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Europe Turns the Screws on Former Guantánamo Prisoners

The US-run detention centre for “war on terror” prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is truly a collaborative effort.

The US-run detention centre for “war on terror” prisoners at Guantánamo Bay is truly a collaborative effort; dozens of states worldwide assisted the US in the arrest, detention, torture or transport to torture of the around 800 men who have been held there. In some cases, their home states provided information that led to arrests, or failed to prevent or protest their illegal detention and torture once they became aware of it.

European states have proved no exception, making them complicit in the torture of their own citizens. Several dozen citizens and residents of European states have been held at Guantánamo. With the exception of Russian Ravil Mingazov, who was cleared for release in July 2016, all other European citizens were repatriated by 2005. European residents have also been returned to their countries of residence or origin. None were ever prosecuted at Guantánamo. As with prisoners released elsewhere however, legal problems and harassment have followed them.

States like France and Belgium brought prosecutions against their citizens on their return but these were later dropped due to a lack of actual evidence. Other forms of harassment included surveillance, initial restrictions on travel and obtaining passports.

The persecution of seven men who returned to Russia in 2004 was documented in detail in a 2007 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report; in addition to kidnappings and beatings, some of the men were imprisoned and tortured. In 2007, Ruslan Odizhev was shot dead by the police in an alleged shoot out in the North Caucasus; there was no investigation into his death.

Harassment has not been restricted to the first few years after release; it continues more than a decade on and can even follow former prisoners abroad. Demonisation and misrepresentation in the media help to reinforce this situation.

Given its complicity, Europe’s attitude to Guantánamo has been duplicitous. On the one hand, under the Obama administration, a number of European states have agreed to resettle prisoners who cannot return home, sometimes in addition to the return of their own citizens or residents. Some European states have allowed lawsuits to be filed against US officials, most notably against former Guantánamo commander retired General Geoffrey D. Miller in Germany, Spain and France, with proceedings still pending in France.

On the other hand, European states have resisted efforts by returning prisoners to probe the extent of their governments’ complicity and knowledge of the torture and illegal detention they suffered at the hands of the US. Investigations have been scuppered and information withheld. In the UK, the government reached an out-of-court financial settlement with a number of British citizens and residents without any admission of liability to avoid disclosure of human rights violations.

The vast majority of former prisoners have settled back into normal civilian life. Nonetheless, they remain at risk of becoming pawns in the power games of others. In recent years, European states have started their own clampdown with terrorism-related prosecutions. The grounds for such prosecutions are often tenuous and relate to the conflict in Syria, to which, as US-led coalition allies, many are a party. Their detention was once used to justify the war that started in Afghanistan in 2001; it is now used to create a non-existent link between it and the multilateral conflict in Syria since 2011. The real common thread is that many of the same states are involved in both.

Efforts have also been made outside of Europe to link former Guantánamo prisoners to the conflict in Libya and elsewhere. Some prisoners are simply made up by the media. Tunisian Moez Fezzani, who was allegedly imprisoned by the CIA at Bagram in Afghanistan, was labelled an ex-Guantánamo prisoner by the Tunisian media to justify extrajudicial executions by the authorities there. Months later, in August 2016, the same man, who was never held at Guantánamo, was discovered risen from the dead by Fox News in Libya as an “ISIS commander”.

This is not to discount the possibility that former prisoners could engage in such activity. Playing the Guantánamo card, however, as the case above illustrates, rules out the need for any factual evidence. It creates an assumption of guilt that needs no proof, adds an international dimension to domestic crime and lowers the bar on what counts as admissible proof. Detention at Guantánamo is evidence enough of guilt.

Within Europe, in July 2012, Bulgarian media accused Swede Mehdi Gazali, released in 2004, of bombing a bus killing five Israeli holidaymakers in the country. Within 48 hours, investigators excluded him as a suspect. In February 2014, former British prisoner Moazzam Begg was arrested with 3 other people accused of offences related to the war in Syria. After spending seven months on remand, the case against him collapsed just before it was due to go to trial after the security services submitted secret evidence that undermined the case against him and revealed they had links with him and his work in Syria.

Others have fared worse. On 23 February 2016, the day Barack Obama announced his legacy plan for Guantánamo, Spaniard Hamed Abderrahman Ahmed was arrested in Ceuta with three others, accused of leading a network recruiting fighters for the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group.

In July 2016, Moroccan resident Lahcen Ikassrien went on trial in Madrid accused of being the ringleader of a terrorist cell raising funds for ISIS. He was arrested in June 2014 and charged in December that year. The judgment in his case is pending.

In the same month, two former prisoners, a Belgian and an Algerian national, were convicted in Belgium in relation to a burglary whose proceeds were alleged to be used to fund terrorism in Syria. Algerian Soufiane Abbar Huwari was convicted on terrorism charges whereas Belgian Moussa Zemmouri was implicated merely through association with the former.

The worst case of post-release persecution anywhere is perhaps that of Russian national Rasul Kudaev, who was implicated in a major terrorist attack in the North Caucasus in 2005. Tortured into signing a confession, he was given a life sentence in 2014 which he is currently serving in a penal colony.

In July 2016, his compatriot Airat Vakhitov, who had fled post-release persecution to Turkey, was arrested allegedly in connection with the Istanbul Airport attack. Other sources claim he was actually arrested due to visa irregularities.

In each of these cases, the alleged Guantánamo connection has helped to internationalise the incident and legitimise the often heavy-handed response of the local authorities. Through these prosecutions it would appear that European states are rallying to do the United States’ dirty work for it: almost all of the former prisoners currently detained in Europe have taken legal action against the US for illegal detention and torture. Months before Lahcen Ikassrien’s arrest, Spanish prosecutors agreed to reopen a torture case against the US authorities involving him, Hamed Abderrahman Ahmed and others.

Terrorism cases involving Muslims are a hot topic in the media, yet these cases do not garner much interest. Human rights NGOs condemned the conviction and life sentence given to Rasul Kudaev but it was not mentioned in the western media. The convictions in Belgium in July 2016 were not reported outside of the country; for a country at reported heightened risk of terrorist activity, the case and judgment received scant media attention and reporting.

Instead, the media focus is on stories of their own concoction, such as that of Fezzani, and fake reports that a former prisoner, a disabled Syrian refugee, disappeared from Uruguay and was plotting to sabotage the Rio Olympic Games. In spite of an Interpol notice and a police manhunt, he could not be found in Brazil and later reappeared in Venezuela. The more far-fetched and incredulous the story the more interest it generates for the media, and US politicians will furnish it with enough hyperbole and apparent astonishment to flesh it out. The truth has never mattered where Guantánamo is concerned.

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