Washington Post Foreign Service Tuesday, May 26, 2009
PARIS, May 25 -- When the nightmare finally ended -- seven years at Guantanamo Bay, two years of force-feeding through a tube in his right nostril, the long struggle to proclaim his innocence before a judge, and finally 10 days of hospitalization -- Lakhdar Boumediene celebrated with pizza for lunch in a little Paris dive. "When we were at the restaurant," Boumediene said Monday, shortly after the meal that marked his release from doctors' care and reentry into normal society, "I told my wife that for the first time I felt like a man again, tasting things, picking things up in my fingers, eating lunch with my wife and my two daughters."
In what he describes as an ugly mistake by U.S. authorities, Boumediene, an Algerian citizen, had spent seven years there as terrorism suspect No. 10005. Later he became the plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case, Boumediene v. Bush, that in June 2008 gave Guantanamo detainees the right to seek judicial review of their imprisonment. Boumediene, in a lengthy interview in a Paris suburb, said he joined the case to represent the scores of prisoners held at Guantanamo charged with being "enemy combatants" and having no power to challenge the accusation in court. Later ordered released by a U.S. district judge in Washington, he represents something new: dozens of prisoners whom the U.S. government has decided to release but cannot, because no other country will take them in and most Americans do not want them on U.S. soil.
At the request of the Obama administration, France agreed to take in Boumediene but appears reluctant to accept any more detainees. Britain accepted one released Guantanamo prisoner in February and has promised to take in a second. In all, human rights activists say, Washington is looking for homes for about 60 such prisoners, swept up without trial in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and now judged fit for release. Boumediene's version of events is impossible to verify independently. But he described himself as collateral damage in those sweeps, an aid worker in Bosnia wrenched from his life and, he said, interrogated endlessly about something about which he had no knowledge.
U.S. interest was high because one of the six Algerians, Belkacem Bensayah, was accused by U.S. investigators of being an al-Qaeda operative in Bosnia. Moreover, Bosnian police had discovered a piece of paper in Bensayah's home with a handwritten number and a name that corresponded to that of a senior al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan.
Boumediene, in the interview, said he did not know Bensayah well but that, as a fellow Algerian, Bensayah had come to Boumediene's Red Crescent office seeking help for his family. In addition, he said, Bensayah's wife sought assistance after her husband's arrest, and Boumediene provided money for a lawyer. Boumediene said U.S. officials concluded that those connections linked him to al-Qaeda's activities in Bosnia. In addition, Boumediene said, a stint in Pakistan in the early 1990s aroused the suspicions of U.S. investigators and may have landed his name on a watch list shared by Algerian security services with their U.S. counterparts.