Former Guantánamo prisoners in Slovakia finally receive residence permits

Written by Andy Worthington Wednesday, 21 July 2010
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It took a hunger strike - but three men relased in Slovakia in January and held in a detention centre now have residence permits.

In a rare piece of Guantánamo-related good news, the Slovak Spectator reported on Tuesday that the three former prisoners released in Slovakia in January have finally been “given permission to permanently reside in the Slovak Republic.”
The three men -- Adel Fattough Ali El-Gazzar, from Egypt, Poolad Tsiradzho, from Azerbaijan, and Rafiq al-Hami, from Tunisia -- embarked on a hunger strike last month to protest about the conditions in which they were held, in a detention center described by the Slovak Spectator as “a police detention facility for illegal migrants.”
According to El-Gazzar, the men’s unofficial spokesman, he and his colleagues were “not allowed contact with anyone except for personnel in the facility and their lawyer,” and he “described their living conditions as poor -- having only beds and a sink at their disposal and being allowed to leave their rooms for only an hour per day.” He later explained that it was “better” in Guantánamo, because “[w]e could communicate with everyone, [but] here we cannot.”
These statements were contested by the Slovakian authorities, but it was clear that they had been ill-prepared for the men’s arrival -- for which the Obama administration must take the ultimate responsibility -- because, as a representative of Amnesty International Slovensko explained, the men were concerned because, after five months, their legal status “was still not clear.”
While refuting the men’s claims about their living conditions, Bernard Priecel, the chief officer at the Interior Ministry’s Migration Bureau, conceded that “the lack of clarity on their legal status could be a burden for them.” In a further explanation of their status -- or the lack of it -- the news agency dpa added, “At the moment they [are] simply foreigners, without asylum seeker status,” even though, when they arrived in Slovakia in January, Interior Minister Robert Kalinak had “promised that their residence permit status would be cleared up quickly.”
A few days after the men started their hunger strike, Tomas Vasilko, a Slovakian journalist, told me that he had spoken to El-Gazzar by phone, and provided a detailed explanation of why he and the other men were so frustrated. “He was really upset about the conditions they live in here,” Vasilko explained, adding, “He told me that firstly, in Guantánamo, the Slovak delegation didn’t mention the word detention -- they told them that they would be free with some restrictions. When they arrived in Slovakia they told them they had to stay in a detention facility for asylum seekers for six months, but after that they would get a house in a town with a Muslim community. But one month ago they told the men that plan had changed and they would go to another detention facility for another six months. He was really frustrated and that’s the reason why they started the hunger strike.”
According to the Slovak Spectator, the men have now been “moved to the integration center of the Interior Ministry’s Migration Office in Zvolen where they will take part in six-month integration program.” As was noted in a European Parliament report on “Migration and Asylum in Central and Eastern Europe,” in Zvolen, “recognized refugees are provided with assistance in job seeking, renting an apartment or obtaining other social services.”
This is similar to what the Slovak Spectator noted about the men’s proposed integration, explaining that “Slovakia’s conditions when accepting the former Guantánamo prisoners included that all would learn the Slovak language, receive accommodation and Slovakia would help take care of jobs for them.”
While there has, to date, been some progress on the first of these “conditions,” it is to be hoped that, at the end of this “integration program,” the men will receive decent accommodation and a meaningful opportunity to find employment -- and that, throughout this time, a method will also be found to ensure they also receive psychiatric counseling in an effort to recover from their eight-year ordeal in US custody, and the difficult circumstances in which they have been obliged to live for the last six months.
One hopeful sign is that, according to another report in the Slovakian media, the men “will be joined by their families in the integration center,” and if this is confirmed, it will be very good news indeed.

Andy Worthington is a Senior Researcher for Cageprisoners. He is also the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press) and the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the new documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.” Visit his website here, where this article was originally published.

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