Guantanamo: Repatriation as Russian Roulette

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 Guantanamo, no Algerian prisoners had been repatriated. This was in spite of the fact that at least ten 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 US or its allies.

The Miami Herald reported that the US administration blamed the Algerian government for the delay in repatriating cleared Algerians from Guantanamo, 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 reversed course."

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 football player in Algeria, who had been working for a government-owned oil company, Belbacha fled to the UK when Islamist militants threatened his life, and 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, and it was while he was in Pakistan that he was seized by opportunistic soldiers and sold to US forces. When he was finally cleared for release from Guantanamo in February 2007, having been found not to pose a threat to the US 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 US 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 Guantanamo 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 in Algeria."

Sadly, while Ahmed Belbacha's fears are genuine, and should, by law, be respected by the US 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 US 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, Lotfi 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.

In Guantanamo, 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 US administration 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 to 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, and 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 hospital, and was then taken to the hospital, where he was later seized and transferred to Guantanamo.

The second man, Mustafa Hamlili, was, like at least 120 other prisoners in Guantanamo, seized in Pakistan, and not, as the administration has repeatedly alleged, on the battlefields of Afghanistan. 42 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 Guantanamo. 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 ten years, traveling to the Yemen from 1995-97, when he took the opportunity to study because he didn't need a visa, and then returning to Pakistan.

He explained that from June to September 2001 he worked for the charity al-Wafa in Kandahar, digging wells and remodelling mosques, until the office closed. Dozens of prisoners at Guantanamo -- all now released -- were held because the US 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 still 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."

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."

Parts of this article are drawn from my book The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press/the University of Michigan Press).