Established by George W. Bush during his War on Terror in 2002, the facility has long been criticised for mistreatment and abuses of prisoners, with human rights activists and international organisations calling for its closure. Former US President Barack Obama vowed to close the camp but faced strong pushback from Congress. His successor, Donald Trump, signed an order to keep the detention camp open indefinitely, while incumbent President Joe Biden promised to close the facility.
The US authorities have since shut down secretive Camp Seven, where the highly classified prisoners were kept, and transferred the detainees to other accommodation blocks. Yet, no announcements on the full closure of the camp, which once kept over 700 people — mostly without charges — followed.
'I THOUGHT THEY WERE JOKING'
Boumediene, an Algerian-born citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was living a normal life at the beginning of the 2000s. He had a wife and two daughters and was assisting orphans at Red Crescent.
One day, nearly a month after the 9/11 attacks, he was suddenly apprehended by the Bosnian police. They believed that he was connected to Bensayah Belkacem, a person who allegedly had links with Al Qaeda*. Belkacem was eventually taken to Guantanamo and released after his guilt could not be established.
"The day that they arrested me, I did not believe that it was true. I thought that they were joking, [doing something] for TV. Because my life in Bosnia was normal like all [of all] people", Boumediene told Sputnik.
When the Bosnian authorities presented him with their accusations – his alleged plan to bomb the US embassy in Sarajevo – Boumediene was shocked.
The man spent three months in a Bosnian prison, and the police were constantly checking his phone and work computer. After they found no links to terrorism, the Bosnian court decided to let him go. However, that was when the US secret services intervened, and Boumediene learned that he would be sent to one of the world's most secretive and notorious prisons – the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
"I said: 'Why [am I going to Guantanamo]? Because after three months, the Bosnian court said that I am innocent so that I can go home'", Boumediene recalled saying.
US special operations forces, including those that were part of the American peace-keeping contingent in Bosnia, were waiting for Boumediene and five other Algerian men (they would later be known as the Algerian Six) upon their release to take them to the detention camp. All six would find themselves in Guantanamo and all six would eventually be released.
"When I got out, [I saw] police … like mafia, with dogs, with handcuffs. They took me to the [police] car, and closed the car and drove directly to the airport. In the airport, they closed my eyes, put on the handcuffs. I did not know how long I stayed in the airport. I fell ill. After several days, I opened my eyes in Guantanamo", he said.
LIKE AN ANIMAL
After few days, when guards took the glasses off his eyes, he saw the new area.
"I was in a cage, like in the zoo, like an animal", Boumediene recalled, reminiscing that the whole period in Guantanamo — from 2002 till his very release in 2009 — was very difficult for him.
The last years were the hardest because Boumediene was on a hunger strike.
"[I decided to go on a hunger strike] because they treated me like an animal, not like a human. Always when I asked the question: 'Why I am in Guantanamo?' nobody answered me. Still there is no answer as to why I was in Guantanamo. They did not provide me with a solution, and I decided to go on a hunger strike", he said.
Back in 2006-2009, human rights groups which contacted Boumediene's lawyers reported that he was strapped into a restraint chair, with his wrists, torso and ankles restrained. His mouth was gagged and a thick nasal tube was inserted in one of his nostrils. Sometimes the tube was mistakenly inserted in his windpipe or lung.
"It was the worst treatment, they sometimes beat me. When I was on a hunger strike and I would not exit [from my cell], they would beat me. There were several people, they hit me and make me go out", Boumediene recalled.
After his release, Boumediene wrote a book together with another former Guantanamo inmate, Mustafa Ait Idir, titled "Witnesses of the Unseen," where they described in detail their experience in the camp. A special chapter is devoted to one of Boumediene's interrogators, whom he nicknamed "The Elephant."
"I gave him this name because he was a very very big man. He is very smart. The first time [he told me]: 'I am not FBI, not CIA, just we can talk like friends'", Boumediene recalled.
But when the interrogation was finished, Boumediene was sent to isolation for days. Both, interrogators and guards beat and tortured Boumediene for the whole 7 years, an experience which he said he would never forget. During the interrogations, Boumediene told all his life in detail from his childhood in Algeria till the moment he was taken by the Bosnian police. The interrogations took place thrice a day and felt exhausting to him.
"They told me: 'You are innocent, but we need to talk about other [men].' Me I don't know anything about terrorists, al Qaeda. I told them: 'I would talk with you about me, I don't know other guys. I was in Bosnia, I worked with the government, the Bosnian government. My name is Boumediene Lakhdar, I had an Algerian passport, Bosnian passport. If you need that, that's okay. If you talk about Osama Bin Laden, I don't know him, Al Qaeda - I don't know it'", he recalled.
Even The Elephant admitted that he was innocent during their talks but could not let him go, Boumediene said.
"He told me: 'I cannot tell you that you can go, you can't go; if my government and your government agree, you can go home.' The Elephant told me I was innocent in 2004 and I continued [to stay] in Guantanamo in 2009", he said.
Amid constant interrogations, beatings and force-feeding, Boumediene was also subjected to another form of torture – psychological. He was not able to see and talk to his wife and daughters. Even the letters that he wrote to his wife were carefully read and then most of the words were crossed out.
"They crossed off my letters. FBI or whoever. For example, I write ten lines, they cross off everything and leave one line. And that's all, this is psychological torture, they crossed off my letter and that's all", he recalled.
Only after the positive ruling of the judge in the Boumediene v. Bush lawsuit, in which he challenged the US president and won back in 2008, Boumediene was able to talk to his wife on the phone. Most importantly, the court also ruled in favor of his release.
"It was psychological torture, you speak with your wife, you can't touch her, see her. And next to you there stands an interpreter and a soldier. He tells you: 'If you speak with your wife and say something bad, we shall cut the line.' I feared that they would cut the line, so I was not honest, I had to tell my wife: 'Yes, I am okay, I am in good health, etc.'", he said.
In May 2009, Boumediene was finally released from Guantanamo and transferred to France, where he had relatives.
"The first days when I saw my wife in Paris, she cried a lot. I can't tell you because if this is something which is difficult to describe. It is hard to imagine. I could not see my wife. My girls. They were little [when police took me] and when I came back, they are grown ups", he said.
His daughters were 4 and 1.5 years old when he was arrested in Bosnia. When he returned from prison, they were already teenagers. Today, they are married and have their own children, Boumediene said, adding proudly that he is now a grandfather.
MY HOUSE IS OPEN
Now, 12 years after his release, Boumediene continues to live in France. The doors of his house in Nice are open for everyone, even for the guards from Guantanamo, he said, recalling that a Guantanamo guard, Steve Wood, visited Mohamedou Ould Slahi, another former prisoner, in Mauritania back in 2018.
"If some of the guards from Guantanamo would like to visit me, it would be a pleasure for me", Boumediene said, adding that many of his lawyers who represented his interests in the court visited him with their wives and children.
In January, former Guantanamo detainees once again reached out to the US authorities to ask that the notorious prison be closed. Apart from Boumediene and Slahi, the open letter to Joe Biden was signed by five other former inmates.
"Just close Guantanamo – this is my message", Boumediene concluded.
* Al-Qaeda is a terrorist group, banned in Russia