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The Long Suffering of the Mauritanian Teenager Sent Home from Guantánamo

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For over five and a half years, as I explain in depth in my newly released book, The Guantánamo Files, the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has held hundreds of completely innocent men. Humanitarian aid workers, teachers or students of the Koran, businessmen, economic migrants, and refugees from persecution -- all were swept up for bounty payments, either in Afghanistan or Pakistan, at a time when the US military was offering $5,000 a head for al-Qaeda suspects.

While many of these innocent men were Afghans, who were sold to the US military by rivals, secure in the knowledge that the Americans had neither the will nor the curiosity to investigate the veracity of the stories with which their futures were swept away, many others were foreigners -- Arabs mainly, from Saudi Arabia, the Yemen and other Gulf countries, and from the North African countries bordering the Mediterranean. Some were seized in Afghanistan, either by soldiers of the Northern Alliance or by opportunistic villagers, others were captured crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan, where their flight from the chaos precipitated by the US-led invasion and the collapse of the Taliban was construed as a sign that they were fleeing from combat, and many others were picked out randomly on the streets of Pakistan's cities, far from any battlefield.

One of these innocent men, Mohammed al-Amin, who hails from an even more distant location -- the western Saharan country of Mauritania -- has just been released from Guantánamo, and his story, though brutal, is typical of the suffering that these men have been forced to endure for five and a half years. While reading it, remember that his is not a unique case, that hundreds of other innocent men have been treated in a similar manner, and that many of them still remain in Guantánamo. It is one thing to tout the 778 men who have been held in Guantánamo as "the worst of the worst," as the administration did when the prison was set up in January 2002, but it is quite another to realize that 431 of these men have now been released, and that a large number of them, like Mohammed al-Amin, were completely innocent of any wrong-doing.

Mohammed al-Amin's accidental odyssey to torture, and to his long years of illegal imprisonment without charge or trial, began when, at the age of 17, he left his parents and his five sisters, and traveled to Saudi Arabia to study the Koran, with the intention of becoming a teacher. He then traveled to Pakistan to continue his studies, but was arrested in Peshawar in April 2002, and held for two months in a Pakistani jail, where he was "subjected to beatings, held for prolonged periods in solitary confinement and denied adequate food," in an attempt to force him to confess that he was a Saudi Arabian national, because, presumably, Saudis were valued more highly by the US military than Mauritanians.

He was then transferred to Bagram, where, like many other prisoners, he was suspended by his wrists for long periods of time. He explained to his lawyers in Guantánamo that he was tied by his hands to the ceiling "for days on end," and that "whenever he lost consciousness a guard would forcefully pull him up to wake him." He also said that he was sexually abused and subjected to sleep deprivation, and was threatened with being sent to Egypt to face further torture. After two months of this treatment, he explained, "They wanted me to say I had come to join the jihad. Eventually I told them what they wanted to hear and the torture stopped." What they wanted to hear eventually surfaced in Guantánamo, where it was alleged that he traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Americans, having decided to "go on jihad after being angered over the US air attacks in Afghanistan," and that he trained with the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.

These were all lies, coerced out of him by his own captors, but it took another five years before the administration was prepared to acknowledge that he was actually an innocent men -- or, as those involved insist on describing it, being unable to acknowledge that they have made mistakes, that he was "No Longer an Enemy Combatant." Transferred to Guantánamo in August 2002, he said that his first year in Guantánamo was "terrible" and "worse than Bagram," and explained that, in addition to the sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation that he had experienced in Afghanistan, he was also exposed to loud music, as part of a program to "break" the detainees, which was masterminded by the Pentagon and introduced by Guantánamo's commander, Major General Geoffrey Miller. As in Bagram, he was eventually forced to make false confessions, telling his interrogators whatever they wanted to hear.

In protest at his indefinite detention without charge or trial, al-Amin joined a widespread hunger strike in August 2005, when his weight, which had been a meager 121 pounds on arrival (8 stone 9 pounds), plunged, at one point, to just 103 pounds (7 stone 5 pounds). By January 2006, when he was one of 84 detainees who were still maintaining their hunger strike, the authorities responded by drafting in a new team of doctors, armed with restraint chairs and feeding tubes. Al-Amin said that he was removed from the camp hospital and placed in solitary confinement in a windowless black cell, which he called the "freezer," because the air conditioning was turned up to the maximum. He also explained that the guards would "throw water on him to exacerbate the freezing conditions, and would wake him up if he fell asleep."

Describing his force-feeding, he -- like others who have spoken about the experience -- said he was fastened so tightly in the restraint chair that he was unable to move at all, and that a large feeding tube was then forced into his stomach, which was, of course, extremely painful. He added that, whether by accident or design, the doctors regularly "stated that they could not find the correct position and forcefully pulled the feeding tube from him," repeating the process two or three times, which caused his nose to bleed. He also stated that he was "deliberately overfed until he vomited, and when he vomited the force feeding would start again," that he was "strapped in the restraint chair for periods of two to three hours at a time, which, coupled with being overfed, led him to urinate and defecate on himself," and that he was then "dumped, covered in his own vomit, blood and feces, back in his isolation cell." Although he attempted to maintain his hunger strike, he admitted that he gave up after 21 days. With some accuracy, he told his lawyers that the authorities "used physicians to commit crimes," and explained that doctors supervised the force-feeding, watching him while he was forced to vomit, and that on one occasion a doctor asked him, "Are you going to quit the hunger strike or stay in this situation?"

Despite all this violence, he was cleared for release sometime in 2006, after an Administrative Review Board concluded that he was no longer a threat to the United States and no longer had any intelligence value, but he was apparently not released until now because of confusion about his nationality: though living in Mauritania before losing five and a half years of his life, he had actually been born in Niger.

Since his return to Mauritania on Wednesday, al-Amin has been held for questioning by his homeland's national security services, but human rights activist Hamad Ould Nebagha insisted that it is a "mere formality," designed to show Washington that the government is committed to fighting terrorism. Anticipating that he will soon be released without charge, Nebagha pointed out that his "US accusers have failed to link him to the alleged terrorist activities" for which he was held.

In Denver, his lawyers -- John Holland and his daughter Anna Cayton-Holland -- have also spoken about their former client, and about what his case - and that of all the other innocent men held in Guantánamo -- should mean to the American public. "No one wants to see terrorists set free," Anna Cayton-Holland explained. "We believe in our system, that you can't torture people and use the fruits of that to convict them. We're tired of people saying we are coddling terrorists. We're not. We're saying you can try and convict, separate the terrorist wheat from the innocent chaff in the true light of the legal system." John Holland added, "I didn't get into law to make a lot of money. It's like my mom said, do good and the world will be good to you. Mostly we do this work because we are Americans, and we believe America is struggling to hold onto its moral soul."

As the Supreme Court prepares to consider once more whether the Guantánamo detainees should have the right to challenge the basis of their detention, the cases of Mohammed al-Amin, and of the hundreds of other innocent men who have been held in Guantánamo, should stand as a cautionary example of why it is unwise, unjust and immoral to deprive habeas corpus rights to prisoners held in US custody, and to hand unfettered power to an executive that, despite its blustering, clearly does not know what it is doing.