Two former Guantánamo prisoners were convicted in Belgium by the Brussels Criminal Court on Monday, July 18, 2016, one on terrorism-related charges.
The two men, Moussa Zemmouri, 38, a Belgian national, and Soufiane Abbar Huwari, 46, an Algerian national, were arrested on July 23, 2015. Huwari was arrested with three other men during an attempted armed burglary in Hoboken, near the city of Antwerp, where Zemmouri lives. The victim was an alleged drug dealer with the proceeds of the theft likely to raise around $770,000 for the perpetrators.
The arrests, however, were carried out by counterterrorism police: Reported to have spent time in Syria in 2013-2014, Huwari was allegedly raising funds for terrorist activities in Syria. Zemmouri, who was at home at the time in Antwerp, where he was born, was arrested later. At the time of his arrest, his lawyer stated that Zemmouri had nothing to do with the burglary or terrorism in Syria. He stated that he had only come into contact with Huwari, who came to Belgium in 2014, shortly before his arrest when an American TV crew asked to interview them both for a documentary.
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At the time of the arrest, Huwari was also accused of recruiting fighters for the war in Syria; Belgium is the European country that has had the most mercenary fighters travel to Syria. A senior counterterrorism official told CNN “We have dismantled a serious recruiting network for Syria.” This was not mentioned later.
The case involved nine defendants, three of whom were charged with terrorism-related offenses. One of the three was acquitted in full. Huwari was sentenced to 12 years in prison for running a terrorist group. One other person was sentenced for membership of a terrorist organization. Other sentences, including Zemmouri’s for conspiracy, related to the thwarted burglary only.
Reporting of the case has been contradictory and patchy. The Belgian authorities did not initially identify Huwari, referring to him only as “Soufiane A.,” placing the focus on Zemmouri, who is better known to the Belgian media. Zemmouri was placed in solitary confinement after his arrest. He was given a 40-month suspended sentence.
Huwari’s name only emerged when the case went to trial in June 2016; he became the main suspect. In a country where there is a constant threat of terrorism the case has surprisingly attracted little attention. From the few details made public, the case is rather peculiar.
A number of the co-defendants were illegal immigrants allegedly recruited by Huwari. With no statements or explanation of their motives offered by the defendants or their lawyers, it may well be the case that most of them had inadequate legal representation. The fact that two of the defendants were once held at Guantánamo seems to have trumped the need to provide public evidence for the case or the convictions.
Neither Zemmouri nor Huwari were ever charged or tried at Guantánamo. Huwari was held there from 2003 to 2008 after having been captured in Georgia, allegedly by the local Mafia, and sold to the CIA, at a time when Georgia was reportedly “under pressure from the United States” to capture and transfer foreign suspects to US custody. He was then rendered to Afghanistan where he was held in secret CIA prisons for a year, including the Salt Pit, before being taken to Guantánamo.
Back in Algeria, he was sentenced in absentia to 35 years in jail on the basis of claims he was a member of a terrorist organization made by the US military. Due to such arbitrary actions by the Algerian authorities, concerns were raised about the return of other Algerian prisoners to the country. He is then reported to have left the country and travelled to a number of other countries, including Syria, before arriving and settling in Laeken, Brussels, legally in 2014.
With convictions from the 1990s for illegal entry into France and the risk he is said to pose, one can only question why Belgium would have allowed him to enter the state in the first place, even if, as it claims, he was placed under considerable police surveillance immediately after. Huwari is reported to have also been involved in ordinary criminal activity and other burglaries. The terrorism link appears to be predicated on his arbitrary detention at Guantánamo.
Aside from having also been held at Guantánamo, Zemmouri’s story is quite different. He was kidnapped in Pakistan in 2001 and sold to the US military. He was held at Guantánamo from 2002 to 2005, when he was released with another Belgian national. The US accused him of having ties to a Moroccan terrorist organization and the Belgian authorities later accused him of ties to its Belgian cell, when it went on trial in 2006.
In 2009 charges were dropped against him and the other returnee due to insufficient evidence. He wrote a book about his experiences entitled Innocent in Guantánamo and in 2010, lawyers brought a case against the Belgian state: “Belgium should have intervened in his case, but it reacted far too slowly.” Since his return to Belgium, he has been under heavy surveillance by the authorities.
In spite of various attempts to tie him to terrorist organizations and plots, this is the first time he has been linked to such a case. According to his lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge, he remains “a thorn in the side of the Belgian judicial system” and has been the subject of a witch-hunt by the authorities.
Continuing persecution after prisoners take legal action against their detention at Guantánamo is not unusual. A week after the Belgian trial in June, another trial was held in Spain involving former Guantánamo prisoner Lahcen Ikassrien, a Moroccan national. He denied charges of being the ringleader of a terrorist cell raising funds in Madrid for the Islamic State militant group.
Extradited to Spain after his release without charge from Guantánamo in 2005, all charges against him in Spain were dropped in 2006. He resumed a normal life and did not come to the attention of the authorities until his arrest in 2014. During the trial, he condemned terrorist acts. No judgment has yet been made.
Months before his arrest, a complaint he had filed, along with several other former prisoners, in 2009 against George Bush for his illegal detention and torture was reopened by the Spanish judiciary.
Years after release, former Guantánamo prisoners, who have never been charged, remain pawns in other people’s games. Used to justify extralegal activity by the Bush administration, the US and its allies continue to use them for similar purposes today. Former Guantánamo prisoners are tenuously linked to current conflicts to justify illegal and disproportionate responses to them; the cases cited are not exceptional. With foreign states, particularly in Europe, increasingly involved in the persecution of former Guantánamo prisoners, it is an endorsement by them of the practices there and a means for them to justify the ongoing erosion of the rule of law worldwide in so-called efforts to combat terrorism.