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Home / Contributions & Guests / The Long Ordeal of Guantánamo’s Youngest Prisoner

The Long Ordeal of Guantánamo’s Youngest Prisoner

The long ordeal of Mohammed El-Gharani, Guantánamo’s youngest prisoner, has finally come to an end. Reprieve, the legal action charity that represents him, reported yesterday that he has been sent back to Chad.

A Saudi resident and Chadian national, El-Gharani was just 14 years old when he was seized by Pakistani forces in a random raid on a mosque in Karachi, but was treated appallingly both by the Pakistanis who seized him, and by the U.S. military. I provided a detailed explanation of the abuse to which he was subjected in an article last year, “Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child,” which I condensed for an article in January, when I explained:

As with all but three of the 22 confirmed juveniles who have been held at Guantánamo, the U.S. authorities never treated him separately from the adult population, even though they are obliged, under the terms of the UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (on the involvement of children in armed conflict) to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”

Instead, El-Gharani was treated with appalling brutality. After being tortured in Pakistani custody, he was sold to U.S. forces, who flew him to a prison at Kandahar airport, where, he said, one particular soldier “would hold my penis, with scissors, and say he’d cut it off.” His treatment did not improve in Guantánamo. Subjected relentlessly to racist abuse, because of the color of his skin, he was hung from his wrists on numerous occasions, and was also subjected to a regime of “enhanced” techniques to prepare him for interrogation — including prolonged sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation and the use of painful stress positions — that clearly constitute torture. As a result of this and other abuse, including regular beatings by the guard force responsible for quelling even the most minor infractions of the rules, El-Gharani has become deeply depressed, and has tried to commit suicide on several occasions.

In January, over seven years after his initial capture, El-Gharani finally had his case reviewed in a U.S. court, following the Supreme Court’s ruling, in June 2008, that the prisoners had habeas corpus rights; in other words, the right to ask a court why they were being held. Judge Richard Leon, who had granted the habeas petitions of five Algerian prisoners in November, ruling that the government had failed to establish a case against them, was, if anything, even more dismissive of the claims against El-Gharani.

In his habeas petition, El-Gharani insisted, as he had throughout his detention, that he “traveled to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia at the age of 14 to escape discrimination against Chadians in that country, acquire computer and English skills, and make a better life for himself,” and that he “remained there until his arrest,” although the government claimed that he “arrived in Afghanistan at some unspecified time in 2001,” and was “part of or supporting Taliban or al-Qaeda forces,” for a variety of reasons, including claims that he received military training at an al-Qaeda-affiliated military training camp, fought against U.S. and allied forces at the battle of Tora Bora, and was a member of an al-Qaeda cell based in London.

Noting that the government’s supposed evidence against El-Gharani consisted of statements made by two other prisoners at Guantánamo, and that, moreover, these statements were “either exclusively, or jointly, the only evidence offered by the Government to substantiate the majority of their allegations,” Judge Leon stated that “the credibility and reliability of the detainees being relied upon by the Government has either been directly called into question by Government personnel or has been characterized by Government personnel as undermined,” and dismissed all the claims, reserving particular criticism for the claim that El-Gharani had been a member of a London-based al-Qaeda cell.

As I wrote in January,

This was, indeed, the most extraordinary allegation, as El-Gharani was just 11 years old at the time, and, as his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, explained in his book The Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice in Guantánamo Bay, “he must have been beamed over to the al-Qaeda meetings by the Starship Enterprise, since he never left Saudi Arabia by conventional means.”

Leon’s verdict was marginally less colorful, but no less devastating. “Putting aside the obvious and unanswered questions as to how a Saudi minor from a very poor family could have even become a member of a London-based cell,” he wrote, “the Government simply advances no corroborating evidence for these statements it believes to be reliable from a fellow detainee, the basis of whose knowledge is — at best — unknown.”

Despite this long-overdue court victory, El-Gharani’s suffering in Guantánamo did not come to an end. In April, he was finally allowed to call one of his relatives in Chad, but took the opportunity to call the Arabic broadcaster al-Jazeera instead, telling them, as Reuters described it, that “he had been beaten with batons and teargassed by a group of six soldiers wearing protective gear and helmets after refusing to leave his cell.” He explained, “This treatment started about 20 days before Obama came into power, and since then I’ve been subjected to it almost every day,” and added, “Since Obama took charge he has not shown us that anything will change.”

El-Gharani’s return to Chad is not without its problems. He is currently being held by the security services, although they have stressed to his lawyers that it is just a formality and that they fully understand the horrors he has been through. More troubling is the fact that, although he has extended family in Chad who will take care of him, he cannot be reunited with his parents, because they live in Saudi Arabia. Representatives of Reprieve are expected to fly out to Chad this weekend, to help with his rehabilitation, but in the meantime El-Gharani himself has said only that he is, of course, delighted to be free, and is looking forward to undertaking an education, to make up for the lost years and lost opportunities while he was held in Guantánamo.

As Zachary Katznelson, Reprieve’s legal director, explained to me in a telephone conversation yesterday, “Reprieve is delighted that, after seven long years of unjust, illegal incarceration, Mohammed is finally out of Guantánamo Bay. A federal judge looked at his case in January, and found that there were never any valid grounds to hold him. He should have been released long ago, but we’re glad that justice has finally been served.”

Andy Worthington is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (published by Pluto Press). Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk He can be reached at: [email protected]

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