Nancy Durham, wearing an abaya, in conversation with (left to right) Juma al-Dossary, Bender Ahmad al-Jabry and Major Omar Al-Kahtani of the Ministry of the Interior at a Saudi government rehab centre near Riyadh. (Seamus Mirodan/Insight News TV)
What it's like to be home from Guantánamo Bay
February 12, 2008
As the inmate population at the U.S. detention centre at Guantánamo Bay dwindles, there is a new problem developing for the home countries of those caught up like this in America's war on terror: What exactly do you do with hundreds of men who have been locked up without trial for years on end?
Watch: Saudi government film revealing the state's routine procedure for returning Guantanamo Bay detainees to the Kingdom. A jumbo jet is sent to Cuba to collect detainees who are then treated by doctors on the journey home. (8:07)
While many countries are just beginning to make plans, Saudi Arabia already has its procedure down pat. Repatriation Saudi-style is part of a complex de-radicalization program the country uses to help all ex-detainees re-integrate into society whether they're just out of Guantánamo Bay or insurgents picked up off the streets of Baghdad.
If there are Saudi nationals about to be released from U.S. detention, the government sends a jumbo jet to Cuba with psychologists and medical staff on board to help with the transfer home.
A government film crew documents the ritual in detail: Dazed looking prisoners now unshackled and dressed in clean white uniforms are welcomed on board and their treatment begins on the flight itself.
Upon landing, these men are reunited with family members and then sent to prison where they are interrogated and usually charged, often with having left the country illegally. Then they are generally sentenced to a short prison term where the psychological and religious counselling, which began on board the flight home, continues.
During their imprisonment, these men are given exams to write to try to gauge their state of mind and if they show promise at this they are eligible to attend a government-run rehabilitation centre north of Riyadh, where they are segregated — those from Guantánamo Bay, for example, are treated separately from those who were captured more recently in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Here they spend two more months in counselling and religious education, their last stop before freedom.
Ask the Americans
During my visit to the rehab centre recently, I spent two hours with three former detainees from Guantánamo Bay, two of them Saudi and one originally from Bahrain.
They had been repatriated to Saudi Arabia just four months earlier. For most of the visit we sat on rich red rugs in a modest building in which the interior had been transformed into a striped tent. All three of the men — Juma al-Dossary, Bender Ahmad al-Jabry and Hamood, who declined to give his last name, were welcoming.
Juma al-Dossary, a self-proclaimed romantic who tried to kill himself on 13 different occasions while in detention at Guantánamo Bay (Nancy Durham/CBC)
I asked al-Dossary, the 33-year-old from Bahrain, why he had been taken to Guantánamo in the first place but his answer was not very clear. None of the former detainees wanted to discuss the past. Whether it is the trauma of what happened to them, or the fear of putting their impending freedom at risk I do not know.
Al-Dossary suggested I ask the American government why he was locked up, which I did. U.S. Navy commander Rick Haupt, director of public affairs, at Guantánamo Bay referred me to al-Dossary’s Combatant Status Review Tribunal transcript, which details al-Dossary’s international travels and feisty preaching style during a visit to the U.S.
It does not, however, reveal any evidence for the American claim that he was at Tora Bora. (see "Juma’s story" below). Haupt explained that "many detainees were detained based upon additional information that remains classified" and pointed out by e-mail that America's "enemies are brutal and do not fight according to the laws of war."
Haupt went on to argue that wartime detention "prevents enemy combatants from continuing the fight, is not punishment for a crime and does not require criminal charges." Al-Dossary insists he had gone to Afghanistan only to help people, not to fight. During the sweep after 9/11, he says he was captured and sold to the Americans for $5,000 by people claiming he was a member of al-Qaeda.
As for his time at Guantánamo Bay, he repeatedly referred me to the internet and to his New York lawyer, Joshua Colangelo-Bryan who told me he had spent years worrying whether al-Dossary would even survive detention because he had tried to kill himself on more than one occasion.
"I worried because after years of being held in isolation he had become completely despondent and hopeless," Colangelo-Bryan said of his client. "It is such a personal relief to know now that he is home, that he is with his family and that he is feeling positive about life."
Living for today, or tomorrow?
There is something of a young Woody Allen about the 29-year-old bespectacled Bender al-Jabry who readily told me, smiling, that yes he did go to Afghanistan to train to fight with Chechen rebels, fellow Muslims, against the Russians.
While in Afghanistan, he says, he was taken prisoner and sold to the Americans for $10,000. He says his torture started in Kandahar and continued for six years. He told me that while he was at Gitmo, he spent three and a half years in solitary confinement.
Both al-Dossary and al-Jabry say they live for the future now. Only Hamood, 34, said he could neither forget nor forgive his six-year ordeal.
His story is that he went to Afghanistan before 9/11 "just to help the poor people" and that afterward, when he saw "Americans threatening Afghans, Taliban and al-Qaeda," he decided "that's not my business" and left Afghanistan via the notorious Tora Bora region on the border with Pakistan, the presumed hiding place of Osama bin Laden.
Hamood says he turned to the Pakistani army for help, explaining that he was from Saudi Arabia and that he needed to call his embassy. "They told me 'OK that's fine, we're going to take you to a nice place to get some rest.'"
He shakes his head at the memory, explaining that he was then given to U.S. forces who took him first to Kandahar and then to Guantánamo Bay, in the American-controlled portion of Cuba, "asking myself for six years what did I do?"
Now he says, he keeps his anger under control. "But I don't forgive. I'm asking God to get me my revenge, soon, because I'm still a human being. How [can] I forget six years from my life? It's not a short time."
'I'm a romantic'
Ex-Guantanamo Bay detainees participate in art therapy sessions at rehab. Al-Jabry's work uses a bright yellow eye to represent Cuba in a sea of murky waters. His art therapist, Dr. Awad Alyami, says the "eye symbolizes seeing, observing things" and, studying the piece Alyami says, "things get confused for him so he just hurries up and leaves" the work unfinished.
Alyami also says the work shows al-Jabry is happy to be back among his family and people. "Most of them have told us they were not sure they would see their families again."
There were certainly times when al-Dossary thought he would never see his family again. When I said goodbye to him at the rehab centre, however, I left a man in an upbeat mood musing about finding a wife.
Then he added, "And by the way I'm romantic!" He insists he has forgotten the negative experiences of his detention since he has come home and that he has been "reborn" into a "new life" where every minute counts.
His first marriage ended in divorce and now he is getting reacquainted with his 13-year-old daughter. He told me his family comes first and he wants to spend as much time as possible with his mother, sisters and brothers. His father died while he was in Guantánamo Bay.
Throughout his incarceration at the Guantáanamo Bay detention centre, Juma al-Dossary made repeated allegations of torture. Such allegations are extremely difficult to prove. Few witnesses have come forward from the controversial U.S.-run centre.
But in al-Dossary's case, his New York-based lawyer Joshua Colangelo-Bryan says there is proof and it lies in Erik Saar's 2005 book, Inside the Wire: A Military Intelligence Soldier's Eyewitness Account of Life at Guantáanamo.
Saar worked as an army interpreter at Guantáanamo. In his book, he spends several pages discussing the case of Halim, a pseudonym for a detainee from Bahrain, which is where al-Dossary comes from.
"Due to U.S. classification guidelines," Saar told me by e-mail, "I could not use any real names of detainees in the book. Likewise, while I would love to talk I am unable to confirm or deny any story that relates to any specific detainee or former detainee."
In the book, though, Saar describes two suicide attempts by this particular detainee. One takes place in a shower. The second has Halim trying to scrape enough paint off the walls of the cells to poison himself.
Saar goes on to document how Halim was "introduced" to the Initial Response Force or IRF at Guantáanamo: "Getting IRFed at X-ray meant receiving a good old-fashioned whipping, after which the lucky detainee would be hogtied — made to kneel with his hands behind his back and his hand and foot shackles locked together — for four hours."
Saar then describes a second beating after which Halim's "face was black and blue." Clearly shaken by what he saw, Saar says he wondered "if he [Halim] had helped al Qaeda or the Taliban, or if other circumstances had brought him to Gitmo. And I wondered if we really had anything on him."
Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer who was involved in UN war crimes prosecutions in Kosovo, is adamant that Halim is his client Juma al-Dossary.
"The most telling detail is that he talks about being brought to the scene of this detainee's suicide attempt in a shower," Colangelo-Bryan says. He recalls al-Dossary also telling him about the paint-eating incident and the so-called IRFing.
"We represented all Bahrainis at Gitmo and none of this matches anybody else. There is no doubt at all that this is Juma," Colangelo-Bryan says.
According to Colangelo-Bryan, al-Dossary was in a severe state of depression while in detention and attempted suicide on 13 separate occasions. "I feel like our job of keeping him alive and getting him home is done and now he and I are able to enjoy something approaching a normal friendship."
He also says it was never clear what the U.S. government's case was against al-Dossary. It said "The detainee was present at Tora Bora," the mountainous hideaway separating Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But, says Colangelo-Bryan, "There is no allegation as to when he supposedly was at Tora Bora, what if anything he supposedly did, or with whom, at Tora Bora. They say simply that at some unspecified time he was at Tora Bora."
The Pentagon also alleges that al-Dossary received insurgent training in Afghanistan in 1989. That would have been when he was an overweight 16-year-old and visiting Afghanistan, he acknowledges, on a Saudi government-sponsored trip.
Al-Dossary was also in Azerbaijan and, later, Bosnia, in 1995. But not to fight, his lawyer says. In fact, he went to Bosnia to try to find a blond Muslim wife.
According to Colangelo-Bryan, "Juma says he didn't do any fighting at all. He was very obese at that time. Not that you can't have a fat foot soldier, I suppose. But the normal profile is not a guy who is 5' 7" and 230 pounds or whatever. They don't allege that he fought in Bosnia. Had they alleged that he fought they would be simply alleging that he fought against troops we[NATO] bombed.
"It's an established principle that if a state wants to hold someone, it has to come up with at least a minimal explanation as to why. It is impossible to prove that anyone has never engaged in any kind of terrorist activity. It can't be done, but if all the government alleges is that Juma was present at Tora Bora on what basis can a reasonable person call him a terrorist? It can't be enough that he was Arab and apprehended in Pakistan to qualify him as an enemy combatant."