On Thursday, Branislav Tichý, the director of Amnesty International Slovensko, told the press that three former Guantánamo prisoners, who had been released in Slovakia on January 25 this year, had embarked on a hunger strike. According to the Slovak Spectator, Tichý explained that they were “protesting bad conditions and the treatment they are receiving from Slovak authorities in a detention facility in Medved’ov in Trnava Region.”
The complaints are not entirely unexpected. As Reuters explained when the men first arrived in the country, a spokesman for the police stated that they “were being placed in a camp for asylum seekers in the eastern part of Slovakia, Humenne, which is run by the interior ministry.” No time limit was set for their removal from this camp to a location in which they might be able to rebuild their lives, establish ties with the local community and look for work, but RTT News, a New York-based wire service, suggested that they would be “released” after “an 18-month process of acclimatization to Slovakia, including language instruction and a search for employment,” but would remain “under surveillance for an unspecified period.” This was in spite of the fact that, the week before their arrival, the Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak had pointed out, “The three are not criminals, none of them has been either accused or convicted.”
The three men were not identified on arrival in Slovakia, but it appears that the complaints are being driven by Adel Fattough Ali El-Gazzar, a former Egyptian army officer with a master’s degree in economics, who was first cleared for release from Guantánamo by a military review board in 2006, and was then cleared again last year by President Obama’s Guantánamo Review Task Force, which reviewed the cases of all the Guantánamo prisoners, and recommended that 97 of the remaining 181 men should be released.
El-Gazzar is also an amputee, who lost a leg in a US bombing raid while visiting a refugee camp on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he had traveled to conduct humanitarian aid, and, in Guantánamo, he had been respected as a natural leader, becoming part of a six-man “Prisoner’s Council,” which also included the British resident Shaker Aamer, during a brief period in the summer of 2005 when the authorities toyed with implementing the Geneva Conventions.
According to El-Gazzar, who called Amnesty representatives on Thursday morning, he and his colleagues “are not allowed contact with anyone except for personnel in the facility and their lawyer.” In addition, he “described their living conditions as poor -- having only beds and a sink at their disposal and being allowed to leave their rooms for only an hour per day.”
El-Gazzar’s claims were disputed by Bernard Priecel, the chief officer at the Interior Ministry's Migration Bureau, who said that there was “no reason” for the men to be on a hunger strike, because they “enjoy high standards in terms of both security and the re-integration process itself and are receiving personal treatment eight hours a day, including psychological care and lessons in the Slovak language.” He added that “they do socialize, use cell phones and have an internet connection available.”
On Friday, the dpa news agency spoke to a representative of Amnesty International Slovensko, who confirmed that the men “felt isolated and badly looked after,” and also explained that they were concerned because, after five months, their legal status “was still not clear.” While continuing to refute the men’s other claims, Bernard Priecel conceded that “the lack of clarity on their legal status could be a burden for them.” As dpa added, “At the moment they [are] simply foreigners, without asylum seeker status,” even though, when they arrived in Slovakia in January, Interior Minister Robert Kalinak had “promised that their residence permit status would be cleared up quickly.”
In light of the publicity generated by the story of the hunger strike -- something which, ironically, the men may well have learned in Guantánamo -- it is to be hoped that the Slovakian government will move swiftly to formalize their residence permit status and to rehouse them somewhere other than a camp for asylum seekers.
It is clear, however, that the blame for the men’s feelings of isolation and abandonment lies not just with the Slovak government, but also with the EU as a whole, which has failed to establish a coherent policy regarding standards of care for the 17 men who, since Barack Obama became President, have been resettled in Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain (15 others have been resettled in Bermuda, Georgia, Palau and Switzerland).
While most of these men seems to be coping reasonably well with their adjustment to life in a new country after the traumatizing effects of their long imprisonment in Guantánamo, former prisoners in the UK, who are in touch with released prisoners around the world, report that the man released in Hungary last December, a Palestinian, is also struggling to cope with his isolation.
Part of the problem lies with attempts -- or the lack of attempts -- to reunite these men with their families, if they are married. Although the French government succeeded in reuniting Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian released in France last May, with his wife and son, and the Irish government did the same for Oybek Jabbarov, an Uzbek released in Ireland last September, who was reunited with his wife and two sons in December, other ex-prisoners are still cut off from their families, and for the Palestinian in Hungary, who does not even have the companionship of other ex-prisoners, this is particularly hard to bear.
However, while some of these problems need addressing across the member states of the EU, the main responsibility for this generally chaotic state of affairs rests with the Obama administration, which has been remarkably opaque about what provisions it makes for former prisoners resettled in other countries, and which, moreover, has compounded these problems by refusing to accept its own responsibility for the Bush administration’s largely indiscriminate detention policies.
These problems began in earnest in April 2009, when President Obama called a halt to an admirable plan to provides homes on the US mainland for two cleared Guantánamo prisoners who could not be repatriated. The plan had been conceived by President Obama’s most senior legal advisor, White House Counsel Greg Craig, and was supported by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and defense secretary Robert Gates, but when the news was leaked, and the President came under pressure from Republican critics, the men in question -- two of the 17 Uighurs in Guantánamo, Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province, whose release had been ordered by a US court in October 2008 -- were cast back into a disturbing legal limbo.
Emboldened by the President’s capitulation, his critics in Congress -- both Republicans and members of his party -- then passed a law preventing him from bringing any cleared prisoner to live in the US, putting all the pressure for rehousing these men into the hands of Daniel Fried, a senior diplomat who had been appointed as the Obama administration’s Special Envoy to Guantánamo in March 2009.
In a candid interview with the BBC in September 2009, Fried explained that, although he would “not criticize Congress … It is fair to say, as just an objective statement, that the US could resettle more detainees [worldwide], had we been willing to take in some.”
That, of course, is something of an understatement, but as the plight of the men in Slovakia and Hungary shows, the least the US can do now is to ensure that it is not just dumping former prisoners in Europe and walking away, but is prepared to ensure that they receive as much support as possible -- in terms of housing, financial support, psychological welfare, cultural and linguistic integration, and the search for employment -- to facilitate their transition to a normal, stable life after the long years of freedom that they were so unjustly denied.