No place to call home: the sad plight of Guantánamo prisoner Ayman Al Shurafa

September 25, 2008

Ayman Al Shurafa is one of Guantánamo’s unluckiest prisoners. Although he has been cleared for release since 2007, he remains imprisoned because of wrangling over his nationality.

Although Ayman’s parents are from Palestine, they settled in Saudi Arabia with their three children when Ayman was a young child. Ayman spent most of his life in Saudi Arabia, where his family still lives. He does not have a Saudi passport, however, and the Saudi government has, to date, refused to press the US government for his repatriation. Instead, Ayman holds documents that were issued by the Jordanian government (as part of his family’s long search for refuge), which are suitable only for the purposes of travel. He is, therefore, effectively stateless.

Ayman’s story

Ayman (pictured, below, before his imprisonment in Guantánamo) initially travelled to Gaza to enrol in a Palestinian university to finish a business degree that he had started in Saudi Arabia. After the intifada broke out, however, he feared for his life and decided that he had to leave. He returned to Saudi Arabia, but, as with all Saudi residents, discovered that his educational opportunities were more limited than those available to Saudi citizens.

Ayman al Shurafa

It was then that, like many other confused young men, Ayman found himself taking poor advice from a Saudi sheikh who issued a fatwa stating that he needed to be “prepared” to defend Muslims from those oppressing them. As a result, Ayman travelled to Afghanistan in summer 2001, one of thousands of young men encouraged to help the Taliban fight their enemies.

Like many of these young men, Ayman was unaware that the Taliban’s enemies were other Muslims (in the Northern Alliance, who were holding their ground in northern Afghanistan after a long civil war). He never took up arms against the Northern Alliance – or against the United States after the US-led invasion of October 2001 – and was seized and transferred to US custody after fleeing Afghanistan and crossing the border into Pakistan in December 2001.

Seven years later, Ayman regrets his decision. In meetings at Guantánamo with his lawyers from the British-based legal action charity Reprieve, whose lawyers represents 31 prisoners in Guantánamo, he has stated that when he answered the fatwa, he hadn’t the faintest idea of what he was getting himself into; he knew nothing about the Taliban’s long inter-Muslim struggle with the Northern Alliance, and had no knowledge whatsoever of al-Qaeda.

The difficulty of being released from Guantánamo

For the majority of the prisoners in Guantánamo, the closest they ever come to justice is not in a courtroom, but in a converted trailer in the prison grounds, where, once a year, a military review board meets to discuss the allegations against each prisoner, and to decide whether he still “poses a threat to the United States or its allies.”

This process bears no resemblance to established judicial procedures, of course, as Guantánamo was conceived to stand outside the law. In the review boards, the prisoners are not allowed legal representation, and the allegations against them are often culled from their own interrogations or those of other prisoners, and may have been produced through torture, coercion or bribery (the promise of receiving preferential treatment, for example). In addition, the prisoners are not allowed either to see or hear the “classified evidence” against them, which may also have been produced in dubious circumstances.

Nevertheless, the review boards provide one of only two methods whereby prisoners can be released from their long, isolated imprisonment without charge or trial (the other is through high-level diplomatic negotiations between the United States and the prisoners’ home countries).

Over 200 prisoners have been approved to leave Guantánamo since the review boards were established in 2005. Many of these men have returned home safely, but for others the route out of Guantánamo is blocked by seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Dozens of the men – from countries including Algeria, China, Libya, Tunisia and Uzbekistan – cannot be repatriated because of international agreements preventing the return of foreign nationals to countries where they face the risk of torture.

Others, like Ayman Al Shurafa, are caught in an equally unenviable position, as they have found themselves, after years of cruel imprisonment by the US administration, to be stateless people, disowned by the countries they once called home.

Ayman’s life in Guantánamo

Although Ayman has been courteous and kind throughout his detention, insisting that he bears the American people no ill will, he remains imprisoned in dire conditions. His world consists of a two metre by three metre cell, permanently lit by fluorescent lights. For the two hours of “recreation” that he is allowed daily, guards escort him to an outdoor pen, where he has the chance to walk a few paces, or kick a deflated football, alone. His “recreation” often takes place at night; days pass without Ayman seeing the sun.

Throughout his life, Ayman has suffered from vitiligo, a painful skin complaint, and this almost permanent isolation from sunlight has made his skin condition flare up horribly, causing maddening discomfort, as well as permanent skin damage.

Ayman does his best to retain hope and dignity under the appalling conditions of isolation in which he and the other prisoners find themselves. He is well regarded by both the US military and his fellow prisoners. He leads his brothers in prayer, and is friendly with the guards on his block. He has even turned to art. During one recent meeting with his lawyer, he folded an elaborate flower from scraps of paper as a gift. Unfortunately, the military deems such items too dangerous for the outside world, and his lawyer was required to leave the folded flower with him. Ayman unfolded the paper sadly and put the scraps in his pocket.

Hope, in such circumstances, is difficult to maintain. Ayman’s interrogators stopped questioning him long ago; and yet, for the simple reason that no country will take responsibility for him, he remains in Guantánamo, in a disturbing limbo that seems to be without end. In recent meetings, his lawyers have noted that he is showing clear signs of depression, or even desperation. He has asked the Guantánamo authorities for medication to “let the days go by without feeling anything.”

Ayman is, first and foremost, a young man who cares deeply about family. His greatest wish is to get married, settle down, and one day rejoin his family. But in Guantánamo, Ayman has never been allowed to speak with his family on the phone, much less to receive family visits. Letters from his loved ones take months to get through to him, on those occasions when they manage to get through at all. Ayman remains plagued by fears that, due to her age and infirmity, he will never set eyes on his mother again, and insists that life away from his family is “like a death sentence.”

In the circumstances in which he is held, where proper medical and psychiatric treatment is denied even to prisoners who have approved to leave Guantánamo, Reprieve’s lawyers fear for Ayman’s very survival.

-ENDS-

For further information, please contact Andy Worthington at Reprieve’s Press Office on 020 7427 1099 or email: Andy@reprieve.org.uk.

Note for Editors:

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives.

Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

Reprieve’s current casework involves:

• representing 33 prisoners in the US prison at Guantanamo Bay.

• working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty.

• conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secretdetention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

ReprievePO Box 52742LondonEC4P 4WSTel: 020 7353 4640Fax: 020 7353 4641Email: info@reprieve.org.ukWebsite: www.reprieve.org.uk

Reprieve is a charitable company limited by guaranteeRegistered Charity No. 1114900 Registered Company No. 5777831 (England)Registered Office 2-6 Cannon Street London EC4M 6YHPatrons: Alan Bennett, Martha Lane Fox, Sir John Mortimer, Gordon Roddick, Jon Snow, Marina Warner