Long-Suffering Mauritanian Sent Home From Gitmo

For over five and a half years, as I explain in depth in my newly released book, The Guantánamo Files, the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has held hundreds of innocent men. Humanitarian aid workers, teachers or students of the Koran, businessmen, economic migrants, and refugees from persecution – all were swept up for bounty payments, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan, at a time when the U.S. military was offering $5,000 a head for al-Qaeda suspects.

Many of these innocent men were Afghans who were sold to the U.S. military by rivals secure in the knowledge that the Americans had neither the will nor the curiosity to investigate the veracity of the allegations that swept their futures away. Many others were foreigners – Arabs mainly, from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other Gulf countries, and from the northern African countries bordering the Mediterranean. Some were seized in Afghanistan, either by soldiers of the Northern Alliance or by opportunistic villagers; others were captured crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where their flight from the chaos precipitated by the U.S.-led invasion and the collapse of the Taliban was construed as a sign that they were fleeing from combat; and many others were gathered at random on the streets of Pakistan’s cities, far from any battlefield.

One of these innocent men, Mohammed al-Amin, who hails from an even more distant location – the western Saharan country of Mauritania – has just been released from Guantánamo, and his story, though brutal, is typical of the suffering that these men have been forced to endure for five and a half years. While reading it, remember that his is not a unique case: hundreds of other innocent men have been treated in a similar manner, and many of them remain in Guantánamo. It is one thing to tout the 778 men who have been held in Guantánamo as "the worst of the worst," as the administration did when the prison was set up in January 2002, but it is quite another to realize that 431 of these men have now been released, and a large number of them, like Amin, were completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Amin’s accidental odyssey to torture and years of illegal imprisonment without charge or trial began when, at the age of 17, he left his parents and his five sisters and traveled to Saudi Arabia to study the Koran, with the intention of becoming a teacher. He then traveled to Pakistan to continue his studies, but he was arrested in Peshawar in April 2002 and held for two months in a Pakistani jail. There, he was "subjected to beatings, held for prolonged periods in solitary confinement, and denied adequate food," in an attempt to force him to confess that he was a Saudi Arabian national, because, presumably, Saudis were valued more highly by the U.S. military than Mauritanians.

He was then transferred to Bagram, where, like many other prisoners, he was suspended by his wrists for long periods of time. He explained to his lawyers in Guantánamo that he was tied by his hands to the ceiling "for days on end," and that "whenever he lost consciousness a guard would forcefully pull him up to wake him." He also said that he was sexually abused, subjected to sleep deprivation, and threatened with being sent to Egypt to face further torture. After two months of this treatment, he explained, "They wanted me to say I had come to join the jihad. Eventually I told them what they wanted to hear, and the torture stopped." What they wanted to hear surfaced in Guantánamo, where it was alleged that he traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Americans, having decided to "go on jihad after being angered over the U.S. air attacks in Afghanistan," and that he trained with the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.

These were all lies coerced out of him by his own captors, but it took another five years before the administration was prepared to acknowledge that he was actually an innocent man – or, as those involved insist on describing it, being unable to acknowledge that they have made mistakes, that he was "no longer an enemy combatant." Transferred to Guantánamo in August 2002, he said that his first year in Guantánamo was "terrible" and "worse than Bagram." In addition to the sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation that he had experienced in Afghanistan, he was also exposed to loud music as part of a program to "break" the detainees, which was masterminded by the Pentagon and introduced by Guantánamo’s commander, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller. As in Bagram, he was eventually forced to make false confessions, telling his interrogators whatever they wanted to hear.

To protest his indefinite detention without charge or trial, Amin joined a widespread hunger strike in August 2005, when his weight, which had been a meager 121 pounds on arrival, plunged, at one point, to just 103 pounds. By January 2006, when he was one of 84 detainees who were still maintaining their hunger strike, the authorities responded by drafting in a new team of doctors, armed with restraint chairs and feeding tubes. Amin said that he was removed from the camp hospital and placed in solitary confinement in a windowless black cell, which he called the "freezer," because the air conditioning was turned up to the maximum. He also explained that the guards would "throw water on him to exacerbate the freezing conditions, and would wake him up if he fell asleep."

Describing his force-feeding, he – like others who have spoken about the experience – said he was fastened so tightly in the restraint chair that he was unable to move at all, and a large feeding tube was then forced into his stomach, which was, of course, extremely painful. Whether by accident or design, the doctors regularly "stated that they could not find the correct position and forcefully pulled the feeding tube from him," repeating the process two or three times, which caused his nose to bleed. Amin also stated that he was "deliberately overfed until he vomited, and when he vomited the force feeding would start again"; that he was "strapped in the restraint chair for periods of two to three hours at a time, which, coupled with being overfed, led him to urinate and defecate on himself"; and that he was then "dumped, covered in his own vomit, blood, and feces, back in his isolation cell." Although he attempted to maintain his hunger strike, he admitted that he gave up after 21 days. With some accuracy, he told his lawyers the authorities "used physicians to commit crimes," as the doctors supervised the force-feeding, watching him while he was forced to vomit. On one occasion, said Amin, a doctor asked him, "Are you going to quit the hunger strike or stay in this situation?"

Despite all this violence, he was cleared for release sometime in 2006, after an administrative review board concluded that he was no longer a threat to the United States and no longer had any intelligence value. Yet he was not released until now apparently because of confusion about his nationality: though he lived in Mauritania before losing five and a half years of his life, he had actually been born in Niger.

Since his return to Mauritania on Wednesday, Amin has been held for questioning by his homeland’s national security services, but human rights activist Hamad Ould Nebagha insisted that it is a "mere formality," designed to show Washington that the government is committed to fighting terrorism. Anticipating that Amin will soon be released without charge, Nebagha pointed out that Amin’s "U.S. accusers have failed to link him to the alleged terrorist activities" for which he was held.

Amin’s lawyers in Denver – John Holland and his daughter Anna Cayton-Holland – have also spoken about their former client and what his case – and that of all the other innocent men held in Guantánamo – should mean to the American public.

"No one wants to see terrorists set free," Anna Cayton-Holland explained. "We believe in our system, that you can’t torture people and use the fruits of that to convict them. We’re tired of people saying we are coddling terrorists. We’re not. We’re saying you can try and convict, separate the terrorist wheat from the innocent chaff in the true light of the legal system."

John Holland added, "I didn’t get into law to make a lot of money. It’s like my mom said, do good and the world will be good to you. Mostly we do this work because we are Americans, and we believe America is struggling to hold onto its moral soul."

As the Supreme Court prepares to consider once more whether the Guantánamo detainees should have the right to challenge the basis of their detention, the cases of Mohammed al-Amin and the hundreds of other innocent men who have been held in Guantánamo should stand as a cautionary example of why it is unwise and unjust to deny habeas corpus rights to prisoners held in U.S. custody and to hand unfettered power to a government that, despite its blustering, clearly does not know what it is doing.

Author: Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is a historian based in London. He is the author of The Guantánamo Files, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in Guantanámo. He writes regularly on issues related to Guantánamo and the "War on Terror" on his Web site.