Obama “Stealth Transfer” of Gitmo Prisoner, Algerian Forcibly Repatriated
The Obama administration has shown a blatant disregard for international treaties and basic human rights in its second forcible deportation from Guantánamo of an Algerian national in the last six months. On January 6, the administration secretly and forcibly repatriated 48-year-old Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed to Algeria, which he reportedly fled in the 1990s, trying to escape threats from Islamic extremists. In a press release from Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the deportation, CCR noted that “Mr. Mohammed has long been cleared of any connection with terrorism.”
Farhi had been ordered released from Guantánamo , when District Court Judge Gladys Kessler granted his habeas petition. He had spent nearly nine years at the U.S. prison facility, most of the time in maximum security solitary confinement. While the former itinerant laborer said he had traveled to Afghanistan to find a wife for himself, the Pentagon presented “evidence” from unreliable informers to frame Mr. Mohammed as a supporter of Al Qaeda. Presumably, Judge Kessler was unimpressed by this evidence. What is undisputed is that after 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Farhi fled to Pakistan where he was captured and subsequently transferred to Guantanamo in 2002.
Once cleared by the District Court, Mr. Mohammed fought the government not to be sent back to his native Algeria, fearing persecution by either Islamic militants or by the government. Indeed, every Algerian Guantanamo prisoner sent back to that country thus far has been initially arrested and put on trial, though none have been convicted. U.S. authorities have said they conducted a “comprehensive review” of Farhi’s case prior to his release. The U.S. government maintains that “the Algerian government has provided so-called ‘diplomatic assurances’ – promises to treat returned detainees humanely.” But Human Rights Watch watch replied that “research has shown that diplomatic assurances provided by receiving countries, which are legally unenforceable, do not provide an effective safeguard against torture and ill-treatment. Algerian human rights groups report that torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are at times used on those suspected of terror links.”
Torture and Persecution in Algeria
Indeed, the last U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Algeria, released February 25, 2009, indicated numerous problems with conditions in that country. While torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment is illegal, human rights activists “local human rights activists reported that government officials employed such practices to obtain confessions,” and “impunity remained a problem.” The report singled out a February 2008 incident when an inmate protest on prayer conditions resulted in prison guards handcuffing, stripping and beating “approximately 80 prisoners with iron bars and sticks.”
The State Department report also indicated noted that, except for the International Red Cross, all other human rights groups are forbidden to inspect conditions at Algerian military and high-security prisons and detention centers. Detainees are often held in jail without charges for months on end, and receive little or no medical care. The report also said, “in practice authorities did not completely respect legal provisions regarding defendants’ rights and denied due process. Military courts try all “cases involving state security, espionage, and other security-related offenses involving military personnel and civilians,” but only rarely is any information given about these proceedings. The government monitors “the communications of political opponents, journalists, human rights groups, and suspected terrorists,” as well as political meetings. The country remains under rule of an emergency degree. Meanwhile, radical Islamic extremists belonging to al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have “issued public threats against all ‘infidels’ and ‘apostates’ in the country, both foreigners and citizens, killing approximately 160 people in the country in 2008.
A prisoner or refugee cannot by international law be returned to a country where they fear persecution or death. This principle is enshrined in the UN Convention Against Torture treaty to which the U.S. is signatory: “No State Party shall expel, return (“refouler“) or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.”
Furthermore, Article 33 of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (July 28, 1951), to which the U.S. is also signatory, states: “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” (A 1967 Protocol expanded the Convention’s coverage from European to all refugees.) There is no question that Farhi meets the Convention’s definition of a refugee, and has since leaving Algeria in the 1990s, until wrongly apprehended by the U.S. in 2002.
The Role of Congress and the Courts
It is notable that Congress has played a role in this administration’s flouting of international law and decency. As Andy Worthington and others have pointed out, Congress has prevented the Obama from “bringing any Guantánamo prisoner to the US mainland for any reason”. In addition, as I pointed out in an article on the forcible deportation of Algerian Guantánamo prisoner Abdul Aziz Naji in July 2010, Congress has an oversight role over the release of any Guantánamo prisoner.
According to the 2010 Homeland Security Appropriations, Interior Appropriations, Consolidated Appropriations, and Defense Appropriations Acts, all of which contain similar language on the subject, no funds are to be appropriated for the transfer of a Guantanamo prisoner to another state unless 15 days prior to release the President submit to Congress, “in classified form,” a statement regarding any risks to national security or U.S. citizens, the name of the prisoner and country of release, and “the terms of any agreement with the country or freely associated state that has agreed to accept the detainee.” (See PDF link.)
At that time, Senator Carl Levin and Senator Dianne Feinstein’s offices confirmed they had been informed at least 15 days in advance of Naji’s deportation. There’s no reason to doubt they had the same notice in the case of Farhi Saeed bin Mohammed, and essentially signed off on the forcible deportation, demonstrating Congressional complicity in this flagrant violation of the laws of the land.
Mr. Mohammed’s case had been high-profile. After the granting of his habeas petition, he fought a repatriation to Algeria, for the reasons stated earlier, and Judge Kessler granted that request. But, as Larkin Reynolds explains at Lawfare, “the D.C. Circuit later reversed that injunction in July, however, in an expedited summary proceeding.” Farhi’s attorneys then asked the Supreme Court for a stay of the Circuit court’s decision. While their petition was denied last July, another petition regarding the transfer issue was sent to the Supreme Court last November. According to Reynolds, “The government’s response to the petition is due on February 4, 2011.” But the forced deportation of Farhi apparently makes that decision moot.
David Remes, Farhi’s counsel in the Supreme Court case told Lawfare, the Obama administration’s actions amounted to a “stealth transfer”:
The government shipped Mr. Mohammed back to Algeria against his will –- the second involuntary transfer of an Algerian in the past six months -– giving us no advance notice and therefore no chance to resist. The government may also intend Mohammed’s transfer to moot his petition for review in the Supreme Court, in which he challenged the government’s right to make exactly this kind of involuntary transfer, that is, a transfer where the detainee fears he will be tortured or abused if he is returned. The government has used this tactic to avoid judicial review of its actions in other cases involving military detention of war-on-terror captives -– Padilla, Al-Mar’i, and Abu Ali are examples. From Mr. Mohammed’s case, it’s apparent the government wants to avoid public scrutiny too.
The Role of the Democratic Party
The government’s actions in the case of should be sharply condemned, but outside of some human rights groups, almost nothing is being said or reported on this crime by our own government. (The Washington Post did report the story.) The fact that a Democratic administration, and practically up to the time he was secretly deported, a Democratic Congress, were the primary actors in this decision is something that appears to fly over the heads of most Democratic Party and Obama supporters, for whom nothing, not even plans to issue an executive order allowing indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantánamo, seems to move to principled action.
The U.S. currently holds 173 detainee-prisoners at Guantánamo. Three other Algerians remain at the Naval prison facility, also fearing forced deportation for reasons similar to that of Farhi Faheed bin Mohammed, and Abdul Aziz Naji. The three other cleared Algerians are Motai Saib, Djamel Ameziane and Nabil Hadjarab, and Andy Worthington covered their stories in an article in July 2009.
This latest move by the Obama administration must have thrown fear into these prisoners, assuming they have heard of it. But it should throw fear into Americans as well, as their government has shown that it has little patience for such things as the rule of law. Consider these unlawful deportations along with the story of the torture of 19-year old American citizen Gulet Mohamed last month by U.S. ally Kuwait, after he was placed on a no-fly list by the Americans. The U.S. reportedly collaborated in Mohamed’s detention, and should be held partly responsible for Mohamed’s torture.