The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Caged Men
The Case of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna

'The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the
taking it away from those who have a different
complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves,
is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.' - Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Ruairi O'Driscoll • 10 January 2005

Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna had every reason to be happy that November morning two years ago. Along with their friend , Abdulla al-Janoudi, they were on route to the Gambia to join Bisher's brother Wahhab to start a new life in the West African republic where the four of them had mutually invested almost half a million pounds of their money into a peanut processing plant. It was a risk but there was to be no going back, machinery had been bought, family savings had been pooled and houses had been re-mortgaged. You cannot help but feel there was also an element of adventure to it as well.

After checking in at Gatwick airport the men's luggage was subjected to the mandatory checks that any holiday maker passing through an airport would be familiar with. However, the post 9/11 climate and the fact that Bisher al-Riwa was an Iraqi and Jamil el-Banna a Jordanian would mean they were to be singled out by the airport authorities for special attention. Whilst looking through Bisher al-Riwa's case their attention was drawn to an electronic device. Unsure of what it was and choosing not to ask the owner for an explanation they opted to arrest all three men instead. They were first taken to a Sussex police station and then later transferred by the Anti-Terrorist Branch to Paddington Green police station in central London.

Whilst detained at Paddington Green the men were represented by the seasoned civil rights lawyer Gareth Peirce during their interrogation under the Terrorism Act. In the interview room the centre of attention was the presence of the electronic device found in their luggage, the response of Bisher al-Riwa to this was: "Go and look in any Argos catalogue and you will find out what it is." It was nothing more than a battery charger. The police, disappointingly, had to except that it was in fact nothing more than a battery charger and released all three men without charge allowing them to resume their intended journey to their new life in the Gambia.

When they eventually arrived in the West African republic all three men were arrested by the Gambian authorities as soon as their plane landed, as were Bisher's brother Wahhab and their Gambian business agent both of whom were waiting for them at the airport. During their questioning by Gambian intelligence officials the men were able to produce papers relating to the purchase of the peanut processing plant proving why they had come to Gambia. Whilst this was enough to secure the release of the Gambian business agent events took a more sinister turn when American officials representing the CIA took charge of the interrogation. The Americans were convinced that the men had come from England with the intention of setting up an al-Qaeda training camp. It becomes clear at this point that British officials had tipped off their Gambian and American counterparts informing them that the men were on their way to the Gambia and that they were to be treated as terrorist suspects, even though they had been released from British custody without charge. The only contention the British authorities had had in the first place was the presence of an electronic device that they themselves later accepted was nothing more than a battery charger. Why was this happening to them? Not only were the men innocent of any crime but why were the CIA interrogating foreign nationals in a country outside of US jurisdiction?

For the next four weeks the men were moved round a series of residential addresses in the Gambia capital, Banjul, where their American captors continued to put to them the unsupported allegation that they were al-Qaeda operatives sent to the Gambia with the intention of establishing a training camp. The families of the men were now becoming increasingly concerned for their whereabouts and made representation to the British Foreign Office asking them to help secure their release. The problem here though was that only Abdulla al-Janoudi and Wahhab al-Rawi were British citizens, Bisher al-Rawi had never taken out British citizenship like his brother and neither had Jamil el-Banna although both of them had been resident in Britain for the last twenty years.

The British government did eventually intervene on behalf of Abdulla al-Janoudi and Wahhab al-Rawi and did help secure their release and the two of them are now living back in Britain having lost all their money from their African business venture but the British government washed their hands of the other two men leaving them instead to the mercy, or perhaps that should be the cruelty, of the Americans. Little is known about what happened to them after the release of the other two, at best it is patchy. Then the mother of Bisher al-Rawi received a letter written in January 2003 from her son sent from Bagram air base Afghanistan it read:

"Dear Mother
I am writing this letter from the lovely mountains of Afghanistan, at a US prison camp. I am very well, the conditions are excellent, and everyone is very, very nice."

It is often said that Americans lack a sense of irony, whilst that generalisation maybe unfair in the case of the US army censor who was charged with checking letters at Bagram it would appear true.

Nothing more was heard from either man until August 2003 when another letter written by Bisher arrived at his mother's home:

Dear Mum and family,
I am writing to you from the seaside resort at Guantánamo Bay. After winning first prize in a competition, I was whisked to this nice resort with all expenses paid ...
Everybody is very nice, the neighbours are very well-mannered, the food is first-class, plenty of sun and pebbles (no sand, I'm afraid).
Your son Bisher.
PS: Please renew my insurance (motorbike) policy.

Bisher al-Riwa shows that a sense of humour can get you through a lot, at least past a US army letter censor.

Those that have been released from Guantánamo all tell of the same experience from their time at Bagram to their transfer and incarceration at Guantánamo. Shackling, hooding, beatings, being drugged, isolation, all of them the favoured means. But it could be said that the worst torture practiced at Guantánamo is the not knowing; not why you are there, when it will end, when you can contact your family, see a lawyer.

Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna are but only two out of the 600 captives from 35 different counties held at Guantánamo Bay. Most of the men at Guantánamo are ordinary Afghanis in no way linked to the Taliban; they were handed over to the Americans by the warlords of the Northern Alliance to whom the Americans paid a bounty for everyone they received. Some are Arab men picked up in Afghanistan most of them unarmed at the time; others were detained by the Pakistani authorities for being just a little bit too close to the Afghan/Pakistan border. A number of them were even arrested in Bosnia by the Americans for working for a muslim charity that the Americans claimed was linked to terrorism, a claim that was disproved by the Bosnian courts who had investigated that charity and given it a clean bill of health. And let's not forget the British citizen Moazzam Begg kidnapped by the CIA in Islamabad, Pakistan and then processed the familiar way, Guantánamo via Bagram.

When all these cases are considered then, perhaps, the case of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna is unremarkable. They are all beyond the rule of law without any legal protection. For all of them the Kafkaesque nightmare has become reality. Who gains from Guantánamo? Some within the US military have gone public saying that the interrogations at Guantánamo have yielded no valuable intelligence. The construction arm of Dick Cheyney's Halliburton Corporation, Kellogg, Brown and Root, has to date made $155 million from the misery that is Guantánamo: that detail alone goes some way to help explain why Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna find themselves caged under a Cuban sun. The fact that the father of Bisher al-Rawi was imprisoned by Saddam Hussein is lost on the Americans. His association with Jamil el-Banna, a Palestinian refugee who lived in Jordan, is perhaps the missing link that connects 9/11, Saddam, bin Laden, the Intifada, WMD and anything else for the Americans. The truth is more prosaic than any fantasy cooked up by the neo-cons on Capital Hill although it is perversely fitting that a man whose country is under occupation and another man whose homeland doesn't officially exist should find themselves denied justice.

Gareth Peirce is still representing the men even though she has no way of communicating with them. At a recent meeting in London she recalled her encounter with them at Paddington Green police station and how happy she was to see them released without charge thinking that was the end of the matter. Who would have known and who could have imagined how their lives were to be taken away from them. Kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned without charge or trial, they lie in another part of the world hidden from view caged like animals. The perpetrators of this crime are well known and it is only our silence that allows them to get away with it. Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna are the Gerry Conlon and Paddy Hill of our times but unlike them Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna do not even know what the charges against them are and with no access to either a solicitor or an appeal court it is difficult to see how this miscarriage of justice will be righted. Their situation is far more severe in that respect but eventually they too will be released, it will have to happen for their sake.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

10 January 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

SF - Securocrat Fantasists
Anthony McIntyre

Mick Hall

Merge Ahead?
Dr John Coulter

DPP Cover-up RUC/PSNI Malpractice Yet Again
32 CSM Press Release

RSF Are The Sole Inheritors of the Sinn Fein Mantle
Des Dalton, RSF

Óglaigh na hÉireann New Year Statement 2005

The Caged Men
Ruairi O'Driscoll

Changing Fortunes
Anthony McIntyre

7 January 2005

Northern Bank - Open All Day Monday
Anthony McIntyre

2005: New Year's Statement from the 32 County Sovereignty Movement
Francis Mackey

In the Underworld with the Trigger Men
Sean Mc Aughey

Racism as a Prelude to War Crimes
Ghali Hassan

Palestinian Elections: Charting the Future of Palestine
Haithem El-Zabri



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