Sami El-Leithi spent nearly four years at the notorious US detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. Back in Egypt, he tells his horrifying tale to Reem Nafie
Confined to a wheel chair, 49-year-old Sami El-Leithi came back to Egypt on 2 October after nearly two decades away from home. For the past four years, El-Leithi was among the estimated 583 detainees from 42 countries being held at a US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for allegedly posing a "potential threat to US security".
Although it is unclear exactly how many Egyptians are being held at Guantanamo (previous reports have indicated there might be eight or nine), El-Leithi said he had seen, but was only allowed to speak very briefly to, several other Egyptians during his time at the notorious US detention facility.
El-Leithi recounted to Al-Ahram Weekly in detail the methods by which he was tortured at Guantanamo, where he was held without charge; he attributes his current paralysis to the rough manner in which he was treated.
El-Leithi ended up in Guantanamo after a two-decade journey that took him from Egypt to Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1986, he moved to Pakistan with his sister and brother- in-law, who had been sent by Cairo's Al-Azhar University to the Islamic University in Islamabad on a scholarship. El-Leithi's departure to Pakistan coincides with the departure of many Egyptian and Arabs with Islamist inclinations to Pakistan and Afghanistan during the late 80s to participate in a covert, partially-US funded mujahideen campaign against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, El-Leithi studied for and received a master's degree in economics. "For the next 10 years, I worked as a teacher in different schools and universities, and gave private lessons to some students." In 1996, the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan refused to renew his passport. Unable, thus, to renew his Pakistani visa, El-Leithi says he then "traveled to Afghanistan, and succeeded in obtaining a new passport from our embassy in Kabul." There, El-Leithi worked as a professor of English and Arabic languages at Kabul University's Faculty of Arts.
Speaking in classical Arabic, El-Leithi looked frail as he recalled that, "all the problems started" after the 11 September 2001 attacks. During the subsequent US raid on Afghanistan, El-Leithi suffered a head injury and was transferred to a Kabul hospital with several other injured Afghanis. Hearing that the US was also targeting hospitals, El-Leithi and the others sought refuge in the city of Khost, 150 kilometres south of Kabul. "Some Afghanis told us that members of the Taliban had fled to Khost, and that the US forces would soon be searching for them there, so we fled to the mountains."
Although he was still severely injured, El-Leithi continued to flee the air raids, until he arrived at the Pakistani border via car. "At the border, the Pakistani forces arrested me and the Afghani who had transported me. We were cuffed and deported to a jail where there were many others. We were asked to change into blue overalls, and our heads were covered with blue plastic bags so that we were unable to see what was going on around us," he said. El-Leithi said he remained there for one week, during which US officers interrogated him.
He was then transferred to the Afghani city of Kandahar, where all the detainees were moved onto a plane. Once on board, the detainees' hands and legs were cuffed to the backs of their chairs, their ears covered with rubber blocks, and their eyes shielded by a cloth wrapped around their heads. "We arrived at an air base, and were ordered by an American officer to change into orange overalls. Our heads were covered with orange plastic bags with air holes," El-Leithi recalled. They were then jammed into a truck and transported to a jail. "Only when we heard the soldiers repeating the word Guantanamo, did we know where we were being taken," he said.
El-Leithi described the infamous detention centre where he spent nearly four years of his life; every detail is still very clear in his mind. Divided into four categories from A to D -- A being the section "where detainees were tortured the least, and D the most" -- El-Leithi was given an "A-grade" cell, with three meals a day. The cell included a bed, blanket, small sink and toilet; its metal doors would only open when an officer brought El-Leithi his food, or when the prisoner was taken out for interrogation. Prisoners were also forced, on a daily basis, to walk in a courtyard for 30 minutes with their legs, hands and waists shackled with metal cuffs.
During the interrogations, El-Leithi said, "different shades of bright light were pointed at me as I was asked questions, and if I tried to close my eyes, I was beaten. They asked me the same questions over and over: who I was; details about my relatives; why I was in Afghanistan; and what my opinion was regarding US policy in Afghanistan."
During one of these sessions, El-Leithi said interrogators stomped on his back, dropped him on the floor and repeatedly forced his neck forward, which resulted in two broken vertebrae and his confinement to a wheel chair. He said he was then denied the necessary treatment and operation that would have saved him from permanent paralysis.
For nearly four years, this was El-Leithi's life, day in, day out. In May 2005, his case finally came before a US military tribunal, which ruled that he was not an enemy combatant. Although found innocent, El-Leithi remained in Guantanamo for the next six months, where officers continued to subject him to "physical and emotional pressure". On 29 September, he was finally moved to a hospital in the US, and from there to the plane that brought him to Cairo, where he was met by Egyptian security officials, who sent him to Cairo's Qasr Al-Aini Hospital.
El-Leithi said that when he was taken to the US hospital after his release, he was examined and given false medical records that claimed his spinal injury was sustained "before his arrival at Guantanamo, as a result of an automobile accident, and that the damage progressed over time".
Ironically, US officials had expressed their concern -- prior to his return to Egypt -- that El-Leithi would not be treated humanely at home; that he might be tortured or subjected to persecution by Egyptian interrogators. Human rights groups have documented many cases of maltreatment of political detainees in Egyptian prisons.
El-Leithi denied that he had any qualms about returning to Egypt, telling Al-Ahram Weekly that he "desperately wanted to see his mother and brother". He was also hopeful that the government would "fund my spinal chord surgery, so I am able to function normally again".
In El-Leithy's opinion, even though the "US claims to be the land of democracy, everything I experienced assures me they know nothing of humanity and decency. I worry about the Arabs and Egyptians that I know are still in Guantanamo."