Life After Guantánamo: Yemeni Freed in Estonia Says, “Part of Me is Still at Guantánamo”
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In recent months, I have written about Mansoor al-Dayfi, a Yemeni released in Serbia, and, earlier this week, Tariq al-Sawah, an Egyptian released in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In a handful of new articles, I’ll be catching up on some stories that were published last year, but that I didn’t get the opportunity to cover at the time, and the first of these is about Ahmed Abdul Qader, a Yemeni who was given a new home in Estonia in January 2015.
Last spring, Charlie Savage of the New York Times visited Estonia to meet with Qader and to interview him, over a number of days, for a story, “After Yemeni’s 13 Years in Guantánamo, Freedom for the Soul Takes Longer,” which was published in the New York Times at the end of July.
Savage described how he spoke to Qader “in his apartment, strolling through Tallinn’s medieval Old Town, and riding a city bus to Estonia’s Islamic Center,” and he painted a powerful portrait of a young man deprived of almost half his life in Guantánamo, who never had any involvement with terrorism, and who he found trying hard to make a new life for himself in a country with a supportive government, but with few Muslims (and with no other former Guantánamo prisoners), and, of course, with no members of his own family.
As Savage described it, Qader was “about 17,” and “an overweight Yemeni teenager suspected of being a terrorist” when he was taken to Guantánamo in June 2002. “When he left,” he added, “he was past 30, his hair thinning, and about to start a new life in Estonia, a tiny Baltic country he had never heard of before it had decided to resettle a detainee a few months earlier.”
In the Estonian capital, Tallinn, he was provided with “a modestly furnished studio apartment,” but, as Savage described it, “the past, he soon realized, was not so easy to escape. Snow was falling, and he was eager to touch it. He started for the door, then suddenly panicked, fearful that something — he was not sure what — could go wrong if he went outside.”
This fear is commonplace amongst from prisoners, who fear, after years of threats, that they could be picked up and “disappeared” again. As Qader explained,
“Any trouble I get myself in now — even an honest mistake — will be a hundred times worse than if any normal person did it.”
He added, “I thought that after two months’ release, I’d be back to normal, but I cannot live my life regularly. I try, but it is like part of me is still at Guantánamo.”
As Savage described it, Qader “expressed gratitude to Estonia for taking him in,” and he noted that it is the country’s refugee program that “provides him with the apartment, health care, language classes, a small monthly stipend and a mentor to help him navigate daily life.”
Savage added that Qader “smiled often and spoke with optimism about the future” when they talked, but “also lapsed into despondency about his separation from his family, his lost youth, and his ‘hurt’ when people call him a terrorist.”
He also noted that Qader “portrayed himself as paralyzed by anxiety about what others — the police, potential friends or employers — will assume about him.” As Qader said,
“Thirteen years of my life I wasted, and it’s not because of something I did. It’s because something went wrong around me, and I got the blame for it.”
Charlie Savage then ran briefly through Guantánamo’s history, particularly focusing on how “ambiguity” continues to surround the release of men like Qader, “deemed safe enough to transfer, but never proven guilty or innocent,” and the focused on the circumstances surrounding his capture.
As I have explained in detail over the years, Qader was seized with around 16 other men — many of whom “claimed to be religious students” — at a guesthouse in Faisalabad, Pakistan at the end of March 2002, at the same time that another raid led to the capture of Abu Zubaydah, a supposed “high-value detainee,” for whom the Bush administration’s torture program was first developed, even though his supposed significance has evaporated over the years.
In June 2002, he was flown to Guantánamo, and, as Savage noted, he “vividly recall[ed] the ‘long, long, long’ flight to Cuba — limbs immobilized, eyes and ears blocked, destination unknown.” On arrival ,he said, the guards “were often rough.” As Savage explained, an Estonian doctor “is treating him for ligament damage in his knees and shoulder — the result, he said, of treatment like being kicked into the kneeling position or being forced to kneel on concrete with his arms extended.”
When Savage asked what provoked his punishment, Qader sang a lyric from ‘Les Misérables,’ as sung by a prisoner: “Look down, look down / Don’t look ’em in the eye.”
Every few months, Qader said, he “was brought to a trailer and questioned,” telling interrogators that, “after completing the ninth grade in Yemen in 1999, he had traveled to Pakistan intending to study religion and computers, and to do charitable relief work.” He claimed that, “With the financial support of his father, he traveled around, staying for several months at a time in different guesthouses.” He also crossed into Afghanistan, where, he said, “he met several Taliban members who invited him to an area north of Kabul behind the front lines in their war against the Northern Alliance,” where he stayed for “about 10 months.”
As Savage described it, “Reports summarizing his early interrogations say he was ‘issued’ a rifle and ‘trained’ to use it, but Qader, claimed that translators “had put an exaggerated gloss on his words.” He told Savage that “a Taliban member spent a few minutes showing him how to hold and shoot a rifle, and he never ‘owned’ one.” He also “insisted, then and now, that he never fought or enlisted with any group, and in late 2001, he returned to Pakistan, where he was eventually arrested.”
Crucially, in January 2003, an interrogator, writing about Qader’s case, stated, “As unusual as this source’s story sounds, I don’t think he is hiding the truth.”
However as so often at Guantánamo, “when the interrogators showed his photograph to other detainees, some claimed he was involved with Al Qaeda,” allegations that fall away when scrutinized, as most of those making the allegations have, over the years, been unambiguously identified as unreliable witnesses. Of more relevance was his behavior in Guantánamo, and in the 2008 file released by WikiLeaks he was described as “noncompliant and hostile to the guard force.” However, as he explained to Savage, “in 2007, believing certain guards treated him unfairly, he ‘pushed back’ by refusing for a while to obey orders, like to leave a yard when his outdoors time was up.”
Speaking of his time at Guantánamo, Qader said that his initial “bewilderment” at being there “gave way to routine,” and Savage added that conditions “gradually improved,” as well as noting that, “[b]y reading books and talking to guards, he learned English.”
In 2009, he was approved for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, a high-level, inter-agency review process established by President Obama. Savage noted that, “according to someone who read its report,” the task force “concluded he had not conducted or facilitated any terrorist activity against the United States or its allies.”
However, after a failed attempt by an al-Qaeda recruit to detonate a bomb on a Detroit-bound plane in December 2009, all releases to Yemen were halted, and an effort to secure his release via a habeas corpus petition also failed. As Savage described it,
“The moratorium spurred the Justice Department to appeal government losses in habeas corpus lawsuits, and in 2010, an appeals court instructed judges to interpret ambiguous evidence more toward the government.”
Victories by prisoners came to an end, after successful habeas petitions in over three dozen cases, and Qader’s petition, brought by Wesley Powell, a New York lawyer, was turned down in October 2011.
After that, Qader said, he “lived on a cellblock for the most compliant and westernized detainees — those who liked watching American movies despite actresses with uncovered heads,” and when the prison-wide hunger strike took place in 2013, “they did not participate, he said, although he had sometimes participated in earlier such protests.”
By 2014 the Obama administration finally “stopped waiting for Yemen to stabilize and began pressing other countries to resettle stranded Yemenis,” as Charlie Savage described it, leading to Estonia’s offer to take Qader. Jeffrey Levine, the US ambassador to Estonia at the time, said, “Estonia understood the value in demonstrating its reliability as a friend and ally and was willing to help us.”
Ian Moss, the chief of staff in the State Department office involving in negotiating the transfer of prisoners out of Guantánamo, recalled when Qader was interviewed by Estonian officials. Asked when he was born (he says his date of birth is November 1984, though some US some files say 1983), he replied, instead, “My birthday will be the day I leave Guantánamo.”
On arrival in Estonia, Qader recalled that he initially “processed everything in his new country ‘like a newborn,’” although the timing of his release was unfortunate — just a week after a terrorist attack in Paris and with anti-immigrant sentiment mounting as the Syrian refugee crisis unfolded, and Europeans began to turn their back on the charitable impulses their religions expected them to hold. Qader said he remembered thinking,
“I will never be free until I get my name cleared. I will always be ‘that guy who was in Guantánamo.’”
However, he decided instead “to keep a low profile, declining interviews and telling few people about his past.” That first summer, he was given an apprenticeship by a shop in Tallinn, and, to his surprise, the owner later told him “how he came to suspect that the refugee” he gave a job to “was the Guantánamo detainee he had read about in the news media.” The man said he had looked up his file online, but “concluded that its terrorism accusations were ‘all bullshit.’” One day, he told Qader he was “famous.” Qader said he “acknowledged who he was, expecting to be told to leave,’ but instead the owner “invited him to visit his mother on an Estonian island.” Qader said he was “apprehensive about leaving Tallinn,” and “hesitated for days,” but eventually made the visit.
Savage noted, however, that not every Estonian had welcomed Qader. In the fall of 2015, “a drunken neighbor began hassling him about being a foreigner,” and when the situation escalated, when “the neighbor threatened him with a gun and put garbage at his door,” he was obliged to call the police. Fortunately, the harassment ceased, but two police officers then turned up and questioned him, “asking where he came from” and how he had money. When he explained, he said, “they conferred in Estonian; he understood the word ‘Cuba.’” Although they told him “not to worry,” Qader “said he could not sleep for four days.”
Now, he said, when he “contemplates the future,” he “feels like a man holding a ‘small candle.’” He said,
“People tell me ‘don’t look back, look forward,’ but the problem is when I look forward, it is dark. That is what scares me the most.”
As Savage noted, at the time of his visit the Estonian government had “recently extended his residency permit by two years,” although he was still struggling to adapt. Estonia’s population of 1.3 million people “includes only a few thousand Muslims and fewer Arabs,” halal food is hard to come by, and Qader, understandably, was “interpret[ing] stares on the bus as hostile.” He told Savage he “would like to return home,” but “feared that Yemeni or American security forces might mistakenly decide he was working with terrorists and jail him again — or kill him with a drone.”
Asked what he thought about the US, Qader told Charlie Savage that “he understood why, after Sept. 11, it would detain him,” but added that the US “should have freed him after a year or two.” Holding him for so long, he said, “hurt me very bad.”
As Savage put it, he emphasized that he is “not out for revenge,” but “begged” US officials “to consider helping him move on by clearing his name.” As he described it, “Now you let me go. Thank you very much. No hard feelings. But just let me go for real. Say, ‘This guy, we hold him this long and we were mistaken, we’re sorry,’ and show people the truth.”
To my mind, that is an entirely reasonable request. However, lawyers advising the US government would never agree, as admitting responsibility for any kind of wrongful detention would open the floodgates to compensation claims. Whether consciously or not, Lee Wolosky, the State Department’s special envoy for the closing of Guantánamo in President Obama’s last few years in office, told Savage that “no apology is warranted” for Qader’s imprisonment. “The United States was correct to pick him up when and where we did and to detain him for a period of years,” he said, adding, “We were also right ultimately to release him subject to security assurances.”
At the time of Charlie Savage’s visit, Qader was still alone in Estonia. He described how the Estonian government “will permit family visits, but obtaining travel documents has proved difficult.” He added that Qader’s father, “who had a heart attack after finding out he was at Guantánamo, calls him daily, and his mother has taught him to cook over Skype.”
He also got married. In 2015, his family “helped arrange for him to become engaged to one of his sisters’ friends,” and “they were married in December by a Yemeni judge over Skype.” Qader said they “talk daily,” although at the time his wife had not managed to join him, even though Estonia “permits spouses to join refugees.”
Savage also noted how, in theory, “he could visit nearby European countries — he is supposed to consult Estonian officials first — but he has not dared leave,” because of the fears he mentioned above. Although he feels “[c]omforted by the thought that the Estonian government is monitoring him,” he said, “he fears that if he travels abroad and a bomb goes off nearby, he might be unable to prove his innocence and would be scapegoated and imprisoned again.”
In any case, as Savage concluded, Qader “knows some things are up to him.” He said he had “heard a story about elephants who died in a circus fire,” who “were tied with a flimsy rope but had been trained in chains as babies, learning not to try to break free.” As he said,
“When this story hit me, I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to be locked inside my own Guantánamo.’ I promised myself that I have to break free from myself. And I told my wife, ‘I will take you to Paris.’”
He added that “his wife, who has never left Yemen, replied that when she finally reached Estonia: ‘I will explore the world with you. I will hold you to your word.’”
In following up on this story, I spoke to Qader’s attorney, Wesley Powell, who gave me a number of pieces of very good news. Firstly, Qader had recently been allowed to visit Egypt for a month to meet up with his parents and other relatives. Furthermore, his wife has now joined him in Estonia, so perhaps that visit to Paris will now finally come true.
As Powell explained to me, the Estonian government has been very supportive of Qader, who, he believes, was a perfect candidate for resettlement — westernized, non-extreme, and able to fit in because of being short-haired and clean-shaven. He told me Qader had complete freedom of movement within Estonia, and had also begun to avail himself of the opportunities to travel abroad — beyond the visit to Egypt, which, to my surprise, proceeded without a hitch. I had feared that the taint of Guantánamo, which clings so many former prisoners, would have made a visit difficult, but Powell told me that, as an officially accepted refugee, he had been treated as an Estonian citizen would have been. Powell also explained that, since Savage’s visit, he had found the courage to visit Norway by boat, and as a result I now expect, one day, to receive a postcard from Paris, from Ahmed Abdul Qader and his wife.
Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).
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