A Powerful Interview with Former Guantánamo Prisoner Lakhdar Boumediene

June 3, 2012 4:03 am 1 comment Views: 132

Last Saturday, the New York Times published an article based on an interview with former Guantánamo prisoner Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian whose case, Boumediene v. Bush, was regarded at the time as one of the most significant legal victories in the whole of the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” reversing Congressional attempts to strip the prisoners of the habeas rights that the Supreme Court had first granted them in June 2004.

Lakhdar Boumediene went on to become one of 28 prisoners freed as a result of winning their habeas corpus petitions in the District Court in Washington D.C., although that impressive run of victories for the prisoners from October 2008 to July 2010 was abruptly stopped in the summer of 2010 by right-wing judges in the D.C. Circuit Court — the court of appeals — who have insisted, for nakedly political reasons, in rewriting the rules of detention to ensure that no prisoner can now secure a victory in court and be released through legal means.

As well as being a well-known name in legal circles, Lakhdar Boumediene was also noteworthy in Guantánamo, as one of six unfortunate Algerian men seized nowhere near the battlefields of Afghanistan, but kidnapped by US agents in Bosnia-Herzegovina and flown to Guantánamo in January 2002. The kidnapping took place after a disgraceful episode of US paranoia, in which he and the other men — who had all settled in Bosnia-Herzegovina after traveling there during the Bosnian War of 1992-95 — were imprisoned for three months by the Bosnian authorities at the request of the Bush administration. They were then kidnapped on Bosnian soil after their release had been ordered by a Bosnian court, because there was no evidence whatsoever that they were involved in terrorism, or had, as the US initially alleged, been involved in plotting to blow up the US embassy in Sarajevo.

Despite there being no reason for the men’s detention, they were treated brutally in Guantánamo, and although three of them were released in Bosnia-Herzegovina shortly after their court victory (in which five of the six had their habeas petitions granted), Boumediene and another man, Saber Lahmar, had to wait until 2009 to be offered a new home in a third country, France, where Boumediene lives with his family. The sixth man, Belkacem Bensayah, had his habeas corpus petition denied, although that ruling was reversed and sent back to the District Court to reconsider back in June 2010, although no new opinion has been issued, and he remains held.

Below, I’m cross-posting the New York Times article by Scott Sayare based on his interview with Lakhdar Boumediene, and below that I’m also cross-posting the article that Boumediene himself wrote for the New York Times, back in January, for the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo. This is another powerful indictment of the prison, and another compelling reason why it must be closed down, and why any excuses made by the Obama administration are unacceptable, and are, instead, nothing more than a demonstration that justice and principles can be ignored when they are politically inconvenient.

After Guantánamo, Starting Anew, in Quiet Anger
By Scott Sayare, New York Times, May 25, 2012

It was James, a thickset American interrogator nicknamed “the Elephant,” who first told Lakhdar Boumediene that investigators were certain of his innocence, that two years of questioning had shown he was no terrorist, but that it did not matter, Mr. Boumediene says.

The interrogations would continue through what ended up being seven years, three months, three weeks and four days at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

An aid worker handling orphans in Sarajevo, Mr. Boumediene (pronounced boom-eh-DIEN) found himself swept up in the panic that followed Sept. 11, 2001. He likens himself to a caged cat, toyed with and tormented by fate and circumstance.

“I learned patience,” Mr. Boumediene, 46, said. He is a private man, trim and square-jawed and meticulously kempt, his eyes set in deep gray hollows. “There is no other choice but patience.”

The United States government has never acknowledged any error in detaining Mr. Boumediene, though a federal judge ordered his release, for lack of evidence, in 2008. The government did not appeal, a Defense Department spokesman noted, though he declined to answer further questions about Mr. Boumediene’s case. A State Department representative declined to discuss the case as well, except to point to a Justice Department statement announcing Mr. Boumediene’s transfer to France, in 2009.

More than a decade has passed since his arrest in Bosnia, since American operatives shackled his feet and hands, dropped a black bag over his head and flew him to Guantánamo. Since his release three years ago, Mr. Boumediene, an Algerian by birth, has lived anonymously in the south of France, quietly enraged but determined to start anew and to resist the pull of that anger.

He calls Guantánamo a “black hole.” Islam carried him through, he says. In truth, though, he still cannot escape it, and is still racked by questions. “I think back over everything in my life, all the stages, who my friends were, who I did this or that with, who I had a simple coffee with,” Mr. Boumediene said. “I do not know, even now, why I was at Guantánamo.”

There were early accusations of a plot to bomb the American Embassy in Sarajevo; he lived in that city with his family, working for the Red Crescent, the Muslim branch of the Red Cross. President George W. Bush hailed his arrest in a State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 2002.

In time, those accusations disappeared, Mr. Boumediene says, replaced by questions about his work with Muslim aid groups and suggestions that those groups financed Islamic terrorism. According to a classified detainee assessment from April 2008, published by WikiLeaks, investigators believed that he was a member of Al Qaeda and the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria. Those charges, too, later vanished.

In a landmark case that bears Mr. Boumediene’s name, the Supreme Court in 2008 affirmed the right of Guantánamo detainees to challenge their imprisonment in court. Mr. Boumediene petitioned for his release.

In court, the government’s sole claim was that Mr. Boumediene had intended to travel to Afghanistan to take up arms against the United States. A federal judge rejected that charge as unsubstantiated, noting that it had come from a single unnamed informer. Mr. Boumediene arrived in France on May 15, 2009, the first of two non-French former detainees to settle here.

Mr. Boumediene retreated into himself at Guantánamo, he says. He speaks little of his past now; with few exceptions, his neighbors know him only as a husband and a father. He lives with the wife and two daughters from whom he was once taken, and a son born here two years ago. More than vengeance, or even justice, he wants a return to normalcy.

He lives at the whim of the French state, though. France has permitted Mr. Boumediene to settle in public housing in Nice, where his wife has family, but he is not a French citizen, nor has he been granted asylum or permanent residence. His Algerian and Bosnian passports, misplaced by the American authorities, have not been reissued, leaving him effectively stateless.

Money comes in a monthly transfer to his French bank account. He does not know who, exactly, pays it. (The terms of his release have not been made public or revealed even to him.) He has been seeking work for years.

Recruiters typically scan his résumé with an air of approval, he said, until noting that it ends in 2001. He tells them that his is a “particular case,” that he spent time in prison. He avoids the word “Guantánamo,” he said, as it often stirs more fear than sympathy.

Mr. Boumediene arrived at Guantánamo on Jan. 20, 2002, nine days after the camp began operations. He was beaten on arrival, he said. Refusing food for the final 28 months of his detention, he was force-fed through a tube inserted up a nostril and down his throat, he said. There was a hole in the seat of the chair to which he was chained, sometimes clothed, sometimes not; as the liquid streamed into his stomach, his bowels often released.

He emerged gaunt, with wrists scarred from seven years of handcuffs, almost unable to walk without the shackles to which he had grown accustomed, he said. Crowds terrified him, as did rooms with closed doors, said Nathalie Berger, a doctor who worked with Mr. Boumediene shortly after his release.

Dr. Berger was moved, she said, by his equanimity and his “strength to live.”

“He has no hate for the American people,” she said, though Mr. Bush is another matter. Mr. Boumediene has been disappointed too by President Obama, who pledged to close Guantánamo but has not done so.

Born in the hills of northwestern Algeria, Mr. Boumediene served for two years in the Algerian military before following a friend to Pakistan in 1990, to aid refugees of the Afghan civil war.

He found work as a proctor at an orphanage and school operated by a Kuwaiti aid organization, a post that investigators later seized on as evidence of ties to terrorism.

A man identified as a director of the group, Zahid al-Shaikh, is the brother of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, who has been held at Guantánamo since 2006 and is now to be tried before a military court. Mr. Shaikh’s signature appeared on Mr. Boumediene’s contract, but the two had little interaction, Mr. Boumediene said.

He moved to Yemen, studying at the French cultural center in Sana; fighting there drove him to Albania, where he worked for the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates. Deadly riots erupted in 1997, and he received a transfer to Bosnia.

Violence seemed to trail him, his interrogators noted. He has come to understand their suspicions, he said.

In Nice, Mr. Boumediene has grown friendly with a neighbor, Babette. She brings him coffee, he said, and gifts for his young son. They share meals at Christmas and on Muslim holy days.

He feared she might no longer come if she knew his past. In January, though, it was the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, and there was media coverage. Babette asked if it was true.

“I told her, ‘It’s fate, and it’s life,’” Mr. Boumediene said. She still comes to call, he said, and still calls him “my brother.”

“Little by little, now, there are people who know who I am,” he said. Some offer cautious words of encouragement, others their apologies.

“I do not know what the right reaction is,” he said, but he does like a reaction, just the same.

My Guantánamo Nightmare
By Lakhdar Boumediene, New York Times, January 7, 2012

On Wednesday, America’s detention camp at Guantánamo Bay will have been open for 10 years. For seven of them, I was held there without explanation or charge. During that time my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as “undeliverable,” and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.

Some American politicians say that people at Guantánamo are terrorists, but I have never been a terrorist. Had I been brought before a court when I was seized, my children’s lives would not have been torn apart, and my family would not have been thrown into poverty. It was only after the United States Supreme Court ordered the government to defend its actions before a federal judge that I was finally able to clear my name and be with them again.

I left Algeria in 1990 to work abroad. In 1997 my family and I moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina at the request of my employer, the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates. I served in the Sarajevo office as director of humanitarian aid for children who had lost relatives to violence during the Balkan conflicts. In 1998, I became a Bosnian citizen. We had a good life, but all of that changed after 9/11.

When I arrived at work on the morning of Oct. 19, 2001, an intelligence officer was waiting for me. He asked me to accompany him to answer questions. I did so, voluntarily — but afterward I was told that I could not go home. The United States had demanded that local authorities arrest me and five other men. News reports at the time said the United States believed that I was plotting to blow up its embassy in Sarajevo. I had never — for a second — considered this.

The fact that the United States had made a mistake was clear from the beginning. Bosnia’s highest court investigated the American claim, found that there was no evidence against me and ordered my release. But instead, the moment I was released American agents seized me and the five others. We were tied up like animals and flown to Guantánamo, the American naval base in Cuba. I arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.

I still had faith in American justice. I believed my captors would quickly realize their mistake and let me go. But when I would not give the interrogators the answers they wanted — how could I, when I had done nothing wrong? — they became more and more brutal. I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget.

I went on a hunger strike for two years because no one would tell me why I was being imprisoned. Twice each day my captors would shove a tube up my nose, down my throat and into my stomach so they could pour food into me. It was excruciating, but I was innocent and so I kept up my protest.

In 2008, my demand for a fair legal process went all the way to America’s highest court. In a decision that bears my name, the Supreme Court declared that “the laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” It ruled that prisoners like me, no matter how serious the accusations, have a right to a day in court. The Supreme Court recognized a basic truth: the government makes mistakes. And the court said that because “the consequence of error may be detention of persons for the duration of hostilities that may last a generation or more, this is a risk too significant to ignore.”

Five months later, Judge Richard J. Leon, of the Federal District Court in Washington, reviewed all of the reasons offered to justify my imprisonment, including secret information I never saw or heard. The government abandoned its claim of an embassy bomb plot just before the judge could hear it. After the hearing, he ordered the government to free me and four other men who had been arrested in Bosnia.

I will never forget sitting with the four other men in a squalid room at Guantánamo, listening over a fuzzy speaker as Judge Leon read his decision in a Washington courtroom. He implored the government not to appeal his ruling, because “seven years of waiting for our legal system to give them an answer to a question so important is, in my judgment, more than plenty.” I was freed, at last, on May 15, 2009.

Today, I live in Provence with my wife and children. France has given us a home, and a new start. I have experienced the pleasure of reacquainting myself with my daughters and, in August 2010, the joy of welcoming a new son, Yousef. I am learning to drive, attending vocational training and rebuilding my life. I hope to work again serving others, but so far the fact that I spent seven and a half years as a Guantánamo prisoner has meant that only a few human rights organizations have seriously considered hiring me. I do not like to think of Guantánamo. The memories are filled with pain. But I share my story because 171 men [now 169] remain there. Among them is Belkacem Bensayah, who was seized in Bosnia and sent to Guantánamo with me.

About 90 prisoners have been cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo. Some of them are from countries like Syria or China — where they would face torture if sent home — or Yemen, which the United States considers unstable. And so they sit as captives, with no end in sight — not because they are dangerous, not because they attacked America, but because the stigma of Guantánamo means they have no place to go, and America will not give a home to even one of them.

I’m told that my Supreme Court case is now read in law schools. Perhaps one day that will give me satisfaction, but so long as Guantánamo stays open and innocent men remain there, my thoughts will be with those left behind in that place of suffering and injustice.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files:

The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

Get More Right To Your Inbox!