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Two 50 Year Olds Are Released From Guantanamo

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As the US courts put pressure on the government to justify the long detention of prisoners at Guantanamo without charge or trial (following the Supreme Court's ruling, in June, that they have constitutional habeas corpus rights, and that the government must justify their imprisonment), two of Guantanamo's oldest prisoners have been quietly repatriated: 51-year old Sudanese prisoner Mustafa Ibrahim al-Hassan, and Mammar Ameur, a 50-year old refugee from Algeria.

Al-Hassan, a 51-year old father of four -- two boys and two girls -- was immediately reunited with his family after returning home. He was held at Guantanamo for six years and two months, even though there was no basis whatsoever for his imprisonment. Like others at Guantanamo, he had traveled to Pakistan in 2002, to study his religion and to seek out business opportunities, but was seized at a checkpoint by opportunistic Pakistani soldiers who were aware that the US authorities were offering bounty rewards for "al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects," and that foreign visitors were easy prey.

Despite the fact that he had nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and was one of many innocent men seized in Pakistan without ever having set foot in Afghanistan, he reported that he was treated brutally in Pakistan custody. "When the investigators were interrogating me", he said, "when I told them I went there to trade and I went there to study, they hit me, they tortured me. They were torturing us with electricity and they made us walk on sharp objects. They hit us a lot, and because of the pain we just said anything."

Al-Hassan also suffered horribly in Guantanamo, and was beset by medical problems. For years he complained about stomach pains, but received no treatment. Then, in 2007, medical tests revealed the cause of the pain -- a stomach ulcer that required immediate surgery. This was a source of great concern for him, as he had already had his spleen removed while he was a free man. He also suffered from liver pain in Guantanamo, and although his stomach surgery was successful, a blood test showed that he was also suffering from liver disease. In spite of this disturbing discovery, the authorities would not tell him how advanced his illness was.

Although al-Hassan's health continued to deteriorate, he remained in Guantanamo, cruelly overlooked, even as his compatriots were freed. Last December, he was left behind after Adel Hamad and Salim Adem, two other innocent Sudanese prisoners seized in Pakistan, were released. Earlier this year, he was told that he would soon be released, but in May, when al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj and two other men -- Amir Yacoub al-Amir and Walid Ali -- were also released, he was, inexplicably, left behind yet again.

These disappointments, added to his grave illness and the pain of separation from his family, brought Mustafa al-Hassan to the point of despair. Zachary Katznelson, one of his lawyers at the legal action charity Reprieve, recently explained, "Mustafa is a family man, but it is almost impossible to be a father from Guantanamo Bay. Mustafa is not allowed any phone calls. Mail takes months and months to arrive. When it does arrive, it is usually heavily censored, even if it contains only family news. Still, he thinks about his children all the time. He wants to protect his children as much as possible from the reality of having their father locked up so far away."

"My children should not have to bear these troubles," he told Katznelson during a visit at Guantanamo. "They should not feel sadness or depression, but should be allowed to be children. But their father has been taken away." As Katznelson left, he said, "I am innocent. I didn't do a thing to hurt anyone. All I want is to be home with my children."

The other released prisoner, Mammar Ameur, had been living in Pakistan since 1990, and had been a registered UN refugee since 1996. Ameur was captured at the same time and in the same building as Adel Hamad, the Sudanese hospital administrator released last December. He and his wife and their four children lived in an apartment downstairs, and Hamad and his family lived upstairs.

In his tribunal at Guantanamo, Ameur specifically refuted an allegation that his house was "a suspected al-Qaeda house." He pointed out that it was a small, two-roomed apartment near an airport used by the military, in an area that was "full of police stations," and indicated, with some justification, that this was not an ideal location for al-Qaeda to operate in with any degree of safety.

The allegations against Ameur were as weak as those against Hamad, who was forced to refute groundless allegations that the Saudi charity who owned the hospital he worked for, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), was a front for terrorism. Ameur was accused of being a member of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA), but he pointed out that he left Algeria before it was founded, serving as a mujahideen fighter against the Communist regime in Afghanistan from 1990-92, and stressed, "I don't believe in this ideology because it's against my religion. These people are criminals, like criminals everywhere."

Unable to come up with any other allegations, the US authorities attempted to implicate him in the purported terrorist activities of the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), another huge Saudi charity that mounts enormous humanitarian aid efforts, on the spurious basis that he knew someone who worked for the organization, and with the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, because of his neighbor. Cutting to the heart of this entire folly, Ameur described what he was told by one of the Pakistanis who arrested him: "I was told by Pakistan intelligence when they captured us that we were innocent ... but we have to do something for the Americans. We will have to give you as a gift to protect Pakistan." He added, however, "Americans themselves have detained me here for nothing; I thought it was a Pakistani mistake, but it was the Americans. They have fabricated allegations as reasons to keep me here."

It is to be hoped that the Algerian authorities pay attention to Ameur's story, and do not subject him to a show trial on his return. The pity, of course, is that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees failed to help him, and that he must now endure the dangerous vagaries of the Algerian courts, who may decide to make some kind of pointless example of him.

An even greater pity, of course, is that both he and Mustafa Ibrahim al-Hassan were ever sent to Guantanamo in the first place. Like at least 120 other prisoners seized in Pakistan, their long imprisonment never had anything to do with al-Qaeda or the war in Afghanistan, and was, instead, the direct result of opportunism on the part of the Pakistani authorities and gullibility on the part of the US military and intelligence agencies, who somehow failed to understand that, if you offer substantial bounty payments for "al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects," you end up with nothing more than innocent men -- in this case a UN refugee and an economic migrant -- packaged up as Osama bin Laden's henchmen.

This article draws on passages from my book The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison.