Cleared But Still Held in Guantánamo
The Ordeal of Moroccan Prisoner Said al-Boujaadia
By ANDY WORTHINGTON
T here are, at conservative estimates, at least 50 prisoners in Guantánamo who have been cleared for release by military review boards from 2005 to the present day, but who are still held in appalling isolation. The majority are held in Camp VI, a maximum-security cell block, completed in December 2006, where they remain for 22 to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, in metal cells without windows. They have no opportunity to socialize with other cleared prisoners, have extremely limited opportunities for education or entertainment (no TV, no radio, and limited access to books), and their ability to communicate with their families by letter is subject to the whims of the authorities, who frequently delay the delivery of letters or misplace them altogether.
In the cases of dozens of these prisoners -- from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan -- they continue to be held because the Bush administration (which is usually more than willing to shred its international obligations) has, for the most part, agreed to be bound by international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture, although there are notable exceptions.
Last year, in an attempt to bypass its obligations, the US administration signed a "memorandum of understanding" with the government of Tunisia, which purported to guarantee the humane treatment of cleared prisoners released from Guantánamo, even though Tunisia is regularly condemned for endemic human rights abuses by the US State Department. When two men -- Lotfi Lagha and Abdullah bin Omar (aka Abdullah al-Hajji) -- were returned to Tunisia from Guantánamo, they were reportedly subjected to ill-treatment in Tunisian custody, and were then convicted and imprisoned in trials that were regarded by observers as woefully inadequate. A US District judge then intervened to prevent the return of a third cleared Tunisian, Mohammed Abdul Rahman, and another court recently intervened to prevent the return of another cleared prisoner, Ahmed Belbacha, to Algeria, another country with which the administration has been pursuing dubious "diplomatic assurances" of humane treatment.
While these cases account for the majority of the cleared prisoners who are still held in Guantánamo, others have been overlooked for other reasons, and one of these men is Moroccan national Said al-Boujaadia.
A father of three, al-Boujaadia, who is 39 years old, is from Casablanca. In 2001, he traveled to Afghanistan with his Afghan wife, whom he had met and married on a previous visit, and their three children. In the chaos that followed the US-led invasion in October 2001, he managed to secure the safe escape of his family, but was himself captured, as he attempted to help another family cross the Pakistani border to safety.
Hundreds of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay were seized at this time in a similar manner, and it has since become apparent that many were then sold by their Afghan captors to US forces, who were offering bounty rewards, averaging $5,000 a head, for al-Qaeda or Taliban suspects. When offered these rewards, many of the Americans' allies seized stray foreigners, in the knowledge that they could be packaged as "terror suspects" and sold.
Al-Boujaadia was cleared for release from Guantánamo in late 2006, when a military review board decided that he did not pose a threat to the United States or its allies -- including Morocco. He was reportedly scheduled to leave Guantánamo in April 2007, with another cleared prisoner, Ahmed Errachidi. At the last minute, however, while Errachidi was flown to Morocco to be reunited with his family, the US military decided to keep al-Boujaadia at the prison, not because of anything he had done, but because he had been requested as a witness at the trial by military commission of another prisoner, Salim Hamdan, a Yemeni who had been a driver for Osama bin Laden.
Hamdan's defense counsel offered alternatives that would have allowed al-Boujaadia to be released. These included videotaping a statement from him, or allowing him to testify from Morocco, but these options were all refused. The authorities continued to hold al-Boujaadia and failed even to explain to his lawyers, or to al-Boujaadia himself, that he was being held because he was required as a witness.
On December 6, 2007, al-Boujaadia finally testified on Hamdan's behalf. Despite an eight-month wait, it was clear that he had little to offer, and that Hamdan's defense counsel had acted correctly in trying to find ways to allow him to make a statement without having to remain in Guantánamo. Although he was seized on the same day as Hamdan, al-Boujaadia recalled only that the first time he saw Hamdan was when he was taken to a makeshift Afghan prison and found Hamdan lying face down on the floor. In response to further questioning, he explained that he had no idea whether Hamdan was an al-Qaeda member, and that he had not seen his car, which allegedly contained a number of rockets.
Since he has already given his testimony, there has been no reason for the US authorities to continue holding Said al-Boujaadia, but four months later he remains in Guantánamo, still separated from his family, and with no indication of when, if ever, he will finally be released.
In an attempt to address this oversight, lawyers from Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity that represents prisoners in Guantánamo, recently traveled to Morocco to raise his plight with the Moroccan government. In meetings with government representatives, and at a well-attended press conference in Rabat, Reprieve's Director, Clive Stafford Smith urged the government and the media to take action on Said al-Boujaadia's behalf. He noted that ten Moroccan prisoners had already returned home from Guantánamo Bay, and that each had been dealt with in a just and appropriate manner.
The lawyers also asked the government to assist the US authorities in their stated aim of closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay by making representations on behalf of two other Moroccan prisoners, Younis Chekkouri and Abdullatif Nasser, who have not yet been cleared for release.
Younis Chekkouri, who is 39 years old, traveled to Afghanistan in 2001, with his Algerian wife, after many years in Pakistan, where he had first traveled in search of work and education. The couple lived on the outskirts of Kabul, working for a charity that ran a guest house and helped young Moroccan immigrants, and had no involvement whatsoever in the country's conflicts. Chekkouri has repeatedly explained that he was profoundly disillusioned by the fighting amongst Muslims that has plagued Afghanistan's recent history, and has also expressed his implacable opposition to the havoc wreaked on the country by Osama bin Laden. In his military tribunal in Guantánamo, he described bin Laden as "a crazy person," adding that "what he does is bad for Islam."
Abdullatif Nasser, who is 43 years old, had worked as a small-scale businessman in Libya and Sudan, and had also spent time in Yemen and Pakistan. He was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001, and has explained that he was attracted to the country because of its Islamic scholars and its piety. In Guantánamo, he has experienced particularly harsh treatment, because he stands up for the rights of his fellow prisoners, and refuses to keep silent in the face of injustice.
All three men are represented by Reprieve, and Clive Stafford Smith made it clear, both in public, and in representations to the King and the government, that they are all happy to submit to any investigations that the Moroccan government thinks appropriate. "The men are perfectly willing to stand trial to face any charges your government feels are warranted," he explained to Moroccan officials. "They have been asking for a trial, after all, for six years. These men merely seek justice -- justice denied them for far too long by the American government."
Andy Worthington (www.andyworthington.co.uk) is a British historian, and the author of "The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison". He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.