Ex-Guantanamo detainee: "I am sure it will be closed this year"

TIRANA, Albania — While human rights activists marked the eighth anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility two weeks ago with protests, calling on President Barack Obama to follow through on his pledge to close it, one of Gitmo’s former inmates was rolling dough in a Tirana pizza restaurant.

Abu Bakker Qassim is one of five Chinese Uighurs released to Albania in 2006 after United States authorities feared that sending them back to China would expose them to persecution and human rights abuses.

Although seven of his compatriots still remain in Guantanamo despite having been found innocent and cleared for release, Qassim’s faith in Obama’s intent has not wavered, saying that the U.S. president has received little help from America’s European allies, who were once some of the prison’s most vociferous critics.

A year ago Friday, Obama signed a historic act to overturn some of the most unpopular policies of the Bush administration, including closure of the Guantanamo detention facility, within a year.

“The president signed [an executive order] saying that the prison will be closed and I am sure it will be closed this year,” said Quassim, who since his release has tried to rebuild his life by training as chef and now works at a pizza joint called Vllaznia.

“President Obama understood that there were a lot of mistakes made in Guantanamo; the American people understood it too and they don’t want the mistakes to continue,” he added.

Although the promise Obama made a year ago has proven unrealistic, experts say that it gave the U.S. a windfall of approval among allies and foes alike, in what had become a lightning rod for allegations that the Bush administration was torturing detainees in the war on terror.

“Guantanamo has fueled extant popular sentiment in the Middle East regarding U.S. involvement in the region, alongside alleged abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Domenic Moran, an Israel-based Middle East expert with ISA Consulting. “The prison has become a symbol of what is widely perceived as U.S. hypocrisy in relation to its own human rights advocacy in the region.”

The Bush administration held Qassim and the other Uighurs, who were arrested in Pakistan following the 9/11 attacks, without charges as enemy combatants for more than five years, even though they had no ties to the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Qassim and four other Uighurs were not released until May 5, 2006, after a U.S. federal court ruled that their detention was illegal. The release came only hours before an appeals court was expected to order that they be freed on U.S. soil. After more than 100 countries refused, the U.S. found a host in Albania, its tiny ally in the Balkans.

“If the Bush administrations held us in prison despite knowing full-well that we were innocent, President Obama is working to end that,” said Qassim. “It’s not that there is a lack of will from President Obama to close Guantanamo, but he is receiving little help from other countries."

According to Human Rights Watch, of nearly 244 inmates still in Guantanamo, about 60 of them, like the Uighurs, cannot be returned to their home countries because they risk persecution at the hands of local authorities.

Although Qassim is hopeful that the Guantanamo “nightmare” will soon come to an end for detainees who, like him, have been deemed innocent, life as a free man has been no small feat. Even living in Albania, where the majority of the population identifies itself as Muslim, it remains a strongly secular country where conservative Islam is often frowned upon.

Even though he is by this point probably Albania’s most famous chef, given his Guantanamo notoriety, there are only four Tirana restaurants where Quassim can put his new culinary skills to use — those four that do not serve pork.

"At Guantanamo being closed in a small cell for years and years, I felt treated like an animal, but faith got me through it," said Qassim, adding that faith keeps him strong now that he is living in a foreign land, with little hope that he will ever see his family again.

For now, Qassim, who has learned to speak Albanian, is trying to open his own restaurant, “but finding the financials means has proven an uphill battle.”