As the U.S. courts put pressure on the government
to justify the long detention of prisoners at Guantánamo without charge
or trial (following the Supreme Court's ruling,
in June, that they have constitutional habeas corpus rights, and that the government
must justify their imprisonment), two of Guantánamo's oldest prisoners
have been quietly repatriated: 51-year-old Sudanese prisoner Mustafa Ibrahim
al-Hassan, and Mammar Ameur, a 50-year-old refugee from Algeria.
Hassan, a father of four – two boys and two girls – was immediately reunited
with his family after he arrived home. He was held at Guantánamo for
six years and two months, even though there was no basis whatsoever for his
imprisonment. Like others at Guantánamo, he had traveled to Pakistan
in 2002, to study his religion and to seek out business opportunities, but
was seized at a checkpoint by opportunistic Pakistani soldiers who were aware
that the U.S. authorities were offering bounty rewards for "al-Qaeda and
Taliban suspects," and that foreign visitors were easy prey.
Despite the fact that he had nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda or the
Taliban and was one of many innocent men seized in Pakistan without ever having
set foot in Afghanistan, he reported that he was treated brutally in Pakistani
custody. "When the investigators were interrogating me", he said,
"when I told them I went there to trade and I went there to study, they
hit me, they tortured me. They were torturing us with electricity and they
made us walk on sharp objects. They hit us a lot, and because of the pain we
just said anything."
Hassan also suffered horribly in Guantánamo and was beset by medical
problems. For years he complained about stomach pains, but he received no treatment.
Then, in 2007, medical tests revealed the cause of the pain – a stomach ulcer
that required immediate surgery. This was a source of great concern for him,
as he had already had his spleen removed while he was a free man. He also suffered
from liver pain in Guantánamo, and although his stomach surgery was
successful, a blood test showed that he was also suffering from liver disease.
In spite of this disturbing discovery, the authorities would not tell him how
advanced his illness was.
Although Hassan's health continued to deteriorate, he remained in Guantánamo,
cruelly overlooked, even as his compatriots were freed. Last December, he was
left behind after Adel
Hamad and Salim Adem, two other innocent Sudanese prisoners seized in Pakistan,
were released. Earlier this year, he was told that he would soon be released,
but in May, when al-Jazeera journalist Sami
al-Haj and two other men – Amir
Yacoub al-Amir and Walid Ali – were also released,
he was, inexplicably, left behind yet again.
These disappointments, added to his grave illness and the pain of separation
from his family, brought Mustafa al-Hassan to the point of despair. Zachary
Katznelson, one of his lawyers at the legal action charity Reprieve,
recently explained, "Mustafa is a family man, but it is almost impossible
to be a father from Guantánamo Bay. Mustafa is not allowed any phone
calls. Mail takes months and months to arrive. When it does arrive, it is usually
heavily censored, even if it contains only family news. Still, he thinks about
his children all the time. He wants to protect his children as much as possible
from the reality of having their father locked up so far away."
"My children should not have to bear these troubles," he told Katznelson
during a visit at Guantánamo. "They should not feel sadness or
depression, but should be allowed to be children. But their father has been
As Katznelson left, he said, "I am innocent. I didn't do a thing to hurt
anyone. All I want is to be home with my children."
The other released prisoner, Mammar Ameur, had been living in Pakistan since
1990, and had been a registered UN refugee since 1996. Ameur was captured at
the same time and in the same building as Adel Hamad, the Sudanese hospital
administrator released last December. He and his wife and their four children
lived in an apartment downstairs, and Hamad and his family lived upstairs.
In his tribunal at Guantánamo, Ameur specifically refuted an allegation
that his house was "a suspected al-Qaeda house." He pointed out that
it was a small, two-roomed apartment near an airport used by the military,
in an area that was "full of police stations," and indicated, with
some justification, that this was not an ideal location for al-Qaeda to operate
in with any degree of safety.
The allegations against Ameur were as weak as those against Hamad, who was
forced to refute groundless allegations that the Saudi charity who owned the
hospital he worked for, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), was a front
for terrorism. Ameur was accused of being a member of the Algerian Armed Islamic
Group (GIA), but he pointed out that he left Algeria before it was founded,
serving as a mujahedeen fighter against the Communist regime in Afghanistan
from 1990-92, and stressed, "I don't believe in this ideology because
it's against my religion. These people are criminals, like criminals everywhere."
Unable to come up with any other allegations, the U.S. authorities attempted
to implicate him in the purported terrorist activities of the International
Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), another huge Saudi charity that mounts
enormous humanitarian aid efforts, on the spurious basis that he knew someone
who worked for the organization, and with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth,
because of his neighbor. Cutting to the heart of this entire folly, Ameur described
what he was told by one of the Pakistanis who arrested him: "I was told
by Pakistan intelligence when they captured us that we were innocent … but
we have to do something for the Americans. We will have to give you as a gift
to protect Pakistan." He added, however, "Americans themselves have
detained me here for nothing; I thought it was a Pakistani mistake, but it
was the Americans. They have fabricated allegations as reasons to keep me here."
It is to be hoped that the Algerian authorities pay attention to Ameur's story
and do not subject him to a show trial on his return. The pity, of course,
is that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees failed to help him,
and that he must now endure the dangerous vagaries of the Algerian courts,
which may decide to make some kind of pointless example of him.
An even greater pity, of course, is that both he and Mustafa Ibrahim al-Hassan
were ever sent to Guantánamo in the first place. Like at least 120 other
prisoners seized in Pakistan, their long imprisonment never had anything to
do with al-Qaeda or the war in Afghanistan, and was, instead, the direct result
of opportunism on the part of the Pakistani authorities and gullibility on
the part of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, who somehow failed
to understand that, if you offer substantial bounty payments for "al-Qaeda
and Taliban suspects," you end up with nothing more than innocent men
– in this case a UN refugee and an economic migrant – packaged up as Osama
bin Laden's henchmen.
(This article draws on passages from my book The
Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal