Thursday, March 25, 2010

Who Is the Palestinian Released from Guantánamo in Spain?

Walid Hijazi, photographed in Gaza before his capture and 
imprisonment in GuantanamoLast Wednesday, when the Spanish government announced that the first of up to five cleared Guantánamo prisoners to be offered new homes in Spain had arrived in the country (and three other men were given new homes in Albania), I noted that, although the Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told reporters that the man is Palestinian, he refused to give his name, citing privacy concerns.
This was not unusual. Although the identities of two Algerians released in France last year, and two Uzbeks released in Ireland had been publicly revealed (as, by accident, had the identities of two Syrians released in Portugal), the trend was towards anonymity, to allow these men to attempt to build new lives in peace, without the stigma attached to anyone who has been held in Guantánamo. Anonymity was preserved with the unidentified man released in Belgium in October, the Palestinian released in Hungary in December, the three unidentified men released in Slovakia in January, and the Uzbek released in Switzerland, also this January.
However, as the Spanish journalist Carlos Sardiña Galache explained to me last week, “All the Spanish press is covering the news of the Guantánamo prisoner released here.” He added that a month ago, El Mundo — the country’s second biggest newspaper — claimed that the ex-prisoner in question was Walid Hijazi (identified in Guantánamo as Assem Matruq al-Aasmi), who was born in 1980 and is originally from the town of Khan Younis in Gaza.
In a rather snide article, originally entitled, as Galache explained, “El ‘regalito’ que nos llega de Guantánamo” (“The ‘present’ that comes from Guantánamo”), El Mundo attempted to cast doubts on Hijazi’s suitability for resettlement, hinting at connections to al-Qaeda, which, presumably, had been lifted from the untested allegations that are publicly available on the Pentagon’s website, or on the New York Times’ Guantánamo Docket, where the Pentagon documents on each prisoner are made available, but without any analysis.
Last Wednesday, the Associated Press confirmed that the released Palestinian was Walid Hijazi. A relative explained that the family “received a message Tuesday saying Hijazi had been released and sent to Spain.” The relative added that “Hijazi left Gaza in 2000, ostensibly for a pilgrimage to Mecca and that the family lost touch with him after that. In 2003, the family was informed by the Red Cross that he was in Guantánamo, and since then, it had received messages from him every three or four months.”
In light of these revelations, I thought it might be useful to place what is known about Hijazi in context. As I explained in an article last year, Hijazi “was typical of many of the Guantánamo prisoners.” Recruited to travel to Afghanistan to assist the Taliban at a mosque in Saudi Arabia, when he may, indeed, have been preyed on by recruiters during a pilgrimage to Mecca, “he traveled to Afghanistan on a well-worn route via Iran, and arrived at al-Farouq (the main training camp for Arabs, established by the Afghan warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf in the early 1990s, but associated with Osama bin Laden in the years before 9/11) just two weeks before the 9/11 attacks.”
As I also explained:
In interrogation, [Hijazi] explained that he had never fired a weapon except in training, and that when al-Farouq closed, he was sent to Khost, near the Pakistani border, where he stayed in a tent for two months, along with “Taliban fighters coming back and forth from the front lines and people like him waiting for further instructions.” He was then injured in an accident involving a hand grenade, taken to a clinic in Khost, and smuggled across the border to a hospital in Pakistan, where a pin was placed in his leg, and he was eventually seized by the Pakistani authorities.
Those seeking connections with al-Qaeda will undoubtedly pick up on the fact that al-Farouq was associated with bin Laden, but the truth is that thousands of recruits passed through the camp, and few ever met al-Qaeda’s leader. The most that the majority of recruits could expect would be to see him from afar during the occasions when he stopped by to deliver a speech. In addition, the majority of those who attended al-Farouq either returned home after training, joined units fighting with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, in an inter-Muslim civil war that began long before the 9/11 attacks and had nothing to do with al-Qaeda or international terrorism, or took up supportive roles as cooks or guards.
As a new recruit, who spent only two weeks at the camp, Hijazi would not even have advanced beyond the most cursory training, as he explained, and the fact that he was then evacuated via Khost instead of being shepherded like other recruits to the Tora Bora mountains, where a showdown between the remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and the US military’s Afghan allies took place in November and December 2001 indicates that he was as close to a nobody as it was possible to be, having spent just a fortnight at a training camp.
Almost certainly sold to US forces by opportunistic Pakistanis who picked him up from the hospital in Pakistan (and no doubt received a bounty payment as a result), Hijazi would barely have made the grade as a prisoner of war protected by the Geneva Conventions (having never engaged US forces in combat), and his long imprisonment in Guantánamo as an “enemy combatant” — essentially a “terror suspect” without rights — was therefore as ludicrous and as unjust as it was for the majority of the men held at Guantánamo who had no connection to terrorism.
The Spanish people should have no doubt that this young man, who was just out of his teens when seized, poses no threat whatsoever. The Obama administration — which is demonstrably cautious in releasing prisoners — would not have freed him otherwise, and instead of trying to vilify him, it would make more sense for the Spanish media to leave him alone to rebuild his life, and to recall that not only was he subjected to a peculiarly aberrant detention program that no civilized country should tolerate, but also that he is now in a strange land, with no relatives around to help him recover, and is probably struggling to come to terms with the knowledge that Guantánamo may well haunt him for the rest of his life.