Freedom bitter-sweet, best friend still at Guantanamo

By Kim Sengupta

LONDON - A British resident released from Guantanamo Bay after 4 1/2 years of detention yesterday said it was a horrific experience and expressed his relief at the end of a nightmare.

Bisher al-Rawi said freedom for him was bitter-sweet with the knowledge that others remained incarcerated. He urged people not to forget the hopelessness and extreme isolation being suffered by those left behind.

Rawi, of Iraqi descent, was released in a deal reached last week after years of refusal by the British Government to intercede on his behalf because he did not have the same legal rights as British nationals.

Seven other British residents in a similar situation, including Jamil el-Banna, who was arrested alongside Rawi in Gambia after a MI5 tip-off, continue to be held at the American base in Cuba.

Rawi's legal representatives say that he had helped MI5 as an interpreter and had acted as a conduit with the radical cleric, Abu Qatada, who was later arrested for alleged terrorist links.

One reason the British Government had agreed to negotiate with Washington for his release, his supporters say, was because it did not want the embarrassment of the MI5 connection being aired in a public trial.

Rawi, 39, said: "I am delighted to be back in England, with my family. After four years in Guantanamo Bay, my nightmare is finally at an end.

"As happy as I am to be home though, leaving my best friend, Jamil el-Banna, behind in Guantanamo Bay makes my freedom bitter-sweet.

"Jamil was arrested with me in the Gambia on exactly the same unfounded allegations, yet he is still a prisoner.

"He is the father of five young children, the eldest of whom is 10. He has never seen his youngest daughter who is nearly five years old. He, too, should be released and reunited with his family.

"Some [of the prisoners] are now on hunger strike protesting against their extended solitary confinement. The extreme isolation they are going through is one of the most profoundly difficult things to endure. I know that all too well. I hope everyone who believes in justice and the rule of law will join me to work for the release of Jamil and the other British residents. They have been unjustly imprisoned for over four years without charge or trial. They too should come home."

Rawi, whose home is in New Malden, Surrey, had lived in Britain with his family for 16 years after fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime. But although his brother Wahab, 41, took up British citizenship, Bisher retained his Iraqi nationality because the family felt that might help them get back property left behind in Iraq.

After his arrest in Gambia - where he says he was on a business trip - Rawi was taken by the Americans to Bagram air base and then Guantanamo.

He said "the hopelessness you feel in Guantanamo can hardly be described. You are asked the same questions hundreds of times. Allegations are made against you that are laughably untrue, but you have no chance to prove them wrong. There is no trial, no fair legal process.

"I was alleged to have participated in terrorist training in Bosnia and Afghanistan. I've never been to Bosnia and the only time I visited Afghanistan was thanks to the hospitality of the CIA in an underground prison, the Dark Prison outside Kabul."

Rawi thanked the people who campaigned for his release during the "long saga of misery, suffering and injustice", including his family, lawyers, MPs, diplomats, the media, Amnesty International and members of the public who had supported him and wrote letters to him while he was imprisoned.

"Among these, I should mention especially the young boys and girls whose words were most heart-warming."

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