The story of Sherif El-Meshad, a forgotten Italian resident in Guantánamo Bay

September 9, 2008

In 1997, Sherif El-Meshud, who was born in Egypt in 1976, travelled to Italy, where he registered as an Italian resident and stayed in Como with his maternal uncle, who had been living in Italy for 30 years and is an Italian citizen. He worked in the construction business, bought a car, and was happy with his new life.

In July 2001, as he explained to his lawyers at Reprieve, the London-based legal action charity, “I left for Afghanistan during the summer vacation based on an invitation from a friend whom I knew recently and who was participating in refugee activities. I intended to spend one month and a half there to participate in the aid activities and then to leave for Italy to home and work.”

Sherif’s mother, who is a deputy principal at a school in Italy, confirmed in 2006 that her son had travelled to Italy in 1997, and explained her misgivings about his proposed trip to Afghanistan in 2001. “I never wanted him to go on that trip”, she said, “because I knew that the region was unstable and so many events were taking place there, but he was stubborn. He was very kind and grateful to his family, though.” A week after his arrival, according to his mother, “he called his uncle, who lives in Italy, and told him that he arrived and asked him to reassure me.”

Although Sherif ended up staying in Afghanistan for longer than he intended, helping his friend, who, as he explained in Guantánamo, “passed out donations to help the Afghani people”, he and his housemates remained safe in Kabul until November 2001, when, with the Northern Alliance approaching, and rumours spreading that Arabs were no longer safe, they set off for the Iranian border, intending to return home. As Sherif explained, “I had a valid visa to Iran and a return ticket with an Iranian airline.”

When they discovered that the border crossing was closed, they realized that they would have to leave via Pakistan, but they were detained by Pakistani soldiers after crossing the border and arriving in a small village. Sherif then spent three weeks in a Pakistani prison in Peshawar, and was then flown to the US prison at Kandahar airport, where he spent another five months before being transferred to Guantánamo.

Throughout his time in custody, Sherif has maintained his innocence, stating that he and his housemates were “sorrowful” when they heard about the 9/11 attacks, and maintaining that he had no involvement whatsoever with al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

In common with many other prisoners, however, he has been the victim of patently false allegations made by other prisoners, either through coercion or torture, or in the hope that it would lead to preferential treatment. One of these allegations was made by a prisoner who was rescued by the United States from a prison in Afghanistan, and then transported to Guantánamo, even though he had been imprisoned as a spy by al-Qaeda and had been subjected to horrendous torture. This prisoner claimed that, in early 2000, Sherif  “participated in torturing him through beatings and electric shocks”, even though, as Sherif has pointed out, he was in Italy in early 2000 and has the documents to prove it.

Sherif also told his lawyers that, in the early days of his imprisonment, “I was first accused of aiding the Arabs in Bosnia. Then they changed the accusation that I was there just for training. In both cases, it’s impossible that I was in Bosnia at the time of the war in 1991, simply because at that date I was 14 years old! From 1991-1997 (the duration of the Bosnian war) I was studying at my school and I never left my country to anywhere. I have the proving documents.”

Sherif also explained that another set of false allegations came about because the US authorities mistook him for a significant figure in al-Qaeda, which led to a number of other false allegations, including claims that he was trained recruits in urban warfare at a military training camp. Another false allegation, made by an unnamed “source”, was that he sold videotapes of the bombing, in 2000, of the USS Cole. As Sherif continues to insist:

“Throughout my life, I was never involved in any banned or illegal activities by any means. I don’t have any file with any police office or any bad record with any authority.” In his first ever visit with lawyers from Reprieve, in August, Sherif explained that an Italian delegation had visited him in Guantánamo, but had assured him that there were no charges against him. “My case is very clear,” he explained to Cori Crider, “I have physical evidence to defend myself against these charges.”


Notes for Editors:

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 33 prisoners in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’


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