Former Guantanamo prisoner asks U.S. to review its founding ideals

Khartoum, Sudan — It took US Army interrogators at Guantánamo Bay five years to reach the conclusion that Adel Hassan Hamad was exactly who he claimed to be: a hospital administrator in Pakistan. On Dec. 11, 2007, they put him back on a military cargo plane, hooded and handcuffed, and sent him back to his home to Sudan.

Now Mr. Hamad says he’ll sue the US government for compensation for those lost years — years where his family became impoverished and one daughter became sick and died. But he says it’s not just about the money. He wants the US to return to what it used to be, a beacon of freedom.

Adel Hassan Hamad’s lawyers and actor Martin Sheen collaborated on this March 27, 2007, YouTube appeal to the US government to return Hamad to his family.

“We don’t want animosity, we just want to respect America again,” says Hamad, speaking in English phrases he learned while in prison. “The American conscience and the American people need to return to the great concepts established by the Founding Fathers, of freedom, democracy, equality, and justice. All these values and even the justice system are being shaken, played with.”

Accused — but never officially charged — with fighting against the US, Hamad and fellow Sudanese Salim Mahmud Adam are now fighting, through the US courts, for the rights they say they never received in the US military detention centers at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Hamad became famous as the “YouTube detainee,” after his attorney, Steven Wax posted a first-ever video habeas corpus petition “Guantánamo Unclassified” on the Internet video site. Actor Martin Sheen, known for his liberal views and portrayal of President Josiah Bartlett on the TV program “West Wing,” joined Hamad’s cause, in a separate video, “Guantánamo Waiting for Justice.”

Like many former inmates of Guantánamo, these two men tell stories of torture and abuse that have become so common as to lose their shock value. But they also share glimpses of American kindness, faith, and courage. Their legal efforts are intended to build on this common humanity and to restore US judicial principles. It’s an ideal that other activists echo.

“We used to look to America as a model for human rights,” says Khaled Alamsi, a Yemeni human rights attorney representing dozens of Yemeni prisoners at Guantánamo. Mr. Alamsi was in Khartoum to meet Hamad and Mr. Adam, and to attend a recent conference to highlight the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantánamo. “But now, after 11th September, US policy has given dictatorships in the third world the right to do what they want. Now they use America as a model, and what happens at Guantánamo is the same as what happens in third world prisons,” he says.

There were 275 prisoners at Guantánamo as of Jan. 31, 2007, according to the Department of Defense, or about one-third of an estimated 750 people who have been held at Guantánamo since 2002. Only three of these have faced formal charges; the rest have been discharged, without explanation. Such indefinite detention without trial is illegal under the Geneva Conventions, of which the US is a signatory, but US government officials argue that their methods are justified. Today’s enemies are not regular army troops, they say, but terrorists, or “unlawful combatants.”

Both Hamad and Adam still face travel and work restrictions under the terms of their release, says Mr. Wax, a Portland, Ore.-based federal public defender, who was assigned to work on Hamad’s case. The two Sudanese men have pursued cases to clear their names in US court, through the writ of habeas corpus. Under this provision, the government must show evidence to prove that a person should be detained or it must release that person.

Adam’s case for habeas corpus was dismissed, but Hamad’s continues to await a hearing in the Washington, D.C., district courts. The two men say they will be filing a civil suit seeking compensation for their years in Guantánamo.

On Dec. 5, 2007, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in Boumediene v. Bush, which could affect the dozens of habeas corpus cases of individual Guantánamo detainees. In the case, the Center for Constitutional Rights argued that Guantánamo detainees were entitled to habeas corpus rights, even if they are noncitizens. The court’s decision is pending and could come anytime.

At the time of his capture, on July 18, 2002, Hamad says he was neither a soldier nor a terrorist, but an administrator of health services for the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), a Saudi-funded charity. Hamad’s work included providing medical services to Afghan refugees living around Peshawar. But American suspicion fell on WAMY, because of its outspoken support for militant groups, and because Osama bin Laden’s brother, Abdullah, was on its board.

Held and interrogated in a Pakistani prison for six months, Hamad was transferred to Bagram Air Base outside Kabul for two months and then sent to Guantánamo. His treatment was “inhumane,” Hamad says. “Every unimaginable transgression was committed,” including beatings and torture.

But the methods that hurt Hamad the most were those that were aimed to denigrate Muslim traditions: forced public nudity of prisoners, disrespectful handling of the Koran, and even turning up loud music during the times of prayer.

Hamad’s detention, he says, had another consequence. Back home in Khartoum, Hamad’s wife — suddenly impoverished without Hamad’s salary — struggled to find medicines for their sick daughter, Fida. The young girl died in 2005 at the age of 3.

Like Hamad, Adam — arrested in Peshawar on May 27, 2002, by Pakistani police — says he thinks he was arrested mainly for his Arabic origins. As the director of a Pakistani school for orphans run by the now-banned Jamiat Ihya Al-Turath Al-Islami, Adam says he had nothing to do with militancy, or indeed with the broader missions of the Kuwaiti charity that ran the school.

Asked about the nature of his treatment by Pakistani police, and by Americans at Bagram and Guantánamo, Adam becomes vague. When pressed, he recalls the constant light and noise that deprived him of sleep, beatings, tear gas, pepper spray, attack dogs, the desecration of the Koran, and the “degrading” personal searches in which he was forced to expose himself in front of other men.

“Most of the soldiers there, I doubted they could be from a great nation,” Adam says. But sometimes he would meet an educated soldier, who would “deal with us quietly, kindly,” until that soldier would be ordered to “change his style of treatment.”

And there was the interrogator who, one day, started bringing Adam books from his own collection, books on European history and Western civilization, saying, “I can see you have the mind of a scholar.”

Such glimpses of kindness were a source of hope for Adam, but these were overshadowed by the senselessness of his captivity. Adam later found out that US Army judges had decided to release him on Oct. 21, 2005, a decision that would not be carried out until Dec. 11, 2007.

Today, Adam is looking for work in a Sudan he doesn’t recognize, seeking a reunion with his Pakistani wife and three children, still living in Peshawar. One daughter, 5-year-old Amina, was born after he was captured and has never seen her father.

Adam and Hamad both say that they hold no grudge against the American people, but want to be sure that Guantánamo and other military detention centers are shut down.

“We know that American society is a good society,” Hamad says. “Our religion teaches us to treat those well who treat us badly.”

Leigh Montgomery in Boston contributed to this report

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday February 6, 2008.
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