For almost seven years, Mustafa Ait Idir, a citizen of Bosnia, was detained in Guantánamo until the US authorities eventually dropped all allegations against him in 2008. To this day, he has not received any compensation or other form of redress for the suffering he experienced.
On the contrary – since his release, Mr. Ait Idir has been confronted with the stigma of being a former Guantánamo detainee which hampers his efforts to start his life again. In addition to the physical and psychological consequences of his detention he is now also faced with economic challenges since he has not been able to find any new employment. The Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch and human rights expert Manfred Nowak, both have been working in high-ranking functions in Bosnia, are now initiating a project with the intention of rectifying this shortcoming. By raising small contributions via a crowd sourcing internet platform, http://www.respekt.net, they hope to get the start-up capital for a copy shop in Sarajevo. The small business will provide a stable source of income for Mr. Ait Idir, a computer graphics expert by training, his wife and four children and with this some hope and perspective for the future. With small contributions from as many people as possible, the engagement of civil society will prevail where democratic states failed to live up to their fundamental rights and humanitarian obligations by leaving the victims of severe human rights violations alone.
Bosnian citizen Mustafa Ait Idir was arrested in Sarajevo in October 2001, soon after the horrific attacks of September 11 in New York and Washington DC. The allegations were as follows: He and five other Bosnians of Algerian decent would have plotted bomb attacks against the US and UK embassy in Bosnia. The US requested his immediate arrest, however, refused to provide any evidence warranting such action. After a long and intensive investigation, the Bosnian prosecutor concluded that there was no evidence which would justify the continued pre-trial detention or even an indictment; the Supreme Court of the Bosnian Federation ordered the immediate release of the detainees in January 2002. However, instead of being released into freedom, the six men were handed over to US troops based in Bosnia. The US “war on terror” had more weight than the domestic proceedings based on the rule of law.
The Bosnian authorities succumbed under severe political pressure, after the US overtly threatened to withdraw its troops from the still fragile post-war Bosnia. A US representative in Sarajevo told the head of government of the Bosnian Federation, that “only God” would remain to protect the country, unless the six men were handed over. When Wolfgang Petritsch, then High Representative and international head of the civil administration in Bosnia, confronted the US General in command of the international SFOR-troops, Petritsch was told in plain terms that the General would be acting on direct orders from his government. Manfred Nowak, then judge at the Bosnian Human Rights Chamber which was created by the Dayton Agreement, tried to forestall the extradition by means of an interim measure. However, his efforts were of no avail – the men were at this point already on their way to Guantánamo.
Seven years in Guantánamo – “Guilty until proven innocent”
What Mustafa Ait Idir and the other five Bosnian men were to suffer in the following years was a reflection of the blatant denial and the violation of minimum human rights standards in the so called “war on terror”. For the Bosnian detainees this meant the infliction of torture including sleep deprivation and long term solitary confinement; Mr. Ait Idir’s crippled finger is a reminder of the excessive use of violence he experienced. One day as the wardens came to Mr. Ait Idir’s cell in order to strip him again of his clothes and leave him naked in the cell he refused to hand over his clothes. As a response, soldiers stormed his cell, used pepper spray, dragged him out of his cell and fixed him on the floor. Under excruciating pain a water hose was inserted into his mouth and a warden jumps with his knee on Mr. Ait Idir’s head. As a consequence, he suffers from a partial paralysis of his face until today.
In an almost Kafkaesque enactment of the rule of law, members of the military decided in “Combatant Status Review Tribunals” on the continuation of his detention in Guantánamo. The evidence allegedly corroborating the accusations remained confidential. The possibility to defend oneself became rendered ad absurdum. (The US courtroom drama “The Response” portraits the work of these tribunals and is largely based on the protocols of the proceedings against Mr. Ait Idir. The movie was shortlisted for an Oscar in 2010).
Since the end of his mandate in Bosnia in 2002, Petritsch has continued to advocate at various European and American institution for the six men and the need for proceedings which comply with rule of law standards. These efforts, however, had little if any tangible results. Also, his comprehensive testimony in front of the European Parliament (see EP-Protocol of 20 November 2006) did not yield the impact which was hoped for. The European Union as well as the European Parliament turned out to be incapable of ensuring the protection of the detainees’ human rights. On the level of the United Nations, Nowak focused much of his work as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, a mandate he assumed in 2004, on the situation of the detainees in Guantánamo. Together with other independent UN experts he pushed for an official fact-finding mission to the detention camp in order to independently assess the conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees. This attempt however was thwarted by conditions imposed by the US authorities which rendered any independent assessment impossible. Nevertheless the UN experts eventually decided to publish a report which was based on a rigorous legal analysis as well as testimonies of the detainees’ lawyers and former detainees. The report explicitly condemns in the strongest terms the extrajudicial arrest and detention of the Bosnian detainees as well as the interrogation methods and conditions of detention as torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The situation of Mr. Ait Idir and the other Bosnian detainees slowly changed when in 2004 the Boston based law firm WilmerHale started to represent them on a pro bono basis. After years of tireless work, they succeeded in getting their cases considered before the US Supreme Court. What would follow was one of the most important decisions countering the legal fall-out of the so-called “war on terror”. In June 2008, the Supreme Court decided that Guantánamo detainees enjoy the right to an independent review of the legality of their detention (“habeas corpus”). This verdict has been a landmark decision in US democracy and a major blow to the Bush administration. Soon afterwards, the US authorities dropped all allegations against the Bosnian men regarding the planed attacks on embassies in Sarajevo. Many considered this sequence of events as telling, since the allegations were dropped even before an independent court could actually consider them.
In November 2008, a US Federal Court in Washington DC evaluated the legality of the continuous detention of Mr. Ait Idir and his fellow Bosnian detainees. It was the first time that a US civil court considered this matter for Guantánamo detainees, and furthermore, was able to include – at least partly – classified evidence into its deliberations. Petritsch and two directly involved Bosnian politicians supported the proceedings by submitting written declarations (see “declaration” in relation to Lakhdar Boumediene et al. v. George Walker Bush on 15 September 2008). After almost seven years in Guantánamo, the Federal Court finally decided that the detention of Mr. Ait Idir was illegal and ordered his immediate release.
Released from Guantánamo to….?
From the “Algerian Six” only Mustafa Ait Idir and two further men were able to return to their families in Bosnia. Despite the judicial confirmation of their innocence and the withdrawal of all allegations by the US authorities it required intensive efforts by the Boston lawyers and Petritsch to find governments who were courageous enough to offer their countries as a destination for resettlement. Through the assistance of the former French ambassador in Sarajevo and the current Coordinator of the French intelligence service – who was approached by Petritsch on this matter – two detainees eventually found a new home in France. One detainee remains to this day in Guantánamo. So far no European country was willing to receive him, however, recent exchanges with various European governments give reason for cautious optimism that he too will finally be released.
Once Guantánamo – always Guantánamo?
Mr. Ait Idir’s release from Guantánamo and return to his wife and children, however, has not meant the end to all his problems and suffering. Since his release, Mr. Ait Idir, a computer expert by training, has not been able to find any stable source of income. The detention in Guantánamo has destroyed his professional career. His wife has assumed the burden of working two jobs and still barley sustains the family. Instead of being able to focus entirely on this recovery and reintegration, Mr. Ait Idir is confronted with economic hardship caused by his detention in Guantánamo. With the exception of small one-off payments by the city of Sarajevo and occasional support of friends, Mr. Ait Idir has not received any form of compensation or other form of redress which would remedy this situation.
With their initiative Wolfgang Petritsch and Manfred Nowak intend to rectify this scandalous situation and appeal to the support of civil society. In cooperation with the crowdsourcing website, respkt.net, it is hoped that in the course of the next weeks 25 000 Euros can be raised, which are needed for Mr. Ait Idir as start-up capital for the opening of a copy shop in Sarajevo. A detailed business plan has been developed; the demand for such a shop in Sarajevo has been verified; the implementation of the project will be diligently scrutinized.
This appeal of Wolfgang Petritsch, Manfred Nowak and Maria Baumgartner, co-founder of respekt.net, hopes to reach all those who would like to make a difference by their contribution to remedy the injustice Guantánamo has caused.
“The story of Mustafa Ait Idir demonstrates very vividly the systematic violation of human rights and rule of law standards by the Bush administration in the so-called “war on terror”. At first, Bosnia a weak state after the war, was pressured to illegally handing over its own citizens. The extradition resembles more an abduction into a detention camp where torture and other forms of abuse are applied on a regular basis. The access to any legal remedy is barred for years; and then, after acknowledging seven years later that the detention has been illegal, those who are responsible for all the suffering deny any compensation or other form of redress. In many respects, it amounts to a meltdown of rule of law standards that it is now up to the civil society to rectify this injustice and to support former Guantánamo detainees like Mustafa Ait Idir in the difficult situations they face since their release. Our project shall aims to facilitate empowerment by offering a work place and make a contribution so that at least the economic challenges are alleviated.”
“Let’s support the US in a situation they admittedly caused themselves by supporting Bosnian citizen Mustafa Ait Idir. The way to support is very clear – for a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and now wants to start his life. What better way can be there to demonstrate European solidarity.”
Maria Baumgartner, Respekt.net
“For respekt.net this project has a political and a human dimension. The Austrian Government was not willing to offer asylum to human beings who without any wrongdoings have spent years in Guantánamo. We consider this as cowardice and embarrassing. As a platform for civil society we refuse to accept this and hope to restore Austria’s reputation as an asylum country by means of a small contribution. The human dimension of this project stems from Mr. Ait Idir’s renewed hope and courage, he is now ready to take his life into his own hands and fight for his rights. The first step now, is to ensure his livelihood and dignity; the second step has to be compensation. We very much hope that many people will support this project at, http://www.respekt.net. The success of this project is a confirmation to the work and ambition of respekt.net. Respekt.net has over 130 projects on its platform; 50 projects have already been implemented or are in the process of being implemented, 31 are in the financing phase, and 32 further projects are currently prepared.”