By William Fisher
A New York-based human rights advocacy group is trying to halt the imminent transfer to Libya of a Guantanamo Bay detainee, imprisoned for more than five years without charge or trial, because his lawyers claim he will "likely be tortured and possibly killed."
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents Abdul Ra'ouf, says that despite "diplomatic assurances" received by the US, "the fact of Abdul Ra'ouf's detention at Guantánamo - and the US government's false and unsubstantiated allegations that he was associated with a group hostile to the Qadhafi regime - put him at grave risk of indefinite detention, torture and death if forcibly returned to Libya."
CCR attorney Shayana Kadidal said, "We cannot allow the US government to facilitate the torture of another innocent man."
In December 2006, and again in February 2007, the US government publicly declared its intention to transfer Ra'ouf to Libya, notwithstanding his fears of severe persecution if he were forcibly returned. Legal action by his CCR lawyers initially delayed the transfer to Libya because of his fear of torture. However, in May 2007, the US Supreme Court refused to intervene in Ra'ouf's case to prevent the transfer.
Since he has been imprisoned in Guantánamo, the US government has claimed that Abdul Ra'ouf is associated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a group opposed to the Qadhafi regime. But according to the CCR, "The only link to the group the government has stated is that he stayed once in the home of some men who have been accused of being LIFG members. Though he has no connection with this group, the allegation of his association with LIFG virtually guarantees that he will be severely persecuted if forcibly returned to Libya. Suspected political opponents of the Qadhafi regime face brutal repression by Libyan authorities.
Said CCR Executive Director Vince Warren, "Diplomatic assurances from countries known to torture are utterly worthless. They are fig leaves for the US government."
The US State Department has listed Libya among the world's leading human rights violators, most recently in its 2006 Human Rights Report.
But relations between the US and Libya have warmed noticeably since 2003, when Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi renounced a nuclear weapons program his country had been developing over several decades. After protracted negotiations with British and US leaders dating back to the Clinton Administration, Libya agreed to dismantle the program and allow international inspectors to verify the elimination of nuclear materials.
The imminent transfer of Abdul Ra'ouf is the latest sign of the US government campaign to repatriate Guantanamo detainees. In 2005, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described all these detainees as "the worst of the worst." Over time, however, more than 500 prisoners have been released. Some have been sent back to their home countries, where they have either been freed or imprisoned. Others, like a few members of the Uighurs - a Chinese Muslim minority outlawed by China - have been sent to third countries such as Albania, where they live in a refugee camp, unable to work, and supported by international aid contributions.
In late 2003, the Pentagon quietly decided that the 15 of 17 detained Chinese Muslims could be released. Five had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, some of them picked up by Pakistani bounty hunters for US payoffs. Ten were considered low-risk detainees.
After requests to more than 100 countries, Albania agreed to accept five of these men. The others continue to languish at Guantanamo, imprisoned and sometimes shackled, with most of their families unaware whether they are even alive.
Human rights groups have charged that the characterization of GITMO detainees as "the worst of the worst" has made it more difficult for the US to find countries willing to accept released prisoners.
Since the detention center was opened in 2002, some 775 detainees have been brought to Guantanamo. Approximately 400 have already been released. Of the approximately 375 detainees remaining, more than 100 have been labeled as ready for release, but the State Department has been unable to find countries prepared to accept them.
On June 19, 2007, the Defense Department (DoD) announced the transfer of two detainees to Tunisia and another two to Yemen.
Since enactment of the Military Commissions Act, hurriedly passed by Congress in late 2006 to comply with a Supreme Court decision demanding a statutory basis for Bush Administration policy decisions, there have been no trials of Guantanamo detainees.
There has been one conviction, based on a guilty plea by Australian detainee David Hicks. Hicks was arrested by US forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and spent five years at Guantanamo Bay, much of it without charge and in solitary confinement. He pleaded guilty before a military commission in March to providing material support for terrorism. He was released in May, to serve the remaining seven months of his seven-year sentence in an Australian jail.
Earlier this year, President Bush announced that the US would arrange to try 14 "high-value" prisoners, who had been transferred to Guantanamo from secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), reportedly in Eastern Europe. It was the first time the Bush Administration acknowledged the existence of the CIA prisons, first reported by the Washington Post. None of these detainees has yet been tried.
Meanwhile, there currently are moves in Congress to repeal or amend the Military Commissions Act, which, among other things, stipulates that Guantanamo detainees may not use the habeas corpus writ to challenge the basis for their detention.
According the CCR, Abdul Ra'ouf was conscripted into the Libyan Army when he was 18 years old. He deserted and fled Libya for fear of persecution, both for leaving the army and because he was an observant Muslim and knew that men were persecuted by the Qadhafi government for wearing long beards and practicing their religion.
During the next ten years, Ra'ouf lived abroad as a refugee to avoid being returned to Libya. In 2000, he married an Afghan woman and settled in the Afghan capital of Kabul before the US bombardment began in October 2001. Ra'ouf fled with his pregnant wife to seek refuge in Pakistan. They now have a daughter who is also an Afghan citizen.
Soon after the family arrived in Pakistan, however, Ra'ouf fell victim to Pakistanis who turned him over to Americans at a time when the US military was offering large sums of money - $5,000 or more - to anyone who handed over alleged terrorists. He was later brought to Guantánamo, where he has been detained for more than five years without charge or trial.
In December 2006, the U.S. returned another Guantánamo detainee to Libya against his will. He was transferred despite his urgent protests to officials at Guantánamo that he would be subjected to torture or worse if forcibly returned. According to one account, this man was reportedly interviewed by Libyan officials in Guantánamo who threatened to torture and perhaps kill him. As with Ra'ouf, the US government alleged that this man was associated with the LIFG, despite his repeated denials. This man is currently imprisoned in Libya, despite earlier public statements that the Libyan government had no interest in imprisoning him.
The State Department's 2006 Human Rights Report states that Libya's human rights record "remained poor."
The report charged that "Citizens did not have the right to change their government. Reported torture, arbitrary arrest, and incommunicado detention remained problems. The government restricted civil liberties and freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and association. The government did not fully protect the rights of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. Other problems included poor prison conditions; impunity for government officials; lengthy political detention; denial of fair public trial; infringement of privacy rights; restrictions of freedom of religion; corruption and lack of transparency; societal discrimination against women, ethnic minorities, and foreign workers; trafficking in persons; and restriction of labor rights... Security forces reportedly subjected detainees to cruel, inhuman, or degrading conditions and denied adequate medical care, which led to several deaths in custody."
According to advocacy group Human Rights Watch, Libyan "security personnel routinely tortured prisoners during interrogations or as punishment. Government agents reportedly detained and tortured foreign workers, particularly those from sub-Saharan Africa.
"The reported methods of torture and abuse included chaining prisoners to a wall for hours, clubbing, applying electric shock, applying corkscrews to the back, pouring lemon juice in open wounds, breaking fingers and allowing the joints to heal without medical care, suffocating with plastic bags, prolonged deprivation of sleep, food, and water, hanging by the wrists, suspension from a pole inserted between the knees and elbows, cigarette burns, threats of dog attacks, and beatings on the soles of the feet."
The State Department's report also cited "Incommunicado detention" by Libyan authorities as a problem. "The government held many political detainees incommunicado for unlimited periods in unofficial detention centers controlled by members of the revolutionary committees. The government reportedly held hundreds of political detainees, many associated with banned Islamic groups, in prisons throughout the country, but mainly in the Abu Salim prison. Some human rights organizations estimated there were approximately two thousand political detainees, many held for years without trial. Hundreds of other detainees may have been held for periods too brief (three to four months) to permit confirmation by outside observers," the report said.