Any day now, Detainee 722 will set foot outside the Guantanamo Bay prison for the first time in 12 years. He’ll be bound, along with five other prisoners, for Uruguay — about 9,500 miles from where he was picked up in Lahore, Pakistan.
His name is Abu Wa’el Dhiab. His first wish upon release is to see his wife, he said in comments that were relayed to me by his lawyers at the international human rights organization Reprieve. Since his capture in 2002, he and his wife, Umm Wa’el, have shared only a few crackly phone calls monitored by U.S. officials. His children, toddlers the last time he saw them, are now teens. The Syrian citizen was not there to help when his family was forced to flee that country’s civil war to Lebanon and then Turkey, where they are today. Those are the big things. The small things that he has missed are just as hard to bear.
“I don’t know how we would start to put all that right,” his wife said in comments that also reached me through her husband’s lawyers. “We will do anything we can to rebuild all the years of our lives which have been taken from us.”
Last month, as required by law, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel alerted Congress that Dhiab would be transferred, and I reached out to his lawyers a few days later hoping to learn something of his thoughts. In the statements they sent back to me, Dhiab spoke of a slow, wallowing purgatory spent inside a solitary cell that he said lies “outside the whole world of law and the rules of human beings.”
According to a leaked 2008 U.S. military assessment, Dhiab was captured in April 2002 in a Pakistani police raid on a safehouse in Lahore and was soon transferred to U.S. custody. He was said to be carrying 30 passport-size photos and was accused of helping al-Qaeda forge documents for international travel. Dhiab maintains that he is a former honey salesman who had no connection to any terrorist organization. He arrived at Guantanamo in August 2002.
No charge was ever leveled against him, and finally — by January 2010 — the Guantanamo Review Task Force created by President Obama cleared him for release, a process that requires unanimous approval by all relevant agencies and departments.
And then? Nothing.
“[President George W.] Bush’s days were bad, but in some senses these days are worse,” Dhiab said. “We see no improvement. Time is passing. . . . You have thrown me in prison for 13 years with no charge — fine, but then you are abusing me day and night. What’s the reason?
“People here want to hold on to some hope that things will improve, but it turns out there is no more hope left in this place,” he said.
Eventually, Dhiab felt he had to make a choice: Either begin a hunger strike or risk being forgotten. In February 2013, he started refusing food, and in court filings he alleges that he was assaulted for “movements” while being force-fed. There is a policy at Guantanamo, he told a lawyer, of over-feeding detainees, then stopping for long periods before resuming. Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, a Joint Task Force Guantanamo spokesman, insisted that all standard policy and operating procedures comply with U.S. law and that personnel “strive to make the procedure safe and humane.”
Today, Dhiab sits alone in a cell. His court filings allege that he went a period of almost seven months without showeringor going out for recreation. Healthy when he arrived, he now requires a wheelchair. After her latest visit to Guantanamo, his lawyer Cori Crider wrote in a court memorandum that he looked “frail and listless” and that she was concerned that his life was in danger.
Including the six waiting to travel imminently to Uruguay, there are 149 detainees left at the prison. More than half of them have been approved for release.
The deal to transfer Dhiab to Uruguay was secured as early as March but then sat idle on Hagel’s desk. It took a lot to get it there, including a loosening of congressional restrictions, overcoming inflated fears of the battlefield risks posed by released detainees, and diplomatic efforts to find host countries. In Dhiab’s case, the challenge is even greater because he could not be repatriated to war-torn Syria.
Fortunately, progress seems to be being made. Seventeen detainees have been released since mid-2013, when Obama appointed two envoys for Guantanamo closure. Dhiab and the five other detainees will add to that total. “A lot of transfers are working their way down the pipeline, and you’ll see more by the end of the year,” a senior administration official told me.
That’s good news. But Dhiab’s wife isn’t convinced. “I can’t believe anything anymore until I have my husband next to me,” she said. “When he was taken from us, I expected him to return straightaway, once it became clear that his arrest was a dreadful mistake. . . . President Obama told us that Abu Wa’el was cleared for release five years ago — and still nothing has happened.”
“We want nothing more now than to be together, and to be left alone, to start again for our family what we should have started 13 years ago,” she said.
Until that day, Dhiab remains in his cell in Camp V, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Reading the Koran gives him strength. He says what keeps him going is between him and God.
“Whatever they say,” he said, “there is nothing humane about this place.”