no way to support himself.” He added that his family “did not receive monetary support from the [LIFG], but he received food, shelter and an allowance for clothes.” He also agreed with previous statements he had made: that he “did not believe in violence,” and that he “angrily defined [al-Qaeda’s] leadership and members as ‘savages’ who twist the meaning of Islam, thereby hurting all Muslims.”
Although al-Qassim stated that a Libyan delegation, who visited Guantánamo in 2004 (and were actually flown there by the CIA), told him that they “knew he was with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group only by name,” that he was “obligated to be with them,” and that they would “take care of him,” he repeatedly told his Assisting Military Officer that he was “afraid of returning to Libya.” His AMO reported, “He said he does not want to go to Libya because he feels he cannot trust them and because they put people in prison for no reason. He said he feels that if he returns to Libya, even after being released by the United States, he would be sent back to prison.” Such was his concern that the Presiding Officer noted, “For the record, make sure that we put in our report that the Detainee is afraid of returning to Libya.”
In spite of this, the US government sought to repatriate al-Qassim, and his lawyers — at the Center for Constitutional Rights — fought a legal battle for over three years to prevent his forcible return. In a court filing in December 2008 (PDF), they noted his ongoing legal limbo:
The Government has cleared him for transfer from Guantánamo, and has twice attempted to repatriate him to Libya, the country from which he fled to Afghanistan more than a decade ago in order to avoid religious persecution. Petitioner has a credible fear that he will be subject to imprisonment, torture and possible summary execution if he is forcibly returned to Libya, and he has resisted all attempts to repatriate him to that country. He remains detained in Camp 6, an isolation facility, more than six years after his detention and nearly two years after the Government’s first notice of intent to transfer him out of Guantánamo.
Saleh Sassi: An insignificant adventurer
The third man released in Albania, Saleh bin Hadi Asasi (more commonly known as Saleh Sassi, and also identified in Guantánamo as Sayf bin Abdallah) is a Tunisian, born in 1973, who, like the two men described above, was cleared for release by a military review board under the Bush administration, and by President Obama’s Task Force.
A welder and a skilled laborer, he moved to Italy in 1998, hoping to find work and a better life, and settled in Turin, where he secured a work permit and found employment in the construction industry. Apparently persuaded to travel to Afghanistan during a vacation from work, he reportedly spent some time at a mountain outpost north of Kabul, and was later wounded when a truck he was traveling in was shot at. Hospitalized, first in Kabul, and then in Khost, he was transported to the Pakistani border, where he was seized by the Pakistani authorities.
In Guantánamo, as his lawyers at Reprieve noted, he was often held “in brutal conditions.” The vast majority of his imprisonment was spent in isolation, which caused him to suffer clinical depression. In discussions with his lawyers, he explained that his imprisonment was “a long and unending nightmare.” He was also visited by teams of foreign interrogators — both Italian and Tunisian. In late 2002, Tunisian agents came to Guantánamo and left no doubt about what awaited him if he were to be returned to Tunisia, which included “water torture in the barrel.”
What now, and what next?
With the release of these four men, 188 prisoners remain in Guantánamo, but while the Albanian and Spanish governments are to be congratulated for offering homes for men who would otherwise rot in Guantánamo for the rest of their lives, the Italian government, which is only interested in taking prisoners who can be put on trial in Italy (as demonstrated with the transfer of two Tunisians in December) ought to be ashamed that it did not accept Sherif El-Mashad, who was so clearly seized by mistake, and who, with family in Italy and viable skills that he could use once more, has, essentially, been betrayed by the country which he once called home.
Above all, though, the greatest shame must settle on the United States, which still refuses to accept its own responsibility to provide new homes for cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated. The exact number of prisoners in this category is difficult to establish, because the Obama administration has not provided details of the nationalities of these prisoners (who now number 106). When the Task Force announced its final decisions about the prisoners last month, it was reported that around 60 of the 106 are Yemenis. These men will not be released until the Obama administration finds some spine, having capitulated to fearmongering about Yemen after the failed plane bomb at Christmas, and suspending all further releases to Yemen. Back in October, it was reported that three others are Saudis (who, in theory, could be returned tomorrow), which means that around 42 of the cleared prisoners are awaiting new homes.
Two of these, who have been offered a new home in Switzerland, are amongst the remaining seven Uighurs, another is an Uzbek who has been offered a new home in Latvia, and three others (plus one of the Yemenis) are, as mentioned above, expected to arrive in Spain shortly. However, that still leaves 36 men waiting for new homes, and it seems probable that the countries of Europe, which, before Wednesday, had taken 12 cleared prisoners (with Bermuda and Palau also taking another ten of the Uighurs), will run out of largesse before all 36 are rehoused, leaving the US government — and its people — with a stark choice: hold them forever, or, as was planned last April (before Obama scuppered the proposal), bring some of them to live in the United States.
This is not only the right thing to do; it will also demonstrate to the American people — and to its surplus of hysterical pundits and politicians — that not everyone who was held at Guantánamo was a terrorist, bent on the destruction of the United States. Why is it, I wonder, that Europeans — in Albania, Belgium, France, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Switzerland — can understand that between 90 and 95 percent of the men held at Guantánamo had no connection to terrorism, and that many of these men are still imprisoned, awaiting an end to their long and lawless ordeal, but Americans cannot?
Andy Worthington, a regular contributor to The Public Record, is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and the definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009. He maintains a blog at andyworthington.co.uk.