Former Detainees Abused Back Home: 'I'd Rather Return to Guantanamo'

When two Tunisian men were sent home after five years in Guantanamo, they thought they would be free. Instead, they faced imprisonment, abuse, threats and solitary confinement. Now they say things were better back in the US prison camp.

Release from Guantanamo Bay may not be the end of the prisoner's ordeal.
AP

Release from Guantanamo Bay may not be the end of the prisoner's ordeal.

Many of the detainees sitting in Guantanamo Bay hail from countries with a terrible record of torturing and abusing prisoners. While they may want to see an end to their ordeal in the US prison camp, they also have reason to dread the treatment they could face back home.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the US government is not doing enough to ensure that prisoners sent back home are not subjected to ill treatment, despite diplomatic assurances from their home countries. The US is continuing to repatriate prisoners, sending home 16 Saudis on Thursday. But in their haste to reduce the numbers at Guantanamo, it seems they are being less than thorough in ensuring that the former prisoners are not mistreated.

In its "Ill-fated Homecomings" report released on Wednesday, HRW focuses on two Tunisian men, Abdullah al-Hajji Ben Amor and Lofti Lagha, who were released from Guantanamo six weeks ago and are now sitting in jail in Tunisia. The researchers did not have access to the prisoners but spoke to their families and their lawyer, Samir Ben Amor.

The two Tunisians were sent home on June 18 and, according to HRW, they had no idea that they would be facing further imprisonment. They now say that if they had known, they would have fought the transfer.

The two men were held at the military camp in Cuba for five years, without being charged with any crimes, and Lagha was never represented by a lawyer during that time. Rather than facing freedom when they finally got home, the two men were taken directly into custody and say they were threatened, abused and put in solitary confinement. They now claim things are so bad that they would rather be back in Guantanamo -- despite Tunisia's pledge to the US that they would be treated humanely.

Abdullah al-Hajji left Tunisia in 1990 and had no idea that he had been convicted in absentia in 1995 of being a member of a foreign terrorist organization. He was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and sent to Guantanamo Bay.

According to HRW, when he landed back in Tunisia in June he was held at the Ministry of the Interior for two days, where he was slapped and told his wife and daughters would be raped. He was shaken repeatedly to keep from sleeping and told to sign a paper he couldn’t read because he needs new glasses. He was then sent to the same military court that had convicted him in absentia, told he would face a new trial on Sept. 26, and then thrown into solitary confinement for six weeks. He told his lawyer that, if he had been told of the conviction, he would have objected to returning to Tunisia.

Lofti Lagha, who hails from a small village in southern Tunisia, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and held in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantanamo. He was never represented by a lawyer at the US base, and only saw his Tunisian lawyer Ben Amor in August. He said he was threatened with torture when he first got back to Tunisia but was never physically abused. He was then put in solitary confinement for more than six weeks and a judge recommended that he be charged with membership in a terrorist organization.

'Diplomatic Assurances'

Human Rights Watch has urged the US government to give detainees advance notice of their transfer and allow them the opportunity to contest it in a federal court if they fear torture or abuse upon their return. The US, as a party to the UN Convention Against Torture, has committed to not permitting prisoners to a country in which there are "substantial grounds for believing he would be in danger of being subjected to torture." But, as Washington reduces the number of people detained at Guantanamo, it seems content to accept "diplomatic assurances" from countries with less than glowing human rights records.

"Closing Guantanamo provides the United States one of the best opportunities to help rebuild its moral authority and international good will," Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel for HRW said, referring to the increased pressure to close the base. "Washington should not squander that chance by forcibly repatriating detainees to countries with known records of torture and abuse."

HRW has already reported on violence suffered by former Guantanamo prisoners who were sent back to Russia in 2004. According to its research, they experienced torture and abuse, despite Moscow's pledge to US authorities that they would be treated humanely.

On Thursday, US military authorities released 16 Saudi prisoners. There has been widespread public anger in the country about the treatment of Saudi prisoners at the camp, particularly after two Saudis killed themselves at the base in June. It is not clear if the 16 former detainees face any charges in the Muslim kingdom.

Washington is currently negotiating the repatriation of prisoners to Algeria and Libya. Both countries have records of torture and abuse.

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