The odyssey of Abdul Aziz Naji has taken many terrible twists and turns since he was seized in Pakistan in May 2002, tortured at Bagram, then sent to Guantanamo, were he was formally cleared of any charges in a review of prisoner status last year. He was forcibly repatriated to Algeria on July 20, despite his fears of being harmed by Islamic forces or the government upon his return. Such forcible repatriation of a prisoner or detainee who fears persecution or worse is a violation of international law. This principle of non-refoulement, or non-return is specifically forbidden in the UN Convention Against Torture and Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The Obama administration was cleared to effect the deportation against the prisoner’s will by no less than the Supreme Court, who rejected a lower court order blocking the action. What hasn’t been reported thus far is the role of Congress, who was mandated to have advance notice of the transfer.
According to the 2010 Homeland Security Appropriations, Interior Appropriations, Consolidated Appropriations, and Defense Appropriations Acts, all of which contain similar language on the subject, no funds are to be appropriated for the transfer of a Guantanamo prisoner to another state unless 15 days prior to release the President submit to Congress, “in classified form,” a statement regarding any risks to national security or U.S. citizens, the name of the prisoner and country of release, and “the terms of any agreement with the country or freely associated state that has agreed to accept the detainee.” (See PDF link.)
Congress Informed of Plan to Flout the Law
Both the offices of Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, confirmed to me that the 15-day notification did take place, meaning that requisite Congressional committees were informed of the deportation and the fact that it was not taking place on the basis of non-refoulement, and presumably, as the Obama administration has maintained, with “diplomatic assurances” from the Algerian government the prisoners would not be mistreated. The Washington Post said the administration took this to be good coin “because 10 other detainees have been returned to Algeria without incident.” But we know that in a number of these cases, the former Guantanamo prisoners were subsequently imprisoned and put on trial. Moreover, numerous human rights organizations have decried reliance on “diplomatic assurances” of safety as not being reliable.
Human Rights Watch described the problem with such “assurances”:
Governments that engage in torture routinely deny it and refuse to investigate allegations of torture. A government that is already violating its international obligation not to torture cannot be trusted to abide by a further “assurance” that it will not torture.
Then, too, there is fear that the government cannot protect returnees against being preyed upon by Islamic radical forces. As the U.S. 2006 State Department report on Algeria explained:
The country’s 1992-2002 civil conflict pitted self-proclaimed radical Muslims belonging to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and its later offshoot, the GSPC, against moderate Muslims. During the year  radical Islamic extremists issued public threats against all “infidels” in the country, both foreigners and citizens. The country’s terrorist groups generally did not differentiate between religious and political killings.
A number of remaining Algerian prisoners fear return as well. One of them, Farhi Saeed Bin Mohammed, who won his “freedom” via habeas appeal last year, was one of the prisoners whose deportation block was lifted by the Supreme Court at the same time as Naji. To date, he remains at Guantanamo. Andy Worthington describes the fate of the others, including Djamel Ameziane, a Berber who fled Algeria years ago and lived five years in Canada.
The action, or more properly, inaction of Congress in the face of the illegal return (by international standards and U.S. treaty) of Abdul Aziz Naji to Algeria is inexcusable. When asked to make further explanation on policy regarding non-refoulement in general, or in the case of Mr. Naji, both Sen. Levin and Sen. Feinstein’s office declined to comment. We can only be left with the impression that they did not intend to stand in the way of this breaking of international law, and only a widespread outcry has assured, for the moment, that further such deportations have been delayed.
While, after a week’s incarceration, and some confusion about his fate, Naji is now reported to be safe at his family’s home in Batna, about 300 miles east of Algiers, it’s not clear that his safety is assured. Naji had stated that he feared torture, or death, at the hands of either the Algerian government or the Islamic fundamentalist oppositions who have been fighting the government. Over 10,000 have died in this conflict since the early 1990s. As a July 25 New York Times editorial on the Naji deportation noted, U.S. State Department reviews have described the ongoing use of disappearances and the extraction of confessions through torture by the Algerian government.
Andy Worthington has described the case of Mustapha Hamlili, who was arrested with Mr. Naji in Peshawar. He was voluntarily repatriated from Guantanamo to Algeria in July 2008, but then “was subsequently charged with ‘membership in a terrorist organization abroad and using forged travel documents.’” He was only cleared of charges and released last February. Others have faced charges against them over a year after the actual repatriation. Naji may be safe now, but as Worthington warns, “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.”
The Hell that is Guantanamo
Naji’s own incredible tale of his incarceration at Guantanamo, reported in the Algerian newspaper El Khabar, has not received a U.S. audience. British journalist Andy Worthington describes it, though, in an article late last week. Worthington is a fantastic reporter who also recently updated the U.S. rendition story in an article, “New Evidence About Prisoners Held in Secret CIA Prisons in Poland and Romania.”
According to the July 28 interview with Naji, prisoners were tortured to give false confessions. Even more incredibly, they were forced “to take some medicines for three months to drive them crazy, loosing [sic] memory and committing suicide.” Charges of drugging prisoners have been widespread, but have been difficult to verify. An Inspector General investigation on such drugging was initiated in 2008, but nothing further has been heard, save for an indication earlier this year that the investigation was still underway.
Naji also charges that “some detainees had been promised to be granted political asylum opportunity in exchange of [sic] a ’spying role’ within the detention camp.” Once released, they maintain their spying role, he charged. It is difficult to imagine that the U.S. has not tried to use some prisoners in this way. In fact, the suicide bombing at the CIA’s Forward Operating Base Chapman, Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA officers and a Jordanian intelligence official last December, was undertaken by a Jordanian doctor who was supposedly “turned” after a short period of imprisonment (and likely torture or blackmail) by the Jordanians. One is reminded, too, of the attempts of Britain’s MI5 to turn British resident and U.S. rendition prisoner Binyam Mohamed into an informer, while he was being tortured in a Moroccan prison in September 2002.
We cannot know for sure, but it may have been Naji’s refusal to so turn informant that led him to be considered for forced repatriation by the Obama administration, as in all other cases since January 2009 the government had followed the Bush administration in not undertaking the forced deportation of any Guantanamo prisoner.
Naji’s forced repatriation, his story of drugging and torture and coerced confessions at Guantanamo, and tales of deals with prisoners, swapping political asylum for spying, are all very disturbing. They reveal a side of the government’s actions in what used to be called the “war on terror” that is rarely even mentioned in the press anymore. When any truth about U.S. military or intelligence activity does leak out, as when Wikileaks released tens of thousands of military reports from Afghanistan a few weeks ago, such attempts to unveil government actions have been met by official condemnation and even calls for extrajudicial action against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and China-like censorship of the Wikileaks website.
The United States exists today in a state of moral anarchism. The government gives lip service to the rule of law, but repeatedly and consistently shows its disdain for international protocols. As Shahid Buttar of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee pointed out recently, the FBI has been politically spying on Americans for ten years now, and wants the freedom to do even more. BORDC is one of 50 peace, environmental, civil rights, and civil liberties groups seeking “long overdue legislative limits to constrain the FBI” (PDF). Meanwhile, the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights are seeking “a federal court order restraining the Obama administration from killing [the son of Nasser al-Awlaki] without due process of law.” The son, Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, is on a government assassination list.
Cases like that of Abdul Aziz Naji put a human face on the actions of the U.S. government. Organizations as diverse as Wikileaks, BORDC, ACLU, CCR and others are fighting to turn this nation back from its headlong plunge into militarism, torture, and assassination, all the deformations that result from substituting imperialism for democracy. But real democracy will not take place until serious, and far-reaching societal and institutional change takes place. This is the challenge of our generation, a challenge we dare not refuse to answer.
Jeffrey Kaye is a psychologist living in Northern California who writes regularly on torture and other subjects for The Public Record, Truthout and Firedoglake. He also maintains a personal blog, Invictus. His email address is sfpsych at gmail dot com.