Forever in prison?
What happens when the rule of law is ignored and justice forgotten? Gihan Shahine examines the plight of Egyptian detainees at one of the world's most notorious prisons, the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba
Many prisoners who were held and tortured in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp have reportedly committed suicide, while many of those freed suffer disabilities
Sitting in his modest home in a small village near the Nile Delta city of Tanta, the Egyptian former Guantanamo inmate and torture victim Sami El-Leithi would probably scoff at the recent news that US President Barack Obama has now gone back on his election promise to close the notorious US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
After all, El-Leithi's release from the facility in October 2005 has not given him much liberty. Following his detention at the centre, he has ended up confined to a wheelchair for life, with no means of earning his living, no compensation for the years spent held by the US, and a residence that only has the name to designate it as his home.
Today, El-Leithi's heavily wrinkled face bespeaks years of anguish. His eyes bear the look of someone who is lost, or of someone who feels that he has been deprived of any sort of justice. For El-Leithi, justice is something better sought in heaven. It definitely does not exist on earth.
Before his release, the now shattered 50-year- old former university professor was found innocent by a US military tribunal after having been charged as an enemy combatant. However, it took the US authorities more than three long years of unjust imprisonment and torture, leaving El-Leithi largely paralysed, before reaching the conclusion that El-Leithi does not pose a threat to the US.
The circumstances of El-Leithi's detention are similar to those of many former detainees at Guantanamo rounded up during the US's invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. El-Leithi had travelled to Pakistan, where his sister was living with her husband, an Al-Azhar University professor, in 1986 to pursue his education.
He then moved to Afghanistan, where he landed a job as an English and Arabic professor at the University of Kabul. He was injured during the US raids on Afghanistan and was admitted to a Kabul hospital, where he heard the news that US forces were engaged in making random arrests of any Arabs found in the country.
El-Leithi's attempts to return to Pakistan failed when he was arrested by Afghan forces and handed over to the US. El-Leithi then ended up in the notorious US prison at Guantanamo Bay, where he was subjected to appalling torture that left him with a damaged spinal cord.
According to human-rights activists, it was probably the resulting paralysis and serious health problems that were responsible for his release. However, El-Leithi's repatriation was very far from being plain sailing, and upon his arrival in Egypt he was subjected to interrogation before being admitted to hospital where he was granted free medical care. His hospital room was put under surveillance by state security agencies, and El-Leithi says that the security forces still follow his every footstep.
Five years after his release from Guantanamo, El-Leithi has no proper medical care, no source of income and no compensation for all the injustices he has suffered. This former university professor now has to live on donations, and his brother claims that he also lost his job when his employer found out that his brother was a former prisoner at Guantanamo.
While human-rights activists have pledged to represent El-Leithi in the US courts in order to claim compensation, the case has been ongoing for many years, and it remains questionable whether any of the former Guantanamo inmates will receive any compensation.
El-Leithi's is not the only innocent life to have been ruined by US actions. Many of the human-rights activists who discussed his and similar cases with Al-Ahram Weekly said that the vast majority, perhaps even the totality, of Guantanamo's initial population of 600 prisoners was innocent of any crime. These were people who were not engaged in conflict and were not even detained on the field of battle. Instead, they were abducted by Afghans keen to collect the $5,000 reward that the US was offering for "foreign Taliban".
British lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, director of Justice in Exile, is one such human-rights activist. In correspondence with the Weekly, Stafford-Smith wrote that "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.
Official sources have named five Egyptian Guantanamo detainees as Alaaeddin Mohamed Salem, Reda Fadel El-Weleli, Sami El-Leithi, Adel Fattouh El-Gazzar and Sherif El-Mashad. Unofficial sources however also include Alaa Abdel-Maqsoud Mazrou, Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, the Egyptian-Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib, Ahmed Omar Abdel-Kafi, Youssef El-Dayyan and Eyad El-Sayed.
El-Leithi and Salem were released after being found innocent, and whereas El-Leithi chose to return to Egypt since he "had nothing more to lose," Salem, afraid of further abuse back home, requested to be taken to Albania where he was granted asylum.
Salem was similarly subjected to the worst forms of torture in Guantanamo, leaving him with slurred speech. In discussing his case, human-rights activists told the Weekly that they had not been able to obtain guarantees from the Egyptian authorities that he would not be subject to further abuse back home. Salem had been so traumatised by the treatment he had received that he had lost all trust in people, including in the lawyers who had tried to help him, they said.
The plight of El-Mashad and El-Gazzar is similar to that of El-Leithi, with the major difference that neither of these Egyptian citizens has yet been released from Guantanamo. Both have been cleared for release -- El-Gazzar in February 2007 -- but neither has been freed to date.
The two captives' families, who had formerly spoken to the Weekly about the two men's detention, are no longer ready to talk to the press. They are too embittered by the whole process to talk.
"We've had enough," snapped one family member of one of the prisoners who wanted to remain anonymous. "All we have got is trouble, and neither the press nor anyone else has done anything to help up till now." Moreover, the families of El-Gazzar and El-Mashad have been caught up in further troubles, and they now live secluded lives since friends and neighbours worry about having relations with the families of prisoners kept in Guantanamo.
Unable to cope with the heartbreak of losing his son to the US prison, El-Gazzar's father passed away more than a year ago, leaving his son's wife and her four children without any stable source of income. El-Mashad's mother is not faring much better. According to family sources, his mother, a teacher, has been almost bed-ridden after suffering a series of health problems.
"We do not allow her to see or to talk to the press because her nerves are shot through," one relative said, asking to have his name withheld. "Sherif has no criminal record, and his mother expected him to be the first to be released. Yet, the whole family is still languishing in grief."
The families no longer have a social life, and all they are given are a few pieces of paper with heavily edited messages from their sons delivered via the Red Cross. One message delivered to El-Mashad's family upon his arrest may express part of the anguish and injustice that El-Mashad and many other inmates have been through, suffering that continues to date.
"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," El-Mashad wrote many years ago. Yet, almost nine years later, El-Mashad's fate has still not been decided.
When he was elected as US president, Obama indicated that he would close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. However, today he has missed his self-imposed deadline, and he has not set a new deadline for the facility to be closed. As a result, critics of the Obama administration worldwide have expressed their pessimism that the facility will ever be closed. Even if it is closed, such critics say, prisoners will probably be moved to other detention facilities in the US or in other countries.
According to Mohamed Zarie, director of the Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRAAP), which was involved in defending Egyptian detainees in Guantanamo, one problem with releasing prisoners like El-Mashad and El-Gazzar is that "the US needs to make sure that such prisoners will not be subject to any further abuse back home, and there is definitely no guarantee that that will happen."
"Meanwhile, the United States is not ready to host the prisoners on its own territory for fear that they would be a source of trouble. Countries where prisoners regularly seek asylum are not enthusiastic to receive them either," Zarie told the Weekly.
Zarie partly blames the Egyptian Foreign Ministry for not having pressed hard enough for the release of the Egyptian prisoners. While it was thanks to diplomatic efforts that the two detainees were released, Zarie still insists that more efforts should have been exerted earlier to save the prisoners from many years of suffering.
"The end result is that the fate of the prisoners remains in limbo," Zarie said, letting out a sigh. "Those remaining in Guantanamo are probably lost forever."
For the time being, those prisoners still in Guantanamo, such as the Egyptians El-Mashad and El-Gazzar, will have to remain in this maximum security prison. According to US lawyer Carol Bruce, such prisons commonly have "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 [the prisoners'] one hour a day spent in a narrow, outside exercise yard."
Indeed, there have been many reports in the media, often based on testimonies by former Guantanamo inmates, depicting a bleak picture of how prisoners are held and tortured in the US prison. Many prisoners have reportedly committed suicide, while many of those freed suffer disabilities, like those inflicted by the US on El-Leithi and Salem.
In the United States itself, such prisons "are usually reserved for men convicted of very serious crimes, yet these men [those in Guantanamo] have not been charged with any crime at all," Bruce comments.
El-Mashad was detained in a similar way to El-Leithi. Having spent some years in Italy as a permanent resident, he was invited by a friend to take part in voluntary relief work in Afghanistan in July 2001 and also to work in the friend's clothing business. In December 2001 he was detained on the Afghan-Pakistan border during an attempt to leave the country after the outbreak of war.
El-Gazzar's story is also similar. 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 in August 2000 and decided to stay to look for a job in the country.
He then disappeared, and almost a year later his family received a postcard from the Red Cross saying he was in Guantanamo. It turned out that El-Gazzar had gone to Afghanistan to engage in relief work, and when war broke out he was detained trying to leave the country.
"El-Gazzar spent four months in a US-run detention camp on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he was subjected to a range of tortures before he was finally moved to Guantanamo," said Adel Mekki, a lawyer at the HRAAP.
Bruce points out that these men were not arrested on or near a battlefield, and all insist that they are not affiliated in any way with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or any other terrorist or terrorist-supporting organisation.
Both El-Mashad and El-Gazzar were arrested at different times and in different places in Pakistan in November/December 2001, and they were then turned over to invading US forces.
"The US government was posting large bounties for the arrest of suspected Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters," Bruce told the Weekly. "There has been much written about how many detainees are apparently innocent, but were essentially sold to the US government by people eager to be paid a bounty."
Like many others, El-Mashad and El-Gazzar were taken into US 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."
Neither of the men received "a fair hearing about their status. They 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, and have not had a fair opportunity to challenge the accusations against them," Bruce said.
The US, of course, has been heavily criticised for holding hundreds of detainees without charge or fair trial and in defiance of the rule of law. There are mounting pressures on the US administration to close the camp. On his second day in office, Obama pledged to close the facility within a year, but instead the camp remains open, and Obama had authorised the continuing detention without trial of nearly 50 of the current 198 Guantanamo prisoners because a presidential task force concluded that "they are too difficult to prosecute but too dangerous to release."
This announcement has alarmed human-rights activists, including members of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who dispute that "any significant category of such detainees exists" and have called for the "closure of the prison and an end to the illegal policy of indefinite detention without charge or trial."
The ACLU has also said that the closure of Guantanamo would only be "a symbolic gesture" if prisoners are just transferred to other facilities inside or outside the US to be illegally held without due process.
Observers talking to the Weekly speculate that the US administration may be trying to save face by keeping innocent captives in custody. "The camp is internationally considered to be a stigma on US history, and if the US decides to close it and release all the prisoners for not posing any threat to the US, it would be like telling the whole world that it has made a grave mistake that history will never forget," Mekki said.
The absence of criteria governing the release of prisoners, and the fact that some prisoners have been released while others have not despite the former having being classified as non- enemy combatants, serves as a case in point. Mekki speculates that the prisoners, in themselves only "scapegoats", may be being kept as "trump cards" to be used to further the political and strategic interests of the US.
However, for the two other Egyptian detainees, US injustice is not the only thing they have to suffer. Lawyers talking to the Weekly say that both El-Mashad and El-Gazzar want to go back home upon their release and not seek asylum in any other country. Yet, in El-Gazzar's case at least, the US is blocking this return in the absence of guarantees that released prisoners will not be subjected to abuse if returned to Egypt.
El-Gazzar may be imprisoned upon his return since he has been found guilty in absentia of belonging to the outlawed Al-Waad group. According to HRAAP lawyer Sayed Fawzi, El-Mashad may not fare much better.
"Both men will be detained and subjected to severe forms of torture in Egypt," Fawzi told the Weekly, adding that lawyers at the HRAAP are doing their best to ensure that this does not happen, though without any guarantee of success. Zarie said that Bruce had resigned from the cases following a visit to Egypt, where she found that the two men would probably be subjected to further abuse back home. Bruce was not available for comment on this subject.
It is for this reason that Zarie recommends that the two men "should seek asylum in a foreign country, because they will probably not get fair treatment in Egypt."
A 2007 report by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights notes that "the use of torture to extract confessions from those accused of, or suspected of having committed, crimes, or against their relatives where the suspect cannot be found, is a widespread phenomenon in police stations, state security investigations headquarters and prisons" in Egypt.
The report documented more than 567 cases of torture inside police stations, including 167 deaths that EOHR suspects were the result of torture and mistreatment. These cases, which occurred between 1993 and July 2007, "are merely a limited sample amongst hundreds of other cases received by EOHR," the report said, adding that "victims of torture cannot seek recourse to justice in order to seek redress for the damage caused by the torture."
All this is a source of alarm to former prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. However, knowing that they will never be able to reclaim the many years lost in Guantanamo, El-Gazzar and El-Mashad's only remaining hope remains just "to see the Egyptian sun again," Bruce said. "They are confident that they have done nothing wrong, and they are eager to see their families."
Whether such simple hopes will ever come true remains an open question.