Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America

RIGHTS-US: When Guantanamo Is Safer Than Home

Khody Akhavi

WASHINGTON, Jun 15 2007 (IPS) - Abdul Ra’ouf Omar Mohammad Abu Al-Qassim has been held without charge at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay for more than five years.

During that time, the Libyan national faced false and unsubstantiated charges linking him to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an organisation hostile to the country’s leader, Muammar Al-Qaddafi. Now the U.S. wants to send him back home, and Al-Qassim has become the first “enemy combatant” to publicly fight his departure from Guantanamo.

The U.S. government publicly declared its intention to transfer Al-Qassim back to Libya in December 2006, and again in February 2007, after allegations linking him to the LIFG proved false. Human rights organisations claim that if Al-Qassim is forcibly returned to Libya, he faces the risk of indefinite detention, torture and possible death because of the erroneous links to the LIFG.

Human Rights Watch, along with the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), whose lawyers represent Al-Qassim, have sought to block his imminent return.

Several Libyan nationals could be transferred from Guantanamo as early as next week, according to a recent report from the Washington Post.

“There are some indications that there will be a flight of Libyans leaving Guantanamo, and we’re very concerned Al-Qassim will be on that plane,” said Jen Daskal of Human Rights Watch.


Calls to the U.S. Department of Defence seeking comment were not returned.

Daskal also revealed the name of another Libyan detainee named Omar Mohammad Khalifh, who faces a similar situation as Al-Qassim. There are about 80 to 90 Guantanamo detainees waiting to be released, of which at least 34 are designated for release to a country that maintains a poor human rights record, according Shayan Khadidal, a lawyer with CCR who represents Al-Qassim.

CCR, a New York-based human rights legal group, represents between 250 and 270 of the 380 detainees currently being held.

Al-Qassim was reportedly seized by bounty hunters in Pakistan and handed over to the U.S. during the invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 2001. He claims he was conscripted into the Libyan army when he was 18 years old, but deserted after he began to experience psychological problems.

During the next 10 years, Al-Qassim lived as a refugee to avoid being sent back to Libya. He married an Afghani woman and settled in the Afghan capital of Kabul until the U.S. bombardment in October 2001. He fled with his pregnant wife to seek refuge in Pakistan until he was turned over to military authorities and brought to Guantanamo, where he was detained without trial. His wife and daughter remain in Afghanistan.

The only thing linking Al-Qassim to the LIFG is that he once lived in a house in Pakistan with some men accused of being members of the organisation, according to Khadidal.

“He denied ever being a member of the group, and he was living in the house because he had no other options,” said Khadidal. “The reality is that he was captured by some folks and sold to the U.S. under the pretense of being a terrorist.”

The LIFG was founded in 1995 by Libyan nationals who had fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In December 2004, the U.S. designated the group as a terrorist organisation because of its links to the archetypal terrorist group al Qaeda, as well as its intention to overthrow the Qaddafi government.

Al-Qassim’s attorneys are currently pursuing another strategy to block the detainee’s transfer to Libya. Since his wife, Rahima, and 5-year-old daughter, Khiria, are both Afghani, Al-Qassim is formally applying for Afghani citizenship in hopes of ultimately being sent there.

Attempting to secure internationally recognised refugee status for innocent detainees at Guantanamo has met with significant opposition, as the U.S. maintains a draconian military panel to evaluate the status of detainees. However, one Algerian and two Somali detainees have UNHCR status, which protects them against forced repatriation.

“The U.S. has taken the position that every single person in Guantanamo is an enemy combatant and they will not revisit the issue,” said Daskal.

Washington and Tripoli have maintained positive diplomatic relations ever since Libya abandoned its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction programmes and joined the George W. Bush administration’s war on terror following the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In May 2006, the U.S. renewed diplomatic relations with the former state sponsor of terrorism after more than 25 years.

Libya has been implicated in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 of Lockerbie, Scotland, an attack which killed 270 people. In 1997, another Libyan terrorist bomb killed 170 people on a French airliner over Africa.

Although the thaw between the U.S. and Libya has yielded a U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Qaddafi’s regime remains a modern-day authoritarian dictatorship and reportedly utilises severe repression to quell opposition. According to a 2006 U.S. State Department report, “security personnel routinely tortured prisoners during interrogation or as punishment,” including through “chaining prisoners to a wall for hours, clubbing, applying electric shock, applying corkscrews to the back, pouring lemon juice in open wounds.”

While in Libya, Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch visited five prisons and interviewed 24 prisoners, of which a number complained about having torture used against them.

“The Libyan position is very clear, ‘we don’t torture,'” said Abrahams. “The problem is we have documented cases where they do.”

 
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