Fethi Boucetta, a teacher who was 38 years old at the time of his capture, was one of three prisoners released in Albania in November 2006 because the US authorities feared for their safety if they were returned to their home countries, although he was actually cleared for release in 2005. He was one of the 38 prisoners cleared of being “enemy combatants” after the Combatant Status Review Tribunals at Guantánamo which took place from July 2004 to March 2005, and which led to the swift release of all 38, except a Uighur and Saudi resident, Saddiq Ahmed Turkistani (ISN 491, profiled here), and those who could not be safely repatriated — five Uighurs profiled in Part Fourand Part Five, and the two others released in Albania in November 2006, who are profiled in this article — the Russian Zakirjan Asam (ISN 672, see above), and the Egyptian Ala Salim (ISN 716, also see above).
In his tribunal in Guantánamo, Hamad Gadallah (ISN 712, released in July 2005), who was a Sudanese accountant for a charity, the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, that had fallen under US suspicion, mentioned that his downstairs neighbor, who did not work for the RIHS, had also been seized on the same day as him, May 27, 2002. The neighbour was Fethi Boucetta, one of three teachers, working in a school run by the Saudi Red Crescent, and the other two teachers were also captured at the same time. The Pentagon’s limited allegations against him are available here.
A doctor who fled Algeria in 1996 to avoid military service, Boucetta sought asylum in Pakistan, where he was taken on as a teacher by the Red Crescent. Speaking of the circumstances of his arrest, his lawyer told the Washington Post in May 2006 that the Pakistani police “went to his house and asked to speak with somebody else [Hamad Gadallah], and Fethi said he didn’t know that person and that he wasn’t there. [They] came back with Americans in plain clothes, and they said they wanted to question him. That’s when he was arrested.”
Despite being arrested by mistake, it took until May 2005 for the Americans to accept that he was a completely innocent man, and in the meantime the allegations that mounted up against him were staggering. It was alleged that he “reportedly was an active member of the Islamic Salvation Front” (the Algerian political party whose suppression by the army in 1992 provoked the civil war that began the following year), that he traveled to Afghanistan from the Yemen, where he taught from 1993 to 1996, “at the request of the Taliban” (he actually travelled to Pakistan and carried on teaching), that he “reportedly organized combatants to fight for the Taliban,” and that he “reportedly has organized extremist networks in Arab countries and has contacts throughout the Middle East.”
In an interview conducted for McClatchy Newspapers’ major report on 66 released Guantánamo prisoners that was published in 2008, Boucetta, identified as Abu Mohammed, told the reporter Matthew Schofield that, “[o]n the night the soldiers came for him, [he] was resting at home with his pregnant wife and five children.” He added that they “showed him a list of the men they were looking for,” and that “[t]he address for his building was on the list, but his name was not.” He added, “As they turned to leave, he asked the soldiers what they needed, but was told it was none of his concern.”
However, the soldiers returned 15 minutes later, and “asked whether they could look through his apartment.” He said that he remembered “thinking he had nothing to hide, so he stepped aside,” and was handcuffed, while the soldiers searched the house. They then “uncuffed him, apologized for the inconvenience and departed,” but they returned for a third time, and it was on this occasion that his nightmare began, when “they asked him to accompany them to a nearby office, to answer questions.”
Boucetta told McClatchy’s reporter, “I did not like to leave my family at night, but knew in my heart I had done nothing wrong, and I was not on their list — they showed it to me — so I knew I had nothing to fear.” That should have been the case, but instead, he did not see his wife and children again, and still had no idea “why he was taken away that night or why he then was told he was being taken home but instead was shackled, then flown to a US prison in Bagram, Afghanistan. Or why, after two months there, he was told that he was being taken home to his family but instead was flown to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, half a world away, where he was kept locked up for four more years, including 18 months after he was told that he was, in effect, innocent of charges that he says were never fully articulated.”
After asking, “So why was he arrested?” McClatchy analysed the supposed evidence, noting that, beyond simply dismissing the charges against him as laughable — the claim that he was a member of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, that he left Yemen for Afghanistan at the request of Al-Qaida, and that he helped recruit fighters — Boucetta “said he doubted that these could really be the reasons he was picked up.”
He explained that the Islamic Salvation Front “formed after he left Algeria in 1989,” and in any case he “was never a member,” and he also explained that he had ”worked as a doctor for a non-governmental organization in Afghanistan until 1992,” adding that it “would have been easy to find out that he hadn’t been back since,” and that “he’d been working for and with the United Nations and Red Crescent, the Islamic-nations version of the Red Cross, from that point on.”
The details in his story were pretty compelling. He explained that, from 1996 to 2002, his “medical license and passport needed to be renewed,” but he had “refused to return to Algeria and instead lived in a United Nations refugee camp in Pakistan,” where “he taught math and Arabic in a Red Crescent-sponsored school.” As a result, “there were multiple witnesses to his presence and many sign-in documents, none of which was brought before the tribunal” at Guantánamo. This was unsurprising, as the presumption was that everyone had been correctly designated as an ‘enemy combatant” on capture, even though no effort was made to ascertain whether or not prisoners had been seized by mistake, and it was, therefore, something of a miracle that even 38 prisoners were, like Boucetta, found not to be “enemy combatants” by their tribunals.
Highlighting further omissions, Boucetta said that, “although United Nations workers could have vouched for his presence in Pakistan — and, according to his attorney, spent years working for his release — US officials refused to listen to them,” and in the end he “boycotted his own hearing because he thought it was a sham.”
He also explained that throughout his detention — “both in Afghanistan, where he was made to stand for hours with his hands cuffed high above him, and in Cuba, where the punishment was far more psychologically than physically challenging” — he was repeatedly interrogated about Algeria, even though, as he said, “I told them, ‘I have not been in Algeria for 15 years.’” Despite this, he said, “They would ask about political movements there, and I had to say, honestly, that I had no idea what they were talking about.” All the questions, he explained, related to radical Islamist groups which “formed after he’d left Algeria.”
After explaining that he had been in Guantánamo “with two men he used to commute to work with in Pakistan, men with whom he was seen every day teaching at school and who, like him, were subjected to occasional home searches as refugees,” he said that the fact that he had become a refugee in Pakistan had aroused US suspicions, but stated that the reasons he didn’t want to return home had nothing to do with terrorism, and were, instead, to do with “a personal feud.”
As a result, he was stuck in Albania, reflecting on a broken promise by officials at Guantánamo, who “had promised him a home, a place where he could bring his family and start a new life.” Instead, he said, there was no work, and “no hopes of ever being able to provide a home and education for his children.” When asked about his life, he replied, “My life here? I wake in time to go to breakfast at the refugee centre. That’s my life. There is nothing more.”
Even though he had so obviously been seized by mistake, the US authorities were determined to find reasons to justify his detention, hence the long list of allegations that I mentioned in The Guantánamo Files, which duly surfaced in the classified documents released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. The file relating to him was a “Transfer Recommendation to Another Country for Continued Detention,” dated August 30, 2003, in which he was identified as Fatai Busita, born in 1963, and it was noted that he had been diagnosed with latent tuberculosis, in common with many of the prisoners, but was “otherwise in good health.”
In telling his story, the Joint Task Force presented all the allegations that were later dismissed by his tribunal at Guantánamo. It was noted that the left Algeria in 1987 after completing medical school, but an analyst claimed that this was because of the alleged terrorist connections that he later dismissed. It was also noted that he stated that he then traveled extensively through Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1989 to 1993, working for five different NGOs, including the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society, which were all regarded as “known cover organisations for several terrorist groups including Al-Qaida,” even though this was generalized scaremongering at its worst, as the organizations he was working for were actually involved in humanitarian aid and charitable work.
The Task Force noted that he then traveled to Yemen in 1993, where, he said, he “got married, and found employment until 1996, when he bought a forged passport, and moved back to PK because he feared a crackdown on non-Yemeni Arabs,” and added that he “claimed” that “he worked as a teacher for primary and middle school, and as an Arabic teacher at a school funded by the Saudi Red Crescent Organization.”
Regarding his capture, it was stated that the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence Directorate arrested him in Lahore “as part of a crackdown on Arabs in Pakistan in May 2002,” which was perhaps not meant to be what it sounded like — a confession that social cleansing was taking place, using terrorism as a cover. In further explanation, the Task Force claimed that the ISI “conducted a series of raids against suspected Al-Qaida residences and support facilities connected with the Afghan Support Committee,” adding that “[n]ine individuals were arrested including the detainee, all on suspicion of being Islamic extremists,” but neglecting to mention that Boucetta’s arrest was, very literally, an afterthought. It was also noted that he was sent to Guantánamo on August 5, 2002, on the spurious basis that it was “because of his knowledge of NGOs in the Peshawar, PK area.”
In assessing his story, the Task Force claimed that he was “of minimal intelligence value to the United States,” but posed “a medium threat to the US,” because he had been “assessed as being a member of Al-Qaida,” and, more specifically — again without anything resembling evidence — that he was “an Al-Qaida member and ha[d] severed [sic] in that capacity for many years, becoming a hardened and trusted terrorist operative.” It was, however, particularly noted that he was “considered a high threat risk to the government of Algeria,” and also “a significant threat,” who “may be wanted there for his subversive activities.” In addition, although the Task Force claimed that he “refuse[d] to be cooperative concerning his role as an operative” — because he had no role as an “operative” — it was nevertheless claimed that he “may still also possess intelligence information that the Algerian government would find beneficial in its efforts to curtail extremism within Algeria.”
As a result, Brig. Gen. James E. Payne III of the US Army, who signed the memo, recommended him for transfer to another country for continued detention, although he was not actually released for another three years and three months, and, after his tribunal intervened to discredit the allegations against him and to conclude that he was not an “enemy combatant,” it was also obvious that he could not be returned to Algeria, hence the long search for another country that was prepared to take him.