With a typical disregard for the principle that a prisoner — any prisoner — must be freed when their sentence comes to an end, the US has maintained, since the “war on terror” began nearly 11 years ago, that prisoners at Guantánamo can continue to be held after their sentence has come to an end, and be returned to the general population as “enemy combatants,” even though President Bush failed to do this when he had the opportunity — with Salim Hamdan, a driver for Osama bin Laden who was freed after serving a five-month sentence handed down after his military trial in 2008.
A source with knowledge of al-Qosi’s case, who does not wish to be identified, told me that the Obama administration was unwilling to detain al-Qosi after his sentence came to an end, and I believe that one of the reasons that the President negotiated a waiver to the provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act, allowing him to bypass restrictions on releasing prisoners that were imposed by Congress, was to prevent Republicans from trying to force him to continue holding al-Qosi.
As Carol Rosenberg, who broke the story in the Miami Herald, explained, Khadr’s presence at Guantánamo, eight months after he was supposed to have left the prison, “has meant that prosecution plea deal offers have fallen on deaf ears.” Al-Qosi’s release, in contrast, “may break a logjam in plea deals attributed to the Khadr case.” Marine Col. Jeffrey Colwell, the chief defense counsel for the military commissions, told Rosenberg, “Clearly if the government can’t carry through on their end of the bargain, it has a chilling effect on the willingness of others to plead.”
For al-Qosi, his release will allow him to be reunited with his family. Unlike many other prisoners, all of his immediate family are still alive. As Paul Reichler, his Washington-based civilian attorney, who represented him pro bono for seven years, explained, “He is now in his 50s, eager only to spend his life at home with his family in Sudan — his mother and father, his wife and two teenage daughters, and his brothers and their families — and live among them in peace, quiet and freedom.”
His Pentagon-appointed defense lawyer, Navy Cmdr. Suzanne Lachelier, noted that, last week, al-Qosi was moved to “special quarters,” with “a flat-screen TV, a refrigerator that let him eat at his leisure and a small outdoor gravel-topped patio, all inside a locked enclosure.” Cmdr. Lachelier added there was also “a real bed rather than a steel bunk topped with a mat,” but that al-Qosi slept on the floor before leaving “because he suffers from a bad back.”
Although al-Qosi is technically a convicted war criminal, this says more about the distortions introduced by the United States after 9/11 than it does about al-Qosi himself. He was seized in December 2001, escaping from the Tora Bora mountains, where a showdown had taken place between al-Qaeda and the Taliban on the one hand, and the United States and their proxy Afghan army on the other, but there was no indication that he held any kind of leadership position. He was seized with other men who were later described as being bodyguards for Osama bin Laden, but those are largely discredited allegations, made by prisoners notorious for making false statements about their fellow inmates.
Al-Qosi was a trained accountant, who had been the book-keeper for one of the businesses that Osama bin Laden ran in Sudan during his stay in al-Qosi’s homeland between 1992 and 1996, and he then followed bin Laden to Afghanistan, but he was never anything more than a peripheral figure, sometimes working as a driver for bin Laden (like Salim Hamdan), and sometimes cooking at an al-Qaeda compound named Star of Jihad, in Jalalabad.
As Carol Rosenberg noted, he was also one of the first prisoners “to formally allege torture,” including “the use of strobe lights, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, [and] being wrapped in the Israeli flag,” in a petition filed in federal court in 2004, although that was not revealed publicly at the time, and he had to drop all allegations about his torture and abuse as part of his plea deal.
With his long ordeal behind him, al-Qosi will return to his hometown, Atbara, north of Khartoum, where he will help to run his family’s shop. His wife, Mariam, the daughter of another former Guantánamo prisoner, Abdullah Tabarak, a Moroccan released in July 2003, who he married in Afghanistan before the 9/11 attacks, moved to Atbara from Morocco last year, with their daughters, to await his return.
Summing up his client, Paul Reichler said, “He is an intelligent, pious, humble and sincere individual who has endured much hardship the past 10 years. But he returns home without hatred or rancor.”
In conclusion, while it is reassuring that the Obama administration has honoured its agreement to release al-Qosi, it remains deeply dispiriting that 87 other men — never charged, never tried and cleared for release up to eight years ago — are still held. New homes are required for some of these men who cannot be safely repatriated, because they are from countries where they would be unsafe if returned — China, for example, or Syria — but 58 of them are Yemenis, held because of an unjust and hysterical response to would-be underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s capture in December 2009.
As published exclusively on the website of the Future of Freedom Foundation.