Kuwaitis Denied Justice in Guantanamo Bay

Jenifer Fenton reports from Kuwait. This month marks the third year that President Barack Obama's campaign promise to "close Guantanamo" (modified soon after his inauguration to close the detention facility by January 2010) will have gone unfulfilled. A chronology of the Obama administration's postponment of the closure can be found at the LA Times.

The worst of the worst, they were called. Twelve Kuwaitis were “captured” in Afghanistan and Pakistan and sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in the months following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Unproven accusations of associations with the Taliban and Al Qaeda robbed them of years of their lives. The 12 said they left Kuwait to do charity work or to teach Islam or to live more Islamic lives. Many were sold to the Americans for bounty and all said they were tortured by US forces.

Eventually 10 would be freed.

It is unclear why eight, including Nasser Al Mutairi (ISN-205), the first Kuwaiti released in January 2005, were transferred home. Al Mutairi said he traveled to Afghanistan for ribat, according to Combatant Status Review Tribunal transcripts:

Ribat means waiting. It's a form of worship, a kind of practice. There is a great reward in my religion for doing ribat. If someone dies while on the line while doing ribat they are considered martyrs and go to heaven. Ribat is the opposite of Jihad because ribat is defending the line and Jihad is attacking the line.

He was in Afghanistan to wait on the border and discourage anyone from making attacks. Al Mutairi said this was similar to what US forces do in Kuwait, they train and keep the peace.

However, upon his release Al Mutairi told the press that the US made up the record of his statements before a military court.

In November of 2005, the Department of Defense also transferred five more prisoners to Kuwait including Adel Al Zamel (ISN 568), who had been a wanted man in his country prior to 9/11. He had been convicted and sentenced to a year in prison for previous charges of assault against a female college student, an attack known as the Takfir Seven Incident.

In Afghanistan, Al Zamel lived with his family and worked for Al Wafa, an Islamic Charity the US said supports terrorism. The US also suggested that he had advanced knowledge of the 9/11 terrorists attacks. Al Zamel, who had eight children, was placed in what looked like a small metal box on his fifth day at Guantanamo. "The cell was hot. I couldn't sleep at night. The pillow was soaked with my sweat. There was a small opening in the cell wall; I used to push my nose to it," Zamel told McClatchy Newspapers. "I used the bathroom on the floor; there was nothing else to do."

Abdulaziz Al Shammeri (ISN 217), released at the same time as Al Zamel, lived a “normal life” before he wound up in Guantanamo. He was married and had two children, who in 2001 were six and two years old. He was an Islamic scholar and worked at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Kuwait. He was planning to get a Master’s degree in Egypt, but decided before doing so he would spend some time teaching Islamic law in Afghanistan. “In my case I don’t even know why I was transferred there (Guantanamo)... and then I have no idea how I was released,” he told me last year. (You can read more about Al Shammeri here)

He too was tortured.

Yes, by God. I was tortured. If the devil would have been there and witnessed these torture sessions, he would... have said ‘how would you come up with such twisted thoughts.’ Satan would say ‘please come on.’ These thoughts would be even surprising to the devil himself.

The following year, in 2006, after a direct appeal by the Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah to then-President George W. Bush, Omar Rajab Amin (ISN 65) and Abdullah Kamel Al Kandari (ISN 228) were freed, according to US embassy files published by WikiLeaks.

Prior to being imprisoned, Amin had attended the University of Nebraska in the US and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture. He said he went to Afghanistan after the attacks of 9/11 because he wanted to help orphans and refugees. Charity work was not new for Amin. He had worked in Zagreb, Croatia. “

"The orphans from Bosnia were coming in to a new place, so we would meet with them. We would do many things to make them more comfortable... talking with them, saying kind words, giving them food,and paying for the houses they were staying in,” Amin said according to Guantanamo tribunal transcripts. He then worked for years in Sarajevo. He married a Bosnian woman. When he left his family in Kuwait in 2001, he did not plan to be gone for long. His son was in the hospital and would have heart surgery soon. “It was imperative I returned quickly... I had ... a specific date for [my son's] operation in November, so I had to return quickly.”

Kamel Al Kandari had been a star volleyball player, who played for Kuwait’s national team. Because he was a sports star he had traveled the world, including trips to South Korea, Thailand, Bulgaria, Hungary, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran. Al Kandari went to Afghanistan for charity work as well. He was married with four young children, one who was born when he was locked up by the Americans. Al Kandari was captured wearing a Casio watch, model F-91W — that was evidence against him. The US said the watch was a common watch used by Al Qaeda to detonate improvised explosive devices.

“We have two watches in Kuwait, Fossil and Casio. The watch shows the direction of Mecca,” Al Kandari said according to Guantanamo tribunal transcripts. It also had a compass. “I go all over the world. I am Muslim and pray five times a day. I need it. Many people in Kuwait have this watch. It's not tied to an Al-Qaeda company is it? I swear I don't know if terrorist use it or if they make explosives with it. If I had known that, I would have thrown it away. I'm not stupid. We have four chaplains [at Guantanamo] all of them wear this watch. I am not Taliban or Al-Qaeda.”

While US intervention is often decried in the Arab world, Kuwait is in a unique position having been liberated by US forces during the 1991 Gulf War. But that has not stopped the government of Kuwait’s insistence that Kuwaiti prisoners held in Guantanamo should be returned. Kuwait’s leadership has often, according to cables published by WikiLeaks, complained that Guantanamo prisoners of countries who provide far less support to America have had their citizens returned. But as late as June 18, 2008, almost seven years after 9/11, Kuwait said that it has received "not one word" of information or evidence against eight of Kuwait’s former Guantanamo detainees who had been released by then, according to US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks).

Two prisoners — Fouad Al Rabiah (ISN 551) and Khalid Al Mutairi (213) — were ordered released by American courts in 2009. The ruling by which Al Rabiah, an aviation engineer, was freed stated [PDF] the US government’s evidence was “surprisingly bare,” noting that interrogators used “abusive techniques.”

Al Rabiah returned to Kuwait in December 2009. Like Amin, Al Rabiah, now 52, had a documented history of doing charitable work with reputable organizations in Kosovo, Bosnia and Bangladesh. He planned to help people in Afghanistan. Instead, he lost eight years of his life and missed watching his four children grow up. “I lost so many things, but I know that I was right,” he told me. “I know that they were wrong.” The US threatened to use drugs on him and render him to countries where he would be tortured worse than the treatment he received in Guantanamo, he said. He was also subjected to severe sleep deprivation.

All of the Kuwaiti prisoners held at Guantanamo were put on trial and acquitted upon their return to Kuwait, with the exception of Al Rabiah, who had extensive proof of his innocence. A Kuwaiti official told Al Rabiah when he returned to Kuwait, “There is no basis for a case (against you),” Al Rabiah said.

The US “evidence” against Al Mutairi was equally as damning in its lack of substance. “The Government believed for over three years that Al Mutairi manned an anti-aircraft weapon in Afghanistan based on a typographical error in an interrogation report.” (See this report.) Al Mutairi was unmarried and had no children at the time of his captured, but he cared for his elderly parents in Kuwait. He had traveled to Afghanistan with $15,000 that he planned to use to build a mosque.

Kuwaiti prisoner Abdullah Al Ajmi (ISN 220), 23 years old when captured, had trained as a solider in the Kuwait military - the only Kuwaiti prisoner with military experience. Al Ajmi would later blow himself up in a suicide attack in Mosul, Iraq in 2008. (The Washington Post has reported extensively on Al Ajmi.) Had he indeed been radical before 9/11 or was it his time in Guantanamo that made him that way? Perhaps more accurately the prison experience drove him crazy.

Upon returning to Kuwait he had spent time at a mental hospital. It is hard to know what acts and associations Al Ajmi, accused of being a Taliban fighter, freely confessed to and what he was coerced to say. “I couldn't take it. I couldn't bare the threats and the suffering so I started saying things. When every detainee is captured they tell him that he is either Taliban or Al-Qaida and that is it,” Al Ajmi said according to Guantanamo review board transcripts. “I couldn't bare the suffering and the threatening and the pressure so I had to say I was from Taliban.” The US said he was aggressive and non-compliant and held in disciplinary blocks while imprisoned in Guantanamo.

Two Kuwaiti prisoners Fayiz Al Kandari (ISN 552) and Fawzi Al Odah (ISN 232) could be indefinitely detained in Guantanamo Bay, where they linger outside of the reach of the law. Al Kandari has been tortured. He has been threatened with dogs, deprived of sleep, sexually humiliated, placed in stress positions, and subjected to extreme temperatures and loud music, according to what Al Kandari told his military defense attorney Lt.Col. Barry Wingard.

Both Al Kandari and Al Odah said that they went to Afghanistan to do charity work. As I wrote recently, though they stand accused, neither has had a trial - and no trial is scheduled - to determine their guilt or innocence. They have filed habeas corpus petitions challenging the basis of their detention without charges, but their petitions have been denied. (More on their story here)

It is a travesty of justice that Al Odah will not have his day in court as some of the evidence against him is clearly flawed. One of those who “testified” against Al Odah was Guantanamo prisoner Yasin Basardah, who the US decided was not providing credible information and "should not be relied upon," according to a report by the Washington Post. Basardah had previously been addicted to and trafficked drugs and was jailed numerous times in Saudi Arabia, according a Joint Task Force DoD document ).

A US analyst also said it was assessed that Al Odah was in Bosnia between 1994 and 1996, which “indicates detainee has an extensive history with international militant jihad, and based on his age at the time, probable support and encouragement from family members for his participation,” according to a DoD document.

Al Odah would have been 17 years old then and was in high school, according to his father Khalid Al Odah, a retired Kuwaiti Air Force pilot who fought with US forces to help liberate Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. “It is really, really outrageous,” said Khalid Al Odah, who also is the chairman of the Kuwaiti Family Committee, which lobbies for the rights of Kuwait prisoners held in Guantanamo.

But as the law stands now, the cells of Guantanamo will be Al Odah’s and Al Kandari’s homes forever. They will die without ever seeing Kuwait or their families again. That is justice, the Guantanamo way.