It doesn’t take much investigation to discover that Algeria has a bleak human rights record, which is one of the reasons that, until last week, when 49-year-old Mustafa Hamlili and 28-year-old Abdul Raham Houari were freed from Guantánamo, no Algerian prisoners had been repatriated. This was in spite of the fact that at least 10 of the 17 Algerians held in the prison have been cleared for release some for around two years after multiple military review boards determined that they no longer represented a threat to the U.S. or its allies.
The Miami Herald reported that the U.S. administration blamed the Algerian government for the delay in repatriating cleared Algerians from Guantánamo, citing a comment by Sandra Hodgkinson, the Defense Department deputy in charge of detainee affairs, who said earlier this year that the Algerian authorities “simply decided that they do not want to accept back any of the detainees from the United States.” Hodgkinson added that the Algerian government’s stance was “discouraging,” and claimed that, last summer, as the Herald described it, “Washington and Algiers agreed on [the] repatriation of a number of Algerians she would not quantify. Then the North African nation reversed course.”
There is, undoubtedly, some truth to Hodgkinson’s claims, but it is not the whole story, as the case of another cleared prisoner, Ahmed Belbacha, demonstrates. A former soccer player in Algeria who had been working for a government-owned oil company, Belbacha fled to the UK when Islamist militants threatened his life. He settled in the southern coastal town of Bournemouth, where he found steady employment and a group of close friends.
While waiting to see if his asylum claim was successful, Belbacha took a month’s vacation to visit Damascus, Tehran, and an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan, where he was seized by opportunistic soldiers and sold to U.S. forces. When he was finally cleared for release from Guantánamo in February 2007, having been found not to pose a threat to the U.S. or its allies including the UK and Algeria his return to the UK was refused by the British government, on the grounds that he was not technically a resident at the time of his capture (even though he had already spent two productive years in the UK).
His lawyers at the London-based legal action charity Reprieve were then obliged to mount a series of successful legal actions in the U.S. courts to prevent his return to Algeria, where he is at risk not only from the terrorists who had previously threatened him, but also from the Algerian intelligence services, who, as one of his lawyers, Zachary Katznelson, explained last summer, “have told Reprieve that if Ahmed returns, they cannot ensure that he will be safe from their own personnel.” Katznelson also said, “He says his cell in Guantánamo is like a grave and that although it sounds crazy he would rather stay in those conditions than go back to Algeria. The fact is that he is really, really scared about what might happen to him in Algeria.”
Sadly, while Ahmed Belbacha’s fears are genuine, and should, by law, be respected by the U.S. administration, which is a signatory to international treaties preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture, the administration has persistently demonstrated its determination to bypass its obligations by signing “memoranda of understanding” with abusive regimes including Libya, Tunisia, and Jordan. For its part, Algeria has refused officially to sign a “memorandum of understanding,” but, as the case of Ahmed Belbacha shows, this has not prevented the U.S. authorities from attempting to strike deals with the Algerian government.
Moreover, although the “memoranda of understanding” purport to guarantee humane treatment, they are clearly worthless. Last June, when two cleared Tunisians, Lotfi Lagha and Abdullah bin Omar, were repatriated, their “humane treatment” consisted of summary imprisonment, abuse, threats to rape bin Omar’s wife and daughters, and, finally, show trials based on false evidence obtained from other prisoners tortured in Tunisia, in which the two men received jail sentences of three and seven years, respectively.
The UK, too, has been involved in similar underhand activity, making equally worthless agreements with these same regimes in an attempt to rid itself of unwanted foreign nationals, who have never been charged with a crime but who have been held in prison, or under draconian control orders, which amount to house arrest. This imprisonment without charge or trial is based on secret evidence, which has never been disclosed but which, like the “evidence” against the Guantánamo prisoners, is often of dubious provenance. Where it has surfaced it has hinted at ineptitude on the part of the British intelligence services, or false information obtained from prisoners tortured in other countries, including Algeria.
Although a number of courts have intervened to prevent the repatriation of some of those held in Britain’s various Guantánamo-influenced forms of detention to Libya, Jordan, and, in a few cases, Algeria other Algerians have either failed to prevent their deportation in the courts or have given up on the law entirely, bowing to the pressure exerted on them to force them to return “voluntarily” to the countries of their birth. The results have been mixed. Some have been released, while others have been tried and sentenced for dubious terrorism-related offenses (despite UK assurances to the contrary). But throughout this process the treatment appears to have been arbitrary, and it is for this reason that I chose the “Russian roulette” analogy in the heading of this article.
In Guantánamo, Ahmed Belbacha’s fear of repatriation is not unique. Several other cleared Algerian prisoners are also terrified of returning to the country of their birth, although their lawyers have not been obliged to take legal action, because the U.S. government has not, to date, attempted to send them home.
From what I understand, however, the two men repatriated last week had decided, unlike Ahmed Belbacha, that they preferred to take their chances with repatriation. No news has yet emerged from Algeria to indicate whether or not Mustafa Hamlili and Abdul Raham Houari were freed on their return, or whether in the disturbing game of Russian roulette that confronts Algerians repatriated after facing allegations of impropriety, however groundless they are, as you read this, facing ill-treatment, possible torture, show trials, and further imprisonment. What is certain, however, is that neither man ever constituted a threat to either the United States or Algeria.
The first, Abdul Raham Houari, who was just 21 years old when he was captured in Afghanistan, in November or December 2001, appears to be one of countless impressionable young men fired up by false hopes that Afghanistan would be an inspirational place for a young Muslim to visit. At a military review board hearing in December 2005, he denied an allegation that his travel had been funded by al-Qaeda. He explained that his journey to Pakistan had been facilitated by a Pakistani youth mosque, and that he had paid for his own travel. He also explained that, although he had stayed in a guest house in Bagram, Afghanistan, where he had been taught how to use a Kalashnikov, he had not engaged in hostilities against either the Northern Alliance or the United States. He added that he was injured while sleeping when someone accidentally detonated a grenade, and that when he awoke he was in a vehicle near a hospita. He was then taken to the hospital, where he was later seized and transferred to Guantánamo.
All that can be gleaned of his behavior in Guantánamo comes from this same transcript, where it was alleged that his “[o]verall behavior has been generally non-compliant and aggressive” and that he “has failed to comply with guards’ instructions on a number of occasions. He has been informed to keep his clothes on and has repeatedly ignored those orders and has stood in his cell naked.” A sign that this may have been less to do with deliberate insubordination, and more to do with a head injury and unaddressed mental health issues can be found in Houari’s reply. “I have never misbehaved while being a detainee,” he said. “I am under medication for my head injury, and I removed my clothes because I had a headache.”
The second man, Mustafa Hamlili, was, like at least 120 other prisoners in Guantánamo, seized in Pakistan, and not, as the administration has repeatedly alleged, on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Forty-two years old when he was dragged from his home, in a village near Peshawar, on May 25, 2002, the former university professor, who fought the Russians in Afghanistan, ran through his history in a dignified and eloquent manner during his tribunal at Guantánamo. Declaring his innocence, he explained, “For the last 15 years, I have not [had] any problems with anyone in my village. Anyone in my village can verify that. I am 45, and I am not going to do anything foolish. If I were going to do these things, I would have done them when I was younger. I am a Muslim. Islam is against all terrorism, violence, and problems between people.”
According to the timeline of events described by Hamlili, he traveled to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia in 1987 and took up a job with the International Islamic Relief Organization, a large and well-funded Saudi charity, working in the Orphans’ Department and looking after a school until it closed in 1990. He then supported himself and his family by working as a welder and a honey seller for the next 10 years. He traveled to Yemen from 1995-97, where he took the opportunity to study because he didn’t need a visa, and then returned to Pakistan.
He explained that from June to September 2001 he worked for the charity al-Wafa in Kandahar, digging wells and remodeling mosques, until the office closed. Dozens of prisoners at Guantánamo all now released were held because the U.S. regarded al-Wafa as an organization that was associated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, although Hamlili was not convinced by the associations suggested by the authorities, explaining that he “never suspected al-Wafa was a terrorist organization because they had blankets, medicine, hospitals, and equipment to repair roads.” He also told his tribunal that he began working with al-Wafa because “I was told there was a Saudi organization that was looking for employees,” adding, crucially, “The Arabs in Afghanistan didn’t want to work for al-Wafa because they considered it working for [the] Saudi government. I was proud to be working for a humanitarian organization.”
Throughout his tribunal, it was unclear what Hamlili had done to be designated as an “enemy combatant,” and his personal representative (the military officer appointed in place of a lawyer) duly spoke up on his behalf, saying, “The Pakistani police and the Americans confiscated his audiotapes and books but found nothing to connect him with any terrorist activities.”
Hamlili himself summed up his predicament when asked why he thought he was arrested. “From what I understand,” he said, “the Pakistani intelligence was under pressure from the Americans to deliver al-Qaeda operatives and other terrorists. The Pakistani intelligence arrested people (some were poor and innocent) so they could show Americans they were working with them. The Pakistani officer that arrested me said I had nothing to worry about. I would be released shortly since they were looking specifically for al-Qaeda members.” Shamefully, Hamlili’s story is far from unique, although other tales of opportunistic arrests were not always expressed as eloquently by other prisoners rounded up by the Pakistani authorities to “show Americans they were working with them.”
At the conclusion of his hearing, when asked, “Have you ever worked for al-Qaeda or supported them in any way?” Hamlili reinforced the case for his innocence by delivering the following stinging rebuke: “No, I would rather starve than work for that organization. They try to control you and do things to your religion.”
In his last known hearing, in July 2006, Hamlili maintained the dignity he had shown previously, speaking about the conditions in the prison that had led, the previous month, to three prisoners committing suicide. “What happened because of [the abuse of] the Koran and other things could have been avoided if you had consulted with senior detainees about some matters,” he said. “With my regret, the miscommunication and mistreatment created problems and uprising. I am sorry for the ones who killed themselves recently. If they were around me, the wise one, the senior, I would have stopped it from happening because it is against my religion. I ask God to fix things and take care of mankind.”
In conclusion, the following exchange, which touched on issues relating to his possible repatriation, contained a measured defense of his religion and his position on extremism, which I hope has come to the attention of the Algerian authorities.
Presiding officer: “I realize that you denied a lot of the allegations against you in regards to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Should you return to Algeria, what kind of assurances can the Board have that you are not going to return to this kind of activity again?”
Hamlili: “If I wanted to be one of them, I would have worked for them before I got to this detention. I did not participate before, and I will never do that in the future. I pray and fast; I read the Koran. I am a Muslim. I am a peaceful man. I like to do good things to people, which is what our prophets teach us. What’s happening now with these groups is not a representation of Islam, because Islam is very clear. Islam religion is a humane religion. Islam teaches people to work together.”
Parts of this article are drawn from my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison.