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Four Men Leave Guantanamo; Two Face Ill-Defined Trials in Italy

Last week, the Obama administration announced that it had transferred four prisoners from Gitmo: one to France, one to Hungary, and two to Italy.

Last Monday, the Obama administration announced that it had transferred four prisoners from Guantanamo: Sabir Lahmar, an Algerian, was transferred to France; an unidentified Palestinian was transferred to Hungary; two Tunisians, Adel Ben Mabrouk bin Hamida Boughanmi and Mohammed Tahir Riyadh Nasseri, were transferred to the custody of the Italian government.

Sabir Lahmar, an Algerian, Freed in France

Sabir Lahmar's release was long overdue. An Islamic scholar, he was living in Bosnia-Herzegovina and working for a charity, the Saudi High Committee for Relief, when, in October 2001, the US government accused him and five other Algerians living in Bosnia-Herzegovina as citizens or residents, of plotting to blow up the US embassy in Sarajevo. After a three-month investigation, which the Bosnian authorities were forced to undertake by the US government (human rights activist Srdjan Dizdarevic said that "the threats from the Americans were enormous" and that there "was a hysteria in their behavior"), the men were cleared of all charges. However, on January 18, 2002, as they were released from custody, they were kidnapped by US agents and sent to Guantanamo, where they endured brutal treatment and discovered that the US authorities had no interest in the supposed bomb plot, and were, instead, using them in an attempt to secure intelligence about Arabs who had settled in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the ethnic war of 1992-95.

In November 2008, the six men finally had the opportunity to challenge the basis of their detention in a US court. Their hearing took place five months after the Supreme Court granted the prisoners constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus rights, after ruling that legislation passed by Congress in 2005 and 2006, which purported to strip the prisoners of the habeas rights that the Supreme Court had first granted them in June 2004, was unconstitutional.

District Court Judge Richard Leon, a no-nonsense appointee of President George W. Bush, granted the habeas corpus petitions of five of the six men, including Lahmar, after concluding that the government had provided no credible evidence that, as was alleged in place of the bomb plot, they intended to travel to Afghanistan to take up arms against US forces. The sixth man, Belkacem Bansayah, was ruled to be legally detained as an "enemy combatant," based on the government's claims that he was "link[ed] to al-Qaeda and, more specifically, to a senior al-Qaeda facilitator," although he is currently appealing the ruling.

In his ruling, Judge Leon also implored the Justice Department, the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies not to appeal his verdict, which would "at a minimum, constitute another 18 months to two years of their lives." As he explained, "It seems to me that there comes a time when the desire to resolve novel, legal questions and decisions which are not binding on my colleagues pales in comparison to effecting a just result based on the state of the record."

Nevertheless, although three of the five men - Mustafa Ait Idr, Hadj Boudella and Mohammed Nechla - were released within weeks of the decision, the fourth, Lakhdar Boumediene, had to wait until May to be freed, when he was accepted by the French government, and Lahmar has had to wait for another six months before he too was given a new home in France.

Speaking to AFP
, Rob Kirsch, Lahmar's attorney, said that his client, who is now 39 years old, will be allowed "to rebuild his life as a free man after nearly eight years of illegal detention. Mr. Lahmar suffered years of inhumane, isolating imprisonment. He was separated from other human contact until one month after Judge Leon ruled that the detention of Mr. Lahmar was illegal." He also praised French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner as "straight shooters throughout this process," adding, "We appreciate the opportunities they have given to Sabir Lahmar and Lakhdar Boumediene."

A Palestinian Freed in Hungary

Little news has yet emerged about the prisoner released in Hungary. On September 16, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai announced that Hungary "would take in one former prisoner, likely to be a Palestinian national," and last week Gabor Juhasz, the minister in charge of the civilian secret services, confirmed that the Hungarian government had "given its official consent to the Hungary-US agreement on accepting a detainee from Guantanamo." He added, however, that, in common with the other releases in Europe in recent months ( in Portugal, Ireland and Belgium, the government had decided "not to disclose the identity of the former prisoner, the person's time of arrival or place of residence." He also explained that the government would "provide support to the former detainee for settling in the country, including "access to health-care services, language learning opportunities [and] assist[ance] in finding a job."

From Jail to Jail: Tunisians Transferred to Italian Custody

This is good news for Sabir Lahmar and the unidentified Palestinian, but for Adel Ben Mabrouk bin Hamida Boughanmi and Mohammed Tahir Riyadh Nasseri, the two Tunisians transferred to Italian custody, the future looks as bleak as the last seven years that they have spent in Guantanamo. As the Justice Department explained in a press release announcing their transfer, "Both detainees are the subject of outstanding arrest warrants in Italy and will be prosecuted there.... These transfers were carried out pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding concluded by Attorney General Eric Holder and Italian Justice Minister Angelino Alfano in September. The United States has coordinated with the government of Italy to ensure the transfers take place under appropriate security measures and will continue to consult with the government of Italy regarding these detainees."

This perhaps sounds relatively innocuous, but as I reported in July, when the rumors first surfaced that Silvio Berlusconi had agreed to take a number of Tunisian prisoners from Guantanamo, there are serious doubts about the circumstances in which the prisoners have been transferred. These are not alleviated by the careful mention of a Memorandum of Understanding, and they hardly warrant the thanks extended by the DoJ - "The United States is grateful to the government of Italy for helping achieve President Obama's directive to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility" - unless that sentence were to be followed by the words, "by any means necessary."

As Daniel Gorevan, a spokesman for Amnesty International, noted in March, after EU Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot stated that the US government had raised the possibility of a Memorandum of Understanding between the EU and the US on the protection of detainees in Guantanamo, during a meeting on March 17, "Any memorandum of understanding between the USA and Europe on Guantanamo detainees must take into account this fundamental requirement: all detainees who are not charged and tried fairly in US courts must be released safely."

This is clearly not the case with the two men who have just arrived in Italy from Guantanamo, as I explained in July, when reports in La Repubblica and information obtained from sources in the United States allowed me to confirm that, after the US government informally asked the Italian government in April to take six or seven prisoners from Guantanamo, the Department of Public Security and the Ministry of Justice compiled a list of Guantanamo prisoners who had criminal proceedings pending against them in Italy, and then focused on three prisoners, including Boughanmi and Nasseri, on the basis that they would be transferred from Guantanamo to Italian jails.

As I also noted: