Guantanamo Younous Chekkouri photo

Younous Chekkouri, a Moroccan national : “NO life after 13 years in Guantanamo” (Articles by Sudarsan Raghavan and Andy Worthington)

(photo Africahotnews.com)
Long after his release, an ex-detainee struggles with Guantanamo’s torturous clutches
 April 25

 His days in captivity inside the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he said he endured different forms of torture, are long over. If only the memories were, too.

Three years after his release, Younous Chekkouri says he remains shackled by constant nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia. He takes pills for anxiety, and he has yet to find a job. His future remains so uncertain, his past grips him so tightly, that he often feels as if he hasn’t left the prison where he was held for 14 years.

“I am still in Gitmo,” said Chekkouri on a recent day in this picturesque port city.

Chekkouri, and other former Guantanamo detainees, represent the legacy of the United States’ use of torture as a tool of counterterrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Thousands suspected of being al-Qaeda fighters and other militants were held in prisons, detention centers and other “black sites” around the world, where, human rights groups say, many were tortured or mistreated in other ways.

Years after their abuse, victims remain tormented by their experience at the hands of their American interrogators, jailers and guards, according to activists and psychologists working with former Guantanamo detainees. In addition, many carry the stigma associated with being incarcerated as alleged terrorists and have difficulty reintegrating into society.

“It’s well documented that the U.S. was really focused on psychological elements of torture,” said Katie Taylor, a deputy director of Reprieve, an activist group based in Britain that helps resettle ex-Guantanamo prisoners. “Because it was so systemized, it has had a long-term impact on many of the men who underwent it.”

U.S. officials accused Chekkouri of being a senior al-Qaeda member and co-founder of a Moroccan Islamist militant group. But he was never formally charged with a crime or faced trial. Six U.S. security agencies, including the CIA, FBI and Department of Homeland Security, eventually found no evidence to keep him in detention.

When he arrived in Morocco on a U.S. military plane in 2015, the authorities here jailed him, again for allegedly forming an extremist militant group. He was sentenced to five years in prison. But after five months, he was released on bail.

In February, he was acquitted of all charges by a Moroccan appeals court.

Today, Chekkouri is struggling to rebuild his life.

“Sometimes, when someone feels he’s incapable,” Chekkouri said in a recent interview, “he feels as though he’s nothing.”

Handed over to U.S. forces

Chekkouri was with his Algerian wife, Abla, in Afghanistan when two hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center towers in New York.

The couple, who he said had been there looking for work with a foreign aid agency, fled the capital, Kabul, as U.S. forces entered the country to oust the Taliban regime and pursue Osama bin Laden. After the couple crossed into Pakistan, locals captured Chekkouri, taking him for one of the many Arab fighters who had joined al-Qaeda. They handed him to U.S. forces, Chekkouri said.

It is impossible to independently verify Chekkouri’s account. Reprieve vetted his story and found that “it was very clear he was an economic migrant” in Afghanistan, according to Taylor.

Chekkouri was taken first to a U.S. detention center in the southern city of Kandahar, where he said his American jailers would strip him naked, place a bag over his head and beat him regularly. Some guards, he added, would also tear pages from his Koran.

Five months later, he arrived in Guantanamo.

There, his jailers beat his genitals with their shoes, he recalled. That required him to often ask for new underwear because “there was so much pain I felt in my genitalia.” But his interrogators would offer him underwear only in exchange for confessing that he was an al-Qaeda militant.

“That would make me want to kill myself,” said Chekkouri, his voice at times dipping so low that it was barely audible.

A Department of Defense spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Chekkouri’s torture allegations.

Abdelkrim el Manouzi, a physician in Casablanca who has treated Chekkouri for his psychological problems, said his claims of torture are “very credible.”

“I don’t think he will ever forget what happened to him,” said Manouzi, the former president of the Medical Association for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, a Moroccan organization where Chekkouri still receives psychiatric treatment.

Better but still struggling

Slim with brown eyes and a wisp of a beard, Chekkouri, 50, wore a puffy tan and orange jacket and a blue baseball cap that made him look younger. The night before, as usual, had been rough, with him tossing and turning, unable to sleep.

He had awakened to pain and difficulty breathing, as he did most mornings. They are the lingering effects, he said, of beatings and other physical mistreatment, and of being kept in frigid conditions to deprive him of sleep.

He lives an isolated life, mostly in the apartment he shares with relatives above an alley in a working-class neighborhood.

For Chekkouri, television news, filled with violence in Syria and recent school shootings in the United States, reinforces his sense that he was unjustly imprisoned. “When a man sees innocent people being killed, this is what terrorism is,” Chekkouri said. “You can’t simply put a man in a prison cell and call him the worst of the worst.”

He seldom discusses his experience in Guantanamo with family members or neighbors. He fears he won’t be able to control his emotions. Whenever he hears about Guantanamo or sees images, he gets flashbacks.

One recurrent image is that of an American woman who called herself Ana. She interrogated him for five years, threatening to have him hanged. “Until now, I still see her in my nightmares,” Chekkouri said.

Once a month, he travels for psychiatric treatment in Casablanca, 130 miles north of here. He says that some of his friends also are victims of torture who also receive care at the center. He counts six other Moroccan ex-Guantanamo inmates among them.

“Most of them are still suffering today,” said Manouzi, the doctor.

When Chekkouri arrived at the center in 2015, he was grappling with severe anxiety, depression and fear of the future, Manouzi said. Today, Chekkouri still suffers from insomnia, nightmares and other malaise, but his condition is “no longer as bad as it was.”

But overcoming the psychological and physical scars of Guantanamo “can only happen if Younous has the social requirements that will allow him to get back and participate in society,” Manouzi said. “He needs to work.”

A dream becomes reality

Employment, however, has been elusive since his release from Guantanamo three years ago.

When he landed in North Africa, instead of finding freedom, he was taken to prison again. And even after his release, he said, he was under constant surveillance by Morocco’s intelligence and security services.

Morocco’s Justice Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

“He could not lead a normal life after being let out of jail,” said Khalid Idrissi, Chekkouri’s lawyer. “He was always living under the pressure that he could be arrested at any moment.”

Worse, Abla divorced him. She told Chekkouri that he had changed while at Guantanamo, that he was no longer the man she once loved. It was a devastating blow.

While at Guantanamo, he coped by writing love letters to Abla. In them, Chekkouri recalled, he often discussed an imaginary daughter, hoping this would earn some sympathy from his jailers, who read all his correspondence. He called the girl Fatima Zahra.

Today, he still does not have a job. He considered becoming a clothes trader, but he does not have money to launch a business. After spending much of his adult life in prisons, he has a thin résumé. And his time in Guantanamo is also not a selling point to prospective employers.

Chekkouri remarried a year ago. And a month before his acquittal, he got more reason for hope. His wife gave birth to a daughter.

When she’s old enough, Chekkouri said, he will speak to her about his imprisonment. He will tell her, he said, that “they tried to kill my humanity, to kill my heart, but the opposite happened.” Through his daughter, Chekkouri will always carry Guantanamo.

He named her Fatima Zahra.

Life After Guantánamo: In Morocco, Younous Chekkouri’s Struggle to Rebuild His Life

SOURCE

by Andy Worthington


One story that leapt out at me while researching The Guantánamo Files was that of Younous Chekkouri (aka Younus Chekhouri), a Moroccan national who, as I discovered through the transcript of a cursory military review of his case, “strenuously denied having had anything to do with Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, whose philosophy he despised” (as I described it in an article in 2016, drawing on an interview with him in February 2016, after his release from Guantánamo in September 2015, that was published by the Associated Press).

The cursory military review was a Combatant Status Review Tribunal (CSRT), of which hundreds were conducted in 2004 before a tribunal of military officers who were meant to rubber-stamp the prisoners’ designation, on capture, as “enemy combatants’ who could be detained indefinitely without charge or trial.

As I described Younous Chekkouri’s story in The Guantánamo Files:

The elder brother of Redouane Chekhouri (released in 2004), he said that he spent ten years in Pakistan, Yemen and Syria, studying and undertaking humanitarian work, and arrived in Afghanistan in June 2001 with his Algerian wife. He explained that he then established a guest house in Kabul, which was specifically for young Moroccans, because they were not treated well in Afghanistan, and another house outside the city, which was “especially for people who want to look at the sky and the stars and pray and meditate.” While this explanation was unacceptable to his tribunal, who insisted that both houses were connected with military training, he denied the allegations and made the following statement: “In our religion of Islam, it teaches us to forgive other Muslims … And the fighting between Muslims is forbidden. The fighting between Afghans, between themselves lasted for about 20 years. There was no value and no good came out of that fighting.”

Reinforcing this viewpoint, he said that he was not involved with al-Qaeda, and explained that from 1990 onwards, when he first visited Afghanistan, people told him to stay away from Osama bin Laden. He suggested that bin Laden was a double agent working for the Saudi government, and that when he was “stripped out of his Saudi citizenship and exiled from the kingdom” in 1992, he was “shocked that this would be a new game that the Saudi government would be playing with us.” He then expressed surprise that bin Laden became such an important figure in Sudan, wondering how Sudan could “sacrifice a relationship with the world” for him, and condemned his actions after his return to Afghanistan in 1996, in particular the African embassy bombings – in which “a lot of Muslims were victims” – and the attack on the USS Cole.

As he stated, “In every meeting that happened, people would say that Osama bin Laden is dangerous… I was one of the people that was telling others that Osama bin Laden is a crazy person and that what he does is bad for Islam. How can he be the only person in the world to say that jihad is fighting Americans? How could he just make that up? We were very honest in what we said against bin Laden. For that reason, we received a lot of threats. But that was not important to us.”

As I also stated in The Guantánamo Files:

Explaining the circumstances of his capture, he said that, after 9/11, a decision was made to close both the houses, and he then went to Jalalabad. Having sent his wife to Pakistan, he planned to follow, but when Jalalabad fell he went into the mountains with some other people, stayed in an Afghan village during Ramadan, and was arrested in a market after crossing the Pakistani border, when “somebody saw me and noticed that I was Arabic. He started talking to me and the police interfered and said you shall come with us, so I went with them to the police station.

In 2016, I wrote that, in the years that followed my initial research into Younous Chekkouri’s case, nothing deterred me from my opinion that he was a man of peace, and in fact I found out two additional pieces of information that confirmed my initial opinion; firstly, that he “was one of the best-behaved prisoners in Guantánamo,” and secondly, that he was also a Sufi Muslim, “whose form of religion,” as the Associated Press described it, accurately, “is viewed with suspicion by extremist groups like IS and al-Qaida.”

Younous Chekkouri today

After his release, he was imprisoned for a while by the Moroccan authorities, but in February this year a court finally cleared him of all charges, and two weeks ago, following up on this important development in his case, the Washington Post provided an update on his story, via Sudarsan Raghavan, who met with him in Safi, the “picturesque port city” where he lives, but where, also, “he remains shackled by constant nightmares, flashbacks and insomnia.” As Raghavan explained, “He takes pills for anxiety, and he has yet to find a job. His future remains so uncertain, his past grips him so tightly, that he often feels as if he hasn’t left the prison where he was held for 14 years.”

“I am still in Gitmo,” he told the reporter.

As Raghavan explained, the victims of the US’s “war on terror,” at Guantánamo and elsewhere, “remain tormented by their experience at the hands of their American interrogators, jailers and guards,” according to activists and psychologists who have worked with them. Raghavan added that many also “carry the stigma associated with being incarcerated as alleged terrorists and have difficulty reintegrating into society.”

Katie Taylor, a deputy director of Reprieve, whose Life After Guantánamo project helps resettle former Guantánamo prisoners, said, “It’s well documented that the US was really focused on psychological elements of torture. Because it was so systemized, it has had a long-term impact on many of the men who underwent it.”

As Raghavan explained, although US officials “accused Chekkouri of being a senior al-Qaeda member and co-founder of a Moroccan Islamist militant group,” he “was never formally charged with a crime or faced trial.” In 2010, he was unanimously approve for release by the Guantánamo Review Task Force, which consisted of representatives of six US security agencies, including the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security,” although, shamefully, it took another five years before he was actually released.

As Raghavan proceeded to explain, when he arrived back in Morocco “on a US military plane,” the Moroccan authorities imprisoned him, for “allegedly forming an extremist militant group,” and sentenced him to five years in prison. Five months later, however, he was released on bail, and in February this year, as I noted above, “he was acquitted of all charges by a Moroccan appeals court.”

Yet today, as Raghavan described it, he “is struggling to rebuild his life.” As Chekkouri himself put it, “Sometimes, when someone feels he’s incapable, he feels as though he’s nothing.”

Revisiting the story of his capture, Raghavan explained that he “was with his Algerian wife, Abla, in Afghanistan when two hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center towers in New York,” and added, “The couple, who he said had been there looking for work with a foreign aid agency, fled the capital, Kabul, as US forces entered the country to oust the Taliban regime and pursue Osama bin Laden. After the couple crossed into Pakistan, locals captured Chekkouri, taking him for one of the many Arab fighters who had joined al-Qaeda,” and handed him over to US forces.”

Raghavan assessed that it was “impossible to independently verify Chekkouri’s account,’ but noted that Reprieve had “vetted his story,” and, according to Katie Taylor, found that “it was very clear he was an economic migrant” in Afghanistan.

Chekkouri proceeded to explain to Raghavan how he “was taken first to a US detention center in the southern city of Kandahar, where he said his American jailers would strip him naked, place a bag over his head and beat him regularly. Some guards, he added, would also tear pages from his Koran.”

He was sent to Guantánamo five months later, where, he said, “his jailers beat his genitals with their shoes,” which “required him to often ask for new underwear because ‘there was so much pain I felt in my genitalia.’” However, as he put it, “his interrogators would offer him underwear only in exchange for confessing that he was an al-Qaeda militant.”

“That,” Chekkouri said, “his voice at times dipping so low that it was barely audible,” as Raghavan put hit, “would make me want to kill myself.”

Predictably, the Department of Defense “did not respond to a request for comment” about Chekkouri’s allegations, but Abdelkrim el Manouzi, the former president of the Medical Association for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, who has treated Chekkouri for his psychological problems, described his claims of torture as being “very credible.” As he said, “I don’t think he will ever forget what happened to him.” Chekkouri continues to receive treatment to try to overcome the damage inflicted on him in US custody.

On meeting Chekkouri, Sudarsan Raghavan described the 50-year old as “[s]lim with brown eyes and a wisp of a beard,” noting how he “wore a puffy tan and orange jacket and a blue baseball cap that made him look younger.”

However, he continued to suffer. As Rghavan described it, “The night before, as usual, had been rough, with him tossing and turning, unable to sleep. He had awakened to pain and difficulty breathing, as he did most mornings.” Chekkouri himself described these symptoms as “the lingering effects … of beatings and other physical mistreatment, and of being kept in frigid conditions to deprive him of sleep.”

Raghavan also described how Chekkouri “lives an isolated life, mostly in the apartment he shares with relatives above an alley in a working-class neighborhood,” adding that he “seldom discusses his experience in Guantánamo with family members or neighbors,” because he “fears he won’t be able to control his emotions. Whenever he hears about Guantánamo or sees images, he gets flashbacks.”

“One recurrent image,” as Raghavan described it, “is that of an American woman who called herself Ana,” who “interrogated him for five years, threatening to have him hanged.” As Chekkouri put it, “Until now, I still see her in my nightmares.”

Chekkouri travels to Casablanca, 130 miles north of Safi, for psychiatric treatment once a month. He explained that “some of his friends also are victims of torture who also receive care at the center,” and “counts six other Moroccan ex-Guantánamo inmates among them.”

Abdelkrim el Manouz, the doctor, said, “Most of them are still suffering today.” He also explained how, when Chekkouri first arrived at the center in 2015, “he was grappling with severe anxiety, depression and fear of the future.” Today, he “still suffers from insomnia, nightmares and other malaise, but his condition is ‘no longer as bad as it was.’”

However, “overcoming the psychological and physical scars of Guantanamo ‘can only happen if Younous has the social requirements that will allow him to get back and participate in society,’” Manouzi said, adding, “He needs to work.”

Work, however, is hard to come by for a former Guantánamo prisoner. Chekkouri explained that, even when he was freed from prison in Morocco, “he was under constant surveillance by Morocco’s intelligence and security services.”

His lawyer, Khalid Idrissi, said, “He could not lead a normal life after being let out of jail. He was always living under the pressure that he could be arrested at any moment.”

Making matters worse, his wife Abla divorced him. As Raghavan put it, “She told Chekkouri that he had changed while at Guantánamo, that he was no longer the man she once loved.”

“It was,” Raghavan noted, “a devastating blow.” At Guantánamo, Chekkouri had coped with his imprisonment “by writing love letters to Abla,” in which, as he told the reporter, “he often discussed an imaginary daughter, hoping this would earn some sympathy from his jailers, who read all his correspondence. He called the girl Fatima Zahra.”

Today, as Raghavan noted, Chekkouri “still does not have a job. He considered becoming a clothes trader, but he does not have money to launch a business. After spending much of his adult life in prisons, he has a thin résumé. And his time in Guantánamo is also not a selling point to prospective employers.”

However, a year ago, he remarried, and in January, a month before his acquittal, “he got more reason for hope,” when “[h]is wife gave birth to a daughter,” who he named Fatima Zahra.

Chekkouri told Raghavan that, “when she’s old enough, he will speak to her about his imprisonment,” and will tell her that “they tried to kill my humanity, to kill my heart, but the opposite happened.”

I wish this gentle man the best of luck in healing the wounds of Guantánamo through loving his daughter, and through the love of his wife. I very much hope it all works out for him.


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About

Prison activist and editor. Luk Vervaet is the author of « Le making-of d'Anders B. Breivik » (Egalité=Editions, 2012), « Nizar Trabelsi : Guantanamo chez nous ? (Editions Antidote, 2014), " De grote stap achterwaarts, teksten over straf en gevangenis" (Antidote & PTTL, 2016). He is co-author of « Kim et Ken, mes enfants disparus » (Editions Luc Pire, 2006), « Condamnés à la prison? Ecrits sur un monde caché » (Revue Contradictions, 2008) et « L'affaire Luk Vervaet : écrits sur un interdit professionnel » (Revue Contradictions, 2011).


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