Lakhdar Boumediene, a 43-year-old Algerian, was sent to Guantanamo because he was suspected of being a terrorist and a follower of Osama bin Laden. After about seven and a half years there, he was acquitted by a federal court and released six months later. Weeks after the court declared him a “free” man, the military still refused to hand over hundreds of letters his family had written to him.
BY JOHN GOETZ and BRITTA SANDBERG
An Algerian man spent seven and a half years at the Guantanamo prison camp. He claims that abuse of detainees at the prison continues, despite President Obama’s order forbidding any forms of torture.
Lakhdar Boumediene’s own children didn’t recognize him when he stepped off the military aircraft, looking gaunt and out of place. His 8-year-old daughter, who had only seen him in photos, said to her mother: “This monsieur is not my father. He’s too old to be my dad.” The man experienced a similar confusion. He felt old, too, and he didn’t recognize the little girl and her 13-year-old sister as his own children.
Boumediene, a 43-year-old Algerian, spent the last seven and a half years in Guantanamo. He was held there because he was suspected of being a terrorist and a follower of Osama bin Laden. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was seen as one of those dangerous people the United States wanted to keep locked behind bars for as long as possible. This would be done without charges and without a trial, under a set of special laws that ignored the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war.
But the Algerian stood out among the many prisoners that passed through the gates of the US Army detention camps at Guantanamo Bay over the years. In June 2008, he became a part of contemporary history when the US Supreme Court handed down a historic decision in his favor in a case with his name on it: Boumediene vs. George W. Bush.
“We never imagined that detainee abuse would continue after January 20,” says Michael Ratner, the head of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. Across the ocean, the London-based organization Reprieve, which has defended many Guantanamo prisoners over the years, is now calling for an independent investigative commission to be appointed.
The decision invalidated the special laws of the Bush administration, a period marked by its disregard for the rule of law. Since then, like ordinary prisoners, Guantanamo detainees have enjoyed a right to habeas corpus, which allows them to petition a US federal court to review the grounds for their detention.
Today, Boumediene is a free man who can talk about his years in prison. What he has said is likely to trigger controversy in the United States: Boumediene claims that the abuse and humiliation of prisoners continues in Guantanamo and that detainees there are still harassed and tortured. According to Boumediene, a special guard unit continues to beat prisoners to get them out of their cells, and any official claims that such treatment has stopped are untrue.
The Path to Cuba
Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama issued a ban on torture. Now his advisers are looking into how the government should treat the remaining 229 Guantanamo detainees. But one thing is clear: Guantanamo will be closed.
Boumediene’s freedom ended on October 21, 2001, shortly after the deadly attacks on New York and Washington. At the time, he was living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and he was arrested in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. The police there had received information linking Boumediene to a group of Algerian terrorists that was allegedly planning an attack on the city’s US Embassy. The tip reportedly came from the CIA.
Boumediene had been living in Bosnia for more than four years working for the Red Crescent, the sister organization of the Red Cross, as one of several managers at an orphanage. Fifty of the organization’s employees would later sign statements confirming that he had been a hard-working employee there.
Before settling in Sarajevo with his family, Boumediene had spent time in Yemen and Pakistan. Both countries happen to be the classic way stations for violent Islamists, and just having been there made Boumediene suspect. “I was looking for work because there was none in Algeria,” he says. He had completed secondary education in his native Algeria, which he left in 1990.
“I was never a terrorist,” Boumediene insists. “I am a devout Muslim. I pray, and I observe Ramadan, but I have no hatred toward the West.” Still, he admits that he knew Belkacem Bensayah, an Algerian who was thought to have ties to al-Qaida. Boumediene explains the acquaintance by claiming that he helped his family once after Bensayah had been arrested — but nothing more.
On Jan. 17, 2002, Bosnia’s highest court acquitted Boumediene and five other Algerians, citing a lack of evidence against them. On the same day, the six men were handed over to the US Army at a military base in Bosnia and flown to Guantanamo.
Salvation from Unexpected Quarters
Once there, Boumediene claims that he was tortured for 16 days. He says that he was kept awake day and night and forced to walk across sharp stones with his bare feet tied together. He also claims that he was told that if he refused to confess, his handlers would put makeup on and rape him.
Other detainees have recounted similar events, which were part of the special interrogation methods authorized by then-President George W. Bush.
Robert Kirsch, a senior partner at a well-known commercial law firm in Boston, eventually became Boumediene’s attorney and visited him for the first time in June 2004 after he and his colleague Stephen Oleskey agreed to take on the cases of the six Algerians. Both men are high-earning, well-respected attorneys who no one could reasonably suspect of sympathizing with terrorists.
They defended the Algerians free of charge — and it was a case that would prove tremendously time-consuming and costly. The two attorneys devoted more than 35,000 hours to the six Guantanamo detainees with a team that included up to 30 other legal experts. Under normal circumstances, such efforts would have brought in approximately $17 million (€12 million) in legal fees.
Two years after Kirsch and Oleskey started their path through the appeals process, one of their clients — Boumediene — went on a hunger strike for the first time. “It was the only weapon I had,” he says. He was force-fed and, like all detainees who went on hunger strikes, punished.
In June 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the case of the six Algerians had to be tried in a civilian court. A short time later, in November, a US federal court acquitted Boumediene and four other Algerians. Kirsch and Oleskey had achieved a surprising victory, and Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly named them its “lawyers of the year.”
From then on, the Algerians were classified, according to military jargon, as “free detainees.”
“Visibly Stained and Smelling of Food, Vomit and Feces”
When Barack Obama moved into the White House on Jan. 20, Boumediene was still at Guantanamo. The files of each detainee had to be reviewed once again, which entailed a lengthy procedure. On top of that, no country had been found that was willing to accept Boumediene. He wanted to go to France — but not to Algeria, where he feared he would be the target of repression.
Believing that nothing would change and that his acquittal had been false, he launched another hunger strike. And, once again, he was force-fed. This entailed having a nurse insert a pencil-thick tube into his nose and snaking feeding tubes down into his stomach. It was a painful procedure, and Boudediene claims that he complained about the nurse taking more than 15 minutes to perform it — long enough to make his nose bleed. He believes that she deliberately took her time and claims that, despite the new president’s claims in faraway Washington, such actions were par for the course in Guantanamo.
In early February, a delegation from the Pentagon arrived to inspect detention conditions at the camp. The officials did not see Boumediene, the supposedly “free” detainee, because he had been placed in solitary confinement in Camp 3′s so-called “Oscar Block” the day before. Of the acquitted detainees, he was the only one on a hunger strike.
“They put him in a terribly cold cell with 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius),” says Kirsch. “For the first days he had no running water, and he had to sleep on a pad less than one-centimeter thick visibly stained and smelling of food, vomit and feces.” According to Kirsch, Boumediene was “kept isolated there” for 10 days, until Feb. 10, and was “not permitted to shower, pray or change his clothes. He was force fed using violent methods that were intended to and did injure him, and there was no medical treatment” for a foot injury.
When Kirsch met with his client on Feb. 12, Boumediene showed the lawyer the bruises covering his body. Kirsch then complained to the Pentagon about Boumediene’s treatment. “At that time, an American judge already had ruled my client should be a free man, but the military still would not deliver to him hundreds of letters his wife, daughters and other family members had written to him over the years he was imprisoned illegally,” Kirsch adds. Boumediene eventually did receive a few of the letters, but only on May 15, the day of his release.
The US Department of Defense denies all these accusations; it claims that they are unfounded and that procedures at Guantanamo have been reviewed. But Kirsch is convinced that the treatment of detainees like Boumediene violates the Geneva Conventions.
Ironically, the delegation that the Pentagon sent to Guantanamo came to similar conclusions about the conditions there, noting that abuse and mistreatment had, in fact, occurred. But the Pentagon officials insisted that the soldiers in question were disciplined, ordered to undergo special training or discharged. Otherwise, its report was positive.
Other reports about the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo have also emerged since Obama became president in January. Mohammed el Gharani, who was released and returned to his native Chad in April, claims that, until his last day at Guantanamo, soldiers beat him with sticks and used pepper spray on him whenever he refused to leave his cell. Another detainee has corroborated Gharani’s claims.
“We never imagined that detainee abuse would continue after Jan. 20,” says Michael Ratner, the head of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. Ratner coordinates the legal defense of Guantanamo detainees. Across the ocean, the London-based organization Reprieve, which has defended many Guantanamo prisoners over the years, is now calling for an independent investigative commission to be appointed.
In the meantime, Boumediene’s new life is gradually beginning to take shape. The French government has provided his family with a subsidized apartment near the southern city of Nice. His wife complains that Boumediene still talks too much about Guantanamo, the soldiers and the other prisoners. The problem, he responds, is that he simply doesn’t have anything else to talk about yet.
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