January 14, 2012 marks the first anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution. This day symbolizes the moment when the Tunisian people successfully overthrew the dictatorship of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, and started upon a new democratic path.
In contrast, January 11, 2012 marks the tenth anniversary of the opening of the prison at the U.S. Naval base in Guantánamo Bay. Five Tunisian citizens, never given a trial or formally charged with a crime, remain in the notorious detention center despite having been cleared for release by U.S. authorities under the Bush administration.
Since the Revolution, Tunisia has been proactive in implementing policies that respect the human rights of its citizens. However, the Tunisian government still has not succeeded in resolving the issues surrounding the five remaining prisoners at Guantánamo.
Last September an initiative from a legal action charity known as Reprieve – whose lawyers represent prisoners in Guantánamo – held a conference that aimed at securing the release of the five remaining Tunisians in Guantanamo. Even though the Minister of Justice promised to address this demand, no concrete action has been undertaken and none of the detainees have been set free.
Imed Hakeemy is the brother of Adel Hakeemy, one of the remaining prisoners in Guantanamo. According to Imed, his brother has spent a decade in the detention center on the basis of an accusation alleging his involvement with Al Qaeda. However, no evidence has ever been provided to prove his affiliation with the terrorist network. Imed recalled Adel’s life before his imprisonment and the circumstances surrounding his arrest.
“Adel was married and has a daughter, Hend Hakeemy. He moved to Afghanistan to open a butcher’s shop, but in 2001 he was arrested by Danish coalition forces. My brother’s life was totally destroyed; he lost everything. His wife divorced him, and he has never even seen his daughter. We, his family, have not seen him for more than 10 years,” Imed stated.
“I don’t know why he hasn’t been released yet. We talked to him and he told us he is a free man now. My brother has been cleared for release since the Bush Administration,” Imed continued.
During the Ben Ali era, Imed recalled when Tunisian State Security came to their house (in Ben Arous) and questioned them. The incident traumatized their father, who died a few months later.
Imed described the conditions his brother endured at Guantanamo as “unimaginable” and “horrible”.
“My brother was tortured and faced inhumane treatment during the Bush administration. However, conditions improved marginally when Barak Obama took office. We just want him returned to his family – to Tunisia, his homeland,” he stated.
A total of 12 Tunisians have been held at Guantanamo. Seven have been released (two returned to Tunisia and five were resettled in Europe) and five are still in custody.
Rafiq Al-Hammi, a former prisoner at Guantanamo, spent eight and a half years at the facility before being released in 2010. He returned to Tunisia in March 2011, after spending a year living in Slovakia. Hammi pledged that he would advocate relentlessly for the release of the remaining detainees.
“I hope that the prisoners at Guantanamo will be returned safely to their homes. They are Tunisians after all, and should live in their homeland,” Al-Hammi asserted
Al-Hammi also addressed the accusations that had been levied against him by his captors, stating that they were all false and that no proof of his guilt was ever provided. “I was accused of being a member of Al Qaeda among many other allegations. All these claims were baseless. It took them more than 8 years to realize my innocence,” said Al-Hammi.
“During the years I spent in detention I was tortured physically, sexually, mentally, and religiously. I was deprived of basic human rights,” Hammi explained.
Al-Hammi called upon the new Tunisian government to address the cases of the five remaining detainees more seriously, and put increased pressure on American authorities to release the Tunisian nationals held at Guantanamo Bay.
Previously, the risk of torture under the Ben Ali regime meant the five Tunisian detainees could not safely return home. Now, with Tunisia’s democratic transition in full effect, there is nothing to prevent these Tunisian citizens returning to their country.
Omar Mestiri, a human rights activist, also believes that the Tunisian government must demand for the release of the Tunisian prisoners. Mestiri has petitioned for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay facility, and has stated that the detainees held there need to receive a fair trial.
“The Tunisian detainees must be allowed to return to their homeland, and the Tunisian government must put more effort toward achieving that end. The government needs to see that those who suffered and lost their lives in Guantanamo are compensated,” Mestiri said.
Given that the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention center is approaching, Reprieve and Cageprisoners (a human rights advocacy group addressing the plight of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay) will be co-hosting events during the week of the anniversary to raise awareness about the 171 men that remain in Guantanamo. Tunisian politicians, policy makers, human rights activists, and families of the detainees will attend the conference to see whether the Tunisian government is finally willing to do what is necessary to see its citizens returned home safely.