Razor wire at Guantánamo Bay.

Razor wire lines the fence of the ‘Gitmo’ maximum security detention center on October 22, 2016, at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

From America’s Guantánamo to Saudi Arabia’s Guillotine

Many former detainees who have been repatriated to their home country or resettled in a third country have found themselves in either another prison or in what we call Guantánamo 2.0.

Shortly after the U.S. repatriated the cleared prisoner and Saudi engineer Ghassan Abdullah al-Sharbi to his home country, he disappeared, adding to the growing list of men who, once released from Guantánamo, walk into conditions much worse, including execution. Attempts to find these men are met with silence from the U.S. and the implicated countries. Why?

When given the opportunity to be transferred out of Guantánamo, it’s hard to think of any reason why any incarcerated person would want to stay. That is, unless they were going to be sent somewhere that likely could be or would be worse than the U.S.’ infamous offshore prison. This past March, Ghassan al-Sharbi, a Saudi engineer who was detained at Guantánamo for over two decades without trial, was transferred to his home country. Instead of being cause for celebration however, al-Sharbi feared for his life and shared his fears with a fellow prisoner with whom he was departing to Saudi Arabia.

Despite the fact that al-Sharbi cited threats from the Saudi delegation that had met with him in Guantánamo, and previously informed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the State Department that he did not want to return to his home country for safety reasons, his transfer back to Saudi Arabia was nevertheless authorized by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin in September, following extensive diplomatic efforts by the Biden administration.

Those of us who remained in Guantánamo while our brothers were released heard shocking stories about their predicaments.

The Pentagon’s statement announcing al-Sharbi’s transfer home expressed gratitude to Saudi Arabia and other nations for their assistance in reducing the detainee population at Guantánamo Bay. The statement also said in part that “...in consultation with our partners in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, we completed the requirements for responsible transfer.” Of course, “responsible,” was left undefined and notably absent from the statement, as well as any mention of how al-Sharbi’s safety and rights as an ex-prisoner innocent of all charges would be assured or the exact circumstances surrounding his repatriation.

Upon being transferred, al-Sharbi was reportedly sick and on a hunger strike in protest of forced repatriation. According to a Guantánamo source, al-Sharbi allegedly cut his veins, resulting in significant bleeding that necessitated hospitalization. The act was purportedly driven by his apprehension of facing torture and execution in Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, al-Sharbi’s apprehensions about his safety in Saudi Arabia were not unfounded. In fact, since he was transferred to Saudi Arabia, he has effectively disappeared and no one including his family or his lawyer Sabrina Shroff—who expressed deep concerns prior to his repatriation—have been able to contact him, let alone receive any information about his well-being.

In correspondence with Shroff, the State Department exhibited a total disregard for al-Sharbi’s condition or whereabouts; Shroff stated that they “had been most unhelpful. Their response consists of a bunch of words—like the ones you read in a Hallmark card. Bunch of platitudes with zero information. No information as to his whereabouts in Saudi.” Given the almost complete and total disregard for the men’s fate, the State Department’s response is not surprising. However, it doesn’t make them any less accountable for being bystanders to Saudi violence.

Confess, and You’re ‘Cured’: Saudi’s ‘Rehabilitation’ Process

The story of al-Sharbi’s ordeal began in the early 2000s when he was accused of being part of a group captured in Pakistan that was allegedly manufacturing explosive devices intended for use against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

He was charged with “providing material support for terrorism.” Higher courts ruled that this charge was not recognized as an international war crime at the time of his alleged actions, which led to the case being dropped. Nevertheless, he was subjected to years of indefinite detention and suffered egregious human rights abuses including torture, including extreme sleep deprivation, isolation, and sexual abuse. He spent over a decade on hunger strikes protesting his imprisonment, and because of this he was subjected to force feeding, with serious physical health and psychological problems.

Instead of al-Sharbi receiving any adequate care or treatment for the abuse he has suffered, like other Guantánamo survivors transferred to Saudi Arabia, he will likely be sent to a transitional rehabilitation center. There is little that is transparent about the rehabilitation center and how it operates; however, the center’s precondition for release is an admission of guilt. This injustice raises the potential for coerced confessions.

While the repatriation of Ghassan Abdullah al-Sharbi is a stark reminder of the long-lasting consequences of the United States’ abysmal record at Guantánamo Bay, it raises urgent questions about the treatment of former prisoners upon release; the lack of accountability for human rights abuses not only at Guantánamo, but also afterwards; and the need for transparency in the repatriation process.

Execution: Why Saudi Arabia Is Especially Dangerous

In addition to the disappearance of Ghassan Abdullah al-Sharbi, three other former Guantánamo prisoners were transferred to Saudi Arabia only to be detained once arriving. For example Mohammed al Qahtani was repatriated to Saudi Arabia almost exactly a year before al-Sharbi, on March 6, 2022, only to be disappeared upon his return home. In addition, Zayed al-Hussain (also known as Zaid al-Ghamdy), who was repatriated in 2007, and Mohammad al-Shumrani, who was repatriated in 2015, have both disappeared.

Al-Hussain was sentenced to 23 years in prison for refusing to shake hands with former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and under the present Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he has been sentenced to death by execution.

Al-Shumrani was sentenced shortly after his release to Saudi Arabia to eight years in detention for criticizing a judge at the court and for challenging the Saudi monarchy to a public debate. The Saudi prosecutor in charge of his case is seeking the death penalty, and a confidential source indicated that it is highly likely that al-Shumrani will in fact be executed.

According to an in-depth report on over 1,000 executions carried out in the kingdom since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed power in 2015, the death penalty in Saudi Arabia has almost doubled. This year alone, Saudi Arabia has executed over 100 people. These numbers make the fate of the men even more worrisome—not to mention that the Saudi Embassy in Washington and the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs have not responded to any questions about these men.

Life After Guantánamo

Despite the fact that the transfer out of Guantánamo was supposed to offer survivors some reprieve from the abuse at the prison, many of those who have been repatriated to their home country or resettled in a third country have found themselves in either another prison or in what we call Guantánamo 2.0. Those of us who remained in Guantánamo while our brothers were released heard shocking stories about their predicaments. This includes Uyghur prisoners being released to a refugee camp in Albania and having their beards forcibly shaved by the Albanian police; a prisoner who was resettled in Slovakia and beaten by police so severely he had to be hospitalized; and many former prisoners who have simply disappeared in prisons where they were abused, tortured, and killed..

One of the most shocking cases was the death of a man I knew and lived with for years in Guantánamo—the Arabic poet Asim al-Khalaqi, who was released to Kazakhstan in 2014. The Kazakh government has a long history of mistreating men released from Guantánamo, and survivors have no legal rights and are effectively under house arrest.

Al-Khalaqi had dreams to raise his family and publish his book of poetry, which he wrote in Guantánamo. But we heard he had suddenly died a few months after his release. The Kazakh government denied mistreating al-Khalaqi then and subsequently denied him medical care. When he fell ill, his family was not allowed to visit him. Moreover, aside from being denied visitations, his family was prevented from attending his funeral and receiving his body. With the utmost cruelty, the Kazakh secret service buried al-Khalaqi in a location that is unknown to this day.

Facing State Terror in the UAE and Algeria

Life after Guantánamo is filled with even more harrowing cases, including the stories of several men who were released to the UAE (in 2015, 16, and 17) as part of a resettlement agreement. These men—four Afghans, 18 Yemenis, and one Russian—found themselves in conditions they described as worse than Guantánamo because they were suffering brutal abuse at the hand of the UAE’s prison guards. While the Afghanis and Yemenis were eventually transferred back to their home countries, with some facing imprisonment again, Russian survivor Ravil Mingazov remains in solitary confinement.

“He is under constant harassment and abuse by the UAE prison guards,” a released prisoner stated in a text message when I asked about Mingazov. Last month Cage launched a campaign to highlight his ordeal and to push for his release. My attempts to reach the Embassy of the UAE in Washington and the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment have been met with silence.

Rather than exhibiting any care or taking precautions for the well-being, safety, and security of survivors of Guantánamo, the U.S. State Department has continued to repatriate and send former prisoners to their home countries and third-party countries where they are denied basic rights as citizens and human beings.

The most recently released prisoner from Guantánamo, Saeed Bakhouch, was repatriated to Algeria in late April after 21 years of detention without charge. I have been tracking and working for his release since his repatriation. While his lawyer was assured by the State Department that he would be treated humanely, Bakhouch was subjected to intense interrogation by the Algerian secret service. He was denied legal representation and was deprived of his medicine as a way of pressuring him to confess to a false accusation of being linked to al Qaeda in order to prosecute him. Absurdly, he was charged with “swearing allegiance to Osama bin Laden,” a man he had never met, and he had never set foot in Afghanistan.

All our attempts to reach out to the State Department, the Algerian Embassy in Washington, and the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about Bakhouch’s case have been ignored.

Bakhouch was eventually released last October on parole awaiting a trial; his release came after the intervention of the U.N. rapporteur to Guantánamo Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

In the midst of this official silence, a few of us working to trace and try to assist released prisoners from Guantánamo to secure their rights are left to return to the U.S. State Department, who authorized these repatriations in the first place.

The Disposability Politics of the U.S.’ Repatriation Program?

Rather than exhibiting any care or taking precautions for the well-being, safety, and security of survivors of Guantánamo, the U.S. State Department has continued to repatriate and send former prisoners to their home countries and third-party countries where they are denied basic rights as citizens and human beings. Moreover, the State Department has done nothing to track these cases. While lawyers, NGOs, and activists attempt to contact the State Department, they are often told that the U.S. government can’t intervene in how other countries treat former prisoners. However, in most cases the department does not even respond.

That’s why we will keep appealing to the U.S. government to:

  • Stop sending cleared prisoners to countries where they will face further imprisonment, torture, and even death;
  • Step in and reevaluate cases where abuse has occurred, and relocate the men who are still in prison and live in a legal limbo;
  • Monitor the released prisoners and work with the hosting countries to ensure the released are treated humanely;
  • Take practical steps to ensure that these men are treated humanely and left to try to rebuild their lives; and
  • Offer support to the released individuals to assist them in their journey towards rebuilding their lives.

This is the least the U.S. can do to attempt to repair the insidious legacy of Guantánamo.

Guantánamo is approaching its 22nd anniversary, and despite the passage of time, 30 individuals remain imprisoned in the military prison in the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo. Among them, 16 have been granted clearance for release but are still in a state of uncertainty.

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