By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
PARIS, May 25 -- When the nightmare finally ended -- seven years at Guantanamo Bay, two years of force-feeding through a tube in his right nostril, the long struggle to proclaim his innocence before a judge, and finally 10 days of hospitalization -- Lakhdar Boumediene celebrated with pizza for lunch in a little Paris dive.
"When we were at the restaurant," Boumediene said Monday, shortly after the meal that marked his release from doctors' care and reentry into normal society, "I told my wife that for the first time I felt like a man again, tasting things, picking things up in my fingers, eating lunch with my wife and my two daughters."
Boumediene, 43, had been in a French military clinic under physical and psychological observation since his arrival in Paris on May 15 aboard a U.S. government aircraft that carried him -- in shackles -- away from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In what he describes as an ugly mistake by U.S. authorities, Boumediene, an Algerian citizen, had spent seven years there as terrorism suspect No. 10005. Later he became the plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case, Boumediene v. Bush, that in June 2008 gave Guantanamo detainees the right to seek judicial review of their imprisonment.
Boumediene, in a lengthy interview in a Paris suburb, said he joined the case to represent the scores of prisoners held at Guantanamo charged with being "enemy combatants" and having no power to challenge the accusation in court.
Later ordered released by a U.S. district judge in Washington, he represents something new: dozens of prisoners whom the U.S. government has decided to release but cannot, because no other country will take them in and most Americans do not want them on U.S. soil.
At the request of the Obama administration, France agreed to take in Boumediene but appears reluctant to accept any more detainees. Britain accepted one released Guantanamo prisoner in February and has promised to take in a second. In all, human rights activists say, Washington is looking for homes for about 60 such prisoners, swept up without trial in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and now judged fit for release.
Boumediene's version of events is impossible to verify independently. But he described himself as collateral damage in those sweeps, an aid worker in Bosnia wrenched from his life and, he said, interrogated endlessly about something about which he had no knowledge.
Boumediene, who at the time was an aid worker with the Red Crescent, was arrested in Bosnia in October 2001 along with five other Algerians accused of plotting to blow up the U.S. and British embassies in Sarajevo, charges that were later withdrawn. In January 2002, the six were turned over to U.S. officials and flown to Guantanamo, despite rulings by several Bosnian courts that there was no reason to deport them.
U.S. interest was high because one of the six Algerians, Belkacem Bensayah, was accused by U.S. investigators of being an al-Qaeda operative in Bosnia. Moreover, Bosnian police had discovered a piece of paper in Bensayah's home with a handwritten number and a name that corresponded to that of a senior al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan.
Boumediene, in the interview, said he did not know Bensayah well but that, as a fellow Algerian, Bensayah had come to Boumediene's Red Crescent office seeking help for his family. In addition, he said, Bensayah's wife sought assistance after her husband's arrest, and Boumediene provided money for a lawyer. Boumediene said U.S. officials concluded that those connections linked him to al-Qaeda's activities in Bosnia.
In addition, Boumediene said, a stint in Pakistan in the early 1990s aroused the suspicions of U.S. investigators and may have landed his name on a watch list shared by Algerian security services with their U.S. counterparts.
Boumediene said his time in Pakistan had nothing to do with that country's madrassas, or religious schools where future fighters were being educated in an extreme version of Islam. Instead, he said, he was a proctor at a Kuwaiti-financed school for Afghan orphans.
But during his stay, he had his passport renewed at the Algerian Embassy in Islamabad. Because many Islamist Arab fighters were gathered in Pakistan, including Algerians, the passport renewal in Islamabad marked him for Algerian security services as a possible extremist.
As a result, when he traveled to Algeria in December 1999 to visit family, Boumediene recalled, he was stopped at the airport and told he was on a list of people wanted for questioning. Boumediene denied any connection to Algeria's Islamist extremists, but Algerian investigators were intrigued by his time in Pakistan and confiscated his passport.
As he sought to get the suspicions lifted and retrieve his passport, Boumediene said, he was told by an official in the prosecutor's office that he could avoid further trouble with Algerian authorities if he registered for an amnesty being offered to Islamist activists by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Reluctantly, and still denying any association with the Algerian extremists, he accepted the government's amnesty and got his passport back.
That solved his problem in Algeria. But a document listing him as a beneficiary of the amnesty was found in his home after his arrest in Bosnia and, Boumediene speculated, served to reinforce U.S. suspicions about his ties to al-Qaeda.
Boumediene said he was interrogated more than 120 times during his stay in Guantanamo's Camp Delta, mostly about Arabs and other foreign Muslims in Bosnia. "At first I thought they were honest, and when I explained they would see I was innocent and would release me," he recalled. "But after the first two years or so, I realized they were not straight. So I stopped cooperating."
During one 16-day period in February 2003, he said, the interrogations went on day and night, sometimes with tactics such as lifting him roughly from the chair where he was strapped, so the shackles dug into his flesh. The interrogators, some dressed in military uniforms and others in civilian clothes, were assisted by Arabic interpreters who seemed mostly to be from Egypt and Lebanon, he recalled, and later included a few Moroccans and Iraqis.
"They were dogs," Boumediene said of the foreign interpreters, in his only show of anger. "They were dogs. They often started doing the interrogations themselves. They would tell the interrogators they could get more information."
On Christmas in 2006, Boumediene recalled, he started a hunger strike in an effort to get someone to listen to his pleas of innocence. Twice a day, about 6 a.m. and 1 p.m., he was strapped to an iron chair and force-fed through a tube in his nose that reached into his stomach.
Until a meal with his lawyers as he was about to leave Guantanamo, Boumediene said, he broke his fast only twice, once when he learned of President Obama's election and again when the judge ordered his release.
"I have no idea why this happened to me," he said. "I'm a Muslim like any other. I pray and I observe Ramadan. But I don't have any hatred against anybody."
Grateful to be settling in France with government help, his first goal is to draw close to his family again, Boumediene said. But down the road, he added, he wants to sue the U.S. government or its senior officials to hold them accountable.
"I don't know whether it will be possible," he said. "But even if it takes 100 years, I am determined to bring suit."