The two Tunisian former Guantánamo Bay detainees call their homeland an open-air prison and yearn for escape, even back to the U.S. detention center in Cuba. At least two other Tunisians freed from Guantánamo made their way to Syria, and another has seemingly vanished.
Hedi Hammami and Salah Sassi have been free for seven years, nearly as long as the two were imprisoned at the American military base in Cuba. The men remain close, complaining that constant police harassment has left them few alternatives for companionship.
“I was in a small prison and today I find myself in a larger one in Tunisia,” said Hammami, who lives on the outskirts of Tunis in a rented room he describes as smaller than his Guantánamo cell.
The room is subject to search at any moment and Hammami himself must check in with police daily. His work as an ambulance driver is tenuous, as is his living situation more generally.
“In three years, I’ve moved seven times because of the pressure police put on landlords for renting to someone who was imprisoned in Guantánamo,” he said.
His Algerian wife and their two children spend much of their time in Algeria to escape the constant stress, he said. He is not allowed to travel.
“I feel like I’m living in a larger sort of Guantánamo. I want to live free and with dignity, or to go back to a prison without ambiguity. I can’t stand this twilight life. When I am in prison, even in isolation, at least it’s clear in my head and I’m resigned to it. Where I can regain my freedom and dignity, that will be my country. That’s not the case for Tunisia,” he told The Associated Press. At one point, police burst into his home after midnight.
“Hedi called me at 2 in the morning. He was afraid. His wife and daughter were in a state of shock,” said Rym Ben Ismail, a psychologist who works with former Guantánamo detainees. “The next day the entire neighborhood was talking about how police came in, the show of force, with officers who were climbing the balconies.”
The Interior Ministry, which oversees Tunisia’s police, declined to comment after repeated requests by The Associated Press.
Of the 12 Tunisians detained across the years at Guantánamo, only Ridah Yazidi remains, one of 41 captives. But the fate of those who have been freed and returned home has hardly proved encouraging, either for the government or the men themselves.
Two went to Syria after their release from U.S. military custody: Rafiq al Hami was killed there, and Lotfi Lagha returned and was convicted of terrorism charges. Abdullah al Hajji is no longer reachable, according to the lawyer Samir Ban Amor, who handles many of the Tunisian Guantánamo cases. Others are scattered around the world, in the countries that agreed to U.S. requests to take them in.
Tunisia today “has returned to the police state that was prevalent under the former regime, with all the same ingredients of repression, injustice and arbitrary actions, with the addition of an impossibility of countering these abuses with legal means,” Ben Amor said.
Arrested in Pakistan in 2002, Hammami was described in a 2005 U.S. military document as an al-Qaida associate. He denied it. He was freed in 2010 without charge and sent to the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia, where he lived for two years before returning home with high expectations for the Arab Spring. Now 48, Hammami said he endured eight years of abuse at the hands of Americans to get him to confess to crimes he didn’t commit.
The United States has given Tunisia millions to help fight terrorism. Despite its efforts to combat extremism, the country is believed to be the single largest source of volunteers for extremist groups fighting in Syria, including Islamic State. Tunisia’s prime minister, Youssef Chahed, is headed to Washington next week for discussions that are expected to center largely upon security concerns.
Detained in 2001 in Pakistan, Salah Sassi was freed the same year as Hammami after the Defense Department concluded he was of limited intelligence value and posed little threat.
Sent to Albania, Sassi still has the signed guarantee of good treatment that the Albanians demanded from the Tunisian government before Sassi was finally allowed to return home. His nine years in American detention still haunt him.
Over the years, a number of former Guantánamo prisoners have reported difficulty re-establishing themselves or harassment by authorities.
Sassi’s problems in Tunisia began within two months, when masked police officers surrounded his neighborhood, bound him and tossed him into a car. “As we were driving, the officers hit me and insulted me, saying ‘You are a terrorist.’ ”
He was freed a few days later, but said the house searches continue without cease. Hope faded of landing work or even developing a relationship with his neighbors. His wife left.
“Maybe, as my friend Hedi says, Guantánamo is better than here. There at least it’s clear – I am in prison. But here, I’m in a big prison with people I can’t even deal with.”
Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.