It doesn't take much investigation to discover
that Algeria has a bleak human rights record, which is one of the reasons that,
until last week, when 49-year-old Mustafa Hamlili and 28-year-old Abdul Raham
Houari were freed from Guantánamo, no Algerian prisoners had been repatriated.
This was in spite of the fact that at least 10 of the 17 Algerians held in
the prison have been cleared for release – some for around two years – after
multiple military review boards determined that they no longer represented
a threat to the U.S. or its allies.
Herald reported that the U.S. administration blamed the Algerian government
for the delay in repatriating cleared Algerians from Guantánamo, citing
a comment by Sandra Hodgkinson, the Defense Department deputy in charge of
detainee affairs, who said earlier this year that the Algerian authorities
"simply decided that they do not want to accept back any of the detainees
from the United States." Hodgkinson added that the Algerian government's
stance was "discouraging," and claimed that, last summer, as the
Herald described it, "Washington and Algiers agreed on [the] repatriation
of a number of Algerians she would not quantify. Then the North African nation
There is, undoubtedly, some truth to Hodgkinson's claims, but it is not the
whole story, as the case of another cleared prisoner, Ahmed Belbacha, demonstrates.
A former soccer player in Algeria who had been working for a government-owned
oil company, Belbacha fled to the UK when Islamist militants threatened his
life. He settled in the southern coastal town of Bournemouth, where he found
steady employment and a group of close friends.
While waiting to see if his asylum claim was successful, Belbacha took a month's
vacation to visit Damascus, Tehran, and an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan,
where he was seized by opportunistic soldiers and sold to U.S. forces. When
he was finally cleared for release from Guantánamo in February 2007,
having been found not to pose a threat to the U.S. or its allies – including
the UK and Algeria – his return to the UK was refused by the British government,
on the grounds that he was not technically a resident at the time of his capture
(even though he had already spent two productive years in the UK).
His lawyers at the London-based legal action charity Reprieve
were then obliged to mount a series of successful legal actions in the U.S.
courts to prevent his return to Algeria, where he is at risk not only from
the terrorists who had previously threatened him, but also from the Algerian
intelligence services, who, as one of his lawyers, Zachary Katznelson, explained
last summer, "have told Reprieve that if Ahmed returns, they cannot ensure
that he will be safe – from their own personnel." Katznelson also said,
"He says his cell in Guantánamo is like a grave and that although
it sounds crazy he would rather stay in those conditions than go back to Algeria.
The fact is that he is really, really scared about what might happen to him
Sadly, while Ahmed Belbacha's fears are genuine, and should, by law, be respected
by the U.S. administration, which is a signatory to international treaties
preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the
risk of torture, the administration has persistently demonstrated its determination
to bypass its obligations by signing "memoranda of understanding"
with abusive regimes including Libya, Tunisia, and Jordan. For its part, Algeria
has refused officially to sign a "memorandum of understanding," but,
as the case of Ahmed Belbacha shows, this has not prevented the U.S. authorities
from attempting to strike deals with the Algerian government.
Moreover, although the "memoranda of understanding" purport to guarantee
humane treatment, they are clearly worthless. Last June, when two cleared Tunisians,
Lagha and Abdullah
bin Omar, were repatriated, their "humane treatment" consisted
of summary imprisonment, abuse, threats to rape bin Omar's wife and daughters,
and, finally, show trials based on false evidence obtained from other prisoners
tortured in Tunisia, in which the two men received jail sentences of three
and seven years, respectively.
The UK, too, has been involved in similar underhand activity, making equally
worthless agreements with these same regimes in an attempt to rid itself of
unwanted foreign nationals, who have never been charged with a crime but who
have been held in prison, or under draconian control orders, which amount to
house arrest. This imprisonment without charge or trial is based on secret
evidence, which has never been disclosed but which, like the "evidence"
against the Guantánamo prisoners, is often of dubious provenance. Where
it has surfaced it has hinted at ineptitude on the part of the British intelligence
services, or false information obtained from prisoners tortured in other countries,
Although a number of courts have intervened
to prevent the repatriation of some of those held in Britain's various Guantánamo-influenced
forms of detention – to Libya, Jordan, and, in a few cases, Algeria – other
Algerians have either failed to prevent their deportation in the courts or
have given up on the law entirely, bowing to the pressure exerted on them to
force them to return "voluntarily" to the countries of their birth.
The results have been mixed. Some have been released, while others have been
tried and sentenced
for dubious terrorism-related offenses (despite UK assurances to the contrary).
But throughout this process the treatment appears to have been arbitrary, and
it is for this reason that I chose the "Russian roulette" analogy
in the heading of this article.
In Guantánamo, Ahmed Belbacha's fear of repatriation is not unique.
Several other cleared Algerian prisoners are also terrified of returning to
the country of their birth, although their lawyers have not been obliged to
take legal action, because the U.S. government has not, to date, attempted
to send them home.
From what I understand, however, the two men repatriated last week had decided,
unlike Ahmed Belbacha, that they preferred to take their chances with repatriation.
No news has yet emerged from Algeria to indicate whether or not Mustafa Hamlili
and Abdul Raham Houari were freed on their return, or whether – in the disturbing
game of Russian roulette that confronts Algerians repatriated after facing
allegations of impropriety, however groundless – they are, as you read this,
facing ill-treatment, possible torture, show trials, and further imprisonment.
What is certain, however, is that neither man ever constituted a threat to
either the United States or Algeria.
The first, Abdul Raham Houari, who was just 21 years old when he was captured
in Afghanistan, in November or December 2001, appears to be one of countless
impressionable young men fired up by false hopes that Afghanistan would be
an inspirational place for a young Muslim to visit. At a military review board
hearing in December 2005, he denied an allegation that his travel had been
funded by al-Qaeda. He explained that his journey to Pakistan had been facilitated
by a Pakistani youth mosque, and that he had paid for his own travel. He also
explained that, although he had stayed in a guest house in Bagram, Afghanistan,
where he had been taught how to use a Kalashnikov, he had not engaged in hostilities
against either the Northern Alliance or the United States. He added that he
was injured while sleeping when someone accidentally detonated a grenade, and
that when he awoke he was in a vehicle near a hospita. He was then taken to
the hospital, where he was later seized and transferred to Guantánamo.
All that can be gleaned of his behavior in Guantánamo comes from this
same transcript, where it was alleged that his "[o]verall behavior has
been generally non-compliant and aggressive" and that he "has failed
to comply with guards' instructions on a number of occasions. He has been informed
to keep his clothes on and has repeatedly ignored those orders and has stood
in his cell naked." A sign that this may have been less to do with deliberate
insubordination, and more to do with a head injury and unaddressed mental health
issues can be found in Houari's reply. "I have never misbehaved while
being a detainee," he said. "I am under medication for my head injury,
and I removed my clothes because I had a headache."
The second man, Mustafa Hamlili, was, like at least 120 other prisoners in
Guantánamo, seized in Pakistan, and not, as the administration has repeatedly
alleged, on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Forty-two years old when he was
dragged from his home, in a village near Peshawar, on May 25, 2002, the former
university professor, who fought the Russians in Afghanistan, ran through his
history in a dignified and eloquent manner during his tribunal at Guantánamo.
Declaring his innocence, he explained, "For the last 15 years, I have
not [had] any problems with anyone in my village. Anyone in my village can
verify that. I am 45, and I am not going to do anything foolish. If I were
going to do these things, I would have done them when I was younger. I am a
Muslim. Islam is against all terrorism, violence, and problems between people."
According to the timeline of events described by Hamlili, he traveled to Pakistan
from Saudi Arabia in 1987 and took up a job with the International Islamic
Relief Organization, a large and well-funded Saudi charity, working in the
Orphans' Department and looking after a school until it closed in 1990. He
then supported himself and his family by working as a welder and a honey seller
for the next 10 years. He traveled to Yemen from 1995-97, where he took the
opportunity to study because he didn't need a visa, and then returned to Pakistan.
He explained that from June to September 2001 he worked for the charity al-Wafa
in Kandahar, digging wells and remodeling mosques, until the office closed.
Dozens of prisoners at Guantánamo – all now released – were held because
the U.S. regarded al-Wafa as an organization that was associated with al-Qaeda
and the Taliban, although Hamlili was not convinced by the associations suggested
by the authorities, explaining that he "never suspected al-Wafa was a
terrorist organization because they had blankets, medicine, hospitals, and
equipment to repair roads." He also told his tribunal that he began working
with al-Wafa because "I was told there was a Saudi organization that was
looking for employees," adding, crucially, "The Arabs in Afghanistan
didn't want to work for al-Wafa because they considered it working for [the]
Saudi government. I was proud to be working for a humanitarian organization."
Throughout his tribunal, it was unclear what Hamlili had done to be designated
as an "enemy combatant," and his personal representative (the military
officer appointed in place of a lawyer) duly spoke up on his behalf, saying,
"The Pakistani police and the Americans confiscated his audiotapes and
books but found nothing to connect him with any terrorist activities."
Hamlili himself summed up his predicament when asked why he thought he was
arrested. "From what I understand," he said, "the Pakistani
intelligence was under pressure from the Americans to deliver al-Qaeda operatives
and other terrorists. The Pakistani intelligence arrested people (some were
poor and innocent) so they could show Americans they were working with them.
The Pakistani officer that arrested me said I had nothing to worry about. I
would be released shortly since they were looking specifically for al-Qaeda
members." Shamefully, Hamlili's story is far from unique, although other
tales of opportunistic arrests were not always expressed as eloquently by other
prisoners rounded up by the Pakistani authorities to "show Americans they
were working with them."
At the conclusion of his hearing, when asked, "Have you ever worked for
al-Qaeda or supported them in any way?" Hamlili reinforced the case for
his innocence by delivering the following stinging rebuke: "No, I would
rather starve than work for that organization. They try to control you and
do things to your religion."
In his last known hearing, in July 2006, Hamlili maintained the dignity he
had shown previously, speaking about the conditions in the prison that had
led, the previous month, to three prisoners committing
suicide. "What happened because of [the abuse of] the Koran and other
things could have been avoided if you had consulted with senior detainees about
some matters," he said. "With my regret, the miscommunication and
mistreatment created problems and uprising. I am sorry for the ones who killed
themselves recently. If they were around me, the wise one, the senior, I would
have stopped it from happening because it is against my religion. I ask God
to fix things and take care of mankind."
In conclusion, the following exchange, which touched on issues relating to
his possible repatriation, contained a measured defense of his religion and
his position on extremism, which I hope has come to the attention of the Algerian
Presiding officer: "I realize that you denied a lot of the allegations
against you in regards to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Should you return to Algeria,
what kind of assurances can the Board have that you are not going to return
to this kind of activity again?"
Hamlili: "If I wanted to be one of them, I would have worked for them
before I got to this detention. I did not participate before, and I will never
do that in the future. I pray and fast; I read the Koran. I am a Muslim. I
am a peaceful man. I like to do good things to people, which is what our prophets
teach us. What's happening now with these groups is not a representation of
Islam, because Islam is very clear. Islam religion is a humane religion. Islam
teaches people to work together."
Parts of this article are drawn from my book The
Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal