Algerians, freed from Guantanamo, still paying the price

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 9, 2009 

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Seven months after his release from Guantanamo Bay, Mustafa Ait Idr cautiously sips coffee in a Sarajevo cafe. His face is still partially paralyzed and numb from when guards pinned him onto gravel and jumped on him. He is nursing a broken finger — punishment for refusing to strip naked in his cell. On another occasion, his head was held in a toilet for prolonged periods of time.

Now a free man, Ait Idr proudly displays his Bosnian ID Card, which was only recently reinstated. He is still unable to find employment or access his bank accounts, which were frozen shortly after his arrest in 2001. He has seen his wife twice in the past seven years; upon his release, he met his youngest son for the first time.

Ait Idr is one of “The Algerian Six,” a group of Bosnian citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay for seven years, and recently released with all charges dropped. Their story is another in a long list of stories from Guantanamo of wrongful imprisonment on unproven charges.

The Algerian men came to Bosnia in the 1990s. At the request of U.S. officials, the men were arrested in October 2001 on allegations that they were planning an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo. According to documents filed by the detainee's American lawyers in their U.S. federal court habeas action, Christopher Hoh, then the U.S. chargé d'affaires, told then Bosnian Prime Minister Alija Behmen that the U.S. would cut all diplomatic relations if the men were not arrested.

"If we leave Bosnia, God save your country," Hoh said, according to the documents. The U.S. Embassy temporarily closed during this time. Behmen, leader of a fragile, post-conflict country, acquiesced to the demand. He noted in an interview with the Washington Post, "The only way out was to deliver them" to the Americans … We were not interested in introducing a new period of instability in Bosnia."

Within a week, Bosnian police detained “The Algerian Six”: Hajj Boudella, Lakhdar Boumediene, Mustafa Ait Idr, Mohammad Nechle, Saber Lahmar and Bensayah Belkacem.

After a three-month Bosnian investigation found no evidence linking the men to terrorist activities or justifying their detention, the Bosnian Supreme Court ordered their release. High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch, the international community's top official in Bosnia at the time, said, "the US put a tremendous amount of pressure” on Bosnia to deport the men. Vijay Padmanabhan, a lawyer for the State Department, denied the charge, claiming, "The US does not threaten or intimidate." Hoh did not respond to requests for comment.

On Jan. 17, 2002, Bosnian officials drove the men from the courthouse. More than 150 people had gathered outside the courthouse to protest their surrender to American officials. It would be the last time that Boudella's wife, Nadja Dizdarevic, would see her husband for seven years.

"Through the car window, he said we were only little pawns in a big political game,” she remembered, blue eyes peering from behind her gray burqa.

Three days later, stripped of their Bosnian citizenship, the men arrived handcuffed and blindfolded at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, where they spent the following seven years.

“Virtually every claim made by the U.S. government to justify our clients’ illegal rendition was eventually dropped," said Stephen Oleskey, an attorney for Wilmer Hale, the Boston law firm that in 2004 agreed to take up the case, without charge. "There was never any real evidence.”

One detainee, Nechle, was flagged because of his mandatory service in the Algerian army a decade ago, as a cook. Ait Idr was presumed dangerous because he taught Bosnian orphans martial arts. Military tribunal transcripts reveal one U.S. officer saying, "At this point, we don't know why you are being accused of being a member of the Armed Islamic Group… Do you have any idea why you are being connected with this group?"

"I don't know," Boudella replied.

In June 2008, the landmark Supreme Court case, Boumediene v. Bush, allowed enemy combatants to seek judicial review of their detention, reinstating habeas corpus. Four months later, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon released five of the men and continued detention of the sixth, Bensayah Belkacem, stating, “To allow enemy combatancy to rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this court's obligation... This is a unique case.”

In a nod to the Obama Administration’s pledge to close Guantanamo Bay, French President Nicolas Sarkozy accepted the plaintiff, Lakhmar Boumediene, in May 2009, allowing him to settle in France.

Upon his release, Boumediene neeeded 11 days of treatment in a French hospital. During an interview in Paris, he revealed scars from shackles and nasal skin breakdown from forced tube-feedings.

“I lived in a nightmare for seven years. Even animals are treated better," he said.

Boumediene recalled the cold isolation rooms he endured without clothes and interrogation under bright lights, with Arabic translators who frequently made mistakes in translation. "I went to the bathroom shackled, with guards. They didn’t let me sleep for 16 days,” he said.

Still, Boumediene denies wanting revenge. “I have no problems with the American people. My problem is with Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. I expected more from the great democracy of the U.S., but they failed me and played games with my life.”

The remaining detainee, Belkacem, is the only European citizen still in custody at Guantanamo.

In 2001, the U.S. reportedly tapped his mobile phone conversations with Abu Zabaydah, allegedly an al Qaida operative. In an interview in Bosnia, Anela Belkacem, Bensayah’s wife, claims they didn't have enough money to own a mobile phone. Oleskey, the detainees' American lawyer suggests there was no cell phone. "The Bosnian police couldn't even get this number to work," he said.

Anela claims her husband "has been sacrificed… No one wants to admit they made a big mistake in detaining these men.”

The released prisoners face overcoming psychological and physical trauma, reintegrating into society and returning to fragmented lives. Nadja Dizdarevic was an avid supporter of her husband during his internment, but within months of his return, the couple divorced. “We remain good friends. People change in seven years. My children grew up overnight. They didn’t watch cartoons, they watched the news.”

Despite complete exoneration, the men’s citizenship is uncertain. Bosnia has been dragging its feet in restoring citizenship. The men only recently received their ID cards, but have not yet gotten their passports. They've been unable to find jobs and claim to be followed by unmarked cars regularly.

Boumediene says, “My daughter does not recognize me. I didn’t see my wife for seven years. I lost everything. Who will give me these years back?”

Currently, Belkacem remains in Guantanamo Bay custody pending his appeal, Boumediene lives in France and Nechle in Algeria. Ait Idr and Boudella are unemployed in Sarajevo, awaiting reinstatement of their citizenship and bank accounts.

Bosnia acknowledged to the Council of Europe that it breached the European Convention on Human Rights by participating in extra-judicial extraordinary rendition at the request of the U.S. The Council has accused over 20 countries of collaborating with CIA rendition flights to secret prisons.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Seema Jilani is a physician who specializes in Pediatric International Health Care and has worked in Israel, Palestine, Sudan, Lebanon, Egypt and the Balkans. She has been a freelance journalist for Pacifica Radio for eight years. Her radio documentary, Israel and Palestine: The Human Cost of The Occupation, was nominated for The Peabody Award. Dr. Jilani's work has been published in several media outlets, including in The Independent (UK) and The Huffington Post.

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