Who Are The Two Syrians Released From Guantánamo To Portugal?

On August 28, in the first indication that European countries are prepared to help the Obama administration fulfill its promise to close Guantánamo by accepting prisoners who have been cleared for release, but who cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will face torture on their return, the Portuguese interior ministry announced that two Syrian prisoners had arrived from Guantánamo and had been released on their arrival in Portugal. Officials added that they are "not subject to any charge, they are free people and are living in homes provided by the state." 

Last December, Portugal took the lead in offering to rehouse cleared prisoners from Guantánamo, when, in a letter to other EU leaders, Luís Amado, the Portuguese Foreign Minister, declared, "The time has come for the European Union to step forward. As a matter of principle and coherence, we should send a clear signal of our willingness to help the U.S. government in that regard, namely through the resettlement of detainees. As far as the Portuguese government is concerned, we will be available to participate." 

The deal was apparently sealed in June, when the government announced that it was ready to take "two or three" prisoners from Guantánamo, following a visit by U.S. Special Envoy Daniel Fried. On arrival in Portugal, the men’s identities were not known, but on Monday, court documents released by the Justice Department (PDF) revealed that the two men are 27-year old Mohammed al-Tumani (identified by the Pentagon as Muhammed Khan Tumani), and 37-year old Moammar Badawi Dokhan.  

In a press release issued on Friday, the U.S. Justice Department explained the circumstances of the men’s release, stressing that the final say in approving their transfer had been taken by Congress. "As directed by the President’s Jan. 22, 2009 Executive Order, the interagency Guant1ánamo Review Task Force conducted a comprehensive review of these cases," the DoJ announced, adding, "As a result of that review, the detainees were approved for transfer from Guantánamo Bay. On Aug. 6, 2009, in accordance with Congressionally-mandated reporting requirements, the Administration informed Congress of its intent to transfer these two detainees."  

The Justice Department was also keen to allay any fears that the men might pose any threat in future. "The transfers were carried out under an arrangement between the United States and the government of Portugal," the press release stated, adding, "The United States has coordinated with the government of Portugal to ensure the transfers take place under appropriate security measures and will continue to consult with the government of Portugal regarding these detainees." 

To be honest, these caveats were unnecessary, as the Portuguese government would not have taken the men in the first place, and would certainly not have announced that they "are free people and are living in homes provided by the state," if there had been any doubts about their insignificance. Moreover, their stories, as revealed in publicly available documents from Guantánamo, also reveal that neither man had any connection whatsoever to international terrorism, revealing, as so often before, that right-wing hysteria about those still held in the prison is largely hyperbole of a kind that, on close inspection, reveals more about the cowardice and xenophobia of those making the claims than it does about the majority of the prisoners themselves.

Mohammed al-Tumani: a story of persistent abuse


The younger of the two released men, Mohammed al-Tumani, who was just 18 years old when he arrived in Afghanistan in June 2001, has always maintained that he arrived as an immigrant with his entire family, and was seized by mistake with his father, Abdul Nasir al-Tumani, who is still held in Guantánamo. As I explained in my book The Guantánamo Files, based on the men’s accounts in their military tribunals:  

    The father had traveled to Afghanistan in 1999 in search of work, finding a job in a restaurant in Kabul and bringing ten members of his family over in June 2001, including Mohammed, his grandmother and an eight-month old baby. Another six family members — his uncle’s family — arrived a week before 9/11, but after hearing about the attack on America the family fled to Jalalabad, where they stayed for a month, and then made their way on foot to Pakistan. On the way, their guide advised al-Tumani to let the women and children travel by car, to make them less of a target for highway robbers, but when he and his son arrived in Pakistan the local villagers handed them over to the Pakistani army. 

Mohammed also said that, while in Pakistani custody, in three separate prisons, he and his father were "subjected to beatings and harsh torture," and his nose was broken. He added that throughout this ordeal "there were Americans present," and this account was echoed by his father, who said that the Pakistanis "were torturing us really hard," and the Americans "were looking and standing right there. The Americans were present. I am sure about that because they were the ones who interrogated us."  

In addition, Mohammed explained that, in the U.S. prison at Kandahar airport (where the prisoners were processed for Guantánamo), his father’s forehead was fractured "and the Red Cross saw this and wrote a report," and he added that he received a fracture to his left hand, as well as suffering "many diseases" and "other methods of psychological torture," including sleep deprivation. 

He also explained, as Carol Rosenberg described it in the Miami Herald, that during interrogation at Camp X-Ray (the rudimentary first prison at Guantánamo, which was closed in June 2002), "one of the interrogators brought two wires connected to electricity and said that if you do not say that you and your father are from al-Qaeda or Taliban, I will place these in your neck,’" and that the abuse continued in Camp Delta (Camp X-Ray’s more permanent replacement), where he said that he was "threatened with violence," and that "an interrogator threatened to send him to torture in a foreign country." 

Beyond these alarming examples of abuse, which cannot be independently confirmed (but which certainly accord with claims made by many other prisoners), Mohammed al-Tumani’s story is also notable for a startling example of how allegations made by other prisoners were regarded as reliable evidence by the authorities at Guantánamo, even when, as in al-Tumani’s case, the veracity of these claims was undermined by military officers who had chosen to investigate the quality of the supposed evidence rather than accepting it at face value.

The baleful effects of Guantánamo’s notorious liar

As Corine Hegland explained in two ground-breaking articles for the National Journal in 2006 ("Guantánamo’s Grip" and "Empty Evidence"), Mohammed al-Tumani was one of two prisoners whose protestations regarding what they claimed were false allegations made against them by other prisoners were investigated by their enterprising Personal Representative. The Representatives were military officers appointed in place of lawyers in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, the review boards established in 2004, which, as one former insider, Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham has explained, were designed primarily to rubberstamp the prisoners’ prior designation as "enemy combatants" who could be held without charge or trial. 

In the case of Farouq Saif (identified by the Pentagon as Farouq Ali Ahmed), a Yemeni who was accused of guarding Osama bin Laden’s private airport in Kandahar by another Yemeni prisoner, his Personal Representative (a principled but unidentified Air Force Lieutenant Colonel) submitted a written protest after looking at Saif’s file and discovering that the government’s sole evidence that he had been at bin Laden’s airport was the statement of another prisoner, who, according to an FBI memo that he presented to the tribunal, was a notorious liar. According to the FBI, he "had lied, not only about Farouq, but about other Yemeni detainees as well. The other detainee claimed he had seen the Yemenis at times and in places where they simply could not have been." Despite this, Saif was judged to be an "enemy combatant," and is still held at Guantánamo.  

In addition, Hegland also discussed how Mohammed al-Tumani had been ensnared by the informer’s lies, as I explained in an article in 2007:  

    In his tribunal, [al-Tumani] denied an allegation that he had attended the al-Farouq training camp [the main training camp for Arabs, associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before 9/11] with such vigor that his Personal Representative decided to investigate the matter further. When he looked at the classified evidence, however, he found that only one man — the same detainee mentioned above — claimed to have seen him at al-Farouq, and had identified him as being there three months before he arrived in Afghanistan. As Corine Hegland described it, "The curious U.S. officer pulled the classified file of the accuser, saw that he had accused 60 men, and, suddenly skeptical, pulled the files of every detainee the accuser had placed at the one training camp. None of the men had been in Afghanistan at the time the accuser said he saw them at the camp." 

As with Farouq Saif, however, the Personal Representative’s protestations were in vain, because Mohammed al-Tumani was also judged to be an "enemy combatant," and had to wait for nearly five years before President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force finally "conducted a comprehensive review" of his case, and, presumably, established that the evidence against him was unreliable. What has not been explained, however, is what happened in the cases of the other 58 men who were accused by the notorious liar, or why Mohammed’s father — whose circumstances seem to have been no different — was not cleared for release as well.  

A Taliban foot soldier? 

Less is known of the second man, Moammar Dokhan, who was 29 when he was captured on the Pakistani border, as he did not take part in any tribunals or review boards at Guantánamo. According to the Pentagon, he "traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan with the stated intention of joining the Taliban," "served as a rear-echelon guard and manned an observation post" near Bagram, and "carried a rifle while on duty at the observation post."  

With nothing else to rely on, the authorities tried to spice up this meager list with claims that "his name was contained on a list of incarcerated associates found on a computer used by suspected al-Qaeda members in Pakistan in early 2002," and that his name "was contained on a list of captured mujahideen found in Pakistan on a hard drive associated with a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative," although as I explained in a brief profile of Dokhan’s case last year: 

    It is not known if these two claims in fact refer to the same computer file, but neither provides proof of anything other than the fact that he was caught and imprisoned as a suspected militant. The "list," as in the cases of many other prisoners, may have been nothing more than a report of the prisoners’ names, mentioned in the media or leaked by the men’s jailers, and it appears to be no more useful as evidence than the Bush administration’s claims that those in Guantánamo are "enemy combatants," because the President decided, without the need for evidence, that that was the case. 

Nevertheless, although the Taliban allegations indicate that Dokhan was, at best, nothing more than one of the lowliest Taliban recruits in an inter-Muslim civil war that predated the 9/11 attacks and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda (although Dokhan himself "denie[d] ever having been in Afghanistan"), it is surprising that Obama’s Task Force allowed him to be released, as, elsewhere, the Justice Department has been working overtime to prevent judges in the District Courts from granting the habeas corpus appeals of other prisoners whose connections to the Taliban have been no more pronounced, and, just last week, scored what appeared to be a rare victory when Judge Kollar-Kotelly ruled that a Kuwaiti prisoner, Fawzi al-Odah, could continue to be detained because the government had established, "by a preponderance of the evidence," that he was probably involved with the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda. 

Logic dictates that those who traveled to Afghanistan to serve with the Taliban are a different type of prisoner from those who were members of al-Qaeda, and were committed to plotting and pursuing terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies, but logic was a rare commodity in the Bush administration, which chose instead to conflate al-Qaeda with the Taliban and to pack Guantánamo with men who knew nothing about Osama bin Laden or the 9/11 attacks, and had no involvement with terrorism. Moreover, the effects of this confusion linger to this day, as the Obama administration has chosen to maintain the same fiction that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are interchangeable, and the District Courts are also bound by this ludicrous lack of distinction.  

We may never discover what the government’s secretive Guantánamo Review Task Force concluded about Moammar Dokhan (or, for that matter, about Mohammed al-Tumani), but by cutting through the hyperbole and granting these two men their freedom, the Portuguese government has just established that it has a clarity of vision that, with just four months to go until President Obama’s deadline for closing Guantánamo, remains sorely lacking in the United States.

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.