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RIGHTS: "Ghost Prisoner" Resurfaces in Guantanamo

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Mar 30 2005 (IPS) - A major advocacy group charges that a Yemeni businessman captured in Egypt was handed over to U.S. authorities and "disappeared" for more than a year and a half before being sent to the Pentagon’s Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba..

Human Rights Watch has released details of the previously unreported "reverse rendition" case of Abdul Salam Ali al-Hila, a Yemeni terror suspect.

The Pentagon has refused to comment on the case.

John Sifton, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told IPS that, "Al-Hila was essentially kidnapped on the streets of Cairo and then ‘disappeared’ in U.S. custody. Whatever the allegations against him, he should have been charged and given the opportunity to challenge his detention."

"Until this man was able to get a letter out of Guantanamo, he was one of the ‘ghost prisoners’. One of the most troubling aspects of his case is that he was arrested in a civilian setting, held without charge or access to counsel – or any rights at all – and then shipped off, not to Guantanamo Bay but to Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. For a year and a half, there was no record of him anywhere."

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) briefing details how al-Hila, a Yemeni intelligence colonel and businessman who had been involved in helping Arab Islamists in the 1990s, was first picked up by Egyptian authorities while on a business trip to Cairo in September 2002.

Within 10 days he was taken to Baku, Azerbaijan, then on to the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and, finally, sometime in mid-2004, to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Prior to detention in Cairo, al-Hila, a father of three, had been in daily contact with his family in Yemen. After his "disappearance" in September 2002, the family did not hear from him again until April 2004. Details of his whereabouts were not known until he was able to smuggle a letter out of Afghanistan. The letter was released by Yemeni authorities in April 2004.

HRW’s briefing says that al-Hila arrived in Cairo on an EgyptAir flight on Sep. 19, 2002 and checked into a five-star hotel. He disappeared within a week of his arrival in Egypt.

He is believed to have been taken first to Baku, Azerbaijan, and then transferred to U.S. custody in Afghanistan. After being held for 16 months in Afghanistan, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he is still being held.

HRW says that in addition to his business interests, Al-Hila had been a Yemeni intelligence officer, and was in charge of transferring scores of Arab Islamists from Yemen to other countries, including Western Europe, to seek asylum. His position meant that he had a close relationship with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as well as with a broad array with Arab and Western intelligence services. Al-Hila’s trip to Cairo, however, was supposed to be strictly business. He was invited by the Arab Contractors’ head office in Cairo to settle some financial disagreements over his construction business commission.

Al-Hila had been in daily contact with his family, using both his Yemeni and Cairo cellular phones. On Sep. 24, 2002, his family became worried when he did not answer their calls for an entire day. Yemeni officials called their Egyptian counterparts to discover al-Hila’s whereabouts. The Yemeni ministerial cabinet issued a statement on Oct. 31, 2002, calling on Egyptian officials to disclose al-Hila’s whereabouts.

The first Egyptian official response to the allegations came on Nov. 3, 2002, in a report by the state-run Middle East News Agency, which quoted an "Egyptian official source" as stating that al-Hila left Cairo on an American flight to Baku on Sep. 28, 2002. The source also denied any involvement by the Egyptian authorities in his "disappearance." The family received no specific information from the Egyptian or Yemeni governments on his allegedly voluntary flight to Baku. They were told by the Yemeni foreign minister in November 2002 that Egyptian officials showed him the "departure card" each passenger fills out when flying out of Cairo’s airport. "Al-Hila’s fate was unknown for more than a year and a half," HRW says. "During that time, his family received no information. Finally, on Apr. 14, 2004, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi announced that the Yemeni embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, had received a letter from Al-Hila smuggled out of Bagram Airbase in Kabul.

"Dated Jan. 12, 2004, it stated that he had been detained by the CIA in Afghanistan for 16 months, after being kidnapped in Cairo by Egyptian intelligence." His brief letter was a plea for help for the president of Yemen.

"I have been put in jail in Afghanistan by the Americans, after I was arrested in the Arab Republic of Egypt during a brief business trip. The CIA conspired with the Egyptian Mukhabarrat, making false allegations and threats against me, so as to justify their crime of kidnapping me from Egypt and locking me up in this Afghani prison. .I urge you to request my immediate release and my safe transfer home." In July 2004, al-Hila’s family received a letter from Kabul via the Red Cross dated May 26, 2004 – the first communication from him since he had been detained a year and a half earlier. Two months later, they received another letter, dated Jul. 19 – this time from Guantanamo.

In December 2004, the family received another two letters dated Oct. 15 and Oct. 30. Al-Hila wrote in the first letter, "I was moved to the new prison, from Afghanistan to Cuba, Guantanamo…" The rest of the sentence was blacked out by the U.S. military censor. There is no evidence that he has since been released from Guantanamo, HRW says.

Asked whether the U.S. Defense Department has cooperated with HRW’s inquiries, Sifton told IPS: "There are individual people there who really want to help; for example, people in the JAG Corps. But the civilian leadership of the Pentagon are merely stewards of damage control."

"The (George W.) Bush administration continues to believe that by invoking the word ‘terror’ it can detain anyone in any corner of the world without any oversight," he said. "Yet all these cases do is suggest that the United States has no commitment to legal principles. Turning your back on the law is not the way to stop terrorism."

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