With Obama's first days in the White House comes hope for a new direction in human rights protection after the Bush era. The case of the "Six Algerians" kidnapped in Sarajevo in 2002 and held in Guantanamo for 7 years. A comment by former UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Wolfgang Petritsch
Barak Obama, the 44th president of the United States will officially enter the White House today. According to a report by the New York Times a couple of days ago, the same day the closure of Guantanamo will be ordered. This prison became the symbol of human rights violation during the Bush era.
Presenting the 2009 report of Human Rights Watch, its director, Kenneth Roth, said that "for the first time in a decade, the United States has the opportunity to regain its international credibility by turning a new page and leaving behind the policy of abuse of the Bush administration."
A big part of the report, entitled "The Disastrous Bush Years," is dedicated to the United States, which is held responsible for the deterioration of human rights in the world. The country relinquished its role as a leader in human rights, used instruments such as torture, "disappearance" of suspects to secret places of detention, and the detention of people in Guantanamo for years without granting their right to a trial. The report concludes by asking President Obama, among others, to "close Guantanamo..., repatriate or try all the detainees, ensuring that trials are held in regular courts."
There are 248 prisoners in Guantanamo. The first ones arrived exactly seven years ago, in January of 2002. Despite the good intentions of the new administration, the operation of shutting the prison down may become long and complicated: "It is more difficult than what many would believe," Obama told the US television channel ABC on 11 January.
The case of the so-called "six Algerians" captured by the US forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in 2002 and deported to the Cuban island is an example of this difficulty.
The story begins in the cities of Sarajevo, Zenica and Bihac in October of 2001. Based on tips from the US Embassy, six men of Algerian origin (but with BiH residency and Bosnian passports) were arrested by the local authorities on suspicion of having planned attacks on the US and UK embassies.
For three months during the investigation, they were held by the Bosnian authorities. In the end, the Supreme Court of BiH found them innocent and ordered their release. Immediately after being released, however, they were captured by the US forces present in Bosnia in accordance with the Dayton agreement and transferred to Guantanamo.
Six years later, in June of 2008, a decision by the US Supreme Court allowed the detainees to appeal their detention before a civilian court. The "Six Algerians" submitted their appeals. On 20 November, in the first verdict of this type, on the legitimacy of the detention of so-called "enemy combatants," federal judge Richard Leon ordered the release of five of the six detainees. According to the judge's decision and as argued by the counsel of the defense, except in one case, the evidence presented against the detainees was not credible. It had all been a mistake.
Ambassador Wolfgang Petritsch, at that time Chief of the Austrian Diplomatic Mission with the OSCE and President of the Consultative Committee of CEIS (Center for European Integration Strategies), was witness to all of the developments:
"At the time of these events in the beginning of 2002, I was the High Representative in BiH. I could not prevent what happened, but because of the responsibility I had in the country in that period of time, this has always been a very important question for me. I brought the case to the attention of the European Parliament, and I encorauged the appeal of the six, assisted by a group of lawyers from Boston. I did not do it because I felt they were innocent but because I believed they were entitled to the same rights as any other person. If we want to help Bosnia become a fully democratic country, as intended with the Dayton Accords, we have to abide by the principles of democracy and legality."
In that period of time, a few months after the 11 September attack on the Twin Towers, neither the High Representative nor the then head of the Bosnian government, Zlatko Lagumdzija, could oppose the deportation of the six despite the verdict of the Bosnian Supreme Court.
"At the time," continued Petritsch, "the Bosnian government was not in condition to resist the demands of the United States, which threatened to withdraw any type of support from BiH if the six were not handed over. This was the reason why I could not intervene either. Lagumdzija was in the same position. He was facing the same risk."
- Osservatorio sui Balcani: What risk?
- "That the US would withdraw from Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2002 this would have meant a great loss, especially given the security situation in the country - a loss which I could not risk."
About a month ago on 16 December, three of the five acquitted Algerians returned to Sarajevo. The other three still remain in Guantanamo. Despite the judge's ruling, the two persons declared innocent are still in detention. This demonstrates the challenge that the Obama Administration will now have to confront.
The six came to BiH during the war and remained in the country after having married Bosnian women. Now however, after 7 years in Guantanamo, not everybody in Bosnia will welcome them back. A month ago, the Bosnian Security Services (OSA) opposed the government's decision to allow the return of the first three, arguing it could represent a security risk. In the mean time, the other two have lost their Bosnian citizenship and their situation has become even more complicated. They cannot re-enter their country of origin (Algeria) because their safety, according to some, could not be guaranteed.
At this point, Petritsch said, it is the US which needs help in order to resolve the situation: "Bosnia and Herzegovina could help in solving the issue by doing the same thing as other countries such as Germany or Portugal, which stated their readiness to receive some of the ex-prisoners from Guantanamo," adds Petritsch. "I think it would be a very positive gesture from BiH to accept the other two as well, even though, formally, they are no longer Bosnian citizens...this would help the US which has done a lot for Bosnia over the past years."
But do these people really represent a threat? Despite the fact that they have been definitely cleared as innocent, some argue that exactly because they have been held for almost 7 years in hard and inhuman conditions in Guantanamo, they are now at risk of being recruited by extremists. In any case, this is a fine result of the War on Terror of the Bush Administration.