WikiLeaks uncovers Canadian detainee mystery
U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks have exposed a troubling case of a mentally ill Canadian-Egyptian held in a U.S.-run Afghanistan prison for more than 18 months.
Khaled Samy Abdallah Ismail, an Egyptian-born engineer, was captured in April 2006 and held at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the cables say.
The American military held Ismail at Bagram — a prison dubbed the "other Guantanamo" — until at least October 2007 and often relegated him to segregation despite "largely circumstantial" evidence against him, while they debated whether to send him to Egypt or Canada. Ismail is the only known Canadian to be held in Bagram for that length of time.
Canadian consular officials paid their first visit to the dual citizen eight months after his capture, but another nine months passed before Canada suddenly refocused on the case and hatched a plan to bring him to Ontario, according to the cables from March and October of 2007.
Then the paper trail goes cold, shrouding his case in mystery and leaving unanswered questions about how he ended up in Afghanistan and what happened to him.
Through sources, court documents and the two leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, CBC News has pieced together a partial picture of Ismail's life in Canada and strange journey to war-torn Afghanistan.
Those who met Ismail before and during his time in detention characterize him as a conflicted personality: sometimes gentle, thoughtful and likable, and other times angry and hate-filled.
In documents obtained by CBC News, Ismail described himself as a five feet seven inches tall, good-looking Egyptian Muslim with dark hair, light brown eyes, who is an honest and hard-working professional.
The highly educated computer systems engineer studied in Cairo, then lived in Europe before moving to Canada in 1995. In the years that followed, Ismail became disillusioned with his new home, his hopes and dreams replaced by anger, frustration and depression.
Though he had landed a job in Oakville, Ont., soon after arriving in Canada, by the following year Ismail was dismissed. He alleged discrimination and filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
As his case wound through the commission's system, Ismail — frustrated by the years-long process and alleging discrimination again — began sending the commission employees and media outlets a barrage of sexually explicit cartoons that called the workers lazy, liars, whores and racists. Their investigation, Ismail wrote in a cartoon, turned out "to be a big 'FAKE.'"
By the summer of 1999, Ismail was living in Burnaby, B.C. Two years later, he relocated again to Chilliwack. His troubles in Ontario, however, followed him west. Four human rights commission employees sued him for libel over the emailed cartoons.
On Sept. 29, 2001, a B.C. civil court judge ordered him to stop publishing the "oppressive, reckless, vindictive" material and ordered him to pay $6,500 in damages.
But for Ismail, the damage was already done. "All his dreams and hopes of a new 'peaceful' land among decent people have all vanished and collapsed … which will definitely affect all his future," he wrote in the third-person in his statement of defence.
His whereabouts over the next four years are unknown. One source told CBC News that Ismail departed on a years-long trip described as a "spiritual quest."
Captured in Kandahar
By the spring of 2006, Ismail had surfaced in Afghanistan outside the Kandahar governor's palace, "acting suspicious" and holding a bag filled with electronic wires and components, said a source familiar with the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Afghans handed Ismail over to American forces, and in May 2006 he was admitted to the Bagram Theater Internment Facility — a large former Soviet aircraft hangar north of Kabul that had been converted into a U.S. prison after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Americans confiscated Ismail's Canadian passport and expired Egyptian passport, assigned him internment serial number US9EG002770DP, and medically assessed him as mentally sound but "narcissistic and arrogant," according to U.S. diplomatic cables.
Everyone on the American and Canadian side recognized that he shouldn't have been in Bagram at all.
The Americans, who categorized him as a "low-level, low-threat enemy combatant," grappled with jurisdictional issues over who should deal with him, the Egyptians or the Canadians, but in the end would be swayed by Ismail's health troubles and Canada-U.S. detainee history.
On Jan. 11, 2007, more than eight months after his capture, officials from the Canadian Embassy in Kabul paid their first consular visit to Ismail, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable dated March 4, 2007. Ismail declared that he was not renouncing his Canadian citizenship. Canadian officials questioned the U.S. on the reasons for detention and whether a medical professional had examined Ismail.
By February, Ismail had suffered a psychotic break and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The short, muscular man sank to a physical and mental low, refusing food and medication by mouth and losing significant weight. He was segregated and administered intravenous anti-schizophrenia medication.
Initially, U.S. military officials had considered sending Ismail to Egypt for "continued detention," but then decided to ask Canada to accept transfer of the dual Egyptian-Canadian citizen and suggested an Afghanistan-based Canadian physician assess Ismail.
U.S. diplomatic cables suggest that Ismail's illness partly spurred the Americans to reconsider how to handle his case. Political fallout from the extraordinary rendition of Syrian-born Canadian, Maher Arar, also gave the U.S. pause.
'Capture a mistake'
A source familiar with the case says the bag of electronics Ismail was carrying at the time of his capture had been deemed benign.
Bagram detention facility
Bagram Theater Internment Facility is the original name of the U.S. military's largest detention centre in Afghanistan for alleged insurgents. It was recently rebuilt and renamed the Parwan Detention Facility.
Located 80 kilometres north of Kabul on a former Soviet airfield, the Bagram detention facility was located in a cavernous aircraft hangar.
Two detainees died in the facility in 2002 after being beaten by American troops. In the facility's early years, detainees complained of torture, but recently describe improved living conditions.
Human rights groups, however, still criticize the U.S. for detaining people for lengthy periods without charge or trial.
The names of the detainees at the secretive facility are not public information, however, the Americans released a list in September 2009. That list has not been updated.
In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a review of detainee operations and introduced changes, such as revealing some evidence against detainees and allowing them to argue for release.
The facility's population continues to grow. As of Aug. 31, 2011, more than 2,400 individuals were being held there by the U.S.
For more on Bagram, read 'The other Guantanamo.'
"Everyone on the American and Canadian side recognized that [Ismail] shouldn't have been in Bagram at all," the source told CBC News.
A former detainee, Dr. Ghairat Baheer, who spent four years in Bagram and says he knew Ismail in detention, characterized Ismail's capture as a mistake.
"He was not captured as a fighter or a warrior," Baheer said in a telephone interview from Islamabad. "He was there for no reason and [he was] suffering because he was not expecting what was happening to him."
Even though Ismail was deemed a low threat, Baheer says the Egyptian-Canadian rarely spent time with the general population. U.S. diplomatic cables confirm Ismail was in "chronic segregation," noting the measure was meant to protect him.
"He was not a very religious person," said Baheer. "And because of his Western style … the other detainees were not mixing with him. And sometimes he was hated by other detainees."
The U.S. diplomatic cables suggest the Americans were eager to approve Ismail’s transfer and had determined he was captured on "circumstantial evidence."
But it was not until 18 months after his capture that Canadian officials appeared to take heightened interest in Ismail's case.
It came into "Canadian government focus now because of a recent Canadian Access to Information [Act] request about Canadian detainees in Afghanistan," a Canadian consular official, Victoria Fuller, told Americans, according to an Oct. 23, 2007, cable.
Plan for return
U.S. Embassy officials suggested that the military fly Ismail to the U.S., whereupon Canada would transfer him across the border. Canadian officials said Ismail would then be offered a mental health assessment in Ontario to determine whether he should be admitted into an institution.
Ismail had to consent to such an assessment, explained the Canadian officials, but added that "police could intervene if Mr. Ismail demonstrated behaviour that could be detrimental to him or the public." Ismail also faced credit card fraud charges in Canada, they noted.
A detainee medical record summary provided by American officials in late October 2007, suggested Ismail, who was functioning well and off anti-psychotic medication, was unlikely to seek mental health help. "Currently, he does not feel like there is anything wrong with him," read his prognosis report.
What happened to Ismail next is unknown.
Former Bagram detainee, Baheer, told CBC News he last saw Ismail in late 2007.
"I saw him before his release, one day before and he told me that all arrangement had been done and he had some meeting with a Canadian official as well," he said. "According to him, he was supposed to be released."
Because of his own experiences as a detainee, Baheer remains suspicious of official promises, saying most detainees are "not told exactly what is going to be their destiny" and sometimes end up transferred instead to other detention facilities.
A Foreign Affairs spokesperson told CBC News that Canada helped transfer a Canadian individual from the Bagram facility to Canada. "Consular officials from the Canadian Embassy in Kabul conducted regular visits and provided consular assistance as required," Emmanuelle Lamoureux wrote in an email.
The spokesperson wouldn't confirm or deny it was Ismail, citing privacy concerns.
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Queries were made by CBC News to learn more about Ismail's case via the Access to Information Act. But requests to Foreign Affairs were denied, due to national defence and privacy concerns.
The U.S. departments of State and Defence refused to comment on the case.
Attempts by CBC News to find Ismail were unsuccessful.
Ismail is the only known Canadian to have been held at the Bagram detention facility other than Omar Khadr, who spent approximately four months there before being transferred to Guantanamo.
Human rights experts say Ismail's case raises questions about whether other Canadians have been held in the infamous prison. But for Baheer, the questions focus solely on his fellow detainee's fate.
"I'm asking you, what happened to him actually?" asked Baheer. "I'm concerned about him."
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