The story of Hedi Boudhiba, a 46-year old Tunisian, who has been abandoned in Spain after being extradited from the UK and cleared of all charges against him in the Spanish National Court, calls into doubt the quality of British and pan-European intelligence about activities related to terrorism, and also raises uncomfortable questions about the apparent absence of human rights safeguards in the “fast-track” extradition agreements for terror suspects that have been negotiated between various countries in the European Union.
A refugee, who fled persecution in the country of his birth, where he was tortured, and where the dictatorship presided over by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has long waged a dirty campaign of intimidation, imprisonment and torture against even moderate political and religious opponents, Boudhiba was arrested at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport, en route to Barcelona, on 20 August 2004. Held for 20 months in the notorious Belmarsh prison in south-east London, which gained a reputation as Britain’s own Guantánamo, because of the number of Muslim terror suspects held there without charge or trial, he suffered from psychosis and depression, and on one occasion attempted to commit suicide by slashing his throat and forearm. Speaking at the time, Boudhiba said, “Here I am tortured mentally and I suffer every day and I can’t find help from anyone. When I’m ill they don’t send me to hospital.”
While in Belmarsh, Boudhiba was interviewed not only by British intelligence agents, but also by representatives of the American, Portuguese and German authorities. Despite allegations that he was part of a terrorist network linked to 9/11, that he was involved in providing funding for fighters in Iraq, and that he was also involved in the now-discredited ricin plot in Britain, the British, American, Portuguese and German authorities all declined to either prosecute him or seek his extradition, but he became ensnared by the rules of the new, “fast-track” European Arrest Warrant–which eases the extradition of suspects between EU countries–after the Spanish authorities also turned up to interview him, and he refused to speak to them.
His lawyer, Julian Hayes, explained that, having previously spoken to representatives of the four countries mentioned above, Boudhiba said, “well, I’ve spoken to all these other authorities, you can see what I’ve said to them and I don’t frankly want to speak to you about it,” and added that, as a result, “one has to question the validity of that particular warrant.” Questioned for the BBC by Gerry Northam, who asked, “Are you saying that you suspect the Spanish are on a fishing trip and they just want to pull him in too see what he knows?” Hayes replied, “That is the suspicion,” and countered Northam’s follow-up question, “Well, why not let them fish?” by pointing out that “there’s been a free flow of information between these authorities and the Spanish can easily obtain that information.”
Despite assurances that the “fast-track” extradition programme would live up to its name, it took 20 months until Boudhiba was extradited to Spain. When he lost an appeal in the High Court in April 2006, Julian Hayes again complained, pointing out, “We have no guarantees given to us by the Spanish authorities that he would be allowed to stay in their country,” and adding that Boudhiba ran the risk of being returned to Tunisia, “where at the very least he’ll be tortured and at the very worst he’ll be killed.”
Speaking at the time, Boudhiba reinforced his lawyer’s complaints, saying, “They want to extradite me to Spain, as they could not find anything against me. The Spanish police could send me to Tunisia, and once I arrive in Tunisia, they can torture me and do to me whatever they like.” Denying the allegations against him, he added, “I swear, I have done nothing bad to anyone. I am not a terrorist. They want to accuse me no matter what, I can’t understand why. Is it because I am a Muslim or because I knew some people, and they have suspicions against these people? This isn’t justice. This is not a war against terrorists; this is a war against Muslims.”
Once in Spanish custody, where, as CBS News reported in January 2005, the Spanish anti-terror judge Baltasar Garzon claimed that he had travelled from Hamburg to Istanbul a week before 9/11 with a member of the Hamburg cell run by lead hijacker Mohammed Atta, Boudhiba effectively disappeared off the radar, only to resurface a few days ago, when Marianne Kremer, a human rights activist in Luxembourg, who is in contact with him, emailed me to request assistance.
Kremer reported that, after being held for 15 months in Spain, where he was unable to contact his family and was, on one occasion, set upon by another prisoner who bit off part of his nose (after which the authorities promised him plastic surgery, but failed to do so), Boudhiba was acquitted in July of all the charges against him in the Audiencia Nacional (Spain’s National Court), but was then “simply released from prison near Madrid with no money, no place to stay, and no passport.” She explained that Boudhiba’s passport is still held at the Audiencia Nacional (and that everyone there is on vacation). As a result, despite being cleared, he has been reduced to something akin to a “ghost” presence in Spain, having not yet received an “official written verdict” from the trial, and is unable even to receive donations because the court still holds his passport.
While this seems to me to be a rather shocking indictment of the ways in which the European Arrest Warrant has facilitated the movement of unwanted refugees around Europe without any oversight regarding the justice of their treatment, Kremer added a more worrying postscript, noting that Boudhiba remains terrified that the Spanish authorities, with the collusion of the British government, will attempt to return him to Tunisia. She reports that, during his extradition trial in the UK, “the Spanish Prosecutor Pedro Rubira signed a document stating that the Spanish cannot deport Hedi to a third country without the consent of the UK authorities.”
Although the BBC reported in October 2005 that Home Office minister Andy Burnham, citing Boudhiba’s case, pledged that extradited suspects would “remain absolutely protected from the death penalty or torture,” and that the British government “would not permit anyone it had surrendered to another European state to be sent on to a country which violated these human rights,” recent cases make it clear that, despite these apparent assurances, the British government is at the forefront of attempts to return unwanted refugees to countries where they face the risk of torture or death, having signed worthless “memoranda of understanding” with Jordan and Libya, allegedly guaranteeing the “humane” treatment of returned suspects, and having entered a similar agreement with the Algerian government.
In April and July, attempts by the UK government to return two Libyans and three Algerians–held without charge or trial in the UK–were turned down by the Special Immigrations Appeal Court (SIAC) and by appeal court judges, who ruled that all five faced the risk of torture, but the United States, another partner in this concerted effort to bypass international safeguards preventing the return of inconvenient individuals to countries where they face torture, recently opened a new front in this unprincipled diplomatic game by entering into a similar agreement with Tunisia.
In June, two Tunisian detainees in Guantánamo, Abdullah bin Omar and Lofti Lagha–cleared for release by a military review board, which had concluded that they no longer represented a threat to the United States and no longer had any intelligence value–were returned to the country of their birth, where they were promptly imprisoned, and where, according to human rights observers, bin Omar “has already been tortured, and has been told that if he does not confess falsely to crimes, his wife and daughters will be raped.”
As he paces the streets of Madrid, awaiting the return of his passport, Hedi Boudhiba–finally liberated after three years of imprisonment based on “evidence” obtained through hearsay or torture that has evaporated like a mirage –must be hoping that his persecution is now at an end, and that he, unlike Abdullah bin Omar, is not destined to become what bin Omar’s lawyer, Zachary Katznelson of the London-based legal charity Reprieve, described as “a guinea pig in a potentially deadly diplomatic experiment.”
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: email@example.com