Late last week, I joined in the widespread celebrations -- at least in those parts of the world that care about the injustice of holding people in prison without charge or trial -- that attended the repatriation of al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj from Guantánamo, his home for the last six years, to Sudan.
Although a few news outlets have briefly mentioned some of the other men released with Sami -- two of his compatriots, a Moroccan and five Afghans -- their stories remain largely unknown. However, as a result of the research I undertook for my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison, I'm able to shine some light on their stories, which otherwise are unlikely to receive much coverage -- if at all -- outside their home countries.
While none have the extraordinary impact of Sami's story -- which, I note, has the Pentagon so scared that three officials told ABC News on Friday that he was "a manipulator and a propagandist," who produced a "constant drumbeat of allegations" about the treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo -- they do nothing to support the administration's constantly unraveling claim that the prisoners are "the worst of the worst." This claim, made by Rear Admiral John D. Stufflebeem on January 28, 2002, has been parroted at the highest levels of government in the years since, even though 501 prisoners have now been released, and the administration has stated that it only intends to try between 60 to 80 of the 273 prisoners who remain in Guantánamo.
On the cargo plane containing Sami al-Haj that landed in Khartoum in the early hours of May 2 were Amir Yacoub al-Amir and Walid Ali, who, like Sami, were bound like beasts for their journey despite finally being transported to freedom. Both had also been held for over six years without charge or trial, but unlike Sami, whose plight was widely publicized by al-Jazeera, by his lawyers at the legal action charity Reprieve, and by groups campaigning for the rights of journalists, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontières, both of these men had barely registered on the media's radar.
Amir Yacoub al-Amir, great-grandson of Sudan's Caliph
36-year old Amir Yacoub al-Amir was one of at least 120 prisoners (around 15 percent of Guantánamo's entire population), who were captured not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, without ever having been anywhere near the battlefields of Afghanistan. In his tribunal at Guantánamo (one of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals convened in 2004 and 2005 to assess whether, on capture, the prisoners had been correctly designated as "enemy combatants" without rights), al-Amir strenuously denied an allegation that he was associated with al-Qaeda, saying, "I disagree with al-Qaeda on everything," and also denied being associated with the Taliban.
Seized from a car in Peshawar in March 2002, while visiting Pakistan, al-Amir's story echoes reports by numerous other innocent men seized in Pakistan, who said that they were captured and sold for money, a situation that was confirmed at the highest levels in 2006, when, in his autobiography, President Musharraf boasted that in return for handing over 369 terror suspects (who were mostly transferred to Guantánamo), "We have earned bounty payments totaling millions of dollars." In Guantánamo, al-Amir explained that he was seized because the Pakistani government "was capturing any Arab and giving them to the United States as terrorists."
Like Sami al-Haj, al-Amir was represented by Reprieve, and in 2007 Reprieve's Director, Clive Stafford Smith, traveled to Sudan to meet his family, where he discovered that his great-grandfather, a cousin of the Khalifa (Caliph), had, with numerous other relatives, been captured and imprisoned by the British army, after the fall of General Gordon's regime in 1885, in conditions that were remarkable similar to those prevailing at Guantánamo. In a New Statesman article, Stafford Smith described how the prisoners were "dispatched (or, in modern terms, rendered)" to Egypt, where conditions were so brutal that al-Amir's great-grandfather died, and noted that, during his visit, members of the government, and other relatives of the Khalifa, "expressed concern that Amir Yacoub had been illegally rendered, and was now being held, like his great-grandfather, by the hyperpower of the day, in a brutal and lawless prison far from home."
Walid Ali, survivor of an Afghan massacre
33-year old Walid Ali, whose story has only ever been reported in The Guantánamo Files, explained in 2005 to his Administrative Review Board -- convened to assess whether the prisoners were still regarded as a threat to the United States or as an ongoing source of intelligence -- that he had traveled to Pakistan to teach the Koran, but had then been drawn to the conflict in Afghanistan, where he joined the Taliban, serving as a guard for 25 to 30 days.
Like several other prisoners, Ali told the Board that he had been inspired to help the Taliban fight the Russians, which was not as far-fetched as it sounds, as General Rashid Dostum, the Northern Alliance's pre-eminent Uzbek commander, had served with the Russians throughout the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, before repeatedly switching his allegiance during the chaos of the 1990s. In his hearing, Ali appeared genuinely bewildered that Dostum had become an ally of the United States, and that he was therefore accused of fighting Americans.
Ali was one of at least 50 Guantánamo prisoners to survive a massacre at the Qala-i-Janghi fort (and improvised prison) in northern Afghanistan in November 2001. They, along with the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh, were the only survivors out of up to 400 foreign Taliban fighters -- mainly from the Gulf countries, North Africa, Pakistan and Uzbekistan -- who had left the city of Kunduz, the Taliban's last outpost in the north of Afghanistan, after a surrender was negotiated between senior Taliban leaders and the Northern Alliance.
Tricked into believing that they would be allowed to return home after giving up their weapons, some of the men responded to the betrayal -- and fears that they were to be executed -- by starting an uprising (in which a CIA agent, Johnny "Mike" Spann, was killed), which was savagely put down by US bombers, representatives of the US and British Special Forces, and Alliance soldiers. The survivors -- many of whom had their hands tied behind their backs when the fighting started, and were subsequently wounded -- hid in a basement while the battle raged, and it's probable, therefore, that most did not actually have anything to do with the uprising. After seven days, in which they were shot at and bombed, and finally flooded out, the survivors were transferred to General Dostum's prison at Sheberghan, and were then taken to Guantánamo via the US prison at Kandahar airport.
In a written statement to his ARB, Ali told one of the most complete stories of being caught in the crossfire and suffering in the basement:
"They handcuffed us so tightly that the circulation was cut off, and I became unconscious. What happened after is ... all I know is they were firing bullets at us while we were handcuffed and American airplanes came and started firing at us and killed a lot of us. I was handcuffed and wounded in my back with a bullet and it went to my belly where it is now. And I feel the pain of it ... While I was on the ground an American airplane fired a bomb and shrapnel hit my head and it is still there in my head. And then I went unconscious and I did not feel anything until I woke up in a room underground ... Of course, they used all [kinds of] different weapons in order to kill us. They even used water and electricity. And they threw a bomb on us. And a lot of times they opened water on us to the point [that] we had water up to our necks. Of course, the wounded ones couldn't stand up and they were killed in the water."
Said al-Boujaadia, cleared for 18 months
Some time after the plane carrying Sami al-Haj and his compatriots touched down in Khartoum, it dropped off another prisoner in Morocco. 39-year old Said al-Boujaadia, also represented by Reprieve, had surfaced briefly in the media last December, but his story was largely unknown until last month, when I wrote an article that focused on his particular route to Guantánamo.
In 2001, al-Boujaadia traveled to Afghanistan with his Afghan wife, whom he had met and married on a previous visit, and their three children. Like many others, his life fell apart after the 9/11 attacks, and the US-led invasion that began in October. Although he managed to secure the safe escape of his family, he, like almost a third of the Guantánamo prisoners -- a mixture of missionaries, charity workers, migrants and Taliban foot soldiers -- was captured as he attempted to help another family cross the Pakistani border to safety.
Although he was cleared for release in late 2006, when his review board decided that he did not pose a threat to the United States, his planned departure, in March 2007, never took place, because he was 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 -- including videotaping a statement from him, or allowing him to testify from Morocco -- but these options were turned down by the military authorities, who continued to hold him without even offering him an explanation.
On December 6, 2007, over a year after he was cleared for release, al-Boujaadia finally testified on Hamdan's behalf. His testimony was apparently required because he was seized on the same day as Hamdan, but although he recalled seeing Hamdan lying face down on the floor in the makeshift Afghan prison he was taken to after his capture, he had no other information to offer. Even so, it took the authorities another five months to release him.
Imprisoned on his return, al-Boujaadia is happy to submit to any investigations that the Moroccan government thinks appropriate, as Clive Stafford Smith reported during a visit to Morocco in March. As Stafford Smith added on Friday, however, "We respectfully request that the Government of Morocco complete any investigation of Mr. al-Boujaadia quickly, so he may be swiftly reunited with his wife, his children and his elderly mother."
In a second article to follow, Andy looks at the stories of the Afghans released with Sami al-Haj, Amir Yacoub al-Amir, Walid Ali and Said al-Boujaadia.