Law

Who is the Syrian Released from Guantanamo to Bulgaria?

On May 4, two prisoners were released from Guantánamo — one to Spain and one to Bulgaria. Spanish media revealed that the former prisoner offered a new life in Spain (following the arrival of Walid Hijazi, a Palestinian, in February) was a Yemeni, but no further information has yet been revealed regarding his identity. However, the identity of the ex-prisoner released in Bulgaria — the first to be offered a new home in the Balkan state — was revealed in the national media.

Soon after his arrival, RTT News explained, “Neither [Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan] Tsvetanov nor the Pentagon disclosed his identity, but local media reported that the man was a 38-year-old Syria-born Kurd named Masum Abda Mohammed.” The news report added that Tsvetanov has stated that Mohammed was “accompanied by his relatives,” which, if confirmed, will demonstrate a certain generosity of spirit on the part of the Bulgarian government, and will augur well for his psychological adjustment to life after Guantánamo in a new and unknown country.

While the release of prisoners in Western Europe — or even the suggestion of it — has generally provoked ferocious media attention, reporting in Eastern Europe has been noticeably more muted — as with the release of a prisoner in Hungary in November, and three prisoners in Slovakia in January this year, where the anonymity of the men appears to have been thoroughly preserved (although whether this is a good thing or not is difficult to ascertain, as, without outside scrutiny, there appears to be no way of knowing whether their resettlement is proceeding smoothly or not).

However, with the identity of the man released in Bulgaria exposed, I thought it would be useful to explain what is known of his story, to dispel any doubts that might linger, in Bulgaria or elsewhere, regarding whether or not he poses any threat. As I have learned though conversations with journalists in Georgia, Slovakia and Switzerland, it is easy for people in host nations to be influenced by the Bush administration’s enduring propaganda regarding the prisoners — that they were “the worst of the worst” — and not to appreciate that the majority of the men were sold to the US military by their Afghan and Pakistani allies, often very far from any battlefield, and that, moreover, the Obama administration would not release prisoners that officials regard as a threat to the US or to anyone else.

Part of the problem is that documents detailing the US authorities’ supposed evidence against the prisoners are readily available, without any editorial comment, even though they should be stamped with a warning, to indicate that much of the information is not necessarily accurate. This is because much of it — as judges have been discovering while examining prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions — is untrustworthy information, masquerading as evidence, which was extracted through the coercive interrogations of the prisoners themselves, or of their fellow prisoners.

In this, the case of Masum Abda Mohammed (who was identified in Guantánamo as Maasoum Abdah Mouhammad, but who stated that his name was Bilal) is typical. What is certain is that he and three other Syrians, who had been sharing a house in Kabul at the time of the US-led invasion in October 2001, were seized while crossing the Pakistani border in December 2001, and subsequently transferred to US custody.

After that, the US authorities began interrogating them — for “actionable intelligence,” as they did with all the prisoners — and, along the way, began collecting information, in a shockingly haphazard manner, which, essentially as a by-product of the interrogations’ main purpose, established narratives that purported to justify their detention. Discovering how much of this information is true is a puzzle that I have been deciphering for years, that judges have been grappling with in US courts for the last year and a half, and that the Obama administration’s interagency Task Force dealt with last year in Mouhammad’s case, when, while reviewing all the prisoners’ cases, they concluded that there was no reason for him to be held.

Whether the Task Force reached a similar conclusion about the other three men seized with him — 24-year old Ahmed Ahjam, 19-year old Ali Shaaban, and 20-year old Abu Omar al-Hamawe — is unknown, but it is possible, as three of the seven remaining Syrians in Guantánamo had been cleared by the Task Force last October, and several dozen more prisoners were cleared after that date, although to the best of my knowledge the other men are still held. Certainly, the impression given by Mouhammad, and by the other three men, is that they were essentially economic migrants, who had left Syria for the opportunities — spurious or otherwise — that were advertised in Afghanistan, and were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As Mouhammad explained at Guantánamo, and as I described it in my book The Guantánamo Files:

[He and the others] had been living together in a house in the Wazar Akbar Khan area of Kabul. This was one of the more upmarket areas of the capital, where most of the embassies and other grand houses had been taken over by senior figures in the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but although the Americans described their house as “a safe house where five to 20 personnel armed with AK-47 rifles could be found at any time,” which was used for “money and document forging operations” for al-Qaeda, Mouhammed described it as “a normal house, a place to eat, drink and sleep.” Al-Hamawe added that it was close to the Pakistani embassy and that their neighbors, who worked for the Red Cross, “knew that all of us were not fighters or Taliban, just refugees.”

As I also explained:

The four men certainly matched the profiles of economic migrants, drifting from country to country in search of employment, and drawn to Afghanistan by its Arab-influenced reputation for welcoming Muslims from all around the world. They said that only seven people lived at the house (themselves, the owner, and two other Syrians), and that they all put money in to keep the place running. Al-Hamawe worked at a store in Kabul, but planned to move to Pakistan when a friend sent him money from Syria, Mouhammed, who had been a policeman and a grocer in Syria, had saved some money while working, and planned to move on to Jordan, Shaaban had been an ironsmith in his father’s store and went to Afghanistan because he wanted to move there, and, according to US intelligence, Ahjam worked for al-Wafa [a Saudi humanitarian aid charity, which the Bush administration regarded as being tied to al-Qaeda, although no proof of this was ever forthcoming, and almost all of those who worked for the charity, including its Saudi director, were subsequently released].

In disputing Mouhammad’s story, the authorities not only alleged that the house was a safe house, which he “operated,” but also, over the years, built up a picture involving claims that he “trained in al-Qaeda camps” and “was a fighter in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan” (where a showdown between al-Qaeda and the US military took place around the time of his capture). These are typical allegations leveled against those seized crossing the Pakistani border, but in the courts — the only objective forum in which allegations like these have been tested — judges have often dissected them and found them to be unpersuasive.

In Mouhammad’s case, he was never given an opportunity to clear his name in a courtroom, because he was released before any ruling was delivered regarding his habeas petition. As a result, he remains, officially, tagged as an “enemy combatant,” but it is to be hoped that, in Bulgaria, if his story ever surfaces, those who try to construct a narrative from the collection of uncorroborated statements and allegations in his file realize that the best indicator of the reliability of the Bush administration’s supposed evidence is that Obama’s Task Force authorized his release, having concluded, presumably, that his own account was more reliable than the one concocted by the authorities in Guantánamo after years of pointless interrogations.

The Bulgarians are, moreover, to be congratulated for offering Maasoum Mouhammad a new home, and for recognizing that a Kurdish Syrian refugee, deprived of eight years of his life in Guantánamo, could only expect far worse treatment had he ended up back in Syria, whose prisons — full of the most ill-defined dissidents — are amongst the most feared, and least accountable in the world.

POSTSCRIPT: Today (May 17), Saba, the Yemen News Agency, reported that the Yemeni released in Spain is named Yasin, and that he was released after he “was found cooperative with the authorities.” This suggests that he may be Yasim Basardah (aka Yasin Basardh), who won his habeas case last March.

This report was originally published on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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.

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