WHEN YOUNOUS CHEKKOURI was released from Guantánamo this September, his 13 years of imprisonment did not end.
Despite assurances from the State Department to his lawyers that his native Morocco would not detain or prosecute him, Chekkouri was taken into custody upon arriving there, and within a week was jailed in the notorious Salé prison, where he remains today, potentially facing charges that he is a member of an al Qaeda-linked Moroccan terrorist group.
Chekkouri was captured by Pakistani authorities at the end of 2001, and the United States, believing him to be a foreign fighter, sent him to Guantánamo. The U.S. government also previously maintained that Chekkouri belonged to the Morrocan Islamic Combatant Group, often referred to by its French acronym, GICM.
He was never charged with a crime, however, and in 2010, an interagency review board cleared Chekkouri for release, and withdrew the claim about GICM when Chekkouri challenged his detention in Guantánamo in federal court in Washington D.C. Chekkouri’s lawyers had said that the only evidence linking him to the group had come from detainees who had been tortured.
Chekkouri’s lawyers with the international human rights group Reprieve believe that the U.S. government could do more to help clear Chekkouri’s name.
In a letter to Reprieve this October, the Justice Department acknowledged that “it withdrew reliance in Mr. Chekkouri’s habeas corpus proceedings on all evidence identifying Mr. Chekkouri” with GICM, “and ultimately took no position on whether Mr. Chekkouri was affiliated with GICM.”
Last week, Reprieve asked the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., which heard Chekkouri’s habeas petition, to force the government to release information about the State Department’s discussions with Morocco before his release. Cori Crider, an attorney at Reprieve, says that the State Department told them that Morocco had pledged to hold Chekkouri for no more than 72 hours, and that he would not be prosecuted.
“Seventy-two hours came and went,” Abla Chekkouri, Younous’ wife, wrote in an op-ed in Newsweek last month about her husband’s incarceration. “Silence in my house. The same silence there has been for the last 14 years.”
Morroco denies giving any such promise. The Moroccan justice minister told reporters last month that “we negotiated with Washington to bring Chekkouri to Morocco but we never gave any assurances on his release.”
“Either the United States or Morocco has to be lying,” said Crider.
The U.S. Department of State did not respond to a request for comment.
Chekkouri’s next hearing in Moroccan court is set for early January. In a brief filed last week in response to Repreive’s petition, the Justice Department argued that the role of the U.S. court should be limited to “resolving issues necessary to determining the legality of a Guantánamo Bay petitioner’s detention by the United States — not to settling extraneous factual issues for use in or by Moroccan courts.”
Joe Pace, a lawyer working with Repreive on the case, says that while there is “case law saying that U.S. courts should not intervene in overseas proceedings, that is fundamentally different from a U.S. court ordering the U.S. government to release exculpatory information so that it can be shared with a foreign court.”
Chekkouri’s predicament highlights the complicated task of resettling many of the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo. One hundred and seven men remain there, of which 52 have been deemed safe to release by the Pentagon. In some cases, like Chekkouri’s, detainees may face persecution in their home countries. Yemeni detainees, the majority of those remaining, cannot be sent back to a country engulfed in war. Only so many third-party countries are willing to accept them.
Congress has effectively blocked the possibility of bringing detainees to the United States, even for continued imprisonment. (Some legal observers, however, argue the president can go around Congress and use his executive authority to resettle detainees as he sees fit.) Last month, the Senate approved the annual defense spending bill that keeps those restrictions in place. Though Obama vetoed an earlier version, on November 30, he signed the bill into law, despite the provisions about Guantánamo that he said were “counterproductive in the fight against terrorism.”