Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 March 2008
Issue No. 889
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Lost behind bars

Gihan Shahine delves into the lives of Egyptians held in Guantanamo, the world's most infamous prison

Click to view caption
Close to 600 detainees from 42 countries are being held at Guantanamo for allegedly posing a potential threat to US security in its war on terror (photos on the left are stills from The Road to Guantanamo)

"My name's Shafiq Rasul and I'm from Tipton. I tell them I am not Taliban but they don't want to listen. You won't believe I just came out here for my mate's wedding, do you?"

The poignant scene is from the British blockbuster The Road to Guantanamo depicting the plight of an innocent Pakistani- Briton detainee who was subject to forced confessions at the notorious US military base in Guantanamo. The docu-drama tells the true story of how Rasul and two other Pakistani- Britons were caught in an unfortunate coincidence. The three flew to Pakistan to attend a friend's wedding, but instead of eating part of the cake, they ended up spending three miserable years in Guantanamo before they were eventually released in 2004 after having been found innocent.

But The Road to Guantanamo is not just drama; it is a documentary that seems to epitomise the plight of close to 600 detainees from 42 countries held at Guantanamo for allegedly posing a potential threat to US security in its war on terror.

Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom, co-directors of the docu-drama, were unaware they had also been depicting the plight of Egyptian detainees Sherif El-Mashad and Adel El-Gazzar who happened to be in very similar circumstances when the film was in production but with one major difference: the two have yet to be released.

On Red Cross postcards delivered to his family back home upon his arrest, El-Mashad expressed similar anguish to that of Rasul. "I did nothing to deserve imprisonment and they have no charges against me... I'm probably only here for interrogation and will be released. Only God knows when.

"If I had known a war would break out in Afghanistan, I would never have gone there in the first place, but it is God's will," El-Mashad said, asking his mother to pray for his release.

El-Mashad was caught in more or less the same way as Rasul. El-Mashad had spent four years in Italy as a permanent resident before being invited by a friend in Afghanistan in July 2001 to take part in voluntary relief work and also to work in a clothing business. On 30 December 2001 he was caught on the Afghan-Pakistan border during a failed attempt to flee the country after the outbreak of war.

El-Gazzar's story was not much different. An accountant and the father of four children [his youngest daughter was only a few months old when he was incarcerated in Guantanamo], El-Gazzar went on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia on 27 August 2000 and then decided to stay to search for a job. He disappeared in 2001 and almost a year later, his family received a hand-delivered Red Cross postcard from him saying he was in Guantanamo. It turned out that El-Gazzar went to Afghanistan to engage in relief work and when the war broke out, he was caught on the border while trying to flee the country.

"El-Gazzar spent four months in a US-run detention camp on the borders between Pakistan and Afghanistan where he was subjected to a range of the fiercest kinds of torture before he was finally moved to Guantanamo," said Adel Mekki, executive chair of the Egyptian Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRAAP), which was involved in defending Egyptian detainees in Guantanamo.

According to American lawyer Carol Bruce, counsel for El-Mashad and El-Gazzar, what matters most "is that neither was arrested on or near a battlefield in Afghanistan and that both men insist they are not affiliated in any way with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or any other terrorist or terrorist-supporting organisation."

"They were both arrested at different times and in different places in Pakistan in November/December of 2001, and were turned over to US authorities by Pakistani security forces," Bruce told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The US government was posting large bounties for the arrest of suspected Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters. There has been much written about how many detainees apparently are innocent but were essentially sold to the US government by people eager to be paid the bounty."

El-Mashad and El-Gazzar are not alone. Almost all human rights activists talking to the Weekly confirmed Bruce's testimony. They argued that prisoners in Guantanamo seem to be totally innocent, were not engaged in any conflict upon arrest or even caught on the battlefield, and were abducted by local Afghans keen to collect the $5,000 reward that the US was offering for "foreign Taliban".

Clive Stafford-Smith, director of Justice in Exile, had previously told the Weekly, "US claims that Guantanamo prisoners were enemy combatants who were all captured on the battlefield in Afghanistan are pure fiction," citing two prisoners abducted in Gambia and six seized in Bosnia.

Like many others, both El-Mashad and El-Gazzar remain in custody without charge or a fair hearing. According to Bruce, the two men were wrongly found to be unlawful enemy combatants by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT) at Guantanamo Bay in early 2005. She argued, however, that the two captives "have not yet had a fair hearing about their status; have not been charged with any war crimes or crimes; have not been given the opportunity to see or hear any of the so-called secret evidence against them; have not had a fair opportunity to challenge the accusations against them; and have not had the benefit of counsel in any military tribunal hearing to date."

A detailed picture about the health of the two prisoners is not available, although some unofficial reports claim that El-Gazzar is in bad health. Bruce said she has no reports that the two detainees are in poor health, but added she "cannot imagine they are in the best of spirits.

"They are both being held, like most of the men in Guantanamo, in super maximum security prisons, in individual, small, windowless cells, with little or no physical contact with other detainees, with little or no reading material, and with no ability to see the horizon during their one hour a day in a narrow, outside exercise yard." This sort of prison in the US, according to Bruce, "is usually reserved for men convicted of very serious crimes, yet these men have not been charged with any crime."

Egypt named five detainees held at Guantanamo: Alaaeddin Mohamed Salem, Reda Fadel El-Weleli, Sami El-Leithi, Adel Fattouh El-Gazzar and Sherif El-Mashad. El-Leithi and Salem were released in November 2006. El-Leithi returned to Egypt while Salem, afraid of further abuse back home, requested to be taken to Albania where he was granted asylum. The Weekly could not gather accurate information about El-Weleli who was allegedly released three years ago. Neither Salem nor El-Leithi were willing to talk to the press, but according to Mekki, the two were found innocent and released after spending more than three years in detention.

"Both Salem and El-Leithi were subject to the harshest ever modes of torture that left Salem with slurred speech and El-Leithi with total paralysis," Mekki said. Neither has received compensation.

The Road to Guantanamo depicts a bleak picture of how prisoners were tortured in Guantanamo. According to film producers, torture scenes had to be softened for the benefit of the actors who were unable to stand the pain caused by shackles pressing on their legs. The actors said they were unable to remain in the stress positions they were supposed to for more than an hour. The three prisoners claim they were held in the same positions for up to eight hours.

The US has been heavily criticised for holding hundreds of detainees without charge or fair trial. It has recently faced mounting pressure to close the camp after some prisoners driven by despair, committed suicide. US President George W Bush has repeatedly said he would like to close the camp and send detainees back to their home countries. But although many detainees held without charge have been released over the past two years, many others remain in custody.

Bruce doubts that the camp will be closed any time soon and if it is, "then I expect the government will simply move the detainees to other detention facilities in the US or elsewhere."

Mekki speculates that the US administration "is saving face by keeping many innocent captives in custody.

"The camp is internationally considered a stigma in US history and if the US decides to close it and release all prisoners for not posing any threat to the US, it would be telling the whole world that it has made a grave mistake that history will never forget." The fact that some prisoners were released while others were not despite being classified as non-enemy combatants may serve as a case in point, according to Mekki.

Mekki further regrets the absence of any criteria governing the release of prisoners, just as the case has been with random arrests. US authorities have, for instance, found that El-Gazzar could be released while according to Bruce, they have given no indication El-Mashad will be released any time soon. Not that El-Gazzar is so fortunate himself. Though he has been cleared by US authorities for almost a year now -- since February 2007, he has not yet been released.

"The prisoners are not more than scapegoats," Mekki insisted, claiming the US is allegedly keeping prisoners in detention "in order to use them as trump cards with countries of political and strategic interests to the US."

Mekki would equally blame the Egyptian Foreign Ministry for not pressing enough for the repatriation of its prisoners as other countries did. Mekki concedes that thanks to diplomatic efforts, two detainees were released. That said, he added that such effort "should have been exerted earlier to save innocent prisoners many years of unneeded suffering." In addition, according to Mekki, Egypt's diplomatic efforts have so far failed to release El-Mashad or El-Gazzar.

The HRAAP had won a lawsuit against the Egyptian Foreign Ministry demanding that it presses for the repatriation of the two remaining prisoners. "The ministry then sent two delegates to visit El-Mashad and El-Gazzar and hold high-level talks with US officials, which ministry officials claimed were very fruitful," Mekki said. "It remains questionable, however, what kind of success the talks achieved when the two prisoners remain in detention," Mekki said.

Egypt's Foreign Ministry refrained from commenting on the issue.

According to Bruce, "the only thing blocking El-Gazzar's return at this point, as far as we know, is the US government wanting to satisfy itself through its own discussions and negotiations with the Egyptian government that El-Gazzar will not be subjected to torture or abuse if he is returned to Egypt."

Which is one major issue of concern for both captives and human rights activists back home. HRAAP Director Mohamed Zarie is sceptical that El-Gazzar and El-Mashad will fair any better back home and suggests that the two might seek asylum in any other foreign country if they are released soon. "They have had enough and there is no guarantee that they would get fair treatment here in Egypt," a pessimistic Zarie speculated. Mekki said he had asked the Egyptian ministries of interior and foreign affairs for guarantees that Salem, who was granted asylum in Albania, would be safely repatriated without any further abuse, but he has received no answer. The ministry, however, had held a press conference last year to announce the success of Egypt's diplomatic efforts in the release of two Egyptian detainees, and that the released prisoner who chose to go to Albania "has the right to return home whenever he wants."

Mekki is not blatantly pessimistic. After all, he said, El-Leithi returned and was not subjected to any abuse. In fact, the government provided him with free medical care.

"There is no guarantee, of course, that other released prisoners would fare the same [since El-Leithi was in very bad health] but detainees should take the risk since they cannot stay away from family and home for the rest of their lives," Mekki advised. El-Gazzar has four children without a breadwinner and El-Mashad was the main financial earner for his family.

According to Bruce, both El-Gazzar and El-Mashad were initially concerned about how they would be treated in custody in Egypt because of the fact that they have been branded -- falsely, they argue -- "unlawful enemy combatants". Later, they individually and separately (they have no contact with each other in Guantanamo and apparently did not know each other before going to Guantanamo) concluded that they do not care what suffering may await them in custody in Egypt.

"They are confident that they have done nothing wrong and they are eager to see their families," Bruce said. "They want to leave Guantanamo. They want to see the Egyptian sun again."

The two prisoners, however, do not know that more family woes are in store back home. El-Gazzar's father, no longer able to cope with the heartbreak of losing his son, died a few months ago leaving El-Gazzar's wife and four children without any stable source of income. El-Mashad's mother is not fairing much better. According to close family sources, the teacher has been almost bed-ridden after suffering a series of health problems.

"We do not allow her [El-Mashad's mother] to see or talk to the press because her nerves are shot," a relative said, asking to have his name withheld. "Sherif has no criminal record here or there and his mother expected him to be the first to come out. Now the whole family languishes in sadness. They don't have a social life anymore."

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