Egypt's military rulers to decide fate of Guantanamo returnee

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 11, 2011 

CAIRO — Adel el Gazzar emerged from his eight-year detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with one leg, no U.S. charges against him and zero chance of returning to his native Egypt, where he was sure to have been locked up again by then-President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

So, Gazzar was shipped instead to Slovakia and languished there in a holding center until last winter, when Mubarak became the second autocrat to fall in the Arab Spring uprisings. The revolt against three decades of authoritarian rule presented Gazzar with a gamble: Would the new Egypt grant a fair trial and eventual freedom to a man once branded as a terrorist?

His answer is expected Dec. 27, in a military court case that could set precedent for how Egypt deals with the Guantanamo detainees, former jihadists and other suspected militants who are trickling back now that the feared regime has collapsed.

"Egypt has an opportunity to, in a sense, wipe the slate clean when it comes to the human rights violations of the Mubarak years," said Katie Taylor of Reprieve, a London-based advocacy group monitoring Gazzar's case for its "Life After Guantanamo" project.

Other transitional North African governments are muddling through the same quandary as Egypt. Libya controversially integrated some former jihadist fighters into its new military, while one of the first decrees of the interim Tunisian government was amnesty for political prisoners, including former or current detainees from the U.S. Naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In recent months, two Tunisian prisoners have returned safely from Guantanamo, while another former Guantanamo detainee was freed from a Tunisian jail where the old regime had kept him since his release from American custody in 2007.

Few analysts expect similar tolerance from Egypt's ruling military council, which for years hyped the threat of Islamist extremism to Western allies as justification for Mubarak's repressive police state. Since taking power in February, the council has outraged human rights advocates by putting some 12,000 Egyptians to military trials — more than in Mubarak's entire time in office.

If that's how revolutionary Egypt treats its civilians, Gazzar's family worried, then a bearded Islamist fresh out of Guantanamo stood little chance for a smooth repatriation.

"They paid no consideration to his age or his health," said Gazzar's wife, 40, who asked to be indentified as Um Abdul Rahman, a nickname. "If he was cleared and released by America, then why try him again and imprison him for three more years? They were supposed to have cleared him as soon as he got back."

Gazzar, 46, made his risky return to Egypt in June, four months after Mubarak's fall, against the advice of family members who warned him that the old regime's vast security and intelligence apparatus remained intact. Sure enough, Gazzar was arrested upon arrival at the Cairo airport — he was allowed a few moments with his wife and four children, their first meeting in a decade, and then disappeared once again into Egypt's prisons.

Gazzar's latest detention stems from his conviction in absentia in 2002 for militant activities in a group known as the Waad Cell. Authorities had opened the case right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Egyptian political analysts say Mubarak's government ginned up or greatly exaggerated the threat posed by the defendants to prove to Washington it was a reliable ally in the fight against terrorism.

Authorities rounded up about 100 Islamists and doled out prison terms after brief trials in a headline-grabbing case that state media hailed as a counterterrorism coup. Some defendants, including Gazzar and his brother Ashraf, weren't even residing in Egypt at the time of the dragnet.

Ashraf el Gazzar, who was among those later cleared, recalled that interrogators told the prisoners point blank: "Sorry, it's just bad timing for you guys. You're Mubarak's gift to the Americans."

Even under the old regime, judges quickly overturned most of the convictions for lack of evidence. Other defendants served three-year sentences and are now free.

Gazzar, however, is believed to be the last of the Waad Cell suspects still in prison, and now it's up to a military court to rule whether he should be freed, kept behind bars or granted a new trial based on what his attorneys say is a conviction based on evidence obtained through torture. On Dec. 27, a ruling is expected on Gazzar's appeal for a new trial.

"The evidence against the defendant is based on the statements of other defendants, which they subsequently recanted," according to a memorandum of appeal submitted by Gazzar's legal team. "The court ruled that statements had been the result of physical and moral coercion by state security agents. The coercive methods of the security services became clear in the scandal following the revolution when it was revealed that physical torture had led to false confessions."

Major Gen. Mukhtar el Mullah, a member of Egypt's ruling military council, said last week that he hadn't heard of el Gazzar by name and had no information about the case. No other government official could be reached to comment on Gazzar's prospects for a new trial.

The waiting game is torturous for Gazzar's family. For the past decade, Um Abdul Rahman, his wife, has lived as a single mother to their four children: three teenage sons, and an 11-year-old daughter who was an infant when Gazzar was detained.

Gazzar's ordeal began when he traveled to Pakistan in 2000 to work with the Saudi Red Crescent Society. He was wounded in a U.S. air strike while working as a volunteer to aid displaced people on Pakistan's border with Afghanistan in November 2001, according to his legal team.

Pakistani forces seized him from a hospital, where he was recovering, then transferred him to a U.S. prison in Kandahar where, lawyers say, he "was subject to severe beatings, exposure to freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation for days on end, and suspension by the wrists."

By the time he was transported to Guantanamo, his leg was gangrenous from the lack of care, so with grave reservations, he consented to an amputation, according to his statements to human rights groups. Gazzar also said he was subjected to beatings in his time at Guantanamo and participated in civil disobedience acts with other prisoners to protest conditions at the camp.

Gazzar was among a trio of cleared captives shipped to Slovakia upon their release from Guantanamo in January 2010; the Eastern European nation received the men after U.S. officials objected to repatriating them to home countries, such as Mubarak's Egypt, where torture and open-ended detention of terror suspects was well documented.

Gazzar landed in a holding facility his attorneys describe as a detention camp; Slovakian authorities deemed it an integration center. He joined a hunger strike there to demand greater freedoms, but switched his focus to a return to Egypt once the popular uprising against Mubarak erupted in January of this year.

Now, his lawyers and family say, he's in the notorious Tora Prison, the same complex where Mubarak's two sons and top associates are awaiting trial on corruption and other charges.

Mohammed Zarae, an Egyptian attorney representing him on appeal, said his client is receiving good treatment in prison and is not "abused or violated." Until recently, his family was allowed frequent visits, though they've been curtailed for now because Egypt is on high alert for parliamentary elections.

Gazzar has left the prison just once, his brother said, when he was granted a day pass to visit his ailing mother at the family home in Cairo. His brother, Ashraf, said Egyptian authorities flooded their block with security forces and even placed snipers on the roof of the house. The family said the security presence was absurd for a man with one good leg, and said it was designed to shame them among neighbors.

Authorities sent along a video crew, Gazzar's brother said, but the family refused to allow filming for fear the government would use it as propaganda to trumpet changes in the Egyptian security forces. Gazzar's relatives said the ruling at the end of the month is the only barometer they need to decide whether human rights are a priority in the post-Mubarak Egypt.

"They wanted to pretend that they cared about prisoners' rights," Ashraf el Gazzar said of the attempts to film his brother's visit. "I told one officer to his face, 'You're an extension of Guantanamo. What the Americans do there, you do here.'"

Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.

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