The UK action charity Reprieve, whose attorneys represent over a dozen prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, reports that former Guantánamo prisoner, Algerian citizen Abdul Aziz Naji, has been sentenced to three years in prison in Algeria. Reprieve says the charges were “of past membership in an extremist group overseas – a charge derived from the unsubstantiated accusations the US administration made against him in 2002.”
News reports state that prosecutors initially had asked for a ten-year prison sentence, and a 5,000 euro fine (over $6,000 US dollars).
The Reprieve press release states, “During his trial held in Algiers on Monday 16 January, the prosecutor presented no evidence of Mr Naji’s guilt – rather, the judge simply questioned him and produced a guilty verdict. His lawyer, Hassiba Boumerdassi, filed an appeal of his sentence and will request that he be released on bail pending retrial.”
When Naji was first forcibly returned to Algeria in 2010 – the first Guantánamo detainee removed to a country where he refused to go, for fear of returning there – he was, according to the Jurist, held initially “under a [Algerian] statute that allows for the detention of terror suspects for up to 12 days.” The charges under which he was held were never clarified at the time, but presumably were similar or the same for which he was recently sentenced.
Naji was subsequently released in July 2010 under judicial supervision, with the proviso he report to police authorities weekly. At the time, a statement by Algiers prosecutors, reported by Reuters Africa, bragged that Naji’s case had been “dealt with in the most complete transparency and in respect for the law, whether in terms of procedure or the length of his detention.”
Naji had been forcibly deported from Guantánamo to Algeria with the full knowledge and approval of Congress, which, at that time, had demanded 15 days advance notice of any Guantánamo transfer. Naji had previously stated he feared any return to Algeria, where he anticipated either repression by the government or by Islamic extremists. His forcible return, the first such non-voluntary expulsion of any Guantánamo prisoner, violated the principle of non-refoulement or non-return of prisoners to states where they have reason to expect torture or other mistreatment. The principle is part of the United Nations Convention Against Torture treaty, to which the US is a signatory.
The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, relies on diplomatic “assurances” by host countries that they will not maltreat returning prisoners. But a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch described the problems 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.”
In the case of Algeria, the 2010 State Department report on human rights in that country notes that, while torture is formally illegal in Algeria, there have been numerous charges of torture by state police. Furthermore, the Algerian government obstructs oversight on such matters by non-governmental and UN agencies. The report describes abuse of prisoners in order to obtain confessions. While some government agents have been tried and convicted for such abuse, the State Department reports notes, dryly, that in regards to abuse by state officials, “impunity remains a problem.” Even more, local Algerian human rights attorneys have said that prisoner abuse occurs “most often against those arrested on ‘security grounds.’”
In regards to prison and detention conditions, the report states, “Prison conditions generally did not meet international standards, and the government did not permit visits to military, high-security, or standard prison facilities or to detention centers by independent human rights observers.”
Revelations About Drugging of Detainees, Torture for False Confessions
Since his release, Naji has been vocal about the treatment he endured in US custody. in a July 28, 2010, interview with the Algerian paper El Khabar, only days after his forcible transfer, Naji told the world about maltreatment at the hands of the Americans. He charged Guantánamo authorities with using torture to make detainees confess to terror charges.
“They force detainees to take some medicines for three months to drive them crazy, loosing memory and committing suicide,” he said, adding, “I still remember how a Yemeni prisoner killed himself for he couldn’t resist to torture and sexual abuse practiced by the prison caretakers.” Two of the six purported Guantánamo suicides were Yemeni, Ali Abdullah Ahmed (also known as Salah al-Aslami) and Mohammed Salih al-Hanashi, but it is not clear to which prisoner Naji is referring.
Charges of drugging prisoners have been widespread, but have been difficult to verify. (See this April 2008 report by Joby Warrick at The Washington Post.) A Pentgon inspector general investigation on such drugging was completed in 2009, Titled “Investigation of Allegations of the Use of Mind Altering Drugs to Facilitate Interrogations of Detainees,” the report remains classified. A Freedom of Information Act request by this author for the report is now 16 months old. Last September, a Senate Armed Forces Committee spokesperson told Truthout the Office of Inspector General’s investigation did not substantiate allegations of drugging of prisoners for the “purposes of interrogation.”
The involuntary use of drugs on prisoners would violate a number of domestic and international laws, as well as basic ethical codes of the medical professions. Yet, under the guidelines of the current “Army Field Manual” (AFM), whose protocols govern all interrogations past and present at Guantánamo, only drugs that cause permanent, lasting harm are not allowable for interrogation use. The provision from an earlier version of the AFM that forbid use of drugs that could create a “chemically induced psychosis” was dropped from the manual in September 2006, or even earlier.
Naji also told El Khabar “about how some detainees had been promised to be granted political asylum opportunity in exchange of a ‘spying role’ within the detention camp. He added that once released, they are maintained as spies serving for the US, under the cover of political refugees.”
The use of spies recruited by the Americans from among Muslim detainees and suspects has been reported in numerous instances. Abdurahman Khadr, the brother of Guantánamo prisoner, Omar Khadr, was an admitted “asset” for the CIA, who once described how he was sent to Guantánamo as a fake prisoner to spy.
More recently, the Tarek Mehanna case raised a good deal of controversy with charges from Mehanna and supporters that he was targeted by the FBI because the 29-year-old Sudbury, Massachusetts, man repeatedly refused to become an informant.
The “Case” Against Abdul Aziz Naji
No public report has indicated to what “extremist group” Naji is accused of belonging. In the May 2008 Joint Task Force-Guantánamo Detainee Assessment leaked by WikiLeaks last year, US intelligence maintained that Naji had belonged to the Pakistani-based group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. It also accused him of being “an identified al-Qaida courier.” The bulk of the accusations against him were levied by torture victim Abu Zubaydah, who supposedly said he had recruited Naji to be part of his “Martyrs Brigade.” Another torture victim, and one who the US relied upon to place Naji in Afghanistan, was Abd al-Rahim Abdul Razzak Janko, who was arrested by the Americans even though he had been tortured by the Taliban.
Abu Zubaydah was infamously tortured by the CIA, including being waterboarded 83 times, held in stress positions, had his head banged against a wall, suffered sleep deprivation and isolation. Mr. Zubaydah was flown from one CIA black site prison to another in the four or so years he was held in CIA captivity. Under later Department of Defense detention, it is not known exactly what ill treatment he may have endured, though it is known he is held in solitary confinement, and like the other Guantánamo detainees, is subject to interrogations under the current AFM. The manual has a special appendix known by the letter M that describes special interrogation techniques that cannot be used on regular prisoners of war. All told, AFM techniques used on Mr. Zubaydah could include, besides solitary confinement, modified forms of sleep deprivation, modified sensory deprivation or overload, stress positions, use of drugs and interrogation approaches meant to generate fear and humiliation.
Mr. Janko, who was released from Guantánamo in 2009, had provided supposedly incriminating information about approximately 20 other detainees, coerced from him via torture. After arrest and torture by the Taliban in 2000 for alleged sexual and espionage crimes, Mr. Janko was arrested by the US after 9/11 and was tortured from his first days while incarcerated at Kandahar Air Base. While the Taliban had used electric shock, stress positions, beatings on the soles of his feet (falaka) and water torture, to get Mr. Janko to falsely confess to sexual crimes and being an American and Israeli spy, the US relied upon sleep deprivation, stress positions, physical assault, attack by dogs and forced exercise to make him admit he was a terrorist. The US even used a Taliban videotape of Mr. Janko’s “confession” and tried (unsuccessfully, ultimately) to pass it off as the martyrdom video of an al-Qaeda suicide bomber.
Mr. Janko’s mental state deteriorated seriously, and he spent years in Guantánamo’s psychiatric ward, given antidepressant, antiseizure and antipsychotic medications. He subsequently filed suit against the US government for the torture, and is said to live under an assumed name in Belgium.
Both Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim Abdul Razzak Janko were two of the primary sources used to build the case against Naji. The other Algerian arrested with Naji, Musafa Hamilil, was released from Guantánamo without charges in July 2008 and returned to Algeria at that time. Once in Algeria, Mr.Hamlili was charged with “counterfeiting and affiliation to a militant group that is active abroad.” He was acquitted of those charges in February 2010.
But Naji was not so lucky. According to the Reprieve story, Naji is suffering “serious health complications” in regards to his leg, which was amputated after he stepped on a landmine in 2001, while doing charity work in Kashmir. The US accused him of being a landmine expert, but Naji told his Combatant Status Review Hearing that he had nothing to do with mines or the planting of mines, and admitted to some details because of serious beatings. “I had a difficult time when I was first transferred to Cuba … I was tortured and made to tell things against myself,” Naji told the Guantánamo military hearing. “The interrogators forced me to say these things, because I was scared to be punished.”
His family is reportedly concerned about the deterioration of Naji’s health while imprisoned at El Harache prison in Algiers. His attorney, Hassiba Boumerdassi, reports his condition is “worsening by the day.” Reprieve charges that Naji has been denied adequate health care.
Katie Taylor, a “Life After Guantánamo” caseworker for Reprieve stated, “It is outrageous that Mr Naji is being punished again for the same discredited accusations that the US used to hold him in Guantánamo for eight years without charge or trial – this time in his own country. Algerian authorities must restore his right to a fair trial and overturn his conviction on faulty charges for which the prosecutor did not even bother to introduce evidence.”
Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist living in Northern California and a regular contributor to Truthout and The Public Record, blogs about civil liberties and issues revolving around the US government’s torture program at The Dissenter. He can be reached at sfpsych at gmail dot com. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @Jeff_Kaye