Above Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
On April 3, two Libyans — former opponents of Colonel Gaddafi, who was overthrown in 2011 — were freed from Guantánamo and resettled in Senegal, whose Ministry of Foreign Relations issued a statement pointing out that the two men were granted “asylum … in accordance with the relevant conventions of international humanitarian law, also in the tradition of Senegalese hospitality and Islamic solidarity with two African brothers who have expressed interest in resettlement in Senegal after their release.”
The two men — Omar Mohamed Khalifh, 44 (ISN 695), and Salem Gherebi, 55 (ISN 189) — are the first former prisoners to be resettled in the west African country, and with their release 89 men remain in Guantánamo, of whom 35 have been approved for release — 23 by the high-level, inter-agency Guantánamo Review Task Force that President Obama established shortly after taking office in 2009, and 12 other approved for release since January 2014 by another high-level review process, the Periodic Review Boards.
Khalifh, also identified as Omar Khalif, went before a Periodic Review Board in June 2015 and was approved for release in September, bringing freedom within sight for an amputee with numerous other health problems who, as the Libyan-born British resident Omar Deghayes (released from Guantánamo in December 2007) told me in 2010, was not who the Americans thought he was:
“They call him ‘The General,’” Deghayes told me, “not because of anything he has done, but because he decided that life would be easier for him in Guantánamo if he said yes to every allegation laid against him.” Even so, as Deghayes also explained, this cooperation has been futile, as Khalifh has been subjected to appalling ill-treatment, held in a notorious psychiatric block where the use of torture was routine, and denied access to adequate medical attention for the many problems that afflict him, beyond the loss of his leg. As Deghayes described it, “He has lost his sight in one eye, has heart problems and high blood pressure, and his remaining leg is mostly made of metal, from an old accident in Libya a long time ago when a wall fell on him. He describes himself as being nothing more than ‘the spare parts of a car.’”
Omar Deghayes told me about Khalifh when we were travelling around the UK showing “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo,” the documentary film I co-directed with Polly Nash, in which Omar features prominently, to student audiences, and I included his analysis in an article that same year after Khalifh, unfortunately, had his habeas corpus petition turned down.
Khalifh’s lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at City University of New York (CUNY), confirmed his physical ailments to the Miami Herald, explaining that he “has no right leg below the knee from a 1998 landmine accident in Afghanistan and a left leg held together by metal pins from a 1995 construction site accident in Sudan,” and that he “is blind in his left eye and has glaucoma in his right eye, as well as shrapnel in his left side.”
Kassem said, “I’m unsure why a man with only one eye left, one leg, one fully functioning arm, and whose only supposed crime was to oppose the Gadhafi dictatorship was not freed years ago. Now, he looks forward to receiving proper medical care for his ailments and starting the long process of rebuilding his life after more than a decade at Guantánamo.”
Less is known about Salem Gherebi (aka Salim Gherebi or Ghereby), the other man freed in Senegal, who was approved for release in January 2010 by the Guantánamo Review Task Force. As I explained in a profile of him in September 2010:
Initially, it was alleged that he arrived in Afghanistan in 1995, having lost most of the fingers of his right hand in an explosives accident in Tajikistan the year before, and that he was an al-Qaeda operative in Kabul, who had “reportedly” trained at an al-Qaeda training camp in 1996 (an allegation that borders on the implausible, as Osama bin Laden only returned to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996). By 2006, the US authorities had dropped the claims about losing his fingers and being an al-Qaeda member in exchange for a new set of allegations, most of which centered on his purported links with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Deciding that his name was actually Rafdat Muhammed Faqi Aljj Saqqaf, the authorities alleged that he had lived in Pakistan in the early 1990s and then, fearing that talks between the Libyan and Pakistani governments would lead to the deportation of all Libyans from Pakistan, had moved back to Afghanistan, where he stayed in refugee camps.
In response to an email tonight, Omar Deghayes let me know about his relationship with Salem, describing him as “a friend of mine, married to a Pakistani woman, with two young boys and a daughter,” and “a great personality, kind, learned, generous and humble.” He added, “He taught me a lot inside prison when we were at Camp Five.” Modeled on a maximum security prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and consisting of solid-walled isolation cells, Camp Five was used hold those who, at the time, were regarded as the most non-compliant prisoners, or those considered to have the greatest intelligence value (before 14 “high-value detainees” arrived from CIA “black sites” in September 2006).
Omar also explained that, “When the Libyans came to interrogate him, they were so frustrated that he refused to say a word despite all their threats, not even his name.” He added that, “although he kept much to himself when it came to the guards in Guantánamo, even so he was mistreated and put in Camp Romeo where his clothes were taken away.” Little discussed, Camp Romeo was a punishment block where prisoners were “stripped from the waist down,” and “often left naked for days,” as was reported in 2005.
Following his release, his attorney Rick Wilson said that Gherebi “looks forward to being reunited with his family as soon as possible … including a 15-year-old daughter who he’s never met in person,” as the Miami Herald explained, adding, “His wife is Pakistani but she and their three children have been living in Libya with the Gherebi family.”
Wilson noted that Gherebi “was also very interested in being in a country where Islam was practiced,” and in that respect Senegal is obviously a useful destination for his resettlement, being 94% Muslim. The Miami Herald also noted that “Senegal’s foreign ministry disclosed the weekend transfer on the occasion of Senegal’s 56th Independence Day following a military parade,” and that the Pentagon “soon followed with an official announcement.”
Rick Wilson also stated that, before Gherebi’s capture, he “was a grade school science teacher,” although he admitted that he did not know “exactly what he will do” with his new-found freedom. “His primary concern is his family, seeing them and being with them,” he said, adding, “The same for them. They are very anxious.”
Last week, the Washington Post broke the news that the Pentagon had “notified Congress that it intends to resettle nearly a dozen detainees,” including long-term hunger striker Tariq Ba Odah, who weighs just 74 pounds, and whose lawyers have been trying to get a judge to order his release. Reuters revealed in January that, shamefully, Ba Odah’s release had been prevented by the Pentagon, which had refused to share medical records with a country that had been willing to offer him a new home.
According to the New York Times, following the release of the two Libyans, nine other men “are expected to leave in the next two weeks.”