On Wednesday, the British Muslim support group Help The Prisoners stated that it had “received notification from an inmate at Macomer prison” — an Italian high-security prison on the island of Sardinia — that “three Tunisian inmates from Guantánamo Bay will be transferred there.” This is disturbing news, because, as Help The Prisoners note, “Macomer has been dubbed ‘Italy’s Guantánamo’ by inmates and independent human rights organizations who have been campaigning for change at the prison.”
In 16 letters received by Help The Prisoners, those held at Macomer allege that they have been subjected to ill-treatment including “beatings, abuse of their religious items, denial of medical treatment, [and] sexual humiliation.” Another recently received letter adds further disturbing details, and it is, therefore, no surprise that Help The Prisoners has stated that it intends to “file a UN submission to the Special Rapporteur on Torture on the detainees’ behalf.”
Why Italy’s Offer is a “Rendition” Proposal
However, the news is not entirely unexpected. Since June 15, when President Obama announced, following talks with Silvio Berlusconi in Washington, “This is not just talk, Italy has agreed to accept three specific detainees,” the Italian press has explained that Berlusconi’s unexpected reversal of his previous opposition to accepting cleared prisoners from Guantánamo was only agreed on the basis that the Italian government would take prisoners who would subsequently be imprisoned in Italy on the basis of criminal proceedings pending against them.
According to a translation of an article in La Repubblica that was sent to me, the US informally asked the Italian government in April to take six or seven prisoners from Guantánamo, and in the weeks that followed the Department of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice compiled a list of Guantánamo prisoners who had criminal proceedings pending against them in Italy.
Sources in the United States and Italy, with knowledge of the cases, explained that the Italian government subsequently whittled the list down to three specific Tunisian prisoners — Adel Ben Mabrouk, Abdul Ourgy and Riyad Nasseri — on the basis that all three men would be transferred from Guantánamo to Italian jails, and it was suggested that Roberto Maroni, the Minister of the Interior (and a member of Italy’s notoriously right-wing Northern League), only approved their transfer when he received reassurances that they would not be set free. This was confirmed in an article in the Christian Science Monitor, in which reporter Anna Momigliano wrote that Maroni, whose party was bluntly described as “oppos[ing] the presence of Muslim immigrants” in Italy, stated, “I oppose taking [the prisoners] in, as long as we are not sure they will be kept behind bars.”
La Repubblica added that the prisoners would not receive “credit” for their seven years in Guantánamo, and noted that, in 2007, the Milanese Public Prosecutor’s office had requested extradition of two of the men, but the Ministry of Justice refused to forward the extradition request to the US government because Guantánamo was “not US territory.” As a result, it is understood that the US government’s transfer of the men to Italian custody will not involve extraditing them, but rather expelling them, and the Italian government can therefore treat them not as prisoners who have already served a jail sentence, but as fugitives who are obliged to serve a full term.
As a source in the United States explained, this novel approach to disposing of prisoners in Guantánamo is actually a form of “rendition,” and, moreover, is particularly disturbing for two reasons: firstly, because the men in question were approved for transfer from Guantánamo (to the custody of their home governments, or to a third country willing to take them) by a military review board at Guantánamo under the Bush administration, which only happened because the military concluded that they no longer represented a threat to the United States; and secondly because, as they currently stand, the Italian proposals may actually be worse than what would await the men if they were returned to Tunisia.
Human rights abuses in Tunisia and Italy
To put this in perspective, it needs to be borne in mind that the men were not sent back to Tunisia from Guantánamo because of well-documented problems with repatriation arrangements negotiated between the US and Tunisian governments. In June 2007, two Tunisians cleared for release from Guantánamo — Abdullah bin Omar and Lotfi Lagha — were repatriated on the basis of a “diplomatic assurance” between the two governments, which purported to guarantee that they would be treated humanely. On their return, however, both men complained that they were threatened in Tunisian custody, and they were subsequently sentenced to seven and three years in prison, after trials that human rights observers condemned as “show trials.”
As a result, when the US government attempted to repatriate a third Tunisian, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, in October 2007, a District Court judge, Gladys Kessler, intervened to prevent his return, ruling that he “cannot be sent to Tunisia because he could suffer ‘irreparable harm’ that the US courts would be powerless to reverse.”
At the time of writing, questions remain about the alleged crimes committed by the three Tunisians in Italy, and what rights — if any — the Italian government plans to give them to appeal the supposed evidence against them. According to various Italian media reports, the arrest warrants issued in 2007 for Riad Nasseri (also identified as Riadh Nasri) and Adel Ben Mabrouk (identified as Moez Fezzani) were “for conspiracy to commit a crime, encouraging illegal immigration and a number of crimes linked to terrorism,” including involvement in the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), a splinter group of Algeria’s notorious Armed Islamic Group (GIA), and that Ourgy (identified as Abdul bin Mohammed bin Ourgy) was “suspected of having had links in Milan with people who sought volunteers to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan with Islamic insurgents.”
This is a source of concern not only because of long-standing claims that the Italian authorities have, in common with most Western countries, taken the lead from the US since the 9/11 attacks in overreacting to perceived terrorist threats, implementing punitive detention policies and, in June 2008, returning a Tunisian, Sami Ben Khemais Essid, to his home country, “despite a request by the European Court of Human Rights to suspend any measure to transfer Essid to Tunisia pending their review of his case” (as Human Rights Watch explained), but also because of the CIA’s notorious involvement, in February 2003, in the kidnap and “extraordinary rendition” of Abu Omar. The Egyptian-born cleric was seized from a Milan street in broad daylight and rendered to Egypt, where he was tortured, before finally being released from custody in 2007, and many observers believe that such an operation would have been inconceivable without the close cooperation of the Italian government.
Who are the three Tunisians?
In Guantánamo, little information has surfaced publicly regarding the activities of the three Tunisians in Italy, or, for that matter, providing firm evidence of their activities in Afghanistan. Adel Ben Mabrouk, who was 31 years old when he was seized crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan, worked in restaurants in Naples and Rome, and as a barber in Milan, according to his lawyers, and explained that he traveled to Afghanistan in early 2001, “because I became a Muslim when I was in Europe. My country was very tough on the Muslims. Afghanistan was a country where they were willing to take anybody, you don’t need any money to live there, and they welcome all the Muslims.”
In Guantánamo, he denied an allegation that he was part of a terrorist network in Italy, and that he “possibly” falsified passports “for fleeing al-Qaeda combatants who make it to Europe” (that use of the word “possibly” generally indicating that even the US military regarded the allegation as unreliable). He also refuted allegations that he was an “extremist” in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the civil war, and, to prove it, showed the tribunal the visa stamps in his passport, which he requested as evidence. The information about his purported activities in the former Yugoslavia was apparently provided by the Tunisian government, which had sentenced him in absentia to 20 years in prison for allegedly being a member of a terrorist organization operating abroad.
Abdul Ourgy, who was 36 years old when seized crossing the Pakistani border, admitted being a drug dealer in Italy from 1991 to 1995, but stressed, “I am not an Islamic fanatic.” After stating that he was encouraged to clean up his life by a man he met in Milan, “who taught him how to pray, gave him money” and encouraged him to go to a training camp in Afghanistan, which, as he described it, was run by veterans of the campaign against the Russians, who had nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda, he explained that he traveled to Afghanistan in 1997, and married an Afghan woman in 2000.
Explaining the circumstances in which he was seized, he said that, after the fall of the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, when Arabs were being killed by the Northern Alliance and by other Afghans, his brother-in-law took his wife to safety in Pakistan, but he stayed behind to pack up the household goods and then volunteered to go through the mountains to Pakistan. “I couldn’t go through the main road because I am an Arab,” he said. “That way, when he [the brother-in-law] entered Pakistan with all these household goods there would be no problem.”
A number of the allegations against Abdul Ourgy came from “a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant,” and are, therefore, extremely dubious, as they were probably extracted from one of the “high-value detainees’ — including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah — who were tortured in secret CIA prisons. According to this source, Ourgy “may have travelled” to Tora Bora with the Emir of the Tunisian Combatant Group and fought with al-Qaeda in Tora Bora, and was also “identified as Adel al-Tunesi, an explosives expert for al-Qaeda.” It was also alleged that he was responsible for the finances of the Tunisian Combatant Group (a group opposed to the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which was added to the US State Department’s “Terrorist Exclusion List” in October 2002), and, most alarmingly — for an allegation that was presented without any supporting evidence — it was suggested that he was involved in the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance, who was killed, reportedly by al-Qaeda agents, just two days before the 9/11 attacks.
In the hearing at Guantánamo for the last of the three, Riyad Nasseri, who was 35 years old when he was seized (also crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan), it was alleged that he was “condemned” in Italy for forging money, and that he “had a warrant order issued for terrorism-related crimes and subversion” (which sounds like a direct translation of a document provided by the Italian authorities — or perhaps nothing more a newspaper report). It was also alleged that he fought in Bosnia (an allegation that may have been provided by the Tunisian government, because it was also stated that, in absentia, he had been given a ten-year sentence in Tunisia for being a member of a terrorist organization operating abroad), and that he “led a band of thieves in Italy and Spain who cooperated with Algerian terrorists,” although there was no indication of where this rather fantastical-sounding allegation came from.
In a plethora of other unsubstantiated allegations, it was also claimed that he was a member of the Tunisian Islamic Front (another Tunisian opposition group, but one that has not been proscribed by the US government), that he was involved in establishing the Tunisian Combat Group, and that he was a member of the GIA. It was also alleged that he was “identified by a senior al-Qaeda lieutenant as having trained at the Khaldan camp [run by Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, and not connected to al-Qaeda] and that he eventually took over as the Emir of the Tunisian Group in Afghanistan,” which may indicate that either al-Libi (the CIA’s most famous “ghost prisoner,” who recently died in a Libyan prison) or Abu Zubaydah (the gatekeeper of the camp, and the CIA’s most well-known torture victim, along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) may have made that particular allegation. As with Abdul Ourgy, it was also alleged that he was in Tora Bora, and, specifically, that he fled from Jalalabad to the Tora Bora region after the area fell to the Northern Alliance, that he was injured during the US bombing, and that he and others subsequently “arranged their surrender.” Nasseri refused to take part in his hearing, but in the “Summary of Evidence” against him, it was noted that he refuted all the allegations against him.
Where this leaves the men is, at present, unknown, but the rumors from Macomer, and the comments attributed to Roberto Maroni, the Minister of the Interior, indicate that transferring them to Italy without firm assurances that they will receive a fair trial on their arrival may indeed be no better than returning them to Tunisia, and, as a result, President Obama needs to think carefully before risking another Guantánamo-related scandal to add to those that have already damaged his first six months in office — including his failure to act on behalf of the Uighurs, and the feeble cases put forward before judges in the habeas corpus hearings, which, most recently, led to humiliation in the case of Abdul Rahim al-Ginco, a Syrian who was allegedly involved with al-Qaeda, even though he had been tortured by al-Qaeda as a spy.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
As published exclusively on Cageprisoners.