Innocent and Imprisoned: A Former Gitmo Detainee Speaks Out

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Held without charges for seven years, he was finally freed when a federal judge reviewed the evidence against him. His captors never paid.

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For a brief moment at the end of George W. Bush's tenure, before Barack Obama even took office, a few naive souls hoped that Bush Administration officials would be investigated to determine if they broke the law while in power, tried if the evidence warranted it, and jailed (like so many less-politically-connected American lawbreakers) if their guilt was proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Those who advocated treating Bush Administration officials as if they were accountable to the rule of law as regular citizens were deemed radicals. Never mind that Americans daily have their doors broken down by police with flash grenades and assault weapons for being suspected of possessing an ounce of marijuana. Never mind that law enforcement routinely seizes the assets of American citizens without proving they are guilty of a crime. Never mind that every property owner, doctor, and builder is subject to lawsuits that can put them in court for years on end to settle frivolous claims and never be compensated for having been falsely accused.

Despite the significant burden frequently paid by American citizens in the name of maintaining the rule of law, it was deemed unthinkable in mainstream political discourse that Bush officials would be subject to what some would call a strict, originalist interpretation of duly passed statutes and treaties. Folks angry at their free pass were diagnosed with "Bush derangement syndrome." Insofar as Bush Administration apologists acknowledged critics of its lawlessness, they insisted that from 2000 to 2008 the government did what they had to do in order to "keep us safe."

That gave them carte blanche.

The benefits of holding Bush Administration officials beyond the rule of law should not be dismissed, for they are real. What Americans got, in return for that moral concession, was the assurance that the men we empowered to govern us would err on the side of our safety when forced to decide whether they should imprison or kill a possibly innocent man or let him go. Americans benefited in short-term safety when their government imprisoned people without really knowing whether they were guilty or not, and the short-term costs were born almost totally by foreigners and their families, whose Orwellian hell never troubled the rest of us.

It was, for those lacking a conscience, a good system.

But for Americans with a conscience who troubled themselves to confront what was being done in their name, it was an immoral system rife with victims whose names most people would never know.

This week, one of those names -- Lakhdar Boumediene -- told his story in The New York Times. He recounts the seven years he spent as an innocent prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Every American citizen ought to read his account, for it forces us to confront the costs of the policies our representatives implemented.

For seven years he was held without explanation or charge. Here is the shortest excerpt I can bring myself to quote from his op-ed:

During that time my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as "undeliverable," and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost. Some American politicians say that people at Guantánamo are terrorists, but I have never been a terrorist. Had I been brought before a court when I was seized, my children's lives would not have been torn apart, and my family would not have been thrown into poverty. It was only after the United States Supreme Court ordered the government to defend its actions before a federal judge that I was finally able to clear my name and be with them again.

I left Algeria in 1990 to work abroad. In 1997 my family and I moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina at the request of my employer, the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates. I served in the Sarajevo office as director of humanitarian aid for children who had lost relatives to violence during the Balkan conflicts. In 1998, I became a Bosnian citizen. We had a good life, but all of that changed after 9/11.

When I arrived at work on the morning of Oct. 19, 2001, an intelligence officer was waiting for me. He asked me to accompany him to answer questions. I did so, voluntarily -- but afterward I was told that I could not go home. The United States had demanded that local authorities arrest me and five other men. News reports at the time said the United States believed that I was plotting to blow up its embassy in Sarajevo. I had never -- for a second -- considered this.

The fact that the United States had made a mistake was clear from the beginning. Bosnia's highest court investigated the American claim, found that there was no evidence against me and ordered my release. But instead, the moment I was released American agents seized me and the five others. We were tied up like animals and flown to Guantánamo, the American naval base in Cuba. I arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.

I still had faith in American justice. I believed my captors would quickly realize their mistake and let me go. But when I would not give the interrogators the answers they wanted -- how could I, when I had done nothing wrong? -- they became more and more brutal. I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget. I went on a hunger strike for two years because no one would tell me why I was being imprisoned. Twice each day my captors would shove a tube up my nose, down my throat and into my stomach so they could pour food into me. It was excruciating, but I was innocent and so I kept up my protest.

When the Supreme Court finally ruled that this man must be given a hearing before a judge -- when a federal judge finally examined the secret evidence against him -- he was ordered set free. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, David Addington, John Yoo, Marc Theissen. Those are names of men who unapologetically defend the system that resulted in Mr. Boumediene's Orwellian nightmare.

It's a legal regime President Obama inherited, and faced with a Congress that has actively prevented him from solving the situation, he eventually signed into law the practice of indefinite detention.

He once called that same practice anathema to our values.

As Boumediene writes:
 

About 90 prisoners have been cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo. Some of them are from countries like Syria or China -- where they would face torture if sent home -- or Yemen, which the United States considers unstable. And so they sit as captives, with no end in sight -- not because they are dangerous, not because they attacked America, but because the stigma of Guantánamo means they have no place to go, and America will not give a home to even one of them.

Most Americans don't understand this. They think that our government only imprisoned "the worst of the worst" at Guantanamo Bay, because that is what the Bush Administration claimed in its propagandistic talking points. Perhaps if more citizens knew of the injustices still being perpetrated there, popular calculations about the tradeoff between justice and safety would be rejiggered in a way that reflects less poorly on us. But Bush Administration officials understand what they did, as do Obama Administration officials. And indefinite detention reigns nevertheless.

It's as if we've forgotten that human beings are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And insofar as our leaders have acted criminally, they ought to pay. For more on the political forces keeping them unaccountable, see this post from Glenn Greenwald, which alerted me to another op-ed from an innocent Gitmo detainee.

It is here.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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