End 15 Years Of Injustice

The Anguish of Hedi Hammami, A Tunisian Released from Guantánamo in 2010, But Persecuted in His Homeland

Former Guantánamo prisoner Hedi Hammami, photographed taking his children home from day care in Tunis, Tunisia, in December (Photo: Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times).

By Andy Worthington, February 27, 2017

The media circus has currently taken one of its darker turns regarding Guantánamo, after an evidently troubled former prisoner, Jamal al-Harith, a British citizen released 13 years ago, blew himself up in Iraq. Too much of the coverage has focused on the U.K.’s alleged failure to keep him under surveillance, and on the financial settlement he (and all the other released British prisoners) received from the British government in 2010, and not enough on how disgraceful and unacceptable his treatment was in the first place, and how that might have caused lasting damage.

The full-time surveillance of individuals is an expensive matter, and not one that states that respect the rule of law undertake lightly, especially in relation to individuals against whom no case for wrongdoing was ever established. Al-Harith is one of a number of individuals who were only sent to Guantánamo after they had been liberated by the U.S. from a Taliban prison, where they had been held — and abused — because the Taliban thought they were spies, and it is inconceivable that these men were not damaged in some way by being subsequently sent to Guantánamo to be "held in extrajudicial detention for years and subjected to torture on a regular basis," as the Guardian described it, adding, in al-Harith’s case, that this was "with the complicity of the U.K."

As the Guardian spelled out, the official reason given for al-Harith’s transfer to Guantánamo was "because the U.S. thought he might have useful information on the treatment of prisoners by the Taliban – who had held him as a suspected British spy – not because he was considered dangerous," and in the end, although the U.S. authorities "thought some questions remained" about al-Harith, they "concluded he had no links to the Taliban or al-Qaida," an assessment that seems accurate. It is not yet certain what led him to travel to Syria in 2014 to join Islamic State fighters, but it would be unwise to rule out the effects of the time spent in brutal prisons run by both the Taliban and the United States.

If Western countries have shown an important unwillingness not to persecute former Guantánamo prisoners when no proof was ever presented of their engagement in wrongdoing, the same is not, unfortunately, true of everywhere else in the world, and as the story of al-Harith’s death was being reported, the New York Times ran an important article by Carlotta Gall, with whom I wrote a front-page story in 2008 about a prisoner who had died at Guantánamo in December 2007.

The story of Hedi Hammami

Carlotta Gall’s story, "After Eight Years in Guantánamo, He Yearns to Return," was about Hedi Hammami (known in Guantánamo as Abdulhadi Bin Hadiddi), a 47-year-old Tunisian who was released from Guantánamo in March 2010, but who is now so depressed at the extent to which he is persecuted by the authorities in his homeland that he has said he would prefer to be back in Guantánamo.

As Carlotta Gall put it, "the pressures of living in Tunisia’s faltering democracy, under harassment and enduring repeated raids by the police, have driven him to make an extreme request." As he described it, "It would be better for me to go back to that single cell and to be left alone. Two or three weeks ago I went to the Red Cross and asked them to connect me to the U.S. foreign ministry to ask to go back to Guantánamo."

As Gall proceeded to explain, Hammami said that the Red Cross "refused to take his request," but "he insist[ed] nevertheless that at this point, that would be best for him." As he stated, "I have lost my hope. There is no future in this country for me."

Hammami is married with two children, and is employed as a nighttime ambulance driver, and as Gall explained, on the surface, he "seems to have rebuilt his life," but "he walks with a limp and sometimes pauses midspeech and screws up his face in pain," explaining, "That’s Guantánamo." After eight years as a prisoner at Guantánamo, he says, "he still suffers from headaches, depression and anxiety attacks from the torture and other mistreatment he says he suffered there."

The son of a farmer from the poor northwest of Tunisia, Hammami’s journey to Guantánamo was far from straightforward. He originally left for Italy in 1986 in search of work, where he became involved with Tablighi Jamaat, a huge missionary organization that the Bush administration accused of being a front for terrorism, even though it has millions of members worldwide. As a result of his involvement with Tablighi Jamaat, he subsequently "traveled to Pakistan, where he obtained refugee status," but in 2002 he was seized by Pakistani forces — almost certainly for reasons connected with the bounty payments that the U.S. was making to its allies in exchange for handing al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects — and transferred to Guantánamo, where he was accused of training in Afghanistan and being involved with al-Qaeda, accusations that he denied, and that he continues to deny.

Hammami’s journey back to Tunisia was also far from straightforward. As Carlotta Gall explained, at the time of his release, "Tunisia was still a dictatorship under the rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and notorious for torturing prisoners, in particular Islamists." Instead of sending him home, therefore, the Obama administration, having approved him for release via the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office, sent him to the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Gall added that, "After the popular uprising in 2011 that overthrew Mr. Ben Ali and set off the Arab Spring, Mr. Hammami negotiated his return to Tunisia. He timed it well, benefiting from a national amnesty for political prisoners and a program of compensation that gave him a job in the Ministry of Health."

In one of several interviews conducted "in his rented home in a working-class suburb of Tunis," Hammami told Gall, "I hoped very much that after the revolution everything would get better."

However, as Gall reported, "soon after he began work in 2013, the police raided his apartment with dogs at 3 a.m., breaking the door and hauling him down to the police station." Adding insult to injury, Hammami noted, the police "made me crawl on all fours down the stairs."

At the police station, he reported that the police "said they just wanted to get to know him, and let him go after 15 minutes," but, as he put it, "That was just the beginning."

Since then, as Gall explained, he "has lived under a constant regimen of police surveillance, raids and harassment. His cellphone and computer were confiscated. When he moved to a new house, the police followed him, turning up at all hours to question him." Just over a year ago, in December 2015, the harassment increased. Hammami "was placed under house arrest, told he no longer had the right to work and ordered to sign in at the police station morning and evening for six weeks."

This punitive and unfair regime remains in place. Gall noted that Hammami is under what is described as "administrative control," and that the police "enforce the order at will." He is not allowed to travel outside Tunis, and "[e]very so often, like on Sept. 11, the police order him to sign in with them." Hammami described this last particularly charged humiliation as follows: "I feel someone is doing it for revenge." It is hard not to escape that conclusion, when his harassment increases on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, even though Hammami, of course, had nothing to do with those attacks.

Hammami also told Gall that the police have "scared landlords from renting to him, forcing him to move six times in three years," and that his Algerian wife’s residency card has been confiscated, which has prevented her from working to supplement his meager salary. She asked not to be named "for fear of further police harassment," but told Gall that the family was "barely managing" to get by.

As Gall described it, "Stress and tension from the police actions have intensified the psychological problems Mr. Hammami brought with him from Guantánamo." Describing it to her, he rubbed his temples, and said, "I feel too much pressure," adding, "All that blackness comes back."

Rim Ben Ismail, a psychologist working for the World Organization Against Torture in Tunisia, who has provided counseling to the 12 Tunisians who have been returned from Guantánamo, described his wish to return to his cell as being "fairly typical of the Guantánamo detainees."

"They lived with suffering, physical suffering," she said, adding that "now there is a psychic suffering, and often they say, 'Take me back there.'" She also stated, "Because of their past they are all presumed guilty and it is unlivable for all of them and their families. The families are being threatened and harassed." She further explained that the former prisoners’ parents, in particular, "fear the Tunisian security forces and say they think their sons would be safer in Guantánamo."

Ben Ismail also noted that raids on former prisoners’ homes "have often been needlessly violent," and that "police officials break down doors and wake a suspect with a gun to his head, often in front of his wife and children." As she said, "Everything is being done to create aggression in a person. They do not need to raid the house at 2 a.m."

She also explained that one of the former Guantánamo prisoners, who she treated, "was harassed so relentlessly by police that he became suicidal and ran off to Syria, where he was killed." Far from portraying him as a terrorist, however, she said, "He was such a gentle person. By treating these people like this you create a climate of revenge and the sense that they have no place at home."

No one would deny that there is a problem with terrorism in Tunisia — which, in 2015 and 2016, led to attacks on foreign tourists at a national museum and at a beach resort hotel that contributed to a death toll of over 70 people — and it is also noteworthy that Tunisians "reportedly make up the largest number of foreign fighters to have joined the Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq" — but the kind of random persecution to which Hedi Hammami is subjected serves no useful purpose.

After an attack on the Presidential Guard in November 2015, in which 12 soldiers were killed, a state of emergency was declared, and at least 139 Tunisians "have been placed under house arrest since, according to Human Rights Watch, which documented the cases in a report released in September," in which it was also noted that, although these responses "have been justified in the context of countering terrorism," they have also "left people facing stigmatization and unable to pursue studies and work."

Rights groups are becoming increasingly concerned by reports of increasing repression in Tunisia, which had an appalling human rights record before the Arab Spring and the toppling of the dictator Ben Ali. In "'We want an end to the fear': Abuses under Tunisia’s state of emergency," a report published on February 10, Amnesty International "accused the Tunisian police and security forces of employing repressive measures used by past dictatorships, including torture, deaths in custody, arbitrary house raids and often unlawful harassment of suspects, their families and communities," and, on a recent trip to Tunisia, Ben Emmerson, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights while countering terrorism, reminded the Tunisian government that "human rights should be central to counterterrorism operations, noting that torture and other repressive measures fuel radicalism."

For Hedi Hammami, however, the Tunisian authorities’ counter-terrorism measures are making his life intolerable. "I never committed a crime," he said, adding, "I don’t have a record, no theft, no ethics problems, nothing. My only demand is to be stable, but they don’t let me live my life in stability. They are pushing you towards death."