Following our work with former Guantánamo Bay prisoner Binyam Mohamed, and prompted by Obama’s promise to close the prison, Reprieve launched the Life after Guantánamo project last year. Since then things have not turned out quite as expected…
What’s the main focus of your work been so far?
The idea was to help local organisations in European countries handle the social, health, legal and financial issues for men released from Guantánamo. We’ve been working with habeas lawyers in the States whose clients were being transferred to European countries, and with NGOs in host countries. We’ve put together a needs template that NGOs, governments and attorneys have used to identify what men are likely to need.
But men haven’t been released at the rate that we expected after Obama announced that the prison would close by January 2010. That obviously didn’t happen, and much of our work has been lobbying to find places for the men to go. You can’t support and facilitate rehabilitation if people are still in Guantánamo. There’s no logic to it!
How many men are waiting to be released? And how many has the UK accepted?
According to the American administration, about 89 men out of the 171 who are there now have been cleared for release. But there are no names in that list, because that information is deemed protected by US government. Some of those men cannot go back home because they face torture or persecution in their home countries. So far 14 men have returned to the UK – all of them had some sort of prior residence status here.
How do the men actually leave Guantánamo?
Except in the British cases they’re usually transported in US military planes, at US expense. It’s far from ideal They’re usually transported shackled, sometimes blindfolded, and filmed.
Are there any countries that have shown a particular sense of responsibility or humanitarianism?
Yeah – Ireland, for example, appears to be doing a fantastic job. Two Uzbek men were taken there in September 2009, and the country had made excellent preparations. I do think it’s interesting though that some of the countries who’ve taken men are also those countries that have been involved in renditions – such as Portugal and Ireland.
What do you find the biggest obstacle for men leaving Guantánamo, and how specific are those things to the fact that they’ve been in Guantánamo?
Obviously, each man will have had a different experience and will be able to cope in different ways because of their individual strengths, but there are commonalities. They will all have experienced the particular forms of torture and ill-treatment that have been used in Guantánamo, which focus quite a lot on psychological abuse and control. They will all have experienced, in one way or another, medical practitioners’ complicity in that ill-treatment, which is a really serious barrier in terms of accessing medical care in the future, because they’re much less likely to trust anyone. The other thing is that there’s a huge stigma attached to having been in Guantánamo. They’re released without apology, without compensation, without really having their name cleared. Rebuilding your life in that context is difficult. Then add to that that many of these men are being released to countries where they have no family ties, may not speak the language... I was struck by some of these difficulties when I visited some of the former detainees resettled in Albania - they have no connection to Albania, they didn’t speak Albanian, and it’s a poor country with limited capacity to support them.
What was your work in Albania composed of?
We were trying to see our clients, an Egyptian man, Sherif el Mashad, and a Tunisian, Saleh Sassi. They were in a refugee centre which in some ways is fairly similar to a detention experience – there are restrictions on their freedom of movement, they don’t have much freedom in terms of what they can do, they haven’t had proper medical check-ups yet. It’s a pretty frustrating experience.
There aren’t the facilities and the experience there?
In theory the Albanians have experience of this. Eight men were released to Albania in 2006, five Uighurs, an Egyptian, an Algerian and an Uzbek. Two of those have now left Albania, one returned to Algeria and the other sought asylum in Sweden, so there are six men settled there now.
Are you in touch with those six men?
Yes, we met with all of them on the visit. They had been there almost four years, and they were still getting some support from the Albanian state but they have a lot of unresolved issues. Their residency status there is insecure, there isn’t work, they don’t have work permits, they don’t have travel documents, accessing healthcare is very difficult, they usually have to pay for it. One man and his wife had just had a baby and he had to somehow pay for everything at the maternity centre himself.
But there are former Guantánamo prisoners who are building family lives now?
Yes, absolutely. We went to a wedding while we were in Albania, too. One of the Uighurs, Ayoub Haji Mohammed, got married to a Uighur woman who was a refugee in Canada. She came to Albania to marry him. That was an amazing day. They’re lovely guys and they’re really doing their best to start over, but the hurdles are just huge. Ayoub’s fantastic. He’s in his mid-twenties and was studying at the university in Tirana. I’ve been really astounded and moved by how resilient these men are and how able they are to turn incredibly difficult and traumatic experiences to the good. And of course, most of what they want to do is rather banal. When we meet with these European governments
and they say, ‘What are these men like?’ They expect you to say, ‘Oh they spend the weekend cleaning out their guns,’ but of course they just want completely ordinary things, they want families. Sherif used to run a painting and decorating business in Italy, he was a legal resident there but Italy wouldn’t take him. He was only in his mid-twenties when he was seized. When I met him, he wanted to see his mum and he wants to meet someone, get married. He said, ‘I’ve wasted eight years of my life, I just want to start doing ordinary things again.’