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Guantanamo to Abu Salim: Frying Pan to Fire


Monday, Jun. 18, 2007

The vast majority of the 380 prisoners in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay would like nothing more than to go home. Having spent years in detention without charge, without seeing their families, and without ever being brought before a judge, they want their freedom, or at least a chance to argue their cases before a regularly constituted court.

Yet for a few dozen prisoners, the prospect of returning home is not hoped for, but rather feared. These men, from countries such as Libya, China, Uzbekistan, and Algeria, know that they are likely to face torture and other serious abuses if they are transferred back to their countries of origin. While they want to leave Guantanamo as much as anyone else, they do not want to leave it for something worse.

Abdul Ra'ouf al-Qassim, from Libya, is one of these men. Accused by U.S. officials of having associated with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a banned organization committed to the overthrow of the Libyan government, al-Qassim would face a real risk of torture and other mistreatment if sent home.

Despite Libya's documented record of torture, U.S. officials recently told the Washington Post that several Libyans could be transferred out of Guantanamo as early as this week. Not only has Al-Qassim been formally cleared to leave Guantanamo, these officials refused to discuss his case, heightening concerns that he is among the group slated for return.

From Guantanamo to Abu Salim

Guantanamo may be better known here, but Libya's Abu Salim prison is dreaded among Libyans. Run by the country's internal security agency, rather than its justice department, the prison holds hundred of members of banned groups. Some spend years in detention without trial; others face summary proceedings before military courts.

Human rights groups believe that many if not most of the prisoners held there were tortured while being interrogated after arrest. The State Department's annual human rights report also says that Libyan security personnel have "routinely tortured" persons in their custody.

Human Rights Watch documented serious allegations of torture in its 2006 report on Libya. Fifteen out of 32 prisoners interviewed reported having been tortured during interrogations by Libyan security personnel. Prisoners reported being subjected to electric shocks, hung from walls, and beaten with clubs and wooden sticks during interrogation.

Despite Libya's appalling record, the U.S. government has already transferred one Libyan prisoner from Guantanamo to Libyan custody. Last December, Muhammad Abdallah Mansur al-Rimi, who the U.S. accused of being an LIFG member, was sent back home. Because he had never been allowed to see a lawyer while held at Guantanamo, no one outside of the facility was aware of his views about return, or could challenge his return in court.

A hint of al-Rimi's concerns can be found, however, in the transcript of an administrative hearing he was provided in 2004. Explaining why he had lied about his nationality at one point, claiming to be from Yemen, he said "I had a problem with the Libyan government and it is a long story."

Al-Rimi's long story may not be over. According to a knowledgeable Libyan activist, al-Rimi was incarcerated at Abu Salim upon his return to the country, and he remains in detention. It is not known whether he has faced abuse.

Unreliable Assurances of Humane Treatment

U.S. officials are certainly aware of the possibility of abuse. And they know that the United States cannot, consistent with international law, transfer people to countries where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be tortured.

To try to circumvent this rule, the U.S. relies on a legal fig leaf known as diplomatic assurances. Rather than acknowledge transferring someone to face torture, U.S. officials say that they will not return detainees to their home countries unless those governments guarantee them humane treatment.

But common sense -- as well as empirical evidence -- indicates that no-torture promises obtained from governments such as Libya are unreliable and unenforceable.

Indeed, just a couple of months ago, a special British immigration court ruled that the U.K. government could not send two Libyans home based on no-torture promises from Libya. Like al-Qassim, both men were accused of being members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. Based on its assessment of the men's status and Libya's human rights situation, the court concluded that there was a "real risk" that the Libyan government would fail to abide by its promises of humane treatment.

The court stated, in explaining its ruling, that torture is "extensively used against political opponents," and that "Islamist extremists and LIFG members are the most hated by the Libyan Government, the Security Organisations and above all by Colonel Qadhafi." It also found that the incommunicado detention of political opponents, often without trial for many years, "is a disfiguring feature of Libyan justice and punishment."

Resettlement Needed

Guantanamo should be closed, and many if not most of its detainees should be returned to their home countries. But the U.S. government has to recognize the fact that a small minority of Guantanamo detainees cannot simply go home.

To date, only Albania has agreed to resettle former detainees from Guantanamo (eight of them, in all, including Uighurs from China, an Egyptian, an Algerian, and an Uzbek man from Russia). Western European countries, for all their criticism of the detention facility, have proved less welcoming, and of course the U.S. itself has taken no one.

A real resettlement plan is needed. The default strategy, without such a plan, may be to keep detainees on Guantanamo until they are eager to go anywhere else. Spend enough time in a frying pan, and the fire starts looking better.

Joanne Mariner is a lawyer with Human Rights Watch in New York. Her previous articles on Guantanamo can be found in FindLaw's archive.

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