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The Algerian Six

Huffington Post World
Seema Jilani
August 24, 2009

Seven months after his release from Guantanamo Bay, Mustafa Ait Idr cautiously sips coffee in a Sarajevo café. His face is still partially paralyzed and numb from when guards pinned him onto gravel and jumped on him. He is nursing a broken finger -- punishment for refusing to strip naked in his cell. On another occasion, his head was held in a toilet for prolonged periods of time. Now a free man, Ait Idr proudly displays his Bosnian ID card, which was only recently reinstated. He is still unable to find employment or access his bank accounts, which were frozen shortly after his arrest in 2001. He has seen his wife twice in the past seven years; upon his release, he met his youngest son for the first time.

Ait Idr is one of "The Algerian Six," a group of Bosnian citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay for seven years and recently released with all charges dropped. The Algerian men came to Bosnia in the 1990s. Upon demand from US officials, the men were arrested in October 2001 on allegations that they were planning an attack on the US Embassy in Sarajevo. During a meeting between international officials, Christopher Hoh, the US chargé d'affaires, reportedly told the then Bosnian Prime Minister, Alija Behmen, that the US would cut all diplomatic relations if the men were not arrested. "If we leave Bosnia, God save your country," Hoh said, according to documents filed by the detainees' American lawyers, the Wilmer Hale law firm. The US Embassy temporarily closed during this time. Behmen, leader of a fragile, post-conflict country, noted, "We were not interested in introducing a new period of instability in Bosnia." Within a week, Bosnian police detained "The Algerian Six": Hajj Boudella, Lakhdar Boumediene, Mustafa Ait Idr, Mohammad Nechle, Saber Lahmar and Bensayah Belkacem.

After a three-month long Bosnian investigation found no evidence linking the men to terrorist activities or justifying their detainment, the Bosnian Supreme Court ordered their immediate release. High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch stated, "the US put a tremendous amount of pressure" on Bosnia to deport the men. Vijay Padmanabhan, a lawyer for The State Department, denied the charge, claiming, "The US does not threaten or intimidate." Christopher Hoh never offered any official comment.

On the bitterly cold evening of January 17, 2002, over 150 protestors arrived at the Sarajevo courthouse, anticipating the US would seize the men. In an interview in Sarajevo, Boudella's wife, Nadja Dizdarevic, recalls the last time she saw her husband. "Through the car window, he said we were only little pawns in a big political game," she says, blue eyes peering from behind her gray burqa.

Three days later, illegally stripped of their Bosnian citizenship, the men arrived handcuffed and blindfolded at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, where they spent the following seven years, despite original allegations being repeatedly discredited. Held without legal representation for three years, Wilmer Hale took on the case pro bono in 2004. Stephen Oleskey, an attorney on the case, declares, "Virtually every claim made by the US government to justify our clients' illegal rendition was eventually dropped. There was never any real evidence."

One detainee, Nechle, was flagged because of his mandatory service in the Algerian army a decade ago, as a cook. Ait Idr was presumed dangerous because he taught Bosnian orphans martial arts. Military tribunal transcripts reveal one US officer saying, "At this point, we don't know why you are being accused of being a member of the Armed Islamic Group... Do you have any idea why you are being connected with this group?"

"I don't know," Boudella replied.

In June 2008, the landmark Supreme Court case, Boumediene v. Bush, allowed enemy combatants to seek judicial review of their detainment, reinstating habeas corpus. Four months later, Judge Richard Leon released five of the men and continued detention of the sixth, stating, "To allow enemy combatancy to rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this court's obligation... This is a unique case." In a nod to the Obama Administration's pledge to close Guantanamo Bay, President Sarkozy accepted the plaintiff, Lakhmar Boumediene, in May 2009, allowing him to settle in France.

Upon his release, Boumediene necessitated 11 days of treatment in a French hospital. During an interview in Paris, he reveals scars from shackles and nasal skin breakdown from forced tube-feedings. "I lived in a nightmare for seven years. Even animals are treated better." Boumediene recalls the cold isolation rooms he endured without clothes and interrogation under bright lights, with Arabic translators who frequently made mistakes in translation. "I went to the bathroom shackled, with guards. They didn't let me sleep for 16 days," he says, confirming violation of the Geneva Conventions.

One concern surrounding Guantanamo closure is that detainment may have created terrorists of men who were not. But Boumediene denies feelings of revenge. "I have no problems with the American people. My problem is with Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. I expected more from the great democracy of the US, but they failed me and played games with my life."

The remaining detainee, Belkacem, is the only European citizen still in Guantanamo custody. In 2001, the US reportedly tapped his mobile phone conversations with Abu Zabaydah, allegedly an Al-Qaeda operative. In an interview in Bosnia, Anela Belkacem, Bensayah's wife, states they did not have enough money to own a mobile phone. According to Oleskey, "The Bosnian police couldn't even get this number to work." Anela claims her husband "has been sacrificed... No one wants to admit they made a big mistake in detaining these men."

The released prisoners face overcoming psychological and physical trauma, reintegrating into society and returning to fragmented lives. Nadja Dizdarevic was an avid supporter of her husband during his internment, but within months of his return, the couple divorced. "We remain good friends. People change in seven years. My children grew up overnight. They didn't watch cartoons, they watched the news."

Despite complete exoneration, the men's citizenship is uncertain in some cases, they are blacklisted and claim to be followed by unmarked cars regularly. Boumediene says, "My daughter does not recognize me. I didn't see my wife for seven years. I lost everything. Who will give me these years back?"

Currently, Belkacem remains in Guantanamo Bay custody pending his appeal, Boumediene lives in France and Nechle in Algeria. Ait Idr and Boudella are unemployed in Sarajevo, awaiting reinstatement of their citizenship and bank accounts. Bosnia acknowledged to the Council of Europe that it breached the European Convention on Human Rights by participating in extra-judicial extraordinary rendition at the request of the US. The Council has accused over 20 countries of collaborating with CIA rendition flights to secret prisons, where torture is know to occur.

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