The case of Younous Chekkouri, a former prisoner who was released from Guantánamo only to find himself immediately detained by Moroccan authorities, is yet another disturbing example of how the United States government destroyed an innocent human being’s life.
Chekkouri recalled in an interview with Associated Press reporters how he was “subject to all sorts of dark torture and sexual abuse in Guantánamo and Kandahar,” when he was captured. While recounting the horror he endured, tears streamed down his face. Yet, he also looked out at the Atlantic Ocean and acknowledged how good it was to finally taste freedom.
After months of pressure by Reprieve, an international human rights organization which represented him, Chekkouri was finally freed from a Moroccan jail on February 11. But Morocco has not abandoned its prosecution of Chekkouri, and he has an upcoming hearing on February 23 to determine if he will be charged with “conspiring against national security.”
The U.S. government claimed, as it does with all released detainees, that Chekkouri would not be charged or detained when he arrived in his home country of Morocco. It failed Chekkouri, or worse, the U.S. government possibly deceived Chekkouri because upon arrival he was imprisoned in Salé, a facility notorious for torture. Moroccan authorities also chose to pursue charges based on allegations against Chekkouri, which President Barack Obama’s administration concluded were bogus.
As Morocco decides what to do with Chekkouri, it is important not to lose sight of the responsibility the U.S. government bears for everything that has happened to Chekkouri and whatever happens to him next in Morocco.
Joe Pace, an attorney for Reprieve, told Shadowproof, “The process in Morocco has been frustratingly opaque, but we’re cautiously optimistic that Mr. Chekkouri’s provisional release indicates that the Moroccan investigating judge has already come to the conclusion that there is no basis to charge him.”
In U.S. court and to the Moroccan government, Pace said the U.S. government “slandered” Chekkouri. They accused Chekkouri of being a member of the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group (GICM).
The detainee assessment brief for Chekkouri, released by U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks, shows the U.S. military once believed Chekkouri “oversaw GICM operations in Afghanistan, Syria, and Turkey.” The military thought he was a “close Osama Bin Laden associate who played a central role in coordinating mutual support between the GICM and al-Qaida, to include providing GICM fighters to support al-Qaida combat operations in Afghanistan and terrorist attacks Europe.”
“Detainee is assessed to have engaged in hostilities against US and Coalition forces as the GICM senior commander on the Bagram front lines and at Tora Bora, and was captured with other extremist fighters fleeing Tora Bora,” the military additionally believed. Chekkouri “ran the Moroccan Training Camp at the Derunta Training Complex and trained militant fighters in explosive detonators, chemical weapons, and military tactics at the Algerian Guesthouse in [Jalalabad, Afghanistan], and at Derunta. Detainee has familial ties to the GICM and al-Qaida members, including former JTF-GTMO detainees who have attempted to reconstitute the GICM. Detainee is assessed to be a high risk who is likely to re-affiliate with the al-Qaida network as a senior commander and resume hostilities upon release.”
All of the above information is false. Virtually all of the allegations against Chekkouri stemmed from torture and “unreliable witnesses” at Guantánamo, who habitually lied to interrogators about fellow prisoners—especially after being tortured themselves.
As Chekkouri said to AP reporters, “a pathological liar” and another prisoner, who endured waterboarding several times, parroted “whatever his torturers wanted to hear.”
Moroccan authorities are understandably perplexed about why the U.S. government suddenly acts as if Chekkouri is innocent after all the prior allegations against him. The U.S. government has been unwilling to aggressively advocate for Chekkouri so Morocco is reassured there is no reason to prosecute Chekkouri.
“We fought tooth and nail to get the [Moroccan] Court to compel the U.S. government to deliver a simple message to the Moroccans: that the GICM evidence was garbage,” Pace recalled. “What we got instead was a cowardly, mealy-mouthed response from the Justice Department saying that they ultimately ‘took no position’ on Mr. Chekkouri’s involvement with GICM.
What Pace is referring to is the Justice Department letter that Reprieve forced the U.S. government to release, which weakly conceded there was no case against Chekkouri.
“Well, when you tell a foreign country for years that you’re firmly convinced that someone is a terrorist and then you say, ‘Eh, actually, we’re agnostic’—Of course the other country is going to feel compelled to investigate,” Pace suggested.
Pace argued there was a lot the U.S. government could have done in September so that Chekkouri was not essentially in pretrial confinement for more than four months.
“Everyone we spoke to in Morocco told us that a bit of pressure from the U.S. to enforce the diplomatic assurances would have been enough,” Pace recalled. “But it quickly became abundantly clear that the U.S. was content to wash their hands of the issue.
According to Pace, attorneys for Chekkouri “had a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Morocco in early October and the first thing he said when we sat down was, so what can you tell us about what’s happened?”
“We were flabbergasted that the U.S. government was asking a tiny NGO about the breakdown of diplomatic assurances that the U.S. State Department had supposedly negotiated. Everything we asked for was shut down: we asked for clarity about the diplomatic assurances, we got none. We asked for the embassy to request that we be able to meet with Chekkouri. We were refused. We asked that the embassy request that we be admitted to the hearing. Nothing. And when we asked periodically for updates about U.S. efforts to enforce the assurances, we were met with a wall of silence.”
Asked if attorneys for Chekkouri felt the U.S. government was putting some kind of pressure on them to ensure the Moroccan government would not imprison their client when he was returned home, Pace replied there’s really nothing an NGO can do to ensure that diplomatic assurances are respected, except for making “a lot of noise” and attempting to “embarrass the governments.”
For now, Chekkouri faces chilling surveillance by the Moroccan government. Security officers in Morocco called Chekkouri to ask about the AP’s authorization to film him. Two plainclothes officers confronted Chekkouri directly. A uniformed officer demanded to see authorization from AP on recording him. All within twenty minutes of his meeting with reporters, according to the Associated Press.
Chekkouri suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and has not been able to obtain proper medication. His Algerian wife will soon reunite with him, but one of the most difficult aspects of his release is dealing with the fact that the United States robbed him of a chance to be a father. In fact, while detained at Guantánamo, he wrote to an imaginary daughter he did not have and dreamed of having a daughter.
“Ultimately, it’s unclear why the investigative judge granted provisional release when he did,” Pace acknowledged. “We did get a sense that the judge was under domestic pressure to hold Chekkouri; perhaps, the powers that be in Morocco decided that five months was enough to satisfy any optics concerns. Perhaps, someone in the State Department finally picked up the phone.”
“We may never know. What we do know is that U.S. foot dragging cost an innocent man five more months of his life, in addition to the 14 years he lost to the travesty that is Guantánamo.”