Former Guantanamo detainee, raised in Saudi Arabia, struggles to build new life in Chad

By Mike Melia, AP
Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ex-Gitmo detainee struggles to build life in Chad

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A former detainee who spent his teenage years at Guantanamo Bay said Thursday he is struggling to build a life in his parents’ native Chad, a central African nation he had never seen before his release from the U.S. military prison earlier this year.

Mohammed el Gharani, who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, said in a telephone interview that he relies on handouts from friends to support himself. He complained the government has refused to give him a passport.

“I’m still not free,” he said in English. “I have no job. I have a hard time to find somewhere to live.”

Human rights groups say many former inmates have been isolated since their release because of a stigma associated with Guantanamo, a prison described as holding “the worst of the worst” even though most were never charged with crimes. Advocates say El Gharani in particular needs help because he was captured when he was only 14.

“Chad must accept that Mohammed is a victim of tremendous injustice and treat him as such,” said Clive Stafford Smith, director of the London-based legal rights group Reprieve.

El Gharani, now 22, was released in June. The military suspected him of being part of al-Qaida, working for the Taliban and fighting American forces in Afghanistan. But a U.S. federal judge said those accusations were based on unreliable testimony from other Guantanamo inmates and ordered his release — despite objections from the U.S. government.

He did not have Saudi citizenship under the kingdom’s laws because his parents were foreign workers, so the U.S. military sent him instead to Chad.

At first, El Gharani said he was elated to leave the prison in Cuba where he was the youngest and one of the longest-held detainees.

Upon arriving in the poor, largely desert nation, however, he was detained by police for a week, questioned about his nationality and released without a passport or government identity card. He tried to enroll in English classes to learn more of the language he picked up from prison guards, but could not do so without identification.

Soon afterward, armed men mugged him on the streets of the capital, N’Djamena, and threatened to kill him. He said they apparently heard false rumors that he received a multimillion dollar settlement as compensation for his imprisonment.

With little to occupy his time in Chad, he said his greatest desire is to be with his family.

“I’m innocent. I have done nothing to anyone. I should be able go to see my family,” said El Gharani, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2001 at a mosque by local police, and turned over to United States forces in 2002.

El Gharani was recently granted an identification card, but Chris Chang, a senior investigator with Reprieve, said the government is still resisting calls to issue him a passport.

“It stinks somewhat of an agreement between the Chadians and the Americans to restrict his movements,” Chang said by telephone from N’Djamena, where he was planning to visit the passport office Friday to press the request.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Megan Mattson, said the passport issue was between El Gharani and the local government. She declined to discuss whether the U.S. attached any security conditions to the detainee’s release to Chad.

“We don’t comment on details of bilateral agreements between two countries,” Mattson said.

Advocates for El Gharani say he needs a passport to seek treatment overseas for the physical and psychological effects of his confinement. The former inmate alleges he was subjected to beatings, solitary confinement and sleep depravation in U.S. custody.

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