Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina – For seven-and-a-half years, Imad Al-Husin, better known simply as Abu Hamza, was imprisoned in Sarajevo’s migrant detention centre without ever standing trial or knowing why he was imprisoned.
Bosnia’s Ministry of Security labelled the 53-year-old grandfather a “threat to national security” with alleged ties to terrorist groups, but the intelligence that was supposedly gathered in the case against him was never presented to his lawyers and no charges were ever pressed.
On October 6, 2008, authorities arrested Abu Hamza while he was visiting a car mechanic shop.
“We didn’t know how to react or what to do,” said Nudzejma Softic, his 28-year-old stepdaughter, adding that her stepfather had sensed that something like this would happen in the light of the arbitrary arrests of foreign-born former military men, though the family dismissed his worries.
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Abu Hamza moved from Syria to Croatia in the early 1980s in pursuit of a university education. When the war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, like many Muslim foreigners he volunteered to fight in the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBIH), which predominantly comprised Bosnian Muslims, while Orthodox and Catholics joined the Serb and Croatian armies, respectively.
During the war, many foreign combatants, including Abu Hamza, married widowed Bosnian women and started families of their own, obtaining citizenship in the process. Many were even rewarded with citizenship after the war as a token of gratitude for their military service.
When the war ended in late 1995, all noncitizen combatants were required to leave Bosnia in accordance with Article 3 of the US-brokered Dayton Peace agreement.
However, the 9/11 attacks marked a watershed for Bosnia’s newest citizens.
With the launch of the so-called “war on terror”, Bosnia was pressured by the international community to comply with the counterterrorism efforts.
Abu Hamza was one of the hundreds of naturalised foreign combatants who had their citizenships revoked as part of the state’s “fight against terrorism”. By 2008, 600 former combatants were deported. Some of them were sent to Guantanamo Bay while others were detained at the migration centre.
“In 2014, my legal team asked the Bosnian authorities to present evidence as to how I represent a threat,” Abu Hamza said in an interview with Al Jazeera. “All they could do was present two [newspaper] articles dating from 2006 and 2007,” which accused him of terrorism based on unfounded gossip.
“They didn’t provide any evidence to justify the claim that I represent a threat to Bosnian national security,” he said.
Released, but not free
In February, a new law directed by the European Union prohibited the detention of prisoners at the migrant centre for more than 18 months.
The law was passed by Bosnia’s parliament in late 2015 to harmonise its legislation with the EU acquis, in preparation for EU membership, for which Bosnia officially applied on February 15 in Brussels. Three days later, Abu Hamza was released.
“I still can’t believe that I’m back home,” a grinning Abu Hamza said from his living room in a suburb of Sarajevo. The atmosphere is jubilant as his family surrounds him, making up for lost time. His grandchildren won’t leave his side as it is unusual for them to see their grandfather outside of the detention centre.
“Some war criminals were in prison for less than seven years,” Softic, his stepdaughter, said as she reflects on the reasons behind the time lost. “His appearance – his beard – bothered the authorities. They wanted to enter the EU at the cost of his detriment, so they could show off how they’re fighting ‘terrorism’.”
“In the end, it’s that same European Union which adopted the law that released him from the migrant centre. [But] through Imad Al Husin’s case, the state has proved itself to be incompetent,” she said.
Detention and extradition efforts
The Bosnian government maintains its perspective, however. The Minister of Security Dragan Mektic explained that “it’s incorrect to say that he was released. [The security] measures were simply replaced with other measures. His movements are restricted and he has to report to the police and to the Service for Foreigners’ Affairs.”
The reason behind these changes were simple, the minister told Al Jazeera. As part of its EU integration process, “we said that we accept the directives and we’ll apply it to our legislation,” he said.
Authorities had tried to extradite Abu Hamza to his native Syria, but the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the decision in February 2012, saying it would constitute a violation of human rights since he may be tortured.
The court also ruled that his detainment during the first two years, from October 8, 2008 until January 31, 2011 – until the state officially decided to deport him – violated his right to liberty and security.
Abu Hamza’s lawyer, Nedim Kulenovic, explained that the legality of the rest of his detainment up until his release last month depended upon whether the state was making enough effort in searching for a third country during the period of his detention, or whether his deportation was realistically possible at all.
“The court couldn’t determine at the time in February 2012 that deportation was impossible or that the state wasn’t acting promptly,” Kulenovic said.
Authorities attempted to extradite him to 39 countries, all of which refused him, wanting no responsibility in accepting those who have been labelled national security threats.
“Bosnian state authorities also showed a period of inactivity, where they weren’t taking any actions in searching for a safe country for his deportation … the illegality of the rest of his detainment becomes obvious,” Kulenovic said.
The lawyer also noted that “regarding the later period of his detainment, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia also concluded that it violated his right to liberty and security.”
The minister of security, however, insisted the situation was more complex. The reason why extradition efforts failed, Mektic said, was because no one wanted to accept Al Husin because of the “kind of a person we’re dealing with and the kind of activities that are associated with him … The chances of finding a safe third country are small because not a single reasonable country would accept this kind of a person.”
Mektic made a statement to Bosnian media upon Abu Hamza’s release that he still represented “a security threat” and they were still working to “deport him from Bosnia”.
“If I’m guilty, go ahead, put me on trial,” Abu Hamza told Al Jazeera. “If they haven’t proved that I’m guilty, then I’ll sue them for [illegally] detaining me for seven-and-a-half years.
“I challenge the Bosnian authorities to hold a fair trial and to prove that I’m a threat to national security. I’ll give them my head if they can confirm that I’m a threat,” he said.
A popular trend
In December 2015, Bilal Dervisic, a Bosnian native and recipient of the Golden Lilly, ARBIH’s highest military award, was arrested along with 10 other men based on suspicions that the group was allegedly planning to carry out a terrorist attack on New Year’s Eve.
Bosnian media quoted unnamed sources, however, and the information provided by a protected witness proved to be baseless. Dervisic, along with two others, was released shortly after.
The remaining eight were released after spending a month in detention. However, the media had already named and condemned the group, labelling them Islamist terrorists. The suspects’ lawyer told Balkan Insight, the news website, that he doubted that they would ever be convicted.
A month earlier, in another case, a 32-year-old man with a Muslim name, Enes Omeragic, had shot dead two soldiers from Bosnia’s armed forces in a sports betting shop in Rajlovac, a Sarajevo suburb.
He had then returned home and committed suicide.
Police described him as a petty criminal, drug addict and dealer, with no known links with religious hardliners, but the media, including major international networks, alarmed the public, labelling Omeragic as a Salafi involved with “radical Islam” though no connection had been made between the attacker and any terrorist organisation.
Goran Kovacevic, a professor at University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Criminology and Security Studies, says that the biggest threat to Bosnia’s national security is for politicians to label individuals as a security threat based on their own personal perceptions.
“The public has already condemned them as terrorists while the formal trial hasn’t even started. The prosecutor hasn’t even explained yet what exactly happened,” Kovacevic said in a separate interview on Bosnian TV soon after the December arrests.
“What happened in Rajlovac relates to this … We still haven’t received any official report which states that it was a terrorist attack … We don’t know whether these people were preparing to commit a terrorist act for Christmas or New Year. That’s incorrect. That’s again adding oil to the fire.”
In another similar incident in March, a young man named Edvin Omerovic, son of a war commander and Golden Lily recipient, had asked his boss at the Tuzla Airport in northern Bosnia for a space to pray, to which his boss had agreed. Shortly after, he found himself placed under investigation by the Ministry of Security and lost his job.
The federal state TV broadcast a report labelling Omerovic a dangerous Salafist and possible terrorist.
“Honestly, I’m worried about getting hired anywhere in Bosnia now,” Omerovic said in an interview on Bosnian Face TV. “I’m afraid that I won’t be able to get a job in the future.”
Right-wing nationalist groups such as the Serbian Chetnik paramilitary group have been gathering and marching in public in various cities across Bosnia’s administrative entity, Republika Srpska, and videos have surfaced of attacks on civilians and leaders openly threatening that there will be another war in Bosnia.
Their iconography and uniforms are evocative of the Bosnian war, when Chetniks killed, tortured and raped non-Serbs. Their message of protecting and reclaiming territory hasn’t spurred any reaction from authorities.
“The Chetnik movement isn’t as interesting to the wider public as much as Islamic radicalism is, and those stories will always be pushed to the side for stories about Wahhabis, Salafists, potential terrorists that come from Islamic circles,” Kovacevic said.
“Nationalism today is still smouldering. It’s all politicised. Based on how serious it is, it needs to be reported to the police and it needs to be prosecuted because it advocates for religious and national hatred.
“We had a 50-year-long tradition fighting against [advocates of hatred], and now we’ve accepted it as if it’s normal,” Kovacevic said.
Meanwhile, Abu Hamza, his beard now greying, remains under surveillance, cannot leave the Sarajevo Canton and is required to report to the police three times a week.
He plans to file a complaint against Bosnia with the European Court of Human Rights, “not for damages, but for the truth to come out”, he says.
“Just for the satisfaction. I want to be able to say, ‘See kids, I’m not guilty. Someone is guilty for detaining me for seven years.'”