Released Without Charges, Former Guantánamo Detainees Continue to Face Stigma

Mamdouh Habib taking part in a speech as part of an anti-war protest in Hyde Park, Sydney, Australia.Mamdouh Habib taking part in a speech as part of an antiwar protest in Hyde Park, Sydney, Australia. (Photo: Wikipedia)Being released without charge or trial does not erase the stigma attached to having been held at Guantánamo Bay, even well over a decade after release. In separate incidents on October 29 and November 2, two former prisoners were arrested upon arrival at airports in different countries and taken in for questioning. One was imprisoned for two days without his lawyer knowing where he was being held.

Early on October 29, Australian-Egyptian national Mamdouh Habib, 60, and his wife arrived at Istanbul Airport in Turkey from Beirut. They were stopped at Customs, had their passports and possessions confiscated and were questioned for more than 12 hours before being sent back to Beirut on the same day.

Habib told Australian media he was questioned about an Australian national and a British national suspected of fighting with ISIS in Syria by a Lebanese man “who described himself as an employee of ASIO,” the Australian Secret Intelligence Organization. If either Australian or Turkish intelligence had serious questions to ask, as part of lawful inquiries, they would surely do so in a formal manner, in the presence of a lawyer and actual security personnel, and not by “men in suits.”

Mamdouh Habib was arrested in Pakistan in 2001, rendered to Egypt where he was detained and tortured for five months before being taken to Guantánamo in 2002. In January 2005, the US decided not to charge him and released him instead. On his return to Australia, he started proceedings against the government for complicity in his rendition and torture.

He claimed Australian agents were present when he was tortured in Egypt, which the Australian authorities denied, even though medical examinations were consistent with his allegations. In late 2010, his case ended in a secret out-of-court settlement with the Australian government. Weeks later, following the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, an Egyptian intelligence officer made a statement confirming that at least one Australian had been present while Habib was tortured there.

Over the years, many of Habib’s claims have been verified. He only had his passport returned in 2011. At the end of that same year, an inquiry by the Australian government into its complicity in his rendition found that “no Australian official was found to be involved or complicit in any alleged mistreatment or relocation of Mr. Habib while he was detained overseas.”

“Peace activist arrested for posing threats to national security” almost reads like a headline from The Onion, but the harassment continues for many former Guantánamo prisoners.

In an unrelated incident, on November 2, French former prisoner Mourad Benchellali, 34, was detained as he arrived in Toronto, Canada. Upon his return to France, Benchellali told the media that he had been questioned all night, and instead of being taken to an immigration detention center, he was taken to a prison where he had to wear orange clothing and was chained. He said, “I found myself in the same situation as I was in at Guantánamo, with uncertainty over my future. I had no idea of what they might charge me with or how long it was going to last.”

Benchellali admits having traveled to Afghanistan at age 19 in 2001, and having spent two months in an Al Qaeda training camp, after being persuaded by his brother. This never led to any trial or charges, and he was released in July 2004. In France, he was convicted in 2007 with four other French former prisoners, but the convictions were vacated on appeal in 2009.

In recent years, he has used his experiences to steer young people away from radicalization and has worked on peace programs, giving talks and presentations. He was first invited to Canada in June 2015, to speak at a peace conference and a conference on youth radicalization. However, he was prevented from boarding a plane from his hometown of Lyon to Montreal, as the plane would fly through US airspace, and he learned that he is on a US no-fly list.

In November, he was invited again, to take part in a documentary and to speak at an event in support of Canadian former prisoner Omar Khadr. This time he flew via Iceland to avoid the exclusion zone but was nonetheless arrested by Canadian border police, claiming he is still “a threat to national security,” questioned and held in prison for two days before being sent back to France.

“Peace activist arrested for posing threats to national security” almost reads like a headline from The Onion, but the harassment continues for many former Guantánamo prisoners, almost all of whom have been released without charge or trial. A similar situation arose for British former prisoner and activist Moazzam Begg when he tried to visit Canada in 2011.

A further similarity between Habib and Benchellali’s cases is that both men are engaged in lawsuits to prosecute those involved in their torture. In February 2014, Benchellali and another former prisoner, Nizar Sassi, brought a lawsuit in France against former Guantánamo commander Geoffrey Miller. In April 2015, a court issued a summons for him to be questioned. Although it is unlikely he will appear, Benchellali called the move a “symbolic victory.”

For whose benefit did Turkey and Canada detain these men? Was it simply to deter them from taking legal action in their own cases?

In February 2015, the Australian Federal Court ruled Mamdouh Habib could sue the Australian government over his treatment in Guantánamo. He is reported to be in the Middle East in relation to legal proceedings in Egypt, and has accused the Australian government of interfering in them.

A few days before the Habib’s trip to Istanbul, in relation to the other Australian prisoner held at Guantánamo Bay, David Hicks, the Australian government was ordered by the Australian Information Commissioner to disclose documents on its collusion in torture.

This harassment is not accidental, and highlights the continuing close working relation between partners in crimes against humanity: All of the states involved were complicit in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. It also demonstrates that these states have learned nothing about how the law works over the past decade or so. Can Canada jail an entrant to the country on the unfounded suspicion that he poses a risk to national security?

The harassment may seek to bully victims into not demanding or disclosing further details of these states’ complicity in torture and rendition. The US continues to interfere as well. In May 2015, Jamal Kiyemba was arrested in Uganda with US assistance in relation to the murder of a prosecutor, even though the police said he was not a suspect in her death.

It also proves how it important it is for citizens of complicit states to support the efforts of former prisoners and nongovernment organizations in demanding accountability and transparency concerning their collusion in extraordinary rendition and torture. Seeking redress alone makes already vulnerable former prisoners easier prey to victimize by states that have something to hide.

For whose benefit did Turkey and Canada detain these men? Was it simply to deter them from taking legal action in their own cases? Although Australia claims to have offered consular advice, why did the Australian and French governments fail to speak out on behalf of their own citizens? These are just a few of the questions that need answering.

As Barack Obama moves toward his latest plan to shutter Guantánamo, this is also a reminder that for many people – victims, their families, state officials and those who have managed to avoid incrimination thus far – closing or transferring Guantánamo will not solve all of the problems it has created.