On Thursday, two Guantánamo prisoners were released, to start new lives in Germany, bringing the prison’s population to 174. Announcing their arrival, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière stated that, by taking them in, Germany had “made its humanitarian contribution to closing the detention center.” He also noted that the two men had asked for their identities to be withheld from the public, but one man’s identity was revealed when the London-based legal action charity Reprieve issued a press release congratulating the government on offering a new home to their Palestinian client Ayman al-Shurafa (and his arrival was then confirmed by a spokesman for the Hamburg government).
The identity of the second — Mahmoud Salim al-Ali, a Syrian — was then revealed by Der Spiegel, which stated that he had arrived in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in central-western Germany. In fact, the identities of both men should not have come as a surprise, as Der Spiegel devoted a major article to their stories back in July, after the German government had confirmed that it would take two prisoners from Guantánamo.
The release is good news not only for Ayman al-Shurafa and Mahmoud al-Ali, but also for the many campaigners and commentators — myself included — who have been trying to keep Guantánamo on the mainstream media’s radar. Although President Obama briefly discussed Guantánamo on September 9, in his first press conference since May, apologizing for failing to meet his self-imposed deadline of January 2010 for the prison’s closure, progress towards belatedly fulfilling his promise has been horribly slow this year. Although the president’s interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force recommended that over half of the remaining prisoners should be released, just 21 of the 111 prisoners cleared for release at the start of the year have been freed in the last nine months, and 90 cleared men still remain.
Dozens of these men — like Mahmoud al-Ali — cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture in their home countries, and must wait for third countries to rehouse them (a difficult task, given that the Obama administration, Congress and the judiciary have all made sure that the United States will not take any of them), and one, like Ayman al-Shurafa, is a stateless Palestinian. However, 58 others are Yemenis, who could be sent home tomorrow were it not for an indefensible moratorium on releasing any Yemenis that was issued by President Obama in January, following hysterical overreaction to the news that the failed Christmas day plane bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had been recruited in Yemen.
Clearly, the president has no chance of fulfilling his promise to close Guantánamo until this moratorium is lifted, and those who wish to see the prison closed must do more to challenge this cynical knee-jerk ban which effectively tars all Yemenis as terrorist sympathizers. For now, however, the German government must be congratulated for offering new homes to Ayman al-Shurafa and Mahmoud al-Ali, and for bringing their long and unjust imprisonment to an end.
Ayman al-Shurafa, a stateless Palestinian
Ayman al-Shurafa, who is now 34 years old, was cleared for release by a military review board in 2007, but remained at Guantánamo because of the particular problems facing the handful of Palestinians held in the prison, who are — or were — literally stateless. In al-Shurafa’s case, although his family is from Gaza, his parents settled in Saudi Arabia with their four children when he was a young child. He spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia, where his family still lives, but because he does not have a Saudi passport, the Saudi government refused to press the U.S. authorities for his repatriation. Instead, he holds documents issued by the Jordanian government (as part of his family’s long search for refuge), which are suitable only for travel purposes, and until Germany agreed to accept him, he was, therefore, literally a man without a country.
Around ten years ago, al-Shurafa traveled to Gaza to enroll in a Palestinian university to finish a business degree that he had started in Saudi Arabia. However, after the intifada broke out, he feared for his life and decided that he had to leave. He returned to Saudi Arabia, but, as with all Saudi residents, discovered that his educational opportunities were more limited than those available to Saudi citizens. It was then that, like many other young men, he found himself taking poor advice from a Saudi sheikh who stated that he needed to be “prepared” to defend Muslims from those oppressing them — a religious duty known as e’dad, which is conceptually distinct from jihad or any participation in combat.
As a result, he traveled to Afghanistan in summer 2001, but, like many young men recruited by religious figures, he was unaware that the Taliban’s enemies were other Muslims. Throughout his detention, he maintained that, although he was in Afghanistan, he never took up arms against the Northern Alliance — or against the United States after the U.S.-led invasion of October 2001. In meetings at Guantánamo with his lawyers, he explained that “he hadn’t the faintest idea of what he was getting himself into; he knew nothing about the Taliban’s long inter-Muslim struggle with the Northern Alliance, and had no knowledge whatsoever of al-Qaeda.”
In 2007, a military review board agreed with this assessment, but although al-Shurafa was cleared for release, and was compliant throughout his detention, he still ended up held in isolation in a cell in Camp 6 for 22 to 23 hours a day. Throughout his life, he has suffered from vitiligo, a painful skin complaint, and his permanent isolation from sunlight made his skin condition flare up horribly, causing maddening discomfort, as well as permanent skin damage. According to his lawyers, although he was well regarded by both the guards and by his fellow prisoners, leading prayers in his cell block, he was deeply concerned that he would never see his elderly mother again, and also showed signs of depression, asking the authorities for medication to “let the days go by without feeling anything.”
Mahmoud Salim al-Ali, a Syrian seized by an Afghan warlord
As Der Spiegel explained in July, Mahmoud Salim al-Ali, who is 36 years old, had been living in Kuwait before he made an ill-fated trip to Afghanistan in October 2001. His last job had been in a fruit and vegetable market, but he also had “experience working in the service sector and in industry, as a salesperson in the Sultan Shopping Center and with the Al-Fahad Aluminum & Glass Works.”
However, in late September 2001, he traveled to Afghanistan, via Syria and Iran, apparently because, as the U.S. authorities alleged at Guantánamo, he “had a desire to join the jihad after viewing videos depicting the situation in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya.” Nevertheless, as Der Spiegel also explained:
[H]e never received any military training or saw any combat. After a few days in Kabul, al-Ali contracted a serious case of diarrhea, for which he was treated in a hospital. He then spent the night in the house of a doctor. By the next day, as he was fleeing from the Northern Alliance, which was fighting the Taliban, his big adventure was over. Al-Ali and his companions were captured by an Afghan warlord and robbed. The bandits took his money, his wedding ring, and his watch, and he was later turned over to the Americans.
New life in Germany
For both these men, life in Germany promises to present them with an excellent opportunity to rebuild their lives. As Der Spiegel explained in July, Mahmoud al-Ali “has a wife and a 10-year-old daughter living in Syria who apparently want to come to Germany to live with him, to which the state politicians dealing with the case have no objections,” and Ayman al-Shurafa, whose immediate physical and psychological needs appear to be more acute, is already receiving attention in a medical clinic, where, as Der Spiegel reported on Thursday, “he will be given an extensive check-up over the next few days.” Hamburg government officials stated that “the goal was to help reintegrate the former prisoner into society, with the hope that he will ultimately become self-sufficient.”
Accepting these two men has not been without problems for the German authorities. There was fierce opposition from conservative ministers, for example, and, in response, plans for the state of Brandenburg to take a third prisoner, Mohammed Tahamuttan, the last Palestinian in Guantánamo, were quietly dropped. In July, Rainer Speer, the state’s interior minister, told Der Spiegel, “We were up to the task,” and the newspaper also noted that “the Interior Ministry task force charged with the issue had apparently concluded that accepting all three candidates was fundamentally justifiable.” However, Der Spiegel speculated that the rejection of Tahamuttan was “probably intended primarily to send a political message at home in Germany, where de Maizière felt that he had to show the many members of his party who had opposed reaching an agreement with the United States on Guantánamo that he was not blindly obeying the Americans.”
Noticeably, the government in Berlin also refused to proceed with the resettlement of Ayman al-Shurafa and Mahmoud al-Ali without written guarantees from the Obama administration. As Der Spiegel noted, Germany was “probably the only ally to have done so.” According to a joint declaration signed by the two countries, “The United States will not release any inmates if this could jeopardize the security of the United States or our friends and allies.” Der Spiegel added that “the Germans also have it in writing that the U.S. government would not permit any individuals deemed a threat to the national security of the United States to ‘enter the country,’” explaining that what this means is that the men being released and sent to Germany “are not dangerous and could even enter the United States as tourists.”
As Der Spiegel also explained, this was “a delayed victory for Wolfgang Schäuble who, as interior minister in Berlin’s former grand coalition government, refused to accept Guantánamo inmates because, as he noted, they would not even be given a tourist visa for the United States.”
Will other countries now help?
While this will send shockwaves though the more paranoid parts of the U.S. establishment (and should, if there is any justice, lead to calls to revoke the various bans on bringing cleared prisoners to live in the United States), the impact of Germany’s acceptance of two prisoners should be most marked in Europe, where hopes for rehousing other cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated are most sharply focused.
Although ten other countries in Europe (Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, and Switzerland) have taken in 23 prisoners over the last 16 months, who had no prior connection to their new homes (and 15 others have been settled in Bermuda, Cape Verde, Georgia, Latvia, and Palau), other countries have failed to be swayed by the entreaties of Daniel Fried, President Obama’s special envoy to Guantánamo.
Ambassador Fried’s thankless task has been to persuade other countries to overlook U.S. hypocrisy regarding the resettlement of prisoners, and to help President Obama close Guantánamo by taking in men like Ayman al-Shurafa and Mahmoud al-Ali. However, despite his success to date, certain prominent countries in western Europe — Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the UK — have so far refused to help, even though, in some cases, persuasive arguments can be made that they should be involved as part of a tacit acknowledgement of their involvement in the crimes committed in the “war on terror.”
In Sweden’s case, the complicity centers on the government’s involvement, in December 2001, in the CIA-directed kidnap and rendition to torture in Egypt of two Egyptian asylum seekers, Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed Alzery. In Britain’s case, the true scale of the complicity of the Bush administration’s closest ally has not yet been revealed, but enough has been exposed to indicate that providing new homes for a handful of cleared Guantánamo prisoners who cannot be repatriated is the least that the government should do.
The British government’s complicity includes former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s recently revealed support for Guantánamo and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s interference in plans to provide consular access to a British citizen seized in Zambia (Martin Mubanga). It also includes involvement in the kidnap and rendition of two British residents in the Gambia (Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil El-Banna), its knowledge of the torture by U.S. agents in Pakistan of British resident Binyam Mohamed, who was later sent to be tortured in Morocco (also with British knowledge), and the repeated visits made by British agents to British nationals and residents while they were held in Pakistan, and in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and Guantánamo, even though it was apparent that the conditions in which they were being held did not meet internationally recognized standards of humane treatment.
Although Prime Minister David Cameron has announced an inquiry into British complicity in torture abroad, one way in which the government could atone for its deep involvement in the “war on terror” would be to step back from the outrageous position taken by the previous government — that, in securing the return of nine British nationals and five British residents, the UK had “done its bit,” as foreign secretary David Miliband claimed in January 2009 — and accept that this was, in fact, nothing more than what was required.
The new coalition government already faces questions about why it cannot secure the return of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, who was cleared for release in 2007 but is still held, and is also under pressure to explain why it will not accept Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who lived and worked in the UK between 1999 and 2001, who was also cleared for release in 2007, but is terrified of returning to Algeria. Perhaps it might now be worth asking if the British government will take up where Germany left off, and also offer a new home to Mohammed Tahamuttan, the Palestinian who is still waiting for someone to free him from Guantánamo.