Life after Guantanamo Bay

Two Kuwaitis remain in the controversial prison as the Gulf state’s parliament condemns continued detentions.

Former Guantanamo detainees
Abdullah Kamel (L) and Abdulaziz al Shammeri (R) are both former Guantanamo prisoners. In the middle is Khalid al Odah, whose son has been in Guantanamo for 10 years without trial or charge [Jenifer Fenton/Al Jazeera]

The Kuwaiti Parliament has condemned the continued detention of two Kuwaiti citizens in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, calling their imprisonment a “gross abuse of…human rights and violation of international laws”.

The Parliamentary statement, issued on Wednesday, comes as two Kuwaitis, Fawzi al Odah and Fayiz al Kandari remain in the US prison. They are the last of 12 Kuwaitis yet to be released from the controversial facility. 

There has been some speculation that the prisoners’ time in Guantanamo may have radicalised them. Four men who spent years in Guantanamo dispute that accusation.

“When I walk into the home, once I sit down everyone is coming round,” Adel al Zamel said. 

Al Zamel spent more than three and half years in Guantanamo Bay, where he said he was tortured, told he would be rendered to Jordan, threatened with a dog, beaten, stripped naked, sexually harassed, kept in isolation and subjected to extreme temperatures. “Everything you can think of,” al Zamel said. The US alleged he was associated with al-Qaeda and that he had prior knowledge of the September 11, 2001 attacks – allegations he has denied.

He was working in Afghanistan in 2001 as the head of Kabul’s al Wafa Humanitarian Works Organisation, a Saudi-backed charity, which the US said demonstrated an “intent and willingness to support terrorist organisations”. He maintains that his work there was solely charitable, and stopped working for al Wafa in August 2001 because he had financial disagreements with the organisation’s director in Afghanistan.

He then moved his family and the family of Sulaiman abu Ghaith, who would become al-Qaeda’s spokesperson following the 9/11 attacks, to Pakistan. Al Zamel knew abu Ghaith only as an eloquent speaker. He said he did not know abu Ghaith, who was also from Kuwait, was associated with al-Qaeda until after the 9/11 attacks. When al Zamel returned to Afghanistan, the Americans started their bombing campaign and he was injured by an air missile. Doctors working locally and al Zamel’s friends helped treat his injuries as he left the country and headed to Pakistan, where he would be “captured”.

When he was sent to Guantanamo, al Zamel was wanted in Kuwait on criminal assault charges related to an incident where a female college student had been attacked. Al Zamel said he had not beaten the woman, but one of the men he was with did after the group had seen her acting in what they said was an inappropriate way with another man. Al Zamel had been convicted and sentenced in absentia to one year in prison for his role in the incident. He served out his sentence when he returned to Kuwait from Guantanamo.

Life after Gitmo

Since his release from Guantanamo and from Kuwaiti jail, al Zamel has lived a trouble-free life, he said. As any proud father would, he showed off recent images of his many children and two grandchildren. He does not have to work because of the stipend money he receives from the Kuwaiti government, which is the norm, to care for his many children. 

The US alleged that 12 Kuwaitis held in Guantanamo were associated with or were members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. All 12 denied the charges, saying they were on charitable missions and all said they were sold to American forces for bounty. The treatment the 12 men were subjected to is similar to what al Zamel experienced, according to statements they or their lawyers have made.

Joseph Todd Breasseale, a spokesperson for the US Defence Department, said his group “does not tolerate the mistreatment of detainees and will continue to ensure proper training and accountability measures” at Guantanamo Bay. 

Abdullah Kamel, who once played on the Kuwait national volleyball team, now plays volleyball with some of his children. The US said he was a member of al-Qaeda who travelled to Afghanistan for training and jihad. He has six children; his third eldest, Fatimah, was born while he was in prison in Guantanamo.

What do his children know about the years he spent in jail? “I don’t like to tell them about the torture,” he said. He tried also not to think of them when he was away. If he had thought of them, “I will be crazy…so you try to read the Quran more and memorise the Quran,” he said. He has returned to his job where he worked prior to his time in Guantanamo.

Abdulaziz al Shammeri, who the US said was a possible member of al-Qaeda, married his brother’s wife after his brother had been tortured and killed by Saddam Hussein’s troops in the 1990s. Al Shammeri was raising his brother’s son and his own two children, who were two and six, when he was jailed in Guantanamo.

He worked as a Quran instructor from 1994 until he left for Afghanistan. Before he was sent to Guantanamo, he had been planning to get a master’s degree in Egypt, and is now pursuing his PhD.  “We are normal people,” he said. He believes that the Americans tried to “show the world that we are extremists, that we have no families to care about us, that we are really just very bad people”.

Fouad al Rabiah was also assessed to be an al-Qaeda member. In 2009, after he spent almost eight years in prison, a US District Court granted al Rabiah’s petition for habeas corpus. In her opinion Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said the evidence presented by the government was “surprisingly bare”, and interrogators used “abusive techniques”. Al Rabiah has returned to his job at Kuwait Airlines, where he has worked for decades, and also plans to get his PhD. These four thank Allah that they came back from Guantanamo with their sanity.

‘Made crazy’

Another Kuwaiti prisoner was not so fortunate.

Abdullah al Ajmi returned to Kuwait in 2005, after more than three years in detention. He was tried and acquitted of any terror-related crimes following his return, but in 2008, he blew himself up in a deadly suicide attack in Mosul, Iraq.

Al Ajmi was one of the former Guantanamo Bay prisoners cited in a recent report by Republican lawmakers, which stated some 27 per cent of former detainees “were confirmed or suspected as previously or presently reengaged in terrorist or insurgent activities”. The percentage of Guantanamo recidivists is contested, and the per cent cited in the US report is generally thought to be high by several academics and experts some of who put the range of actual recidivists at only four per cent.

Al Ajmi’s actions in Iraq are to be condemned, said the former prisoners, but they all believe al Ajmi had not been a terrorist before he was sent to Guantanamo and that his treatment by Americans made him crazy. Kamel and al Shammeri were imprisoned with al Ajmi in Kohat prison in Pakistan before being transferred to US custody. Al Ajmi was normal then, they said, but Kamel relates that “in Guantanamo he had been tortured too much and he said that [he would] get revenge… in front of me he would tell [US forces] when I get out, I will make double bomb. I will kill you…and they release him.”

Thomas Wilner, an attorney who has represented al Ajmi, said he was young and naive when he was sent to Guantanamo. By the time he was released he was one of “the biggest behavioural” problems in the prison. According to Wilner, “he had gone crazy”. 

Al Zamel, who shared a cell with al Ajmi when they were repatriated to Kuwait and held while being investigated, said “al Ajmi, he was like really nuts”. He was always plotting, for no reason, to attack the guards in the Kuwaiti jail.

The final two

Since al Ajmi was released, Kuwait has built a rehabilitation centre inside a prison where the last two Kuwaiti prisoners, al Odah and al Kandari, would be sent if they were released. Their medical and psychological needs would be assessed and treated, and family visitations would be allowed, according to prison officials.

Before the two were released into Kuwaiti society, a committee which includes persons from Kuwait’s health and interior ministries, and the department of education would have to unanimously agree that they were fit to leave the centre

Kamel and al Shammeri reflect about the two Kuwaitis and others who are still held in US detention.

“We are coming along with our lives and continuing on and thinking of these people who are still there for 10 years,” al Shammeri said. If you compare our suffering with theirs, ours is nothing, he adds.

Source: Al Jazeera