The long road from Guantanamo to Switzerland


Illegally imprisoned for eight years, three former inmates of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp have found refuge in Switzerland. Three others fell foul of administrative hurdles in Bern. looks at where they are now.

This content was published on June 11, 2013 minutes
Stefania Summermatter and Peter Siegenthaler,

More than three years have passed since two Uighur brothers and an Uzbek left Guantanamo Bay. At the request of the United States, Switzerland offered them refuge - a place to begin a new life.

The transfer of former inmates held at the detention camp within the American naval base in Cuba is back in the headlines after new promises from President Barack Obama to close the prison which has become a symbol of the deprivation of rights. Attention has focused on the 166 detainees still held in the prison camp, but what about the others? And in particular, those who came, or tried to come to Switzerland?

The story begins in 2008. With the support of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and Amnesty International, three detainees set to be released requested asylum in Switzerland. Initially rebuffed, they appealed their cases to the Federal Administrative Tribunal.

In 2009, the federal judges accepted an initial appeal - that of Algerian Abdul Aziz Naji, number 744, and ordered the Federal Migration Office to review the case. The following year, the court delivered a positive verdict in the case of the Libyan Abdul Rauf Omar al-Qusin, number 709, while the third detainee, Uighur Adel Noori, number 584, had his case rejected.

In its verdicts, the court admonished the Migration Office in particular for not having respected the rights of the asylum seekers to be heard. Four years later, the cases of Naji and Qusin have yet to be resolved.

“These cases are particularly complex,” says Migration Office spokesman Michael Glauser. Citing protection of privacy, Glauser declined to provide information on why the department delivered its initial negative decision, or on the measures taken to adhere to the orders handed down by the court.

From bad to worse

In the meantime, the three asylum seekers are no longer at Guantanamo Bay. After eight years in prison without ever having been formally charged or tried, they were released at the end of 2009 and in 2010.

Aged 44, Noori found refuge in the Republic of Palau, an island in the Pacific Ocean where according to Amnesty’s Denise Graf, he has found work and a family. Qusin was transferred to Albania where he had difficulty integrating into local life, according to the NGO. Following the fall of Moammar Gaddafi, he took steps to return to his country and has not been heard of since.

For Abdul Aziz Naji, born in 1975, things went from bad to worse after his release from Guantanamo. Repatriated against his wishes to Algeria, he is currently serving three years in prison on terrorism charges – the same charges as those levelled by the US that were never proven.

“His mental and physical health continues to deteriorate,” says his Algerian lawyer Hassiba Boumerdassi. “He is a very introverted and suspicious person. He doesn’t readily talk of Guantanamo, an experience which profoundly traumatised him and in addition, he is not receiving adequate care. He is isolated from the other prisoners and, like all presumed terrorists, he is treated harshly by the guards.”

Shelved request?

Abdul Aziz Naji’s asylum bid was rejected by the Federal Migration Office in 2009. His lawyer appealed to the Federal Administrative Court, which ruled in his favour. In a ruling on December 10, 2009, the court found the Migration Office did not guarantee him the right to be heard, a violation of federal law. The reasons for rejecting the asylum request were too vague, the court said. The Migration Office’s decision was not a convincing and credible argument demonstrating that it was not in the interest of Switzerland to grant asylum.  

Despite this clear verdict, the Migration Office still has not reviewed the case. In a statement to the office said: “The duration of asylum proceedings is dependent on various factors, notably possible additional investigations being done to clarify the case, but also the priority order in which cases are being treated.”

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A permanent record

Naji’s story began in 2001 in Kashmir, Pakistan, where he was employed by a local humanitarian organisation working with poor Muslim and Christian communities, according to several organisations including Amnesty and the Geneva-based Human Rights Watch. One night, while delivering food to isolated villages, he stepped on a landmine and was gravely injured. He was transferred to a hospital in Lahore and later fitted with a prosthetic limb.

In May 2002, after several months of rehabilitation, Naji travelled to Peshawar in Pakistan’s north to visit a friend. It is here that he was arrested by Pakistani police and delivered to American troops based in the region.

Accusing him of having ties to a radical Islamist movement, the US asserts that his voluntary work was nothing but a front and transferred him to Guantanamo Bay, where according to his lawyers he was tortured.

After six years in the prison camp, and with the American authorities having declared him “cleared for release”, he appealed to Switzerland for asylum.

“It’s a politically correct way of saying that certain prisoners are no longer considered ‘enemies’ of the US without officially admitting to their innocence,” explains Andrea Prasow, a lawyer with the anti-terrorist programme at Human Rights Watch. “The US is very careful about the language it uses.”

As such, Naji was allowed to leave Guantanamo but carries with him a permanent record. On the basis of information provided by Washington, the Swiss rejected his request for asylum, believing him to be a dangerous combatant – a decision that failed to convince both human rights organisations and the Federal Administrative Court.

Guantanamo Bay detention camp

Opened by the Bush administration, the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, received its first inmates from Afghanistan in January 2002.

According to the American authorities, a total of 779 people have been detained there in the context of the “war on terror”. To this day, just seven have been convicted by US “military tribunals”. The vast majority have never been formally charged or tried by a court.

In January 2009, two days after his inauguration, President Barack Obama signed an order for the closure of the prison by the end of that year – a promise which has yet to be fulfilled.

Eleven years after it was first opened, 166 people are still imprisoned at Guantanamo. Most are Yemenis.

The Obama administration has ruled that 86 of them are “releasable”, but that does not mean they are free citizens. Some countries refuse to allow the former Guantanamo detainees entry, while in others they run the risk of torture or certain regions are considered too unstable.

In a sign of protest, some 100 detainees began a hunger strike several months ago. The military authorities ordered the forced feeding of some 30 amongst them.    

“A decision denounced by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC),” says ICRC spokesman Alexis Heeb.

In 2010, Switzerland accepted three former prisoners after having criticised on several occasions the Guantanamo prison’s incompatibility with international law.

The choice was made on the basis of information provided by the Americans and a visit to Guantanamo by a delegation of representatives from federal and cantonal governments, according to justice ministry spokesman Guido Balmer. The asylum requests of two other former detainees are still being considered by the Federal Migration Office.

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“Fear of freedom”

Although Naji was still at Guantanamo when the Swiss judges accepted his appeal in December 2009, he was not to stay there much longer. In July 2010 he was sent back to Algeria.    

“Naji would have preferred to stay at Guantanamo rather than return to his country where he was afraid he would be arrested and tortured,” says Rachid Mesli, director of the Alkarama Foundation, a Geneva-based NGO which fights for human rights in Arab countries.

His case has found a particular resonance in the US, where it inspired an editorial in the New York Times titled “Fear of Freedom”. (see link)

Naji’s fears were well-founded; newly arrived in Algiers, he was arrested by the military secret service and interrogated – despite guarantees Washington says it received from the Algerian government.

Thanks to the intervention of his lawyers and human rights organisations, Naji was released after 20 days in prison and transferred to his home in Batna Province where he was kept under “constant surveillance by the secret service”, Mesli says. “He was required to report regularly to the military barracks for interrogation.”

In January 2012, Naji once again found himself behind bars. No new evidence was presented by the prosecutor, says his lawyer Hassiba Boumerdassi.

“We are waiting for the verdict of the appeal. If the three-year sentence is confirmed, we will try to demand his release on health grounds because he will need a new prosthesis. The law allows for this possibility when half of the sentence has been served,” she says.

Naji’s case is not an isolated one: all of the former Guantanamo inmates repatriated to Algeria have been arrested by the secret service. Some were freed after a series of interrogations while others are still waiting trial, says Katie Taylor from British NGO Reprieve which specialises in the cases of Guantanamo detainees.

The Algerian embassy to Bern did not respond to swissinfo's questions about the Naji case or the general policies about the reintroduction of former Guantanamo detainees to Algeria.  

A question of responsibility

The closure of the controversial prison camp has been declared a priority by the Obama administration, but former detainees are still not safe from reprisals in the countries where they are transferred. asked the American Embassy to Bern to explain the responsibilities the US assumes in relation to the ex-Guantanamo detainees, and what measures it takes to ensure they are not subject to new violations of human rights or of the Geneva Convention. The response: “No comment”.

Human Rights Watch’s Prasow notes that bilateral agreements relating to the transfer of former detainees are confidential.

“The American practice allows for a monitoring of the situation. Washington wants to know where these former detainees are, what they’re doing, if they have left the country and especially if they have engaged in illegal activities,” she says.

It is on the basis of a political agreement with Washington that in 2010, Switzerland welcomed on humanitarian grounds (and with a residence permit) three former detainees – two Uighur brothers and an Uzbek. It was a process of a completely different nature compared with the asylum requests presented by their three former companions.

Scarred for life

Today, the two Uighur brothers – Arkin and Bathiyar Mahmut, numbers 103 and 277 – live in the French-speaking canton of Jura in Switzerland’s north-west. tried without success to contact them for this article. After an initial appearance in the media, they have systematically rejected the dozens of interview requests they receive each month, in particular from the international press.

According to Endili Memetkerim, president of the East Turkestan Association (the region known officially in China as Xinjiang) which brings together some one hundred people of Uighur origin in Switzerland, the Mahmut brothers are getting on quite well. The youngest, aged 37, found work first as a gardener, then in a watch company, while the eldest is still looking for work. They are learning to speak French, although not without difficulty, Memetkerim says.

The scars left by Guantanamo are difficult to erase and the eldest brother, who is also suffering from the separation from his wife and children, is the most traumatised, says Amnesty’s Graf.

“In Guantanamo, he lived through the most unimaginable experiences. He dared to denounce the methods used in the prison and as a result, was placed in isolation for long periods of time,” Graf says.

“The Swiss have authorised the family reunification but the Chinese refuse to let them leave the country.”

A return home by the brothers is out of the question.

“Our Uighur refugees are considered terrorists by the Chinese authorities,” says Memetkerim. Under the current regime, they risk the death penalty or a long prison sentence, he says.

Practically nothing is known about the Uzbek ex-detainee given refuge in Switzerland. A baker by trade, he was the first of the former Guantanamo detainees to arrive in the country. Authorities in canton Geneva have maintained an absolute silence about both his identity and his situation in Switzerland.

“It’s about respecting the right to forget,” explains Caroline Widmer, spokeswoman for Geneva’s justice office.

It’s a choice shared by Katie Taylor of Reprieve. “[But] it remains that the cases of human rights violations – such of that of Naji – must be reported to ensure that other people do not suffer the same fate.”

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