A week ago Thursday, three former Guantánamo prisoners who were released in Slovakia in January this year, after the U.S. government concluded that it was unsafe for them to be returned to their home countries, which all have poor human rights records, embarked on a hunger strike to protest the conditions in which they are being held, in a detention center in the south west of the country. One of the men “described their living conditions as poor — having only beds and a sink at their disposal and being allowed to leave their rooms for only an hour per day,” and explained that they “are not allowed contact with anyone except for personnel in the facility and their lawyer.” The men are also protesting the fact that their status in the country has not yet finalized, and what they regard as a broken promise to find housing for them in a town with a Muslim community, so that they can begin to build new lives for themselves.
On Friday, as IPS reported, the former prisoner elaborated on the conditions under which the three men are held. “Conditions here are worse than in Guantánamo, I can say that with no hesitation,” he said. “In Guantánamo I was allowed to be outside for 20 hours a day. Here I am allowed to go out only for one hour. I have no idea why. In Guantánamo I was allowed to pray with other Muslims … but here that is not allowed either. They say it would be a security risk. Why? I do not understand. No one from the Slovak authorities has spoken to us. When I ask about all these things they keep saying the same thing — that they do not have time to talk to us.” He added, “In other countries people like us get spending money, housing and Internet connections. We are not allowed the Internet. Why not? They will not tell us.”
Until this story broke, the identities of the three men were unknown, but their spokesman identified himself immediately as Adel Fattough Ali El-Gazzar. A 44-year old accountant and former Egyptian army officer, with a master’s degree in economics, El-Gazzar, who is also fluent in English, was first cleared for release from Guantánamo by a military review board in 2006 or 2007, and was then cleared again last year by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, which reviewed the cases of all the Guantánamo prisoners, and recommended, at the time of his release, that 114 of the 198 men still in Guantánamo should be released (although only 17 men, including El-Gazzar and his two companions, have been released since the review was completed).
El-Gazzar had traveled to Pakistan in 2000 as a missionary, and had spent a year traveling around the country, meeting different people and spreading the word of Allah until the 9/11 attacks occurred. Throughout that period, he had, over a two-day period, also visited a military training camp run by the militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, but in Guantánamo he swiftly dealt with groundless allegations that he was a member of the group. At his tribunal in 2004, he gave the authorities a brief history lesson about how the Pakistani army had used LeT as one of its proxy armies in the Kashmir struggle, how LeT had a history of discord with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and how unimpressive he found the group’s arrangements in Pakistan. “I didn’t train there,” he said. “I was an Egyptian officer, I don’t need that type of training. It is not actually a camp, it is a joke … it is several tents on the top of a mountain.” He also explained that LeT “take people from the streets and give them training on the AK-47 then send them to Kashmir to fight. About 95 percent of them are killed crossing the border by India.”
Speaking of his arrest, he explained that after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, as thousands of Afghan refugees streamed towards the Pakistani border, he went to the area to see how he could help, and signed up with the Saudi Red Crescent, volunteering to go into Afghanistan to help the refugees. However, just two hours after he crossed the border, when he was at a large refugee camp, it was bombed by U.S. forces.
“I saw a light and heard a voice and then I lost consciousness,” he said in his tribunal. “When I woke up I was in a Pakistani hospital. I lost my coat, my passport, my money, everything. And I lost my leg also. Then I found myself in Pakistani custody.” Kept in the hospital for a month, he was visited by Pakistani army officers and even the governor of Quetta, and was then told that he would be taken to “a large modern hospital with good facilities and surgeons to take care of my leg,” but was handed over — or sold — to the Americans instead, possibly as one of five men taken from the hospital who were identified by U.S. authorities as the “Quetta Five.”
In Guantánamo, in the following exchange with one of the officers in his tribunal, he explained why he thought he ended up in U.S. custody:
Q: Do you have any theories about why the governor and the Pakistani intel folks would sell you out and turn you over to the Americans?
A: Come on man, you know what happened. In Pakistan you can buy people for $10. So what about $5,000?
Q: So they sold you?
According to his lawyers at Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity, “He was then moved to [the] US prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the routine included severe beatings, exposure to freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation for days on end, and the suspension of prisoners by their wrists.” He “endured eleven days” of this before being transferred to Guantánamo, but on arrival “it was almost six weeks since he had sustained his injures. They had gone untreated in U.S. military custody and, as a result, he was infected with gangrene so severe that his left leg had to be amputated.”
A cooperative prisoner, El-Gazzar was soon found to have no links to terrorism, but despite being told that he would be “one of the first to leave” Guantánamo, he was held for eight years. In Guantánamo, he was also respected as a natural leader by his fellow prisoners, and in the summer of 2005, during a brief period when the authorities toyed with implementing the Geneva Conventions, he was part of a six-man “Prisoner’s Council,” which also included the British resident Shaker Aamer.
In contrast to Adel El-Gazzar, the identities of the other two men were not disclosed when the hunger strike started, but they were recently revealed in the Slovakian media, and I believe, as with El-Gazzar, that it is important to explain what is known of their stories, to counter any possible suggestion that they were connected with terrorist activities.
The first is Poolad Tsiradzho (also identified as Polad Sabir Sirajov), a 35-year old economist and translator from Azerbaijan (the only Azerbaijani held in Guantánamo), who said that he went to Afghanistan to study the Koran, and was wounded by the Northern Alliance while working as a guard at a Pakistani food warehouse in northern Afghanistan. According to his mother, who spoke to the Azerbaijani press in April 2006, he graduated in 1992 from a university in Turkey, and then worked as a translator for a Turkish construction company. She added that he had disappeared on February 16, 2001, and that she only heard that he was in Guantánamo through the International Committee of the Red Cross. She also expressed doubts that he would have joined any kind of radical group because he had “not received any religious education,” and “was not a member of any religious organization.”
In contrast to these claims, the U.S. authorities alleged that Tsiradzho had traveled to Afghanistan to fight, after spending a year and a half in the Azerbaijani army, had trained at al-Farouq (the main training camp associated with Osama bin Laden), and had then fought on the Taliban front lines, before retreating to Kunduz and surrendering to the Northern Alliance. However, given that he was, at one point, accused of being a translator for Osama bin Laden, and given that there is ample evidence that very few allegations should be taken at face value, as the prisoners’ habeas corpus petitions have demonstrated, because they largely consist of dubious statements made by the prisoners themselves or by their fellow prisoners, it is wise to regard the government’s story with suspicion, especially as Tsiradzho was cleared for release last year by the Guantánamo Review Task Force.
ad been working in restaurants in Germany, and had traveled to Pakistan in 1999 to study with the vast missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi. Disturbingly, he is one of six men who ended up in Guantánamo after being seized in Iran and transferred to U.S. custody in the early months of 2002 in a deal that has still never been publicly explained. Of the five men seized with him, two — both Yemenis — are still held, but two others, a Jordanian and a Yemeni, were released in 2004, and a third, an Afghan taxi driver, was released in December 2007.
This man, Aminullah Tukhi, explained that 10 prisoners in total — six Arabs, two Afghans, an Uzbek, and a Tajik — had been delivered to the Americans by the Iranian government. Although six of these men are accounted for above, it is not known what happened to the other four — one of the Arabs, one of the Afghans, and the Uzbek and the Tajik — although it would be surprising if their stories ended well, because Rafiq al-Hami and the other men were all held and tortured in secret prisons run by the CIA before being sent to Guantánamo.
In a lawsuit filed last April, which has still not had the impact it should on claims that the CIA’s torture program did not begin until the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued its notorious “torture memos” on August 1, 2002, al-Hami stated, as the Associated Press described it, that, from December 2001, he was held in three CIA “dark sites,” where “his presence and his existence were unknown to everyone except his United States detainers,” and where, at various times, he was “stripped naked, threatened with dogs, shackled in painful stress positions for hours, punched, kicked and exposed to extremes of heat and cold.” He also stated that his interrogators “sprayed pepper spray on his hemorroids, causing extreme pain.”
As I explained in an article last year, in which I attempted to expose how “CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan Eight Months Before Justice Department Approval”:
It’s likely that all of al-Hami’s claims are true. In my book The Guantánamo Files, I wrote about him … noting [that, when] speaking of his experiences before his transfer to Guantánamo, [he] explained, “I was in … Afghan prison[s] but the interrogation was done by Americans. I was there for about a one-year period, transferring from one place to another.” He added that one of the prisons was the “Dark Prison” near Kabul, which is known, in particular, from the story of the British resident Binyam Mohamed, who spent four or five months there after being tortured for 18 months in Morocco. I have previously described the “Dark Prison” as “a medieval torture dungeon with the addition of ear-splittingly loud music and noise, which was pumped into the cells 24 hours a day,” based on accounts by prisoners who were held there, including Binyam Mohamed, who described his time there as “the worst days of his captivity” — worse than the 18 months in Morocco, where the CIA’s proxy torturers regularly sliced his genitals with a razorblade.
[Al-Hami] told his tribunal that he was tortured for three months in the “Dark Prison,” where, he said, “I was threatened. I was left out all night in the cold … I spent two months with no water, no shoes, in darkness and in the cold. There was darkness and loud music for two months. I was not allowed to pray … These things are documented. You have them.”
In the allegations against al-Hami, the U.S. authorities claimed that he had admitted attending a military training camp in Afghanistan, but he later refuted the statements, explaining — understandably — that they had been extracted through the use of torture.
As he and his companions attempt to put pressure on the Slovak government to remove them from the detention center in which they are currently held, and to begin integrating them into normal life, I hope that these insights into their stories — and Rafiq al-Hami’s in particular — will enable those who hold their futures in their hands to understand that, after all they have been through, the last thing they need, to begin dealing with the trauma of their time at Guantánamo, is to be held in conditions that remind them of those eight years.
It may be, as Branislav Tichý, the director of Amnesty International Slovensko, explained to IPS, that Slovakian government officials “have not had this kind of situation before and so there is nothing that they can compare it with.” Tichý added, “The normal processing time for asylum applicants is three months, but the authorities say that they are not in any asylum procedures, so their status is unclear.” However, as he also explained, “This is what we, and the three men, want resolved. Amnesty has been calling on the authorities to resolve this from the day they arrived here.”
According to IPS, the Interior Ministry has “suggested the men may now be moved to a boarding house.” If this is the plan, then officials need to inform Adel El-Gazzar as soon as possible. As IPS also explained, he “remains defiant and says that until someone from the Slovak authorities speaks to him and resolves his lack of freedom and status in Slovakia, he will continue to refuse food.” As the hunger strike continues, it is perhaps fortunate for President Obama that Adel El-Gazzar has not directed his frustrations at the U.S., which bears the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the welfare of men who were wrongly detained, subjected to torture and other ill-treatment for eight long years, and then — it seems — unceremoniously dumped in other countries, to avoid America having to take responsibility for its own mistakes.