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Guantanamo refugee rues asylum deal

BBC News
By Neil Arun
May 18, 2007

Tirana. "If you don't smile in Guantanamo Bay, you go crazy," Abu Mohammed says, smiling steadily.

The tall, bearded Algerian says he smiled every day for the four years the American military kept him prisoner.

Released from the prison camp last November, he appears cheerful.

But as he speaks of the family he still cannot meet, the smile grows strained and furrows line his bony forehead.

Abu Mohammed lives today against his will in Albania - an impoverished eastern European country whose language he does not speak.

Effectively a refugee, he lacks the papers to leave its borders.

"Those Americans brought me here by force. I refused to come here," he told the BBC News website, his voice rising, with his hands, in exasperation.

'Extraordinary rehabilitation'

The 44-year-old Algerian is the latest in a list of captives from the "war on terror" for whom the US has no further use. Though Washington wants to free them from custody, it cannot send them home because of concerns they may be tortured or killed.

Several such men have ended up, by bilateral agreement, in Albania - an American ally and the only nation that appears to be willing to grant asylum to men Washington recently regarded as terrorists.

At the ramshackle refugee centre on the outskirts of Tirana, Abu Mohammed has seven fellow graduates of Guantanamo keeping him company - an Egyptian, an Uzbek and five Uighur Muslims from western China.

Lawyers say more men could join them there, as US military tribunals grind through the cases of the 400-odd alleged enemy combatants still held without charge at Guantanamo.

Washington has long admitted using its allies' prisons for the detention and interrogation of freshly-captured terror suspects - a process it calls "extraordinary rendition".

But Albania is alone among America's allies in accepting terror suspects the US can't send back to their home countries, in a process one can only describe as "extraordinary rehabilitation".

'Poor planning'

Abu Mohammed is at the sharp end of this process and his story illustrates its imperfections.

As a de facto refugee, he cannot leave the country to be re-united with his family. Neither can they join him to live in Albania.

His six children are at school and speak only French and Arabic. Abu Mohammed says their education would suffer if they moved.

Moreover, he would not be able to support them. A doctor by training, Abu Mohammed's lack of Albanian language skills means he cannot practice here. "I studied medicine in French," he says. "Here I have to learn everything from the start."

The US State Department has not answered the BBC News website's requests to comment on Abu Mohammed's case.

In the past, the department has praised Albania as the only country willing to offer former Guantanamo inmates asylum and has urged other candidates to come forward.

But according to Trip Mackintosh, Abu Mohammed's American lawyer, "few countries have any incentive to help Washington out".

Having depicted the men at Guantanamo Bay as bloodthirsty fanatics, he says the Bush administration is now having trouble convincing its allies to offer some of them asylum.

"It is a very telling example of just how profoundly poor the planning was for Guantanamo that you have to treat Albania as a dumping ground for men like Abu Mohammed," Mr Mackintosh says.

Arab enclave


Abu Mohammed left Algeria as a young man in 1989, soon after graduating in medicine.

He says curiosity and charitable urges drove him to Pakistan, which at the time was flooded with refugees from the conflict in Afghanistan.

He found work treating needy Afghans at clinics set up by Arab aid agencies in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar.

Back in Algeria, meanwhile, simmering tensions between Islamists and the army spilled into civil war. Abu Mohammed's brother was killed.

He decided he was safer staying in Pakistan and successfully claimed asylum there.

A bride was arranged for him in Algeria. She joined him in Pakistan and became the mother of his six children.

Through the 1990s, Abu Mohammed worked at Arab-funded clinics. His family found a home away from home in an enclave of Arab expatriates.

"It was a quiet life," he says. "I had enough work. There was an Arabic school and my children studied there."

Never charged

The idyll was up-ended when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Peshawar's cloistered Arabs suddenly found themselves under the spotlight.

Seven months after the 11 September attacks, Pakistani special police burst into Abu Mohammed's house.

"It was eleven or twelve in the night. I was home with my wife, my children, sleeping," he says. "They told me there were searching for a Syrian man, my neighbour. He was not home. They took me away instead."

Among the police that led him away, Abu Mohammed recalls seeing two foreign men in civilian clothes. He believes they were Americans.

Two weeks later, he found himself a prisoner of American troops in Bagram air base in Afghanistan.

He was then flown to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. During his four years in captivity, he was never charged with any crime.

He says he spent most of his time there thinking of his family and of the sixth child he has never seen, born to his wife just after his arrest.

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