Adel al-Gazzar was detained upon returning to Egypt, almost a year after he was released from Guantanamo Bay, where he was held for eight years.
When Gazzar arrived at Cairo International Airport from Slovakia on 14 June, he was allowed to see his family for a few hours before Egyptian security officers arrested him in connection with a three-year prison sentence handed down against him in absentia by an Egyptian military court in September 2002, when he was in US custody.
Gazzar is currently being held in Helwan Governorate’s Tora prison, while lawyers are preparing for his appearance in court.
His case is not only a legacy of former President Hosni Mubarak’s use of exceptional tribunals to silence political opponents and crush Islamist groups; it is also a product of Egypt’s post-11 September alliance with the United States during its so-called “War on Terror.”
“The US detained Adel incommunicado for over eight years. He was separated from his family and brutally tortured. His lawyers were his only means of contact to the outside world,” said Ahmed Ghappour, Gazzar’s attorney in the US.
“In the interim, Mubarak's Egypt sentenced him to three years [imprisonment]. Both of these oppressive assaults on his freedom were due to Adel's perceived political association and religious practice.”
In Egypt, Gazzar was a member of a group known as “Al-Wa’ad” [the Promise], a local group that raised funds for the Palestinian intifada.
Members of Al-Wa’ad faced accusations of being members in an illegal organization, working against the Constitution, committing crimes against public order, and using terrorism to realize their objectives. Mubarak used Military Order No. 1 issued in 1981, which gives the president extraordinary powers during a State of Emergency, to submit the men – all civilians – to trial in military courts.
On 9 September, 2002, Gazzar was convicted in absentia and sentenced to three years imprisonment. His brother Ashraf al-Gazzar claims that the officers from the now-disbanded State Security Investigations Service, who arrested Al-Wa’ad members, were “surprised” that “matters went so far.”
The Al-Wa’ad case was one of several group trials of Islamists in military tribunals. Local and international human rights groups strongly condemned the charges as political and the trial as unfair, since military courts lack basic guarantees of due process.
“Adel's sentence is based on the ‘crime’ of political affiliation, and 'threat to the freedoms afforded by the Constitution – a ‘crime’ that was used by the Mubarak regime to silence political dissent. The charge in and of itself threatens the political rights and freedoms that form the underpinnings of the Egyptian revolution,” Ghappour told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Following an unnamed security officer’s suggestion that Gazzar was “seized after a joint operation” among Egyptian security bodies, Adel Gazzar’s defense team issued a statement last week, published on the website of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, citing the fact that Gazzar returned to Egypt on his own free will.
Gazzar had even approached the Egyptian embassy in Slovakia and notified it of his intention to return, according to Atef Hafez, a lawyer with Egyptian NGO the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners. Gazzar had been taken to Slovakia after his release from Guantanamo because US authorities concluded his return to Egypt could subject him to torture.
Ashraf al-Gazzar says his brother thought that he stood a better chance of just-treatment in Egypt after the 25 January revolution, particularly given several high profile Islamists held in prison for decades have been released. Moreover, many Islamic groups have begun to operate openly, following years of working undercover due to threats detention and abuse by security officers.
“If the revolution really changed anything, he shouldn’t be in prison,” Ashraf al-Gazzar said. Ghappour agrees.
“On 12 February, 2011, the [ruling military council] SCAF promised millions of Egyptians that it would live up to the rule of law, and abide by all international treaties,” said Ghappour. “They promised a peaceful transition of power that would allow an elected civilian state to rule the country, to build a free democratic state that protects freedom of speech and political association. It's time they live up to that promise and release Adel al-Gazzar.”
The story of how Adel Gazzar ended up in Guantanamo begins in 2000, when he traveled to Pakistan in order to preach the Quran. In 2001, he volunteered as a Red Crescent volunteer in Afghanistan, where he assisted refugees affected by the US assault on the country. He was injured during a US night-raid on a border town on the Afghani-Pakistan border that targeted the refugee camp in which he volunteered.
A serious leg injury kept Gazzar in a Pakistani hospital for over a month. There, a CIA agent questioned him. In an interview, Gazzar said that at this point, he suspected he would “get transferred to the Americans.” The interview, published on CagePrisoners.com, was conducted by former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg Cage. The website belongs to a London-based human rights group that campaigns on the behalf of Muslims detained or imprisoned as part of the so-called War on Terror.
“We had begun to hear they were looking for Arabs,” said Gazzar.
Journalist Andy Worthington, author of the Guantanamo Files, published an extract on his website about why Gazzar thought the Americans had detained him. The extract came from an exchange between Gazzar and one of the officers in his military tribunal at Guantanamo. Gazzar said that he was sold for bounty to the Americans. When the US officer challenged him, he replied, “In Pakistan you can buy people for US$10. So what about US$5000?”
The mistreatment began as soon as he was handed over to the Americans. He spent 24 hours in a leaking tent in Kandahar during a storm, where “medics came and cut off all my clothes and bandages on my injury with scissors and left me naked,” he told Begg.
“They were screaming at me that I deserved what was happening to me, and that I’m about to die as a terrorist.”
According to his account, he was taken to another tent and physically assaulted.
According to Gazzar’s interview with Begg, Gazzar’s wound festered in Guantanamo. He says that gangrene set in, and was not offered any treatment other than basic dressings. On one occasion, he refused a doctor’s offer of painkillers in return confessing to be a member of Al-Qaeda, according to his account.
As the gangrene spread, Gazzar had no option but to consent to an amputation, even though Pakistani doctors had told him earlier that his leg could be saved.
Ashraf al-Gazzar sees his prosecution in Egypt as the product of "US pressure" in the wake of the 11 September attacks.
However, Egypt had begun its own war on Islamists long before the US recruited the country post-11 September. Egyptian expertise in extracting confessions made Egypt one of the primary locations for extraordinary rendition and interrogation of suspects.