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September 6, 2007

Rights Group: Vows Not to Torture Worth Little

by Jim Lobe

Repatriated Guantánamo Bay detainment camp prisoners have once again been mistreated at the hands of their home countries despite "diplomatic assurances" of humane treatment made to the US government, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday.

The report, titled "Ill-fated Homecomings: A Tunisian Case Study of Guantánamo Repatriations," focuses on two men, Abdullah al-Hajji Ben Amor and Lotfi Lagha, who were sent home to Tunisia after serving approximately five years in Guantánamo – without ever being charged – only to face torture and abuse.

"Closing Guantánamo provides the United States one of the best opportunities to help rebuild its moral authority and international good will," said Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel for Human Rights Watch (HRW), referring to the increased pressure to close the facility. "Washington should not squander that chance by forcibly repatriating detainees to countries with known records of torture and abuse."

Tunisia, according to the State Department, uses sleep deprivation, electric shocks, water-boarding, cigarette burns, beatings and prolonged suspension by the wrists to interrogate suspects, and both men have told visitors that they would rather be back in Guantánamo than suffer their current abuse, says the report.

"The US State Department...is crystal clear about the persistence of torture and unfair trials in Tunisia," said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at HRW. "Does the US government really think that 'diplomatic assurances' are going to stand up against these entrenched practices?"

The US is officially prohibited, under the Convention Against Torture, from returning people to countries where there is a substantial risk of torture, but as another HRW report noted in March, the US government seems satisfied by simple assurances of proper treatment from the countries to which the detainees are being sent.

"Governments with records of torture don't suddenly change their behavior because the US government claims to have extracted some kind of assurance from them," said Carroll Bogert, associate director of Human Rights Watch. "This case shows precisely why the US government should be screening Guantánamo detainees before sending them home. Forcing people to go back to this kind of abuse is a clear violation of international law."

The March HRW report examined the case of seven Russian citizens who were released from Guantánamo Bay in 2004, following diplomatic assurances from Russia to the US that the repatriated prisoners would be treated humanely. The prisoners reportedly returned home to beatings, harassment, and torture.

HRW recommends putting a system in place whereby detainees are informed in advance of their transfer and are allowed to contest the decision before a federal court if they fear ill-treatment.

Priti Patel, an associate attorney with Human Rights First, told IPS that "our basic view is that the US should never transfer people to countries where it's more likely than not that the detainees will be tortured... [When prisoners] raise fears of being tortured...they should have these fears heard by an independent judge or court."

According to the report, approximately 50 of the 355 detainees now held in Guantánamo Bay come from countries with known records of abuse – such as Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan – and have told their attorneys that they do not wish to return home out of fear of being mistreated.

Al-Hajji, says HRW, was convicted in absentia of participating in a foreign terrorist organization in 1995 by a Tunisian military court, a charge he was only informed of upon his arrival in Tunisia, and one he says – had he known about it – certainly would have motivated him to ask not to be repatriated.

Unlike al-Hajji, Lagha had no unserved sentences, but since his return to Tunisia a judge has recommended that he also be tried for terrorist activities.

Upon returning to Tunisia 11 weeks ago, the 51-year-old father of eight al-Hajji and 38-year-old Lagha were handed over to Tunisian security forces, their blindfolds were swapped for hoods and they were taken to the Ministry of Interior, says HRW.

While Lagha was only threatened there, al-Hajji later told his family and lawyer that in these two days he was slapped, threatened with the rape of his wife and daughters, shaken awake when he tried to sleep, and made to sign a document he could not read due to the absence of adequate eyeglasses.

After briefly appearing in court, both men spent the next six weeks in solitary confinement, where al-Hajji, still without good glasses, could not even read to pass the time between the weekly 15 minute appointments with his family – appointments where guards watched and topics of conversation had to be reported.

"The US has a legal responsibility not to send detainees to places they are likely to be tortured and it needs to make sure it doesn't violate that legal obligation," said Patel.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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