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A Long and Intractable Problem

Italy’s Forgotten Prisoners in Guantánamo

by ANDY WORTHINGTON

Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity that represents 35 of the 273 prisoners still in Guantánamo, has just released a report, The Forgotten Italian Residents in Guantánamo Bay, in an attempt to find a solution to the plight of six of its clients. The six men are Italian residents, who, with one exception, have been cleared for release from Guantánamo after multiple military reviews, but cannot be returned to the country of their birth, Tunisia, because of international treaties preventing the return of foreign national to countries where they face the risk of torture.

The stories of the six men represented by Reprieve are typical of the random dragnets and lack of efficient screening that have so thoroughly undermined the US administration’s claims that the prison housed “the worst of the worst.” Adel al-Hakeemy, for example, traveled to Pakistan to get married, and was living in Jalalabad, in Afghanistan, near his wife’s family, when the US-led invasion began in October 2001. Far from being a militant, he was in fact a chef, and had lived in Italy for eight years, working as a chef’s assistant in several hotels in Bologna. “I lived with Italians in their homes,” he told Cori Crider of Reprieve during a visit at Guantánamo last month. “I am used to their culture. The Italians worked alongside me, they respected me, they treated me as their brother.” Hedi Hamamy, who moved to Italy in 1987, worked as a porter in Bologna, and later worked in a restaurant. Like Adel al-Hakeemy, he also married in Pakistan, and was seized by opportunistic Pakistani police, far from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Reprieve’s third Tunisian client, Lotfi bin Ali (known to the US authorities as Mohammed Abdul Rahman) has a pacemaker and is in poor health. Cleared for release in 2006, he explained to his review board in Guantánamo, “I have told my story five hundred times. I went to Pakistan for drugs. I was sick and I wanted to heal myself, so I went to Pakistan.” He also traveled, he said, “to get married and relax and to get out of what I was in.”

The last three men — Saleh Sassi, Adel Ben Mabrouk and Hisham Sliti — traveled to Afghanistan, but none of them so much as raised a finger against US forces. Sassi (known to the US authorities as Sayf bin Abdallah) lived in Italy from 1998 to 2001, and has family in Turin. Apparently persuaded to visit Afghanistan during a vacation from work, he was wounded when a truck he was traveling in was shot at. Hospitalized, first in Kabul, and then in Khost, he was transported to the Pakistani border, where he was seized by the Pakistani authorities. Ben Mabrouk, who lived in Italy from 1999 to 2001, working in restaurants in Naples and Rome, and as a barber in Milan, decided to visit Afghanistan because, as he explained in his tribunal at Guantánamo, he had heard that the Taliban “welcome all the Muslims.”

Hisham Sliti, who arrived in Italy in 1995, and spent time working on fishing boats, hoped to kick a heroin habit that he had picked up in Italy. “If I went to Afghanistan I would be a long way from the haunts where I could get drugs,” he explained in 2007. “It would be a chance to make a fresh start, a clean break. I thought I could study my religion, and hopefully I might be able to afford to get married and settle down. I emphatically did not go to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban or for anyone else.” As Reprieve noted, Sliti was particularly disappointed by life in Afghanistan. “I hated life under the Taliban,” he explained, complaining, as the report describes it, that he “found the culture as oppressive as the heat: he couldn’t meet women, couldn’t smoke cigarettes — as an unmarried man, he couldn’t even rent a house.”

With the exception of Hisham Sliti, who, as Reprieve notes, “is not an extremist, but has simply been a victim of his own outspokenness in criticizing the mistreatment of those held in Guantánamo” (and has been treated brutally as a result), all of these men have been cleared for release, which is as close as the notoriously unapologetic post-9/11 US administration gets to admitting that it has made mistakes in its colossally ill-informed hunt for “terror suspects” over the last six and a half years.

The stories of the Italian residents are part of a long and seemingly intractable problem faced by the authorities at Guantánamo: how to find homes for cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated? The need to find safe havens for these men is of enormous significance. Although they have been cleared of posing a threat to the United States or its allies (including Italy), they are all victims of verdicts produced in absentia in the Tunisian courts of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which only came about after other prisoners in Tunisia were tortured to provide false allegations against them.

If returned, these men would face show trials similar to those that resulted in prison sentences — of three and seven years — for two other Tunisians, Lotfi Lagha and Abdullah bin Omar, who were returned from Guantánamo last June. What made the verdicts even more shocking was the fact that the US government had signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Tunisia, which purported to guarantee that the men would receive “humane treatment.” The worthlessness of the agreement was highlighted last October, when, in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that Lotfi bin Ali “cannot be sent to Tunisia because he could suffer ‘irreparable harm’ that the US courts would be powerless to reverse.”

According to lawyers’ estimates, as many as 70 of the remaining prisoners — from human rights-abusing countries including China, Uzbekistan, Libya and Algeria, as well as Tunisia — are in this predicament, but although the Pentagon has been actively shopping around on behalf of 23 of these men — and has been doing so for several years — it has met with no success. With the exception of Albania, which was prevailed upon to accept five innocent Chinese Uyghurs, an Egyptian cleric, an Algerian teacher and a refugee from the Russian Federation in 2006, no other country has stepped forward to help the US administration clean up it own mess by offering asylum to foreign nationals captured by mistake and held for years at Guantánamo.

The Italian residents should, however, be a different matter. Although proposals within the EU to provide asylum to some of the cleared prisoners are moving at a snail’s pace, three countries have already acted successfully on behalf of their residents. This in itself is a major step forward, as there was initially no desire whatsoever to address the plight of European residents in Guantánamo after all the European nationals — 21 men from the UK, France, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Spain — were repatriated in 2004 and 2005.

The first returned resident, Lahcen Ikassrien, was not accepted for benevolent reasons. A Spanish resident, of Moroccan origin, he was, essentially, extradited from Guantánamo in July 2005, to face trial in connection with allegations that he had links to the Syrian-born Spaniard Imad Yarkas, who was serving 12 years in prison for belonging to al-Qaeda, but on his return, when he finally entered a courtroom, as opposed to the lawless cells of Guantánamo, the case against him collapsed. When he was finally freed in October 2006, the Associated Press reported that the court concluded, “It has not been proved that the accused, Lahcen Ikassrien, was part of a terrorist organization of Islamic-fundamentalist nature, and more specifically, the al-Qaeda network created by Bin Laden.”

The other residents — Murat Kurnaz from Germany (released in August 2006), Bisher al-Rawi from the UK (released in March 2007), and Jamil El-Banna, Omar Deghayes and Abdulnour Sameur, also from the UK (released in December 2007) — are more representative of how European residents, cleared in Guantánamo, can be safely returned without posing any threat to their adopted countries. Murat Kurnaz’ problem was that, though born in Germany, his parents were Turkish “guest workers,” and he was not, therefore, granted citizenship. Although his case was shamefully ignored by the German government for many years (despite the fact that it was obvious from almost the moment he was captured that he was no terrorist), it was not until Angela Merkel became Chancellor that his return was negotiated. He has since written a book, Five Years of My Life, and travels widely to promote it.

For the British residents, threats of legal action were required to push the government into action — in particular in the cases of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil El-Banna, who were seized during a business trip to the Gambia after the British intelligence services provided patently false intelligence to their American counterparts — but, like Murat Kurnaz, they too have all been freed, having been found to pose no threat whatsoever to the British state.

It remains to be seen if the Italian government will do the same for its forgotten residents, but as Reprieve notes throughout the report, the fact that Italian interrogators visited the men in Guantánamo in 2002 and 2003, and that they shared their information with the US authorities, makes the Italian government complicit in the abuse of the men at Guantánamo, and reinforces its “moral duty” to act on their behalf. In one of the most telling passages in the report, Adel al-Hakeemy explained to his lawyers, “I was in Camp Delta when the Italians came. I told them we were treated badly. One of them agreed with everything I said about my treatment, and said he knew what was happening here.”

With Berlusconi in charge — and racism, sadly, a prevalent issue — the release of the men to Italy may seem unlikely, but it was encouraging that, after Reprieve’s report was issued, and an article about the men, by Carlo Bonini, was published in the respected newspaper La Repubblica, 41 Italian Senators demanded an investigation into Italy’s role in interrogating the men, which indicates that there is, at least, some political will to address the plight of Italy’s forgotten residents in Guantánamo.

The Senators, to their credit, pointed out that the role played by the Italian secret services “would be in serious breach of the UN Convention Against Torture and the European Convention on Human Rights,” and added their dismay that, “between 2002 and 2003, ‘extraordinary renditions’ operations took place, to the detriment of six Tunisian citizens, for years living legally in Italy.” They also took note of another sign of the Italian government’s involvement with highly dubious US actions, pointing out, as was also mentioned in the report, that the men were delivered to Guantánamo “on flights made through Italian airspace, with the complicity — or at least the tacit consent — of the Italian authorities.”

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