Middle East

09.02.134:45 AM ET

Lifting The Veil With Souad Mekhennet: Life After Gitmo

Two former detainees talk to Souad Mekhennet about the ongoing hunger strike at the prison and life after Guantanamo.

Whenever Jarallah Al-Marri, a Qatari citizen, looks into the mirror, he’s reminded of the days of being in hell, as he called it. His face, like the rest of his body, has depigmentation on patches of his skin. “It started in 2003 and doctors said it might have been caused through the stress I faced in Guantanamo,” he said speaking in English with a strong American accent. "It's called vitiligo and it is a gift from my six years and eight months in Guantanamo."

A waitress, who had just brought water to the table, changed her expression when she overheard the sentence. After she took the order and left, al-Marri whispered, “I feel she got worried when I mentioned Guantanamo—or am I just imagining that?”

We met at a hotel restaurant, around the corner from his office at the Ministry of Religious Affairs in Doha.

Al-Marri stared at the food laid out in front of him: rice, chicken curry, naan bread. “I am thinking a lot about the brothers who are on hunger strike now in Guantanamo and how they suffer,” he said, looking at the food a few seconds longer.

Around 100 detainees started a hunger strike in February of this year. At some stage, the authorities began force-feeding them, which led to further protests by human-rights groups and by the detainees’ lawyers, who say the process is similar to torture.

Al-Marri was designated by the U.S as an “enemy combatant” and accused of supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. A U.S Security Official familiar with al-Marri’s case, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media, said that al-Marri had been part of al-Qaeda structures in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “He has been in training facilities and in touch with al-Qaeda and the Taliban,“ the official said. Al-Marri told me that he didn't want to discuss the accusations, but said he was not an enemy combatant.

During our meeting, al-Marri talked about the psychological and physical torture he said he witnessed at Guantanamo. He spoke of days when, he said, he had been asked to stand still, wearing nothing but a slip in an empty room with full air-conditioning on. He returned to Qatar from Guantanamo in July 27, 2008, under the condition that he does not leave the country.

“I can feel the prison, I can feel the suffering, I still am feeling it every day,” al-Marri said.

Al-Marri said he had been arrested in December 2001 in Quetta, Pakistan, at the same time that his wife was giving birth in Qatar to their second child, a son. “Can you imagine, I met my son for the first time when he was already grown up,” he said.

He claimed that the Pakistanis sold him out to the CIA. “I will never forget any second from that day on. I don’t think any of detainees will,” he said.

The former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, confirmed to me two years ago, during an interview in Dubai for a book project, that “head money” had been paid for each foreigner caught in parts of Pakistan known as “hotspots for al-Qaeda and Taliban.” He did not talk about al-Marri’s case specifically but confirmed such incidents happened.

Around the same time that al-Marri was handed over to the CIA, his brother Ali, then a graduate student of computer science in Illinois, was arrested in his home by the F.B.I and was held in New York as a “material witness” to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to human-rights organizations and security officials. In 2003, Ali was charged with credit card fraud and for making false statements to the FBI. A month before his trial, the charges against him were dropped and he was labeled an “enemy combatant.” He is still in custody in the US.

Al-Marri took a bite of naan, and steered the conversation back to his worries about the Guantanamo detainees on the hunger strike. He has followed most of the news about Guantanamo through CagePrisoners, a London-based human-rights organization that focuses on Muslim prisoners in the "war on terror" who are being held all over the world. According to CagePrisoners, 35 prisoners are currently on hunger strike in Guantanamo and 32 of them are being force-fed. (Other sources have the number at 37 prisoners or more.)

The director of CagePrisoners, Moazzam Begg, a British citizen who lives in London, was also a detainee in Guantanamo, where he was held as an “enemy combatant”—meaning, according to the U.S., that he had either served as a member of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces.

The accusations were based on information provided by the British Intelligence MI5 to American authorities, according to Begg and U.S. security officials. “On my return to the U.K., I fought a legal case against the British government and won a substantial out-of-court settlement against it,” Begg said.

As a result of the lawsuits brought by Begg and 14 other former Guantanamo detainees, Prime Minister David Cameron ordered an inquiry into the supposed complicity of the British intelligence services in the alleged torture of British citizens.

CagePrisoner is the only organization dealing with human-rights abuses that has former Guantanamo prisoners in various positions and as board members. “The remaining—and released—prisoners are part of a family that was unwittingly created for us by the U.S. administration,” Begg said.

Like al-Marri, Begg spent most of his time there in solitary confinement, according to the accounts of the two men and those of human-rights organizations.

Begg said he had participated in a hunger strike himself in Bagram in 2002 for a few days, after he reportedly watched a desecration of the Quran and other human-rights violations. (Prison officials have repeatedly disputed the allegations of Quran desecration coming out of Guantanamo.) “This was a very short hunger-strike and was not widely discussed or reported like most things in Bagram,” he said. “The strike lasted for a few days.”

Both former detainees said they detest U.S. policy toward the Muslim world, though al-Marri said that he can differentiate between policy and people. “I just don’t like the way U.S. is dealing with policy and the situation in the world. They put their nose in everything,” he said.

Begg said he is disappointed by Barack Obama’s unfulfilled promise to close Guantanamo. “Although Bush started Guantanamo, also claiming that he wanted to close the place after reports by released prisoners began to expose the reality there, he proportionally released more prisoners during his time than Obama has,” Begg said. “That says a lot about the man who took power under the banner of ‘a change has come to America.’”

Al-Marri said he doesn’t travel much any more. “I don’t trust them, they might try to arrest me anytime again or create a story,” he said.

He is in close touch with several former Guantanamo prisoners, like Begg, who had his own problems with travelling after leaving Guantanamo. He was refused entry to Canada in 2011 as a former “Guantanamo prisoner and terrorism suspect.” Begg said the official reason given to him by the Canadian authorities was based on "‘open source’ information like Wikipedia” as well as Canadian intelligence. “I was greeted upon arrival, on the aircraft, by armed Canadian police and later sent back home on the same plane,” said Begg.

An U.S intelligence source said that Canada and some other countries had been provided with a list of names of terrorism suspects, though he would not confirm whether Begg’s name had been on it.

Begg and al-Marri both hope that Guantanamo will get back on the global radar. “The fact that over 100 men, who have no charges or convictions, have to sporadically hunger-strike for years—to the point of near death—just so the president will take note of his own past promises, is a disgrace and a shame on the façade of the U.S. justice system and its image in the world,” Begg said in London.

Back in Doha, al-Marri was not able to finish his meal, though it was “excellent food,” as he said. But he said that he had to think always about the prisoners in Guantanamo. “They are almost dying from hunger, so that the public listens and asks about them.”

To contact the author about her columns, please email [email protected] For previous installments of "Lifting the Veil," click here.