The Shocking Stories of the Aid Workers Just Released From Gitmo

Two years after being cleared for release from Guantánamo by a military review board, Adel Hassan Hamad, a hospital administrator who worked for a Saudi charity, and Salim Muhood Adem, who worked with orphans for a Kuwaiti NGO, have been repatriated to the country of their birth, where, as lawyer Clive Stafford Smith explained, they are both "safe with their families."

After arriving at Khartoum airport, they were presented with traditional Sudanese clothes by intelligence officers, who took them to a hospital for a short medical examination before returning them to their families and friends. As a noisy celebration got underway, Hamad spoke by phone to his American lawyers, Steve Wax and William Teesdale of the federal public defender’s office in Oregon. "I thank God almighty and express my gratefulness to you," he said. "I can finally see the light after the darkness."

If the administration was hoping to lie low for a while and weather the recent torrent of criticism over its post-9/11 detention policies – in the Supreme Court, in connection with the destruction of CIA videotapes chronicling the torture of detainees, and through its generally inept attempts to pursue war crimes trials at Guantánamo itself – the release of these men will provide no comfort whatsoever, as their stories highlight some of the most egregious flaws in the whole of Guantánamo’s sordid history.

Hamad, who is now 49 years old, had been living in Pakistan and working for charity organizations for 17 years. Captured at his home in July 2002, after returning from a holiday in Sudan with his wife and four children, he refuted an allegation that he had any kind of connection to al-Qaeda, telling his tribunal in Guantánamo, "I hate them and I pray to God not to let people among the Muslims carry [out] their ideas." He also pointed out, "If I was a member in al-Qaeda or if I had an association with them I would’ve not traveled in June 2002 to Sudan with my family on an annual vacation and after the vacation ended I voluntarily returned to Pakistan. If I was a criminal, with association to those criminals, why would I return to Pakistan knowing that Pakistani intelligence was arresting al-Qaeda members?"

His description of his arrest seems particularly shocking, but was actually fairly typical of the dozens of arrests in Pakistan at the time, which were mostly based on dubious or nonexistent "intelligence." "I was arrested in my house at 1:30 at night when I woke up and found myself in front of policemen from the Pakistani intelligence pointing their weapons in my face like I was in a dream or a disturbing nightmare," he told his tribunal. "They were screaming at me, ‘don’t move!’ So I told them, ‘What is it, what do you want from me?’ And with them was a tall man who did not look Pakistani, which I think he was American. So they handcuffed me and they told me ‘Where are your papers?’ (meaning my passport). So I told them, ‘In my shirt pocket.’ So the tall man checked my passport and he told me that I came back early from my trip. I told him yes. He spoke in poor Arabic. He saw a legal official Pakistani permit by the date that was in my passport, which had a legal official authorization posted for two years. So the guard hesitated at the end and asked the tall man, ‘Do we take him?’ And the man said, ‘Yes, take him.’ So they took me and detained me in jail in Pakistan for six months and 10 days. Later I was moved to Bagram and then to Cuba."

Over the last year or so, Hamad has become one of Guantánamo’s celebrities, thanks to the efforts of his enterprising lawyers, who traveled to Pakistan to interview his former colleagues and to Sudan to interview his family, producing a film that publicized his plight to a huge audience on YouTube, which, in turn, led to the establishment of a campaigning Web site that drew support from thousands of people, including the actor Martin Sheen.

What makes Hamad’s story particularly striking, however, beyond his unquestioned innocence, is what happened after his tribunal in Guantánamo three years ago. The tribunals, known as combatant status review tribunals (CSRTs), were established in the wake of a momentous Supreme Court decision in June 2004 that, contrary to the administration’s assertions to that date, the detainees had habeas corpus rights. In other words, that they had the right to challenge the basis of their detention in a court of law. Rather than delivering them to the U.S. courts, however, the administration established the CSRTs to review the detainees’ prior designation as "enemy combatants" without rights, who could be held indefinitely without charge or trial. Emphasizing its disdain for the rule of law, the government prevented the detainees from having legal representation, and, moreover, relied on secret evidence that was withheld from them.

The tribunals, which duly found that all but 38 of the 558 detainees at the time had indeed been correctly designated as "enemy combatants," came under fire this June from Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, a veteran of military intelligence who had taken part in compiling the "evidence" for the tribunals, and who condemned them as a sham, reliant upon vague, unsubstantiated, and generic evidence, and designed merely to approve the detainees’ prior designation as "enemy combatants."

While Abraham’s comments are credited with prompting the Supreme Court to review the detainees’ rights once more (in a hearing that took place last week), Hamad’s tribunal had already provided the first vivid demonstration of the injustice of the whole process back in August 2006, when Farah Stockman of the Boston Globe reported that Hamad had been judged in his CSRT to be an "enemy combatant" because of exactly the kind of generic allegations that were later condemned by Abraham.

Hamad maintained that the Saudi charity he worked for, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), was "a charity organization that works to help the Afghan refugees, providing them with food, medicine, clothes, and education, building charter schools which is made of an orphanage, educational training, and also works in the health department by establishing hospitals, small clinics, and also digging water wells, [and] building water wells." The U.S. authorities, however, described it as an organization that "supports terrorist ideals and causes," even though it has never appeared on a terrorism watchlist (despite being investigated by the U.S. Senate) and was one of the favored projects of the late Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz.

Another organization that Hamad had worked for previously, the Kuwait-based Lajanat Dawa Islamiya (LDI), which is also not on any U.S. terrorism watchlist, was described as "one of the most active" Islamic NGOs "providing logistical and financial support" to mujahedeen operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which "may be" associated with Osama bin Laden.

In his tribunal, a clearly exasperated Hamad refuted all the allegations, at one point exclaiming, "arresting employees like myself [who] is not capable of supporting terrorists financially, is this justice? I am an employee who works for a living and I have no connection to the [organization’s] political views or its financial resources, so why do you punish me for a crime I did not commit. Why don’t you arrest the charities’ presidents or the people who support [them] financially instead of arresting a simple employee with no informational value?"

Predictably, his tribunal judged that he had been correctly designated an "enemy combatant," but although his pleas appeared to have been ignored, Stockman, who was allowed to examine the CSRT documentation, noted that one of the tribunal members – an unidentified army major – had issued a dissenting opinion. Taking into account the fact that neither WAMY nor LDI appears on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, the major argued that, "even assuming all the allegations … are accurate, the detainee does not meet the definition of enemy combatant." He added, "These NGOs presumably have numerous employees and volunteer workers who have been working in legitimate humanitarian roles. The mere fact that some elements of these NGOs provide support to ‘terrorist ideals and causes’ is insufficient to declare one of the employees an enemy combatant."

Stockman noted, however, that the major was overruled by his colleagues, one of whom – in a single line that discredits the whole tribunal process as effectively as Lt. Col. Abraham’s later declaration – wrote that the case "passed the ‘low evidentiary hurdle’ set up by the rules of the hearings."

Two months ago, the major, who took part in 49 of the 558 CSRT hearings, publicly added his complaints to those recorded by Abraham, telling William Teesdale, "Much of the material presented was supplied by intelligence agencies and were summaries that were not necessarily justified by the underlying evidence." The major specifically mentioned his dissent in Hamad’s CSRT, and also spoke about the deliberate exclusion of exculpatory evidence, the reconvening of CSRTs when an unfavorable result was produced, and the pressure exerted on the tribunals from higher up the command structure.

The case of Salim Muhood Adem, who is also 49 years old, is, in its own way, just as damning as that of Hamad. A Pakistani resident who had first traveled to Pakistan in 1991 when he "performed official lawful work for schools," he told his tribunal that he had been employed by the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society (RIHS), a Kuwaiti NGO, since 1994, and pointed out that he had mentioned to the interrogators what type of work he did – traveling from one school to another to check on education before being transferred to "the Orphanage Office of Administration" – and that it "wasn’t a crime."

Responding to an allegation that the organization was "suspected of supporting extremist activity, and some employees are suspected of supporting terrorism," he said, "I have only known the Islamic organization to be associated with humanitarian efforts, never terrorism." He acknowledged traveling to Afghanistan in 1998, explaining that he went "to supervise the administration of Orphanage Schools," and was perplexed by an allegation that his residence was "identified as a suspected al-Qaeda residence and raided." He said that he rented the house from a Pakistani woman, and added, "everything I did regarding the house was legal." Crucially, he explained that when he was arrested, at home with his wife and two small children, "the officer that arrested us said he was giving us to the American forces to avoid problems and keep our country safe."

Unlike WAMY and LDI, the RIHS was actually blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury in January 2002, apparently because some of its personnel, including the director of its Pakistani office, Abdul Muhsin al-Libi, "defrauded well-meaning contributors by diverting money donated for widows and orphans to al-Qaeda terrorists," and "padded the number of orphans it claimed to care for by providing names of orphans that did not exist or who had died. Funds then sent for the purpose of caring for the nonexistent or dead orphans were instead diverted to al-Qaeda terrorists."

However, neither Libi nor another named suspect, Abu Bakr al-Jaziri, both of whom also apparently held senior positions in the Afghan Support Committee, which was identified as having been established by Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, were captured by the Americans. Instead, Adem and four of the charity’s other workers were seized, even though there was no evidence that any of the men knew anything about the terrorist funding. What’s particularly shocking about Adem’s situation is that, although the other four men – one Jordanian and another three Sudanese, including the charity’s accountant in 2001 – were released between November 2003 and July 2005, Adem had to wait another 29 months to be granted his freedom.

Explaining the delay in the release of both men, Hamad’s lawyers recently filed a declaration in the D.C. Circuit Court, outlining the progress – or lack of progress – in negotiations between the Sudanese and American governments, which revealed the extent to which political maneuvering, rather than issues of justice, has driven much of the Bush administration’s policy toward the detainees.

In the declaration, William Teesdale explained that the Sudanese government had been notified that Hamad and Adem had been "approved for transfer" on Nov. 14, 2005, and that the State Department had sought assurances that they would be investigated on their return to Sudan, and that their human rights would be respected. The department also sought permission to have "access to the detainees if needed" and assurances that the Sudanese government would "take responsibility for the detainees and prevent them from being a further threat to the United States."

The Sudanese deputy ambassador, Salah Elguneid, explained to Teesdale that the Sudanese embassy gave an "official reply" to these demands in June 2006, agreeing to all of them and even pointing out that U.S. officials had "met with some of the [previously] released detainees in Sudan since their release." The State Department then indicated that it would be good "to try to resolve the issue of all the Sudanese Guantánamo detainees" (another six, including al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, are still being held) and that the way forward would be to "draw up a memorandum of understanding between the two countries."

Elguneid noted, however, that Samuel Whitton, the U.S. ambassador who had been proceeding with these negotiations, then left his job, and that "negotiations with the new ambassador at large for war crimes, Clint Williamson, were more difficult." This was something of an understatement. Elguneid admitted that, despite filing 10 requests for a meeting to discuss the release of Hamad and Adem, he had been unable to secure an appointment with Williamson and had not met any State Department officials since that last meeting in June 2006.

With the release of Adel Hamad and Samir Adem, the deadlock has obviously been broken, but the clear politicization of the detainee-release process casts further shadows on the legitimacy of Guantánamo. And the stonewalling on the part of State Department officials serves only to undermine Condoleezza Rice’s claims that the Department is committed to Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ stated aim of finding ways to close the prison sooner rather than later.

This article draws on passages from my newly published book, The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.

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.