Guiltless in Guantánamo


by Nidra Poller (June 2012)

It’s been years since I last bought a copy of the International Herald Tribune (New York Times abroad) and I don’t bother commenting anymore on its stylized bias, but I got a free copy the other day and, not being wasteful, tried to read it. Now here I am dissecting an article. Not just any article: a template “guiltless in Guantánamo” piece, featured four-columns wide on page two of the print edition. You can read it online here.

The innocence of the liberated Guantánamo prisoner is established in the first paragraph:

“IT was James, a thickset American interrogator nicknamed ‘the Elephant,’ who first told Lakhdar Boumediene that investigators were certain of his innocence, that two years of questioning had shown he was no terrorist, but that it did not matter, Mr. Boumediene says.”

The extent of the injustice is tallied in the second paragraph:

“The interrogations would continue through what ended up being seven years, three months, three weeks and four days at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”

The cause of the injustice is the subject of the third paragraph: Mr. Boumediene, who was running an aid program for orphans in Sarajevo, was “swept up” in the post 9/11 panic.

Released on orders from a federal judge in 2009 for lack of evidence, Lakhdar Boumediene has resumed family life in Nice, though his situation is precarious: the Americans misplaced his Algerian and Bosnian passports, he receives a monthly stipend but doesn’t know who is disbursing it, he doesn’t have a residence permit in France. To this day he doesn’t know why he was thrown into that Guantánamo “hell hole.” Islam sustained him throughout the ordeal.

Then President G.W. Bush hailed Boumediene’s arrest in his 2002 State of the Union address. Something about a plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo. That baseless suspicion was exchanged for a vague suggestion that Islamic charities were terrorist fronts. A Wikileak linked him to the [Algerian jihad organization] AIG. Those charges vanished like soap bubbles! A landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision bearing his name established the right of Guantánamo prisoners to petition for release. The court ruled that a claim by U.S. authorities that Boumediene intended to go to Afghanistan to fight against us was unsubstantiated.

His professional résumé is excellent but he can’t find work because Guantánamo left a hole in his career.

We’ll skip over three paragraphs devoted to lurid details about beatings, torture, and humiliations endured at Guantánamo and the physical and psychological scars they left. A French doctor who treated him shortly after his arrival in France says he has no ill will against the American people but he is, to say the least, disappointed that President Obama didn’t keep his promise to close Guantánamo.

We come finally to the 23rd paragraph of this in-depth article, where we discover that the [innocent] Mr. Boumediene was born in Algeria; after serving two years in the military, he “followed” a friend to Pakistan in 1990 to help refugees of the “Afghan civil war.” In Pakistan he worked in an orphanage operated by a Kuwaiti aid organization. Mr. Boumediene’s contract was signed by the director, Zahid al-Shaikh, who is the brother of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the “architect” [sic] of the Sept. 11 attacks…” but Boumediene says he had “little interaction” with Shaikh.

From Pakistan he moved to Yemen, later fled to Albania to escape heavy fighting. He worked for the UAE’s Red Crescent Society in Albania and got a transfer to Bosnia in 1997 to escape riots. Fair-minded Boumediene has come to understand why his violence-strewn path might arouse suspicions. (But of course the reader understands that he was just an innocent humanitarian thrown into the maw of the American gulag.)

The article closes on a note of southern French hospitality. Lakhtar’s neighbor Babette brings him coffee, celebrates Christmas and the Muslim “high holy days” [sic] with him, and didn’t abandon him when she discovered that he had been a prisoner in Guantánamo.

There’s no way of knowing from this piece of junk journalism what Lakhtar Boumediene was doing from Algeria to Pakistan to Yemen to Albania to Bosnia, or when or where he married his wife who has family in Nice. French jihadis are always the nicest guys in the ‘hood. They go to Wazaristan to study classical Arabic. They’re religious but not fanatic, give equal time to nightclubs and mosques, harbor no anti-Semitic sentiments, were looking for work but couldn’t find it, maybe did a bit of petty thievery or small time drug dealing but basically they’re stalwart law-abiding citizens caught up in the Islamophobic panic, wrongfully imprisoned, cruelly tortured.

But then the purpose of the article is not to demonstrate the innocence of an ex- Guantánamo prisoner; it is to prove our guilt.


Nidra Poller is an Associate Fellow of the Middle East Forum. Her most recent book is Karimi Hotel.

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