After Torturing Him, U.S. Breaks Guarantees of Safety to Former Guantánamo Detainee

Former Guantánamo detainee Saeed Bakhouch was sentenced by a court in Algeria to three years in prison on terrorism charges, Bakhouch’s lawyers told The Intercept.

The May 13 sentencing, on charges made under Algeria’s broad Article 87 anti-terror laws, which can carry the death penalty, came despite assurances from the U.S. State Department that he would be treated “appropriately” and “humanely” after being repatriated after his stint in Guantánamo.

Bakhouch was the most recent Guantánamo detainee to be transferred out of the military prison under the Biden administration, never having been charged with a crime. Bakhouch, his American lawyer Candace Gorman said, was a victim of torture at the hands of the U.S. and slowly deteriorated over his 20 years of arbitrary detention until his release in April 2023.

When Bakhouch first arrived in Algeria, he was immediately taken into custody by Algeria’s internal security forces — a standard and usually brief period of detention for Algerian detainees returning from Guantánamo. Bakhouch was vulnerable, Gorman said, having mentally deteriorated in recent years.

Gorman had warned about possible post-traumatic stress disorder and depression ahead of his repatriation. Nonetheless, Bakhouch was held incommunicado and subjected to intense interrogation with no lawyer present.

“He was interrogated every day of the 12 days — after decades of trauma — was given no help from a lawyer and he was under extreme pressure while being threatened by the interrogators,” Sofiane Chouiter, a Canada-based attorney who is providing legal support to Bakhouch, told The Intercept.

Chouiter, the president of the Justitia Center for the Legal Protection of Human Rights in Algeria, obtained a transcript of the interrogation by the Algerian intelligence services showing that Bakhouch, in the course of the encounter, began agreeing with all the accusations made against him. Bakhouch responded to all the questions with “sure, yes,” Chouiter told The Intercept.

The transcript doesn’t include what Bakhouch told Chouiter was the initial part of the interrogation, when the detainee had denied charges of ties to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

In early October, Bakhouch recanted his testimony before an investigative magistrate and denied the terror charges, Chouiter said. Bakhouch pleaded not guilty at his most recent trial and, in the presence of a judge, again recanted his initial admissions.

“The U.S. responsibility for his welfare did not end when he was transferred to Algeria.”

Being held without contact to the outside world is considered an enforced disappearance and prohibited by international law, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights Ben Saul told The Intercept.

“A detainee in custody must be promptly given access to a lawyer and to communicate with family,” Saul said.

Algerian officials admit they did not allow him access to a lawyer or family calls until his 13th day of detention.

“The U.S. responsibility for his welfare did not end when he was transferred to Algeria,” Saul said. “It should be apparent that he should not suffer from any further victimization through the legal system. He has already paid a very heavy price in terms of his health and mental state, and he needs supportive measures of rehabilitation and reintegration, not more punishment.”

State Department “Bullshit”

With a possible end to the Biden administration looming in the next six months, State Department diplomats are running low on time to clean up the legal mess created by an era of rampant arbitrary U.S. detentions and CIA torture.

Thirty detainees remain at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, with 16 cleared for release and awaiting a resettlement deal. A trial for the men accused of plotting 9/11 has not yet begun. And former Guantánamo detainees scattered across the world battle both their mental scars and the stigma of being branded a “terrorist.”

Last July, a report from The Intercept detailed blistering correspondence between Gorman, Bakhouch’s lawyer, and members of the State Department’s Office of Guantánamo Affairs, where she fought to protect her client from the outcome now at hand. Gorman wrote to the State Department that, without help once he landed in Algeria, Bakhouch would be facing grave dangers.

“I fear my client might become homeless — or worse — locked up,” Gorman wrote in one email.

When Bakhouch wasn’t released following the initial interrogation period and found himself in a form of pre-trial detention, Gorman became enraged by what she said were the State Department’s “bullshit” assurances.

“They did not even know Saeed was sent to prison following his 12 days of interrogation. No one at the State Department was watching or paying attention to anything,” Gorman told The Intercept. “Then, the State Department started backpedaling about their role in Saeed’s transfer. They started claiming to me that once Saeed was released their hands were tied.”

Saul, the U.N. special rapporteur, said the U.S. bears responsibility for making sure its assurances are followed through on.

“Diplomatic assurances must always be effective, meaning that they must be accompanied by monitoring and safeguards to ensure they are enforced in practice, not just empty promises,” he said. “The greater the risk in a particular country of serious rights abuses, such as torture or arbitrary detention, the more caution is warranted in the use of safeguards, including whether a transfer should go ahead at all.”

U.S. Opposed Article 87

Bakhouch was eventually released last October, following pressure from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Ahead of the trial last Sunday, a group of U.N. experts that included Saul wrote under the auspices of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the U.S. assurances were being flouted in Bakhouch’s case.

“His unjustified prosecution, detention on arrival, and imminent likely detention on the basis of these charges contradicts express guarantees by the U.S. and Algeria that he would be humanely treated on return to Algeria,” the experts group wrote. “The U.S. itself has called for repeal of article 87 for its excessive definition of terrorism.”

After Torturing Him, U.S. Breaks Guarantees of Safety to Former Guantánamo Detainee 2From his release in October until his recent court date, Bakhouch was living with his family, reunited after 20 years apart.

In safer environs, Bakhouch expressed remorse about panicking and affirming his interrogators’ allegations, Chouiter said, recounting his conversations with Bakhouch.

“They threatened me,” Bakhouch said, according to Chouiter’s recollection. “After I said that I had nothing do with this group and with bin Laden, they told me they would send me to some worse people to get information from me.”

As the court date drew closer, Gorman, Bakhouch’s U.S.-based lawyer since 2005, filed an affidavit which she hoped would sway the judge that he had not been truthful during his interrogation.

The “physical and psychological” torture her client was subjected to in Guantánamo was “so severe,” Gorman said in the affidavit, that she was not allowed to see the full recorded details despite her security clearance. The details she did manage access to, she told the court, included repeated beating while bound, threats of execution, sexual taunting, and humiliation.

“Mr. Bakhouch was not a terrorist,” Gorman wrote in the affidavit.

Why Bakhouch would fall apart under Algerian interrogation lies at the very heart of why Guantánamo and its military court still exists today: torture. Because of false confessions, the U.S. government has repeatedly concluded that torture doesn’t work to produce useful information.

Bakhouch, for his part, has a history of making false statement under the duress of interrogation, Gorman’s affidavit shows. He lied for years about his own nationality to try to get back home more quickly, complicating his case down the line.

The U.N. advocacy and help from lawyers turned out not to be enough. Last Sunday, a worried Bakhouch went before the judge in the afternoon and was led back into prison by evening, according to a source with direct knowledge of events who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“The fact of the matter is that there are no good options for these men,” Gorman said. “Very few of these men have landed on their feet. Most have been treated as pariahs, whether they are at home or in some random country, because of the U.S. propaganda.”

Bottom photo: Saeed Bakhouch poses for a photo outside the Dar al-Baida court before his trial on May 12, 2024, in Algiers. Courtesy of Justitia Center

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