Concerns over the deteriorating health of ex-Guantanamo detainee Abdul Aziz Naji have angered groups fighting for his freedom after he was jailed again this week in his native Algeria for what they deem to be “baseless accusations.”
Naji, who is currently on hunger strike and enduring the pains of a prosthetic leg that isn’t the right fit, served an eight-year term at the notorious detention center Guantanamo Bay, only to be forced to return to Algeria in 2010.
Last week his fears of facing arbitrary detention became a reality when he was sentenced to three years prison by an Algerian court on a charge of “past membership in an extremist group overseas.”
“In our view, the accusations made against him were baseless and false, and could readily be proved,” says Naji’s U.S. attorney Ellen Lubell.
Before Algerian authorities handed down the guilty verdict, Naji was not permitted to speak at his court case, says Lubell, who represented him while he was in detention.
His eight-year streak at Guantanamo, meanwhile, has also remained a cloudy episode in his plight.
"It is outrageous that Aziz is being punished again for the same discredited accusations that the United States used to hold him in Guantanamo for eight years without charge or trial – this time in his own country,” says Katie Taylor of Reprieve, a London-based advocacy group monitoring Naji’s case.
Back in 2002, Naji traveled to Pakistan to work with a charity providing humanitarian assistance to Muslims and Christians in Kashmir, Reprieve notes.
But when he was one day advised by acquaintances to visit an Algerian residing in the city of Peshawar to help find a wife, both he and his host were arrested during a raid by the Pakistani police.
“The reason for the arrests was never explained,” states Reprieve. “In fact, the Pakistanis told Naji that they would release him. But instead, he was taken by Americans stationed in Peshawar and transferred first to Bagram and then to Guantánamo.”
Naji is now being held in the notorious El Harache prison in the capital, Algiers, where Amnesty International has reported brutal violations, prompting concern from his family.
His brother, Okba, says Naji is now on a hunger strike in protest against his latest unfair treatment in Algeria.
“He was not allowed to speak in court; the judge did not allow him,” says Okba, who was unable to attend the hearing in what was believed to have been a closed court session.
“He is not eating because he is not happy with what happened. His health is bad … He is stuck with a leg that does not fit him properly because it is too small,” Okba adds.
Naji suffers from complications as a result of the loss of his lower right leg before his capture in Pakistan after stepping on one of the many unexploded landmines that lace the region. He was taken to a hospital in Lahore where he was treated for several months and fit with a prosthetic leg.
In 2006, Lubell volunteered to represent a Naji while he was a Guantanamo detainee.
“We traveled to Guantanamo seven times and met with him in his cell,” says Lubell.
“He is someone we would have very happily had in our community – a very sweet man. We’d talk about our families, our upbringings. He went on hunger strike in Guantanamo too but had been protesting the treatment of fellow inmates … we came to have enormous care and respect for him – he was very strong in his conviction of right and wrong.”
Okba said that the case against his brother was “100 percent lies” and that the America government detained him for more than eight years “with no evidence.”
Habeas Corpus attempt
“We wanted to bring habeas corpus action in his trial, because you cannot simply jail someone without having evidence or a reason for his reason to imprisonment,” Lubell explained.
Habeas corpus is a Latin term meaning a writ, or legal action, through which a prisoner can be released from unlawful detention.
Although Lubell said she cannot go into too much detail due to the classified nature of the case, she says Naji was detained based only on “accusations made against him,” but not any charges.
But in 2009, the U.S. government did not permit the attorneys to proceed under habeas corpus “on the grounds that the Obama Task Force decision to transfer Guantanamo detainees makes any further action by the courts unnecessary,” Lubell states.
“When President Obama came into office [in 2009], he created a whole review team – because no one had ever looked to see whether there were cases against the detainees. He set up a taskforce made up of different state departments, reviewing each detainee’s case,” explained Lubell.
Indeed, things changed for Naji and many Guantanamo detainees when Obama took office. Soon after, the United States government determined that it was no longer in their interest to detain Naji.
“We told the Supreme Court not to send him back to Algeria because Naji was afraid that he’d become the object of terrorist recruitment or government mistreatment [after his Guantanamo past],” Lubell explained.
In 2008, Lubell had applied for Naji to seek asylum in Switzerland. Although the case is still pending, the chance of Naji heading to Switzerland was crushed after his sentencing in Algeria.
“We had hope,” says Lubell, “but the Supreme Court was divided and we lost our case for asylum and he was forced back to Algeria.”
Empty diplomatic assurances
What remains to be another cause for concern for Okba, was his belief that the United States had guaranteed Naji’s transfer would be safe in Algeria.
Although a guarantee is never made under and U.S. protocol, Lubell says there would have been a diplomatic assurance that the Algerian authorities follow the correct laws.
“But there is no way to enforce a diplomatic assurance,” Lubell argues. “[When repatriated,] people are thrown into prison; people are tortured. We try to argue that such assurances are not followed through, as with Naji’s case.”
“The United States doesn’t care – there’s no compensation, there’s nothing,” Lubell adds, in reference to Naji’s eight-year Guantanamo ordeal without being charged.
Meanwhile, an appeal of his sentence has been filed by Naji’s lawyer in Algeria requesting that he be released on bail pending retrial.
“Algerian authorities must restore his right to a fair trial and overturn his conviction on faulty charges for which the prosecutor did not even bother to introduce evidence," Reprieve’s Katie Taylor says, highlighting that no evidence was given for his sentencing in Algeria.
Many questions still remain over Naji’s mistreatment in Guantanamo. Okba says he had hoped Algerian authorities would have “stood by him and protected him after his unfair detainment” in Cuba.
But for Okba, what happened to his brother in Algeria was the polar opposite.
(Eman El-Shenawi, a writer at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)