A former Guantánamo Bay detainee resettled in Senegal, who said that he feared for his life if he was forcibly taken to his native Libya, has disappeared from his once-guarded apartment in Dakar that now appears abandoned.
The Senegalese government had said the man, Awad Khalifa, was not being deported. But neighbors said Khalifa and another former detainee from Libya, Salem Abdul Salem Gherebi, were taken away Tuesday afternoon. Hours earlier, they had told a New York Times reporter visiting the apartment that they had received handwritten notices that they would be sent to Libya.
“In Libya, I will have no life, and there’s no security there,” said Khalifa, adding that when he told friends he was being sent home, “They told me I’m going to my death.”
Gherebi, who said he had family in Libya and connections protecting him there, apparently consented to repatriation. He contacted the international human rights organization Reprieve on Thursday from an airport in Tunisia saying he was en route to Libya. No one had been in touch with him since, and neither the Senegalese nor the U.S. government would disclose the whereabouts of either man.
Both were sent to Senegal two years ago as the Obama administration reduced the Guantánamo detainee population in its unsuccessful drive to close the prison. They were among dozens of low-level prisoners from troubled countries like Libya, Somalia or Yemen who were resettled in more stable nations that offered to take them in as a humanitarian gesture or a diplomatic favor to the United States.
The murky fate of the two detainees put a spotlight on the Trump administration’s decision to shutter the State Department’s Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure, which monitored resettled detainees and handled diplomatic issues that arose as they embarked on life after detention, seeking to reduce the risk of recidivism.
“We understood that we had an obligation to follow up with the receiving government on the detainees,” said Daniel Fried, a former ambassador who was the special envoy in the Obama administration’s first term. “It sounds great to abolish the office – ‘we are not closing Gitmo, therefore we don’t need a Gitmo closure office, ha-ha, look how clever we are’ – but what you in fact are doing is losing the ability to follow up on these people, which is essential to security.”
Several former officials who handled detainee policy said the U.S. government should have worked to prevent the movement of any former detainees to Libya because it is a chaotic country with a weak central government and active Islamic militias. International law also prevents forcibly sending people to a place where they have a credible fear of abuse.
In a statement, the State Department said that it “continues to appropriately address issues that were previously tasked to the Office of the Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure.” It also said that it had “reiterated to the government of Senegal our expectation that it will uphold its international obligations” to both men but referred The Times to the Senegalese government for details.
Lee S. Wolosky, who was the special envoy at the end of the Obama administration and negotiated the 2016 deal to resettle the two men in Senegal, said Thursday that he had been told by a Senegalese diplomatic official that Gherebi had left the country but that Khalifa was not being forcibly deported, though he had been relocated within Senegal.
Still, Khalifa’s cellphone has been turned off since Tuesday, and his lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York, said he was worried that the Senegalese government had taken his client into custody and may still intend to follow through on its threat to deport him.
“Sending Mr. Khalifa to Libya would not only break the promise of safe asylum that both the United States and Senegal made to my client when he was at Guantánamo, but it would also violate the Convention Against Torture,” Kassem said. “Both Senegal and the United States would be responsible for any harm that would come to my client in Libya.”
Khalifa and Gherebi were arrested in Pakistan months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and turned over to the U.S. military, which took them to Guantánamo on suspicion of having terrorist ties.
During the Obama administration, representatives of six U.S. security agencies decided both men should be transferred to a more stable country where they could be monitored. Senegal, a peaceful West African democracy, offered to take them in, and both were resettled there in April 2016.
Resettlement agreements typically included a promise by the receiving country not to let former detainees travel abroad for two years. Kassem said he and his client, called Omar Khalifa Mohammed Abu Bakr in Defense Department documents, understood that the resettlement offer was for permanent residency, although officials familiar with such agreements said they are ambiguous about longer-term prospects.
Last week, the two former detainees received the notices, written in Arabic, that they would be deported to Libya, prompting Kassem to begin raising alarms.
A phone call from Wolosky, who stepped down in January 2017, may have helped stop an attempt to deport Khalifa for now. Wolosky reached out to the diplomat last week after a Times reporter called him about the issue, and said his inquiry appeared to bring to the attention of high-level Senegalese officials that midlevel civil servants were trying to send both men to Libya. The Intercept also published an article on Saturday about Khalifa’s feared deportation.
On Sunday, Omar Baldé, an official with the Senegalese ministry of communications, said Khalifa was not going to be deported.
Still, in the interview over orange juice on Tuesday morning at Khalifa’s apartment, both men said they had not been told the deportation was off. While Gherebi said his family ties would probably protect him from violent militias in Libya, Khalifa said he had no such connections and feared for his life. He also said he was engaged to a Senegalese woman.
It was unclear why Senegalese officials wanted to deport the men, but both had many complaints about their life in Senegal. They had also repeatedly visited the U.S. Embassy to air grievances, including a desire for larger meals. Neither man had been issued identification papers, which they had been promised, they said, and would allow them greater flexibility for travel. Khalifa’s requests to Senegalese authorities for glasses and a better-fitting prosthetic leg took months to be fulfilled, Kassem said. And Gherebi said that his wife and children from Libya had not been permitted to stay with him in Senegal.
Wolosky said that officials in the Obama administration centralized the monitoring of former detainees in a high-level State Department office to prioritize problem-solving and reduce the risk that something would go wrong. By closing his former office and foisting that responsibility on to junior embassy officials around the world, the Trump administration is effectively washing the United States’ hands of the matter, he said.
“The office should have stayed open,” Wolosky said. “Any catastrophic failures that happen from this point forward are the sole responsibility of the Trump administration.”