Remember way back when? President Barack Obama promised to close the Guantánamo prison, restore the United States’ moral standing, and end the practice of torture.
It was two years ago. In January 2009, as one of his first acts as president, Obama signed an executive order that committed the United States to closing the prison within a year and ending the practice of torture.
But Djamel Ameziane—and 173 other men—are still waiting.
A member of the Berber ethnic group, Ameziane fled his native Algeria in his early twenties, seeking a better life. He found it working as a chef in one of the best Italian restaurants in Vienna. Because of visa issues, he was forced to leave Austria and later Canada, ending up in Afghanistan because—as a member of his legal team with the Center for Constitutional Rights explained—”he believed it was only there that he could live in peace, anonymously and permanently.”
But Ameziane was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Soon after he settled, the U.S. launched the October 2001 war against Afghanistan. He tried to flee, but the local police captured him when he tried to enter Pakistan. Like so many others who were captured along the border, he was turned over to U.S. forces for a bounty of $2,000 or $5,000. Ameziane was held at Kandahar Airbase in Afghanistan and then transported to Guantánamo in February 2002, making him one of the earliest prisoners held at the notorious facility.
Ameziane has never been charged with a crime. There’s no credible evidence that he took up arms against the United States or posed a threat to us. He remains at Guantánamo because we can’t send him back to Algeria and haven’t found a third country to host him.
Algeria hasn’t been Ameziane’s home for nearly two decades, and he shouldn’t be forced to return there. Returning to Algeria would expose Ameziane to even more suffering. He grew up in Kabylie, an unstable region in the north known for frequent, violent clashes between the Algerian army and Islamic resistance groups. The stain of having spent time in Guantánamo would alone be enough to put him at risk of being imprisoned if he is returned.
The first two Algerians transferred out of Guantánamo in July 2008 were disappeared for two weeks and likely subjected to interrogation by Algeria’s “military security” police. Other Algerian nationals at Guantánamo have said, through their lawyers, that they would rather stay at the prison than return to Algeria.
No More Guantánamos is a grassroots group trying to pave the way for resettlement of Guantánamo detainees into U.S. communities by engaging in education, outreach, and building human connections with the more than 100 prisoners who have been cleared for release. These resettlement efforts took a big hit at the end of December when members of Congress amended the Defense Authorization Act. Guantánamo detainees are now barred from transferring to the United States—even to stand trial.
Unless or until another country comes forward to offer Ameziane resettlement protection, he’ll remain at Gitmo. He’s a college graduate who speaks French, Arabic, and English fluently and can communicate in German, making him an attractive candidate for any number of countries. There are efforts underway in Austria and Canada to have him resettled there, but the work begins in the United States. Resettlement isn’t as difficult as the administration makes it seem. The main hurdle is that the United States refuses to accept even a single man from Guantánamo within its borders.
Ameziane says: “I have only ever wanted to live quietly and peacefully in a country where I would not suffer persecution. That is still my goal.”
It’s very human goal. As the tenth year of Guantánamo’s perverse injustice gets underway, it’s time to focus on the stories of humble and harmless men like Ameziane, which tend to get lost amid the fixation on clearer-cut cases like that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed 9/11 mastermind. We must resolve their cases with dispatch and dignity, and resettle them where they can begin to rebuild quiet and peaceful lives. It’s our duty.
Frida Berrigan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist and an organizer with Witness Against Torture, which will hold an action on January 11, 2011 and then fast and vigil for the next 12 days in Washington, DC. For more information visit, www.witnesstorture.org .