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What Does Tunisia’s Revolution Mean for Political Prisoners, Including Guantánamo Detainees?

Andy Worthington

For the twelve Tunisians held in Guantánamo over the last nine years, the news that a popular uprising forced the hated dictator, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee the country for Saudi Arabia last Friday, after 23 years in power, will have come as a profound surprise, and also as a source of deep satisfaction. After all, it is probable that none of the men detained by US forces in the experimental prison at Guantánamo would have ended up there had it not been for their persecution under Ben Ali, or their flight from the country for economic reasons.

For the most part, the suffering of the Tunisians at Guantánamo has been deeply depressing. Many, if not most were horribly abused, and when the Bush administration finally decided to clear the majority of them for release (largely in 2006), their nightmare was far from over. The men feared being repatriated, because they had all left Tunisia many years before, and were aware that all that awaited them at home was further abuse and imprisonment, followed by show trials based on information extracted through the torture of others in Tunisia, which had led to them receiving prison sentences in absentia.

The two Tunisians repatriated from Guantánamo in 2007

Nevertheless, the Bush administration, in furtherance of America’s close ties with Ben Ali, and long support for his oppressive regime, stealthily repatriated two Tunisians in June 2007 — 38-year old Lotfi Lagha and 51-year old Abdullah bin Omar — on the basis of “diplomatic assurances,” agreed between the US and Tunisia, which purported to guarantee that the two men would be treated humanely on their return.

Little was known of Lotfi Lagha, as he did not have legal representation in Guantánamo, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had granted the prisoners habeas corpus rights three years before his release. As I explained in an article at the time, “all that exists in the public domain to mark his 2,000-day imprisonment are three pages of notes” from a military review board in 2005.

From this short document — full of unsubstantiated allegations about connections with terrorists — it was clear that Lagha, who was seized on the Afghan-Pakistani border in December 2001, had served in the Tunisian army as a young man, and had then fled to Italy, where he seems to have settled for many years. In early 2001 he traveled to Afghanistan, settling with other Tunisians in Jalalabad, and associating, at some point, with members of the missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi. According to his own account, he never trained in a camp in Afghanistan, never took up arms against the Americans or anybody else, and thought “al-Qaeda’s belief system strange and that they are not good.”

Only later did it emerge that he had had all his fingers, except for his thumbs, amputated in US custody at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, an act of supposed medical necessity that he maintained was unnecessary.

Bin Omar, as I explained in an article at the time, had worked as a mechanic for the Tunisian railways, but had left the country for Saudi Arabia in 1989, because of religious persecution. Soon after, he moved to Pakistan with his wife and children, where he was living when he was convicted, in absentia, by a Tunisian court for belonging to the Islamist political party Ennahdha, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Human Rights Watch reported that the “primary evidence” against him in this trial (in 1995) “appears to have been the statement that one of his 19 co-defendants made to the police in 1993, in which he claimed that [he] had taken a leadership position in an organization known as the Tunisian Islamist Front while in Pakistan.” Based on his experience of similar cases, his lawyer, Samir Ben Amor, explained that he thought it “likely that this incriminating statement was the product of torture and abuse.”

Captured in Pakistan in April 2002, during a frenzied few months when all manner of innocent Arabs were rounded up, bin Omar said in Guantánamo that he was sold to the Americans by the Pakistanis for $5,000. In his five-year detention, he was only allowed to meet a lawyer for the first — and only — time on May 1, 2007, when Zachary Katznelson of Reprieve met him, and explained that he “expressed severe concerns that were he to be returned to Tunisia, the authorities there would torture him to force him to confess or to become an informant.” Katznelson added, “When Reprieve later learned of Mr. Bin Omar’s Tunisian conviction in absentia — a conviction Mr. Bin Omar likely does not know about — Reprieve repeatedly requested additional visits with our client. The United States government failed to respond to any of those requests” — and, in fact, stealthily repatriated him before Reprieve could protest about it as Reprieve’s director, Cive Stafford Smith, explained in the New Statesman in July 2007.

Summing up bin Omar’s predicament, Katznelson also declared, after bin Omar’s repatriation, that he “finds himself a guinea pig in a potentially deadly diplomatic experiment. The United States is so desperate to send people out of Guantánamo Bay, they are willing to ignore Tunisia’s horrific human rights record. Now the world’s focus must shift to Tunisia. Tunisia is faced with a simple choice: will they do the right thing and show the world that they support human rights, or will they revert to their dark past? We are all watching.”

Abuse, show trials and prison sentences for the men returned from Guantánamo

The world may have been watching — or those part of the world that still cared about human rights in the “War on Terror” — but the Tunisian president didn’t care. In September 2007, when Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch tried to visit the men, who were being held in prison, she was prevented from doing so, but met local activists, lawyers, government officials and family members — some of whom had been allowed to meet them — who explained to her that they had been “telling visitors that things are so bad they would rather be back at Guantánamo Bay.”

Bin Omar had, on his return to Tunisia, apparently been slapped, subjected to sleep deprivation and told that his wife and daughters would be raped. Daskal added that the threats to his family “were more than he could take: he told his lawyer that he signed the paper that officials thrust at him, even though his eyes had deteriorated so badly and his glasses were so old that he had no idea what it said.”

He was then taken briefly before the military court that had sentenced him in absentia, and, for the next six weeks, was “held in solitary confinement in a windowless, unventilated cell that he called his ‘tomb,’” and was allowed no contact with any other prisoners.

Following these reports, Jennifer Daskal was not reassured when she asked Robert F. Godec, the US ambassador to Tunisia, to explain what the Bush administration was doing “to track the two men’s cases,” and was told that “he had ‘specific and credible’ assurances from the Tunisian government that they would not be abused,” adding, “we follow up on these assurances.” As she explained, she was concerned that he “would not say whether the treatment of [bin Omar] and Lagha had lived up to Tunisia’s pledges; nor would he say whether any US official had met with the two since their return home,” and she concluded, correctly, “This is disturbing: all we have are promises from a notoriously abusive regime, yet US officials will not even say whether they are following up on those assurances by talking to the detainees themselves.”

In October 2007, Lotfi Lagha, who had not spoken about his treatment, but had, presumably, been dealt with in a similar manner, as his lawyer reported that he had been held in solitary confinement for six weeks after his return, was sentenced to three years in prison. As I explained at the time:

[His trial] bore all the hallmarks of a show trial. Allegations that he received military training in Afghanistan and fought with the Taliban regime were dropped, and he was, instead, convicted of “associating with a criminal group with the aim of harming or causing damage in Tunisia,” even though, as the Associated Press reported, the Tunisian authorities “did not name the group that Lagha was said to participate in or specify what its planned violence was,” and even though Lagha himself insisted during the trial, “I haven’t been involved in any terrorist activity. I went to Afghanistan for work.” Speaking after the verdict was announced, his lawyer, Samir Ben Amor, said he was “disappointed” with the verdict, and stated that he would lodge an appeal, adding, “We thought he would get justice in his own country after what he endured at Guantánamo.”

In November 2007, as I explained at the time, Abdullah bin Omar received a seven-year sentrence, after being convicted of “belonging in times of peace to a terrorist organization operating in a foreign country,” and of preparing for attacks intended to “change the state through violence,” replacing the government with a “fundamentalist regime.” Zachary Katznelson, who was present at the trial, told me, “There was not a shred of evidence actually offered against him. No witnesses, no documents, nothing. Merely a statement from the intelligence services saying he was guilty. Accusation presented as fact.” He added that this was “all too familiar in the context of Guantánamo,” but that it was “horrible to see the consequences pronounced before my eyes.”

For Lotfi Lagha (who was supposed to have been released last October) and Abdullah bin Omar (three years into his seven-year sentence), the collapse of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime ought to be good news. I cannot confirm whether Abdullah bin Omar was a member of Ennahdha, as alleged, but there are grounds for describing both bin Omar and Lotfi Lagha as political prisoners, and, as the Guardian reported on Tuesday, “Tunisia’s new government appears on the brink of releasing political prisoners, including all members of the Islamist Ennahdha movement.” As the Guardian also explained:

Najib Chebbi, an opposition party leader who has joined the new government, claimed that all prisoners had been released, [although] Samir Dilou, a lawyer and Ennahdha leader, said: “We’ve spoken to the families. It is not confirmed. They are not free yet.” But the government could discuss a general amnesty as early as tomorrow.

Supporting the idea of Ennahdha’s involvement in Tunisia’s political future, Chebbi told the BBC Hard Talk programme: “To have democracy, we must integrate any people who want to respect the law and play the game of democracy. Moderate political Islam is a component of the Arab and Islamist landscape.”

A general amnesty would open the way for Ennahdha’s exiled leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, to come home. He has said he would wait for a general amnesty before returning to Tunisia from London.

The Tunisans still in Guantánamo, or freed in other countries

The uprising in Tunisia may also be good news for other Tunisians still held in Guantánamo, and those released in other countries.

Still in Guantanamo are five men — Lotfi bin Ali, Ridah al-Yazidi, Adel Hakeemy, Hisham Sliti and Abdul Ourgy, all cleared for release by the Bush administration — although it is possible that only bin Ali stands to benefit from the collapse of Tunisia’s dictatorship. Back in October 2007, before Lotfi Lagha and Abdullah bin Omar were sentenced, but after reports of their abuse had surfaced, a District Court judge in Washington D.C., Judge Gladys Kessler, destroyed the Bush administration’s reliance on “diplomatic assurances” with Tunisia, ruling that he “cannot be sent to Tunisia because he could suffer ‘irreparable harm’ that the US courts would be powerless to reverse.”

Despite this ruling, no new home has been found for bin Ali in the last three years and four months, although now, presumably, there is no obstacle to his release, which should be demanded immediately.

As for the others, the Obama administration ought to be reviewing their cases, and thinking long and hard about whether it wants to continue holding them. I can see no reason why Ridah al-Yazidi should not also be released immediately, but officials may have concluded that he is one of 48 men who should be held indefinitely without charge or trial, because they are regarded as too dangerous to release, even though the interagency Task Force that made these recommendations conceded that the supposed evidence used to make these appraisals would not stand up in any court.

For Adel Hakeemy, the problem is that the Belgian govermment has apparently expressed an interest in extraditing him in connection with terrorist allegations in Belgium, as it has with Hisham Sliti, who, in addition, lost his habeas corpus petition in December 2008.

As for Abdul Ourgy, the problem is that the Italian goverment has apparently expressed similar wishes, following the successful extradition of two other Tunisians from Guantánamo — Adel Ben Mabrouk bin Hamida Boughanmi and Mohammed Tahir Riyadh Nasseri — in December 2009. They, presumably, are unlikely to be returning to Tunisia any time soon, even though they have not been put on trial since their dubious extradition, unless, that is, the Italians suddenly decide that the collapse of Ben Ali’s regime is an excuse for them to repatriate all its unwanted Tunisians — something that may, indeed, happen not only in Italy, but across the EU.

To conclude on a brighter note, three other men who may benefit are those released in other countries since the collapse of the Bush administration’s “diplomatic assurances” — Rafiq al-Hami, who was released in Slovakia last January with two other men (from Egypt and Azerbaijan), Saleh Sassi, who was released in Albania in February last year (with an Egyptian and a Libyan), and Hedi Hammamy, who was released in Georgia last March (with two Libyans). All are apparently doing well in their new homes (although the men in Slovakia had to embark on a hunger strike in June to improve their living conditions), but they will no doubt be delighted to return home — if home is finally a country that has rid itself of tyranny.

In some cases this may be because their political opposition to Ben Ali’s regime is on the brink of being recognized as legitimate, and not condemned under the convenient rubric of terrorism, and in other cases it is because Ben Ali’s flight — and the continuing mobilization of what the Middle East expert Juan Cole recently described as “a populist revolution spearheaded by labor movements, by internet activists [and] by rural workers” — may finally promise an end to the ruinous poverty, and the plundering of Tunisia’s economy, that typefied Ben Ali’s reign, and that drove so many Tunisians abroad — to Europe, and, in some cases, to Afghanistan and Pakistan — in search of work and freedom.

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Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is a journalist and historian, based in London. He is the author of "The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 759 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison", the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in America's illegal prison. For more information, visit his blog here.

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