By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
LONDON, Feb. 23 -- A former British resident released after seven years in detention, more than four of them at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, arrived back in London on Monday and issued a statement alleging that the United States government had subjected him to years of "medieval" torture.
"It is still difficult for me to believe that I was abducted, hauled from one country to the next, and tortured in medieval ways -- all orchestrated by the United States government," Binyam Mohamed said in the statement released by his attorneys at a London news conference.
Mohamed, 30, the first Guantanamo detainee released during the Obama administration, has become a symbol of international anger at the anti-terrorism practices of the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
His arrival at a Royal Air Force base near London on Monday afternoon ended what his attorneys have described as a seven-year odyssey of torture, "rendition" by U.S. authorities to secret prisons in Morocco and Afghanistan, and legal limbo in a system where he was held without charge for much of his detention.
"He is a victim who has suffered more than any human being should ever suffer," said his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, who visited Mohamed half a dozen times at Guantanamo.
U.S. officials charged Mohamed initially with plotting to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the United States and later with conspiring with members of al-Qaeda to murder and commit terrorism. All the charges were eventually dropped.
The government of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been petitioning the U.S. government for Mohamed's return since August 2007.
British and European officials have been harshly critical of U.S. treatment of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo, although few European governments have expressed willingness to take any of the detainees as the Obama administration works to close the controversial facility.
"We very much welcome President Obama's commitment to close Guantanamo Bay, and I see today's return of Binyam Mohamed as the first step towards that shared goal," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Monday.
In a statement, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who traveled to Guantanamo on Monday, said, "The friendship and assistance of the international community is vitally important as we work to close Guantanamo, and we greatly appreciate the efforts of the British government to work with us on the transfer" of Mohamed.
Holder was scheduled to receive briefings from military officials about the case histories of the approximately 245 inmates who remain at Guantanamo as well as the charges pending against some of them before military commissions were suspended. He was also expected to tour the facilities, including the center where trials are held. In one of his first actions upon taking office last month, President Obama issued an executive order directing officials to close the prison within one year.
Mohamed, a native of Ethiopia who immigrated to Britain in 1994, was arrested in Pakistan in April 2002 and turned over to U.S. authorities a few months later. American officials accused him of traveling to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban, which he has denied.
In accounts provided by his attorneys, Mohamed said that U.S. officials flew him to Morocco and that he was tortured there for 18 months. He said he was beaten and had his penis cut with a razor. He said he was then transferred to a CIA-run site in Afghanistan and was beaten there regularly before being moved to Guantanamo in September 2004.
U.S. officials have never acknowledged taking Mohamed to Morocco; Moroccan officials deny having held him. U.S. officials have also repeatedly denied torturing terrorism suspects.
In his statement Monday, Mohamed also accused British officials of being complicit in his "horrors over the past seven years."
"The very worst moment came when I realized in Morocco that the people who were torturing me were receiving questions and materials from British intelligence," he said. "I had met with British intelligence in Pakistan. I had been open with them. Yet the very people who I had hoped would come to my rescue, I later realized, had allied themselves with my abusers."
Mohamed apologized for not appearing in person at the news conference, saying that for the moment he was "neither physically nor mentally capable of facing the media."
He said he wanted to speak out on behalf of the 241 Muslim prisoners he said were still being held at Guantanamo and the "thousands of other prisoners held by the U.S. elsewhere around the world, with no charges and without access to their families."
"While I want to recover, and put it all as far in my past as I can, I also know I have an obligation to the people who still remain in those torture chambers," he said. "My own despair was greatest when I thought that everyone had abandoned me. I have a duty to make sure that nobody else is forgotten."
He added, "I am not asking for vengeance; only that the truth should be made known, so that nobody in the future should have to endure what I have endured."
A spokesman for the British Home Office said Mohamed faces no charges in Britain. But he would not comment on news reports that Mohamed would be kept under surveillance.
"He has been granted temporary admission to the U.K. while his immigration status is being considered," the spokesman said, adding that Mohamed has not been granted residency but can apply for asylum or residency if he chooses to.
Stafford Smith, Mohamed's attorney, said he was convinced of his client's innocence, and he challenged anyone who disagreed to prove it in a British court.
"If anyone has any charges they want to bring, we have had a system for the last 800 years which has proved perfectly satisfactory, and they should put up or shut up," Stafford Smith said, adding: "If anyone wants to put him on trial, in the immortal words of George Bush, bring them on."
The Pentagon on Monday released a review of conditions at Guantanamo that found that the continued detention of prisoners who have been approved for release has spawned widespread frustration and anxiety, which has led to protests and friction with guards.
"We conclude that certainty regarding the detainees' future has a direct correlation to detainee behavior and, therefore, conditions inside the camp population," Adm. Patrick M. Walsh, the vice chief of naval operations, who led the review, said at a Pentagon news briefing.
Of the about 245 prisoners at Guantanamo, 59 have been cleared for release but remain at the prison.
Walsh led a 13-day investigation at the military prison, interviewing staff and detainees and conducting announced and unannounced inspections round the clock.
He said he substantiated allegations of abuse that included insults and the preemptive use of pepper spray. But the report concluded that "all detainees are well protected from violence." He said guards or others who engaged in abuse were reprimanded or immediately relieved of their jobs, depending on the nature of the offense.
Walsh said his report focused on current conditions at Guantanamo and was not an attempt to review its seven-year history.
Human rights and civil liberties groups challenged Walsh's findings. They have said that solitary confinement has led to the deterioration of the physical and psychological health of detainees, some of whom are force-fed because they are on hunger strikes.
A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, the only organization with unfettered access to the prisoners, said the group supports the recommendations for increased socialization for all detainees but disagreed with Walsh's conclusion that force-feeding is in compliance with the Geneva Conventions.
"For ICRC it is an issue of human dignity," said Bernard Barrett, a spokesman for the agency. "Freely made choices and the preservation of human dignity are critical."
Staff writers Carrie Johnson and Peter Finn and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.