A Tunisian in Guantánamo


Overlooked in the reports about Guantánamo detainee Abdullah bin Omar, a Tunisian who, on Sunday, was sent back to the country of his birth, where there are fears that he will be subjected to torture and abuse, is the story of the other Tunisian who, shackled and bound, shared a US plane with him. Unlike bin Omar, who was represented by lawyers who have done their best to publicize his case, there was no one to speak out for 38-year old Lofti Lagha, and no way of knowing if he too faces persecution on his return. Even his identity has so far remained concealed, revealed neither by the US nor the Tunisian authorities.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, in June 2004, that the prisoners in Guantánamo had the right to challenge their detention in the US courts (a right that was taken away by Congress last October), around 200 detainees availed themselves of this hard-won opportunity, but for some reason–either because he did not trust American lawyers, or because he found no way of establishing contact–Lofti Lagha was not one of them. Like hundreds of other men in Guantánamo without legal representation, the only people he met for five and a half years who were not part of the US administration that imprisoned him without charge or trial were, on occasion, representatives of the Red Cross, and, almost certainly, representatives of the intelligence services of his home country–in his case, a secretive, repressive regime dominated, for 20 years, by the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Although Lagha was not one of Guantánamo’s completely voiceless prisoners–a dubious accolade reserved for 22 detainees whose names, reprinted from lists released by the Pentagon last year, can be found on page after page of the internet, but for whom no story whatsoever has been reported–all that exists in the public domain to mark his 2,000-day imprisonment are three pages of notes from the Unclassified Summary of Evidence for his Administrative Review Board hearing in 2005–convened to assess whether he should still be regarded as an "enemy combatant"–which, like his earlier tribunal, he did not attend.

What can be gleaned from this jumble of biographical details, conflicting claims and unsubstantiated allegations masquerading as evidence is that Lagha served in the Tunisian army as a young man, and then, allegedly, "stole a boat to enter Italy illegally with an Egyptian and another Tunisian," where he used a false ID card. In Milan, where he seems to have settled, it was claimed that he "associated with various Tunisians" at a cultural center (which is hardly surprising), and that "among those who frequented the cultural center" was "at least one individual that belonged to a terrorist network that ensures financial support to terrorist groups while also actively recruiting for Osama bin Laden-sponsored training camps in Afghanistan." It was also noted that he "frequented elements of the Jamaat-al-Tablighi" (sic). A vast worldwide missionary organization with millions of members, Jamaat-al-Tablighi–founded in India in the 1920s–declares itself non-political but has caused concern in the West because of its rigorous conservatism, although none of the criticism levelled at it has come close to the hyperbole used in Guantánamo, where, as in the "evidence" against Lagha, it is regularly described as "a Pakistan-based Islamic missionary organization," which is "used as a cover to mask travel and activities of terrorists including al-Qaeda."

Moving on to Lagha’s reasons for leaving Italy, it was alleged that he travelled to Afghanistan in early 2001, when he was "sent by the head of a terrorist network for military training," although it was also alleged that he travelled in April 2001 "after being inspired to perform jihad" by a recruiter at a mosque in Italy, and it was also claimed that he travelled with a companion who was a "member of a terrorist network and a convicted terrorist." According to US military intelligence, his Italian contact put him in touch with a Tunisian in the eastern city of Jalalabad, who had previously run the Durunta training camp, and this man in turn introduced him to two other Tunisians, a "reported" member of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and another connected to Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, an Afghan militia commanded by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a renegade warlord heavily funded by the Americans in the 1980s, but now described as a terrorist who "ran terrorist training camps in Afghanistan" and "staged attacks in an attempt to force US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan."

Captured after crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan in December 2001, it was alleged that, after his arrest, Lagha "told others that he was coming from the mountains of Tora Bora," although this does not prove that he was in Tora Bora with Osama bin Laden’s men, and it may be that, like countless others (many of whom are still in Guantánamo), he was passing through the mountains on his way to Pakistan. The most risible allegation of all was that he "saw members of the Taliban while in Afghanistan," a predicament that only a blind man could avoid. Lagha’s own explanation for his presence in Afghanistan is found in a section of the "evidence" described as "factors favouring release or transfer," in which it was noted that he said that he went to Afghanistan as a tourist, that he spent his time "fishing and recreating" in Jalalabad, and that once the war started he left Afghanistan. He insisted that he never trained in a camp in Afghanistan, never took up arms against the Americans or anybody else, and added that he "thinks al-Qaeda’s belief system strange and that they are not good."

Extracting reasons for his release from the garbled semi-narrative presented by the US authorities is, of course, all but impossible. Were his acquaintances really whom the authorities said they were, or was the whole story revealed as a tissue of lies? Did he, perhaps, rat on his fellows to escape Guantánamo, or did the authorities let him go because they concluded that they had drained him of all possible intelligence value? We may never know. What can be stated with absolute certainty, however, is that attempting to glimpse a flicker of the truth through a fog of innuendo is a poor substitute, after five and a half years, for an older, swifter, and far more effective system: a court of law, with proper charges, transparent evidence, prosecution and defense attorneys, and a judge and a jury.

ANDY WORTHINGTON (www.andyworthington.co.uk) is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (to be published by Pluto Press in October 2007).
He can be reached at: andy@andyworthington.co.uk


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