Recently Released Gitmo Detainee Talks to ABC News
by Jake Tapper, Karen Travers, and Stephanie Z. Smith
June 8, 2009
Held Seven Years, Former Aid Worker Tells ABC News He Was Tortured
For 71⁄2 years, Lakhdar Boumediene was known simply by a number: "10005."
These were the digits assigned to him when he arrived at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, swept up in a post-Sept. 11 dragnet and accused of plotting to blow up the U.S. and British Embassies in Sarajevo.
In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Boumediene said the interrogators at Gitmo never once asked him about this alleged plot, which he denied playing any part it.
"I'm a normal man," said Boumediene, who at the time of his arrest worked for the Red Crescent, providing help to orphans and others in need. "I'm not a terrorist."
The 43-year-old Algerian is now back with his wife and two daughters, a free man in France after a Republican judge found the evidence against Boumediene lacking. He is best known from the landmark Supreme Court case last year, Boumediene v. Bush, which said detainees have the right to challenge their detention in court.
That decision was a stunning rebuke of the Bush administration's policies on terror suspects. It set up a ruling by District Court Judge Richard Leon, a former counsel to Republicans in Congress appointed to the bench by Bush, that there was no credible evidence to keep Boumediene detained.
After what Boumediene described as a 71⁄2 year nightmare, he is now a free man. Boumediene: "I don't think. I'm sure" about torture.
In 2001, Boumediene, his wife and two young daughters lived in Sarajevo, Bosnia. He worked for the Red Crescent Society, having done stints for the organization in Pakistan and Albania.
He was arrested by Bosnian police in October 2001 and charged with conspiring to blow up the U.S. and British Embassies. He called the charges false and ludicrous.
"They search my car, my office, nothing. Cell phone, nothing. Nothing. Nothing," he said.
The charges were dropped, and the Bosnian courts ordered him and five others freed. But under pressure from the Bush administration, the Bosnian government handed him over to the U.S. military.
On January 17, 2002, Boumediene's hands and feet were placed in shackles, and he was put on a military plane en route to Guantanamo Bay. It was a time of high anxiety, and the Bush administration was taking no chances.
Two weeks later, in his State of the Union address, President Bush touted the arrests in Bosnia to show early progress in the war on terror.
"Our soldiers, working with the Bosnian government, seized terrorists who were plotting to bomb our embassy," Bush said in his address. To this day, officials of the Bush administration have provided no credible evidence to back up that accusation.
Boumediene said the interrogations began within one week of his arrival at the facility in Cuba. But he thought that his cooperation, and trust in the United States, would serve him well and quicken his release.
"I thought America, the big country, they have CIA, FBI. Maybe one week, two weeks, they know I am innocent. I can go back to my home, to my home," he said.
But instead, Boumediene said he endured harsh treatment for more than seven years. He said he was kept awake for 16 days straight, and physically abused repeatedly.
Asked if he thought he was tortured, Boumediene was unequivocal.
"I don't think. I'm sure," he said.
Boumediene described being pulled up from under his arms while sitting in a chair with his legs shackled, stretching him. He said that he was forced to run with the camp's guards and if he could not keep up, he was dragged, bloody and bruised.
He described what he called the "games" the guards would play after he began a hunger strike, putting his food IV up his nose and poking the hypodermic needle in the wrong part of his arm.
"You think that's not torture? What's this? What can you call this? Torture or what?" he said, indicating the scars he bears from tight shackles. "I'm an animal? I'm not a human?"
Vice President Dick Cheney has been adamant in his defense of the Guantanamo detention center and the treatment of those held there.
Last week Cheney said, "The facility down there is a fine facility. These people are very well treated."
Oddly, Boumediene said no one at Gitmo ever asked him about the alleged plot to blow up the embassies in Sarajevo. They wanted to know what he knew about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, he recounted, which was nothing.
Boumediene said it was in his interest to lie to the interrogators, who would reward the detainees if they admitted guilt.
"If I tell my interrogator, I am from Al Qaeda, I saw Osama bin Laden, he was my boss, I help him, they will tell me, 'Oh you are a good man,'" he said. "But if I refuse ? I tell them I'm innocent, never was I terrorist, never never, they tell me. 'You are, you are not cooperating, I have to punch you.'"
After nearly four years locked up, Boumediene went on a hunger strike to protest his treatment.
He said he had believed that the United States honored religious diversity but believed guards at Guantanamo took actions to disrespect his religious beliefs. "They shaved my beard, because they don't respect me, because the guards they don't let me sleep. They don't let me read my Koran, they don't let me pray normal like people like Muslim outside the Guantanamo," he said.
Boumediene broke his hunger strike just twice over 21⁄2 years -- first, when he learned of Barack Obama's election win and next when Judge Leon ordered his release.
Despite the harsh treatment and uncertainty over his fate, Boumediene said he did not want to die because he had something to live for back home.
"Every day, I think about my wife and my daughters," he said.
Boumediene's personal effects were taken from him at Guantanamo, including his wedding ring. He now has a stack of letters, that his wife wrote to him that never arrived, a "return to sender" stamp on the envelope.
"Over there you lose all the hopes, you lose all hope," he said. "Any good news, they don't want you to be happy."
It took more than six years before Boumediene started to receive good news.
Boumediene v. Bush
Last summer, in a landmark war-time decision, the Supreme Court ruled that terror suspects held at Guantanamo have a constitutional right to challenge their detention in federal court.
The decision was a harsh rebuke to the Bush administration's system for detaining and eventually trying terror suspects.
In a blistering dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said allowing federal judges, rather than military officials, to release terror suspects could have disastrous consequences.
"The game of bait-and-switch that today's opinion plays upon the nation's commander in chief will make the war harder on us. It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed," he wrote.
Boumediene saw the 5-4 decision as his first victory against President Bush. His second came last November when Judge Leon ruled that the evidence against Boumediene was weak -- a "thin reed," he called it -- and ordered his release from Guantanamo.
The Bush administration never charged him with conspiring to blow up the embassies. Rather they said Boumediene and others had been planning to travel to Afghanistan to fight the United States.
To mark the occasion, Boumediene made himself a T-shirt that, like a soccer scoreboard, reads, "Boumediene: 2, Bush: 0."
Last month, in a tearful ceremony at an airport outside Paris, Boumediene was reunited with his family. His daughters, who were toddlers when he was detained, are 13 and 9 years old.
"I cried, just cried. Because I don't know my daughters," he said. "The younger, when I moved from Bosnia to Gitmo, she had 18 months, only 18 months. Now 9 years. Now she's big. Between 18 months, baby and 9 years, she walking, she's talking, she play, she's joking. It's a big difference."
Because of his hunger strike, Boumediene was not in good health when he arrived in France. He was treated at a military hospital and could not eat regular food at first.
After he was released from the hospital, he went with his wife and daughters to enjoy a first meal as a family in seven and a half year. On the menu? Pizza.
Sarkozy, Obama Work Out Detainee Plan
At the request of the White House, France agreed to take in Boumediene. Obama spoke with French President Nikolas Sarkozy on April 3 in Strasbourg France about the possibility of taking in prisoners released from Guantanamo.
"If then the President of the United States says, I'm going to close down Guantanamo, but I need my allies to take -- in this particular instance, this one person -- into our prisons, because this is going to help me, the U.S. President, to shut down this base -- if we are consistent, then we say, yes," Sarkozy said that day.
But neither the US nor French governments thought Boumediene needed to be imprisoned. He is a free man, trying to figure out what to do next.
Three others from his group are back in Bosnia. Two remain in Guantanamo.
Obama personally thanked Sarkozy on Saturday in France.
"I very much appreciate President Sarkozy's leadership on a whole range of issues," he said, including, "France's willingness to accept a Guantanamo detainee."
Boumediene: "I try to forget Guantanamo"
Boumediene said he understands, to a degree, how the attacks of Sept. 11 prompted strong reactions from the U.S. government.
"The first month, okay, no problem, the building, the 11 of September, the people, they are scared, but not 7 years. They can know whose innocent, who's not innocent, who's terrorist, who's not terrorist," he said.
"I give you 2 years, no problem, but not 7 years."
Boumediene stressed that he has no problem with the American people but could not hide his anger against Bush and other senior administration officials who he called "stupid."
"Myself, I try to forget Guantanamo, I can't forget the four or five people, they are stupid, they are very very stupid. I can't forget them," he said.
Boumediene and his attorney said they are considering a lawsuit against the U.S. government but more importantly, they say, he needs money to survive.
"I think that he needs to have an income paid to him for the rest of his life," said his attorney, Robert Kirsch of the law firm WilmerHale. "His family essentially has been thrown into poverty because of a mistake that we made seven-and-a-half years ago. What he needs is a chance to get back where he would have been."
As for Boumediene's allegations of abuse, the Pentagon said, "Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values, endangers our security and is not tolerated. All credible allegations of abuse are thoroughly investigated and, when substantiated, individuals are held accountable for their actions."
ABC News' Christophe Schpoliansky contributed to the story.
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