Who Are The Two Syrians Released From Guantanamo To Portugal?

On August 28, in the first indication that European countries are
prepared to help the Obama administration fulfill its promise to close
Guantanamo by accepting prisoners who have been cleared for release,
but who cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will face
torture on their return, the Portuguese interior ministry announced
that two Syrian prisoners had arrived from Guantanamo and had been
released on their arrival in Portugal.

On August 28, in the first indication that European countries are
prepared to help the Obama administration fulfill its promise to close
Guantanamo by accepting prisoners who have been cleared for release,
but who cannot be repatriated because of fears that they will face
torture on their return, the Portuguese interior ministry announced
that two Syrian prisoners had arrived from Guantanamo and had been
released on their arrival in Portugal. Officials added that they are
"not subject to any charge, they are free people and are living in
homes provided by the state."

Last December, Portugal took the lead
in offering to rehouse cleared prisoners from Guantanamo, when, in a
letter to other EU leaders, Luis Amado, the Portuguese Foreign
Minister, declared, "The time has come for the European Union to step
forward. As a matter of principle and coherence, we should send a clear
signal of our willingness to help the US government in that regard,
namely through the resettlement of detainees. As far as the Portuguese
government is concerned, we will be available to participate."

The deal was apparently sealed in June, when the government
announced that it was ready to take "two or three" prisoners from
Guantanamo, following a visit by US Special Envoy Daniel Fried. On
arrival in Portugal, the men's identities were not known, but on
Monday, court documents released by the Justice Department (PDF)
revealed that the two men are 27-year old Mohammed al-Tumani
(identified by the Pentagon as Muhammed Khan Tumani), and 37-year old
Moammar Badawi Dokhan.

In a press release
issued on Friday, the US Justice Department explained the circumstances
of the men's release, stressing that the final say in approving their
transfer had been taken by Congress. "As directed by the President's
Jan. 22, 2009 Executive Order,
the interagency Guantanamo Review Task Force conducted a comprehensive
review of these cases," the DoJ announced, adding, "As a result of that
review, the detainees were approved for transfer from Guantanamo Bay.
On Aug. 6, 2009, in accordance with Congressionally-mandated reporting
requirements, the Administration informed Congress of its intent to
transfer these two detainees."

The Justice Department was also keen to allay any fears that the men
might pose any threat in future. "The transfers were carried out under
an arrangement between the United States and the government of
Portugal," the press release stated, adding, "The United States has
coordinated with the government of Portugal to ensure the transfers
take place under appropriate security measures and will continue to
consult with the government of Portugal regarding these detainees."

To be honest, these caveats were unnecessary, as the Portuguese
government would not have taken the men in the first place, and would
certainly not have announced that they "are free people and are living
in homes provided by the state," if there had been any doubts about
their insignificance. Moreover, their stories, as revealed in publicly
available documents from Guantanamo, also reveal that neither man had
any connection whatsoever to international terrorism, revealing, as so
often before, that right-wing hysteria about those still held in the
prison is largely hyperbole of a kind that, on close inspection,
reveals more about the cowardice and xenophobia of those making the
claims than it does about the majority of the prisoners themselves.

Mohammed al-Tumani: a story of persistent abuse

The younger of the two released men, Mohammed al-Tumani, who was
just 18 years old when he arrived in Afghanistan in June 2001, has
always maintained that he arrived as an immigrant with his entire
family, and was seized by mistake with his father, Abdul Nasir
al-Tumani, who is still held in Guantanamo. As I explained in my book The Guantanamo Files, based on the men's accounts in their military tribunals:

The father had traveled to Afghanistan in1999 in search
of work, finding a job in a restaurant in Kabul and bringing ten
members of his family over in June 2001, including Mohammed, his
grandmother and an eight-month old baby. Another six family members -
his uncle's family - arrived a week before 9/11, but after hearing
about the attack on America the family fled to Jalalabad, where they
stayed for a month, and then made their way on foot to Pakistan. On the
way, their guide advised al-Tumani to let the women and children travel
by car, to make them less of a target for highway robbers, but when he
and his son arrived in Pakistan the local villagers handed them over to
the Pakistani army.

Mohammed also said that, while in Pakistani custody, in three
separate prisons, he and his father were "subjected to beatings and
harsh torture," and his nose was broken. He added that throughout this
ordeal "there were Americans present," and this account was echoed by
his father, who said that the Pakistanis "were torturing us really
hard," and the Americans "were looking and standing right there. The
Americans were present. I am sure about that because they were the ones
who interrogated us."

In addition, Mohammed explained that, in the US prison at Kandahar
airport (where the prisoners were processed for Guantanamo), his
father's forehead was fractured "and the Red Cross saw this and wrote a
report," and he added that he received a fracture to his left hand, as
well as suffering "many diseases" and "other methods of psychological
torture," including sleep deprivation.

He also explained, as Carol Rosenberg described it in the Miami Herald,
that during interrogation at Camp X-Ray (the rudimentary first prison
at Guantanamo, which was closed in June 2002), "one of the
interrogators brought two wires connected to electricity and said that
if you do not say that you and your father are from al-Qaeda or
Taliban, I will place these in your neck,'" and that the abuse
continued in Camp Delta (Camp X-Ray's more permanent replacement),
where he said that he was "threatened with violence," and that "an
interrogator threatened to send him to torture in a foreign country."

Beyond these alarming examples of abuse, which cannot be
independently confirmed (but which certainly accord with claims made by
many other prisoners), Mohammed al-Tumani's story is also notable for a
startling example of how allegations made by other prisoners were
regarded as reliable evidence by the authorities at Guantanamo, even
when, as in al-Tumani's case, the veracity of these claims was
undermined by military officers who had chosen to investigate the
quality of the supposed evidence rather than accepting it at face value.

The baleful effects of Guantanamo's notorious liar

As Corine Hegland explained in two ground-breaking articles for the National Journal in 2006 ("Guantanamo's Grip" and "Empty Evidence"),
Mohammed al-Tumani was one of two prisoners whose protestations
regarding what they claimed were false allegations made against them by
other prisoners were investigated by their enterprising Personal
Representative. The Representatives were military officers appointed in
place of lawyers in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, the review
boards established in 2004, which, as one former insider, Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham
has explained, were designed primarily to rubberstamp the prisoners'
prior designation as "enemy combatants" who could be held without
charge or trial.

In the case of Farouq Saif (identified by the Pentagon as Farouq Ali
Ahmed), a Yemeni who was accused of guarding Osama bin Laden's private
airport in Kandahar by another Yemeni prisoner, his Personal
Representative (a principled but unidentified Air Force Lieutenant
Colonel) submitted a written protest after looking at Saif's file and
discovering that the government's sole evidence that he had been at bin
Laden's airport was the statement of another prisoner, who, according
to an FBI memo that he presented to the tribunal, was a notorious liar.
According to the FBI, he "had lied, not only about Farouq, but about
other Yemeni detainees as well. The other detainee claimed he had seen
the Yemenis at times and in places where they simply could not have
been." Despite this, Saif was judged to be an "enemy combatant," and is
still held at Guantanamo.

In addition, Hegland also discussed how Mohammed al-Tumani had been ensnared by the informer's lies, as I explained in an article in 2007:

In his tribunal, [al-Tumani] denied an allegation that
he had attended the al-Farouq training camp [the main training camp for
Arabs, associated with Osama bin laden in the years before 9/11] with
such vigor that his Personal Representative decided to investigate the
matter further. When he looked at the classified evidence, however, he
found that only one man - the same detainee mentioned above - claimed
to have seen him at al-Farouq, and had identified him as being there
three months before he arrived in Afghanistan. As Corine Hegland
described it, "The curious US officer pulled the classified file of the
accuser, saw that he had accused 60 men, and, suddenly skeptical,
pulled the files of every detainee the accuser had placed at the one
training camp. None of the men had been in Afghanistan at the time the
accuser said he saw them at the camp."

As with Farouq Saif, however, the Personal Representative's
protestations were in vain, because Mohammed al-Tumani was also judged
to be an "enemy combatant," and had to wait for nearly five years
before President Obama's Guantanamo Review Task Force finally
"conducted a comprehensive review" of his case, and, presumably,
established that the evidence against him was unreliable. What has not
been explained, however, is what happened in the cases of the other 58
men who were accused by the notorious liar, or why Mohammed's father -
whose circumstances seem to have been no different - was not cleared
for release as well.

A Taliban foot soldier?

Less is known of the second man, Moammar Dokhan, who was 29 when he
was captured on the Pakistani border, as he did not take part in any
tribunals or review boards at Guantanamo. According to the Pentagon, he
"traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan with the stated intention of
joining the Taliban," "served as a rear-echelon guard and manned an
observation post" near Bagram, and "carried a rifle while on duty at
the observation post."

With nothing else to rely on, the authorities tried to spice up this
meager list with claims that "his name was contained on a list of
incarcerated associates found on a computer used by suspected al-Qaeda
members in Pakistan in early 2002," and that his name "was contained on
a list of captured mujahideen found in Pakistan on a hard drive
associated with a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative," although as I explained in a brief profile of Dokhan's case last year:

It is not known if these two claims in fact refer to the
same computer file, but neither provides proof of anything other than
the fact that he was caught and imprisoned as a suspected militant. The
"list," as in the cases of many other prisoners, may have been nothing
more than a report of the prisoners' names, mentioned in the media or
leaked by the men's jailers, and it appears to be no more useful as
evidence than the Bush administration's claims that those in Guantanamo
are "enemy combatants," because the President decided, without the need
for evidence, that that was the case.

Nevertheless, although the Taliban allegations indicate that Dokhan
was, at best, nothing more than one of the lowliest Taliban recruits in
an inter-Muslim civil war that predated the 9/11 attacks and had
nothing to do with al-Qaeda (although Dokhan himself "denie[d] ever
having been in Afghanistan"), it is surprising that Obama's Task Force
allowed him to be released, as, elsewhere, the Justice Department has
been working overtime
to prevent judges in the District Courts from granting the habeas
corpus appeals of other prisoners whose connections to the Taliban have
been no more pronounced, and, just last week, scored what appeared to
be a rare victory when Judge Kollar-Kotelly ruled that a Kuwaiti
prisoner, Fawzi al-Odah,
could continue to be detained because the government had established,
"by a preponderance of the evidence," that he was probably involved
with the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda.

Logic dictates that those who traveled to Afghanistan to serve with
the Taliban are a different type of prisoner from those who were
members of al-Qaeda, and were committed to plotting and pursuing
terrorist attacks against the US and its allies, but logic was a rare
commodity in the Bush administration, which chose instead to conflate
al-Qaeda with the Taliban and to pack Guantanamo with men who knew
nothing about Osama bin Laden or the 9/11 attacks, and had no
involvement with terrorism. Moreover, the effects of this confusion
linger to this day, as the Obama administration has chosen to maintain the same fiction
that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are interchangeable, and the District
Courts are also bound by this ludicrous lack of distinction.

We may never discover what the government's secretive Guantanamo
Review Task Force concluded about Moammar Dokhan (or, for that matter,
about Mohammed al-Tumani), but by cutting through the hyperbole and
granting these two men their freedom, the Portuguese government has
just established that it has a clarity of vision that, with just four
months to go until President Obama's deadline for closing Guantanamo,
remains sorely lacking in the United States.

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