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In search of Saeed: From Guantanamo to an Algerian prison

The case of Saeed Bakhouche’s disappearance in Algeria proves that leaving Guantanamo doesn’t mean the end of the torture. For many of us, it is simply the next step to the same fate or something worse

May 19, 2023 at 11:45 am

Dressed in bright orange coveralls, al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners wash before midday prayers at Camp X-Ray, where they are being held, at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. [Photo by J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AFP via Getty Images]

Saeed Bakhouche – who I know as my brother ‘Saeed’, or prisoner 685 – was the last of 26 Algerians in Guantanamo. Those of us freed before him were very pleased when we heard that he was finally repatriated on 20 April to his home country, as an innocent man.

But instead of enjoying the joy and peace that returning home should bring to a man from whom 21 years of family life have been taken, Saeed has unbelievably found himself in another prison.

This time he is in a prison outside the Algerian capital, facing new interrogators, with no legal representation and no family visits – a situation worse than Guantanamo. It has been a month now.

Saeed was interrogated and investigated for 21 years supposedly by the world’s most powerful and effective law enforcement and intelligence agencies – and yet he left Guantanamo without charge or trial.

What possibly could the Algerians uncover after all this time that the Americans couldn’t?

READ: US transfers Guantanamo detainee to Algeria; 30 remain in prison

Counter terrorism’s abuse

Legal overreach combined with lack of accountability to even basic principles of due process have become a familiar pattern in the ‘war on terror’. This fact has been recognised  by the UN even if it is unable to do anything about it.

As a member of the UN, Algeria underwent a fourth Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group in November 2022, however it did not accept broad recommendations related to arbitrary detentions.

This should be viewed in combination with the extension of Algeria’s penal code in June 2021 to broaden the definition of “terrorism” to include between 250 to 1,000 peaceful political organisations and journalists.

It is not hard to imagine how such legislation would treat a 52-year-old man released from Guantanamo with no charge.

There are no charges and no judgements against Saeed. He was cleared by a Periodic Review Board (PRB) after a process that would resemble a cruel and decrepit comedy were the impact not so terrible on Saeed’s life.

OPINION: I was a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, but who is its biggest captive?

Saeed Bakhouche was caught up in a post-9/11 US-Pakistani bounty hunt on a guesthouse; he was tenuously linked to Abu Zubaydah and these “links” proved to be false after 14 years of investigation while he was held in Gitmo; and then he was accused of being part of an unnamed “force” associated with Al-Qaeda, which was neither identified nor proven.

Saeed’s classified military file carries a photo that is supposedly of him, but which is not him. Nobody knows who the man in the photo is, but this photo was displayed outside his cell at Guantanamo for 18 months and shown to other prisoners during interrogations, incriminating “him”.

A succession of judges refused to acknowledge these obvious errors and deep injustices, so in 2018 and 2022 Saeed joined other prisoners in refusing to appear before the PRB. He was repatriated in absentia.

A not-so welcome home

Twenty-six Algerians have been repatriated from Guantanamo. Upon their return home, the Algerian government has not offered any kind of help or support for these released and exonerated men.

Instead, they told me they have had their civil rights (including their right to legal protection and due process) revoked for between one to three years.

On top of this, they must report weekly to the authorities. At any time, their movements may be monitored, and they may face travel restrictions, under what US authorities have termed, broadly, “continued information sharing”. This is a situation that means they are unable to keep a job.

Despite this close interaction with authority, there has been no psychological, social, or professional support to assist these men get back to normal life.

One ex-prisoner in Algeria, Sufyian Barhoumi, suffers from acute PTSD, disability and other health issues due to his incarceration, and finds himself a liability on his family. There are many such cases among us.

READ: US transfers Guantanamo Bay detainee to Belize, 34 prisoners remain

In Algeria, an inside source said that Saeed’s interrogators immediately started questioning him about the 21 years he spent in Guantanamo, from the time he arrived in diapers and shackles at the Cuban Island, to the day he was released 21 years later, with no charges against him.

He was never offered a lawyer. After ten days of intense interrogation, he found himself standing before yet another judge in yet another court, who would decide again whether to release him or send him to prison, and this would all be based on his interrogators’ report and no evidence other than this.

The source described the judge as “ill-tempered”.

Saeed answered all the questions posed to him by the judge, but he did not admit to the accusations in the file – not to his interrogators and not to the judge. Saeed’s military supervisors in Guantanamo described him on record as “quiet” with a “desire to pursue a peaceful way of life”.

When he did not admit to the accusations, the judge said to him: “You will be stripped of all your civil rights.”

To which Saeed replied: “Then send me back to Guantanamo.”

That’s the last we heard of him. We only know he was sent to a new prison, with new interrogators.

What is the US’ agreement with Algeria?

The US government paid the Algerian government handsomely. But none of this money has ended up helping the men in Algeria rebuild their lives. So, the question we are asking is: What kind of agreement did the US State Department make with the Algerian government?

Saeed is facing charges of “engaging abroad in a terrorist and subversive organisation” when he has been cleared of any such activities by the US and when he has spent the last 21 years in prison. This situation alone makes these allegations impossible in the first place.

These charges have been brought against him not by the government or courts, but by Military Security, a security apparatus that answers only to the military. This military-led institutional hierarchy in Algeria has been developed and strengthened since 2015, and it grants Military Security legal impunity.

OPINION: ‘It’s time the US released pictures of  Guantanamo’s children, the waterboarding, the blood-stained walls of cells where prisoners were killed’

This should be seen in the background of Algeria’s allegiance with the US in counter-terrorism. As far back as 2006, Amnesty International reported that this allegiance had precipitated counter-terrorism measures that facilitated torture and arbitrary detention by Military Security.

On top of this, the recent June 2021 extensions in counter-terrorism legislation mean that Military Security has been provided further privilege to arrest individuals, while still remaining unaccountable.

The US is not oblivious to these developments. The Department of State in March reiterated Washington’s active support for the Algerian military, saying that “US-Algeria military-to-military engagements will further develop the capacity and professionalisation of Algerian security forces.”

US is not holding host countries accountable

On paper and in public relations and by lawyers and Parole Boards, we are told that the Algerians assured the US that they would abide by its legal and human rights responsibilities with ex-prisoners from Guantanamo. These “assurances” are recorded in connection with the earliest transfers.

But what about men like Saeed? And what about others like him?

How much does Washington really know about where he is and what is happening to us?

The US State Department has a poor history in locating ex-Guantanamo prisoners who have been mistreated, tortured and imprisoned despite agreements that they would be resettled peacefully.

Sabri Al-Qurashi in Kazakhstan, investigated by the Intercept, was released to Kazakhstan in 2014 where he has no legal status, no ID, and his  family is not allowed to visit, making finding a job impossible and rendering him a ghost in society.

Ravil Mingazov who has been imprisoned in UAE for six years, has had no access to lawyers or family, and we have heard nothing from him in two years, men who were with him in prison told us the torture he suffered was worse than Guantanamo. The State Department is well aware of these cases and other cases but chooses not to intervene.

We demand Saeed’s immediate release. Guantanamo has not left us, and we have not left Guantanamo. We continue to wait patiently in the hope of success to come.

OPINION: Yemeni former Guantanamo detainee disappears day after release 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.