When I first went to see Ahmed Errachidi (right) in early 2005, the soldiers at Guantánamo warned me that he was one of the very worst: a bitter terrorist; Osama bin Laden's general, his main man. I was intrigued.
We brought the original litigation against the lawlessness of Guantánamo Bay in February 2002, shortly after it opened for its sordid business. By mid-2004, the Supreme Court had ordered that lawyers be allowed access, and I was able to visit for the first time. Soon, I was requested to represent Ahmed.
He didn't seem bitter. He laughed: a deep-chested laugh. He told me that he was a chef who had worked in London for eighteen years. I was not sure I believed him, but Ahmed's story – stranger than fiction – turned out to be entirely true. I took the Tube from one restaurant to another on his list, and each manager described his cooking. He said he was bipolar, and I obtained the medical records of his first mental breakdown, following the death of his father. I spoke with the immigration lawyers who had been trying to secure him permanent leave to remain in the UK. I obtained copies of his plane tickets from London to Morocco and Pakistan. At the time he was meant to have been at the al-Farouq terrorist-training camp, in July 2001, he was temping on the King's Road in Chelsea.
On 18 September 2001, Ahmed Errachidi left his home in England to visit his wife and children in Morocco. He was particularly keen to see his youngest son, one-year-old Imran, who needed an urgent heart operation to repair a blocked artery. This condition is often fatal without surgery, and Ahmed saw his young son struggling to breathe, his face turning blue. But he could not afford to pay for treatment. So he hatched a plan and sank all his savings into a new business venture, flying out to Pakistan to buy silver jewellery – the profit from sales back in Morocco would pay for the medical care. It was during his stay in Pakistan that Ahmed watched CNN news footage on a television at a nearby mosque of the US bombings and found himself moved by the plight of the Afghan refugees.
The interrogators in Guantánamo didn't believe him, but the story made sense to me. The bombs that were about to fall on Afghanistan were thousands of miles away to Ahmed, and his grandiose plans were all explained by a statement he made early on, openly, without the stigma common in the West: he is bipolar. My father, too, was bipolar and while his dreams might have landed him in jail for fraud many times, they were very real to him. Likewise, to Ahmed, anything was possible, even this dangerous mission: 'I entered Afghanistan to help the poor children and the women and to partake in their calamity, to taste what they tasted, to fear as they feared, and to be hungry as they were hungry.'
He told me that the Pakistanis had sold him to the Americans. I obtained copies of the American bounty leaflets promising $5,000 for 'terrorists', with a photograph of a bearded Arab, looking very similar to my client. 'I am a traded commodity,' said Ahmed. 'No matter how long it takes, the dust will settle and the buyer and the seller will be known, and only the anecdotes and the memories will remain.' Ahmed was taken from Pakistan to Bagram air base where he spent nineteen consecutive days being tortured and interrogated before he was sent to Guantánamo Bay. There, he became a leading force in the intermittent prisoner protests against the abusive Guantánamo regime. As a result he was held in punitive isolation in Camp Delta for almost three years – the longest period served in isolation by any Guantánamo prisoner.
At a certain point, Ahmed had another breakdown. The military, seemingly oblivious to his condition, continued interrogating him through his psychotic haze. When asked whether he knew bin Laden, Ahmed indignantly assured them that he was bin Laden's superior officer. The interrogators wrote it down, and passed it on. They omitted, however, the next thing he said – that there was a large introduction snowball that was about to envelop the earth, and that the officers should warn their families to make their peace with God. As with most people who have been liberated so far – 562 of the 601 who have been sent home – Ahmed was set free due to public pressure rather than the court of law. We showed how risible the allegations against him were, and embarrassed the authorities into returning him to Morocco. Guantánamo itself remains open. President Obama has rejuvenated the tainted military commissions and this year put forward a law that justifies detaining prisoners indefinitely without trial, subject to regular reviews by so-called periodic Administrative Review Boards. Forty-eight prisoners have been labelled 'too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution', partly because their confessions have been obtained under duress. As things stand, they are fated to remain in Cuba indefinitely, without trial and without judgment.
This first appeared in issue 116 of Granta magazine, as the introduction to 'A handful of walnuts' by Ahmed Errachidi