When Saeed Bakhouch was repatriated to Algeria in late April from the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay after 21 years of detention without charge, his lawyer was assured by the State Department that he would be treated humanely. Still, his longtime lawyer, H. Candace Gorman, worried about her client’s upcoming release. Bakhouch’s mental health had deteriorated in the last five years; he had stopped meeting with her and retreated into himself. She feared that her client might be arrested after being returned to Algeria unless given real help and resources.
That’s exactly what happened. Almost immediately after Bakhouch landed in Algiers, he passed through the usual interrogation process for former Guantánamo detainees in Algeria. After a two-week period of detention and interrogation, he appeared before a judge in early May. The judge told Bakhouch that his story did not match the information the U.S. provided, Gorman explained to The Intercept.
“He was being stripped of all of his rights,” Gorman said. Bakhouch was sent into pretrial detention and, for nearly three months, he has been held under brutal conditions. His hair and beard were forcibly shaved; he has been physically assaulted; and he has been deprived of his Guantánamo-issued medications to treat his injured heel. Now, human rights groups are alleging that Bakhouch is facing severe abuses in detention.
“If anyone had ever given me any hint at the State Department that they have no authority once he steps off the plane, I would have put the brakes on.”
As the Biden administration works to end America’s “forever wars” abroad, the State Department ramped up efforts to release the remaining 16 Guantánamo prisoners who were never charged with any crime and have been cleared to leave the prison. (In total, 30 detainees are still at Guantánamo.) Since Joe Biden assumed office, a slow but steady stream of these prisoners have quietly left the prison’s infamous gates. Like Bakhouch, they are all followed by a vexing question with few answers: Who, ultimately, is responsible for deciding what their freedom means?
Re-imprisoned in Algeria, Bakhouch is only the latest in a string of former Guantánamo detainees facing rights abuses after repatriation or placement in third countries. The question of responsibility over his well-being has pitted the State Department against human rights advocates who contend that his condition meets no viable definition of freedom.
“If anyone had ever given me any hint at the State Department that they have no authority once he steps off the plane, I would have put the brakes on because I know Saeed trusted that I wouldn’t let him go unless I was assured that he would be treated right,” Gorman told The Intercept. “And so the fact that they are now claiming that there’s nothing they can do and that this is a different country and we have no control over that — then why the fuck are you telling me you have their assurances.” (The State Department did not provide comment on this story by publication time.)
In June, the United Nations special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, published a detailed report on rights violations related to the U.S. detention at Guantánamo. Among other abuses, Ní Aoláin found that transfers of detainees to foreign countries had resulted in their own human rights violations. Among other complaints — torture, arbitrary detention, and disappearances, in some cases — she found in 30 percent of documented cases, the released detainees were not given proper legal status by the recipient countries.
“In these harmful transfers, facilitated and supported by the United States,” the U.N. report said, “there is a legal and moral obligation for the U.S. Government to use all of its diplomatic and legal resources to facilitate (re)transfer of these men, with meaningful assurance and support to other countries.”
As men continue to be released from the prison at Guantánamo, Ní Aoláin told The Intercept that she “continues to be deeply concerned about the robustness of the U.S. Government’s non-refoulement assessment and the protection of human rights for those who have been transferred from Guantanamo Bay to countries of nationality or third countries.”
Human Rights Letter
In a desperate effort to draw attention to Bakhouch’s enduring incarceration, the Center for Constitutional Rights, or CCR, published an open letter with signatories from the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, and other nongovernmental groups, urgently pressuring the State Department to intervene. The letter, published Wednesday and shared exclusively in advance with The Intercept, alleges that the U.S. provided the Algerian government with harmful and unfounded allegations about Bakhouch’s past — information that led to his detention — and that Bakhouch is imprisoned under severe conditions which violate international law. (The Algerian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.)
“Despite being transferred out of Guantánamo on the basis that he no longer posed a significant risk to the United States,” the letter says, “Mr. Bakhouch was told by the Algerian lawyer assigned to represent him in trial that the United States provided the information to the Algerian government that led to them charging him with having sworn allegiance to Osama Bin Laden.”
“This allegation is woefully unfounded,” the letter continues, “and we are deeply troubled by the fact that Mr. Bakhouch is being detained on this basis and enduring abuse in Algerian custody, purportedly in part because of false or incomplete intelligence information from the United States.”
The CCR-led letter is addressed to Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, who heads the State Department office responsible for transferring men out of Guantánamo Bay. Kaidanow was appointed in August 2022 and has been repeatedly criticized in the past for failure to respond to botched resettlement deals. Most of the deals were not of her own making; she inherited a mess of released detainees in crisis — some have been re-incarcerated and tortured, forcibly repatriated, or denied legal asylum status.
With only her office to appeal to for assistance, lawyers and human rights advocates are growing increasingly concerned that, irrespective of the deals’ authorship, the struggling former prisoners have no diplomatic support from the State Department.
Now, with Bakhouch’s immediate and brutal re-incarceration, Kaidanow appears to be helming her own botched deal.
State Department Assurances
Emails from Kaidanow and her staff at the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism to Gorman, which were obtained by The Intercept, show a pattern of vague reassurances, incompetence, and general disregard.
After Bakhouch’s release was approved but before he was transferred out of Guantánamo, he languished simply because the staffer who needed to sign his papers was unaware that was a part of their job responsibilities, Gorman learned from a phone call with Anand Prakash, a policy adviser to the Office of the Special Representative for Guantánamo Affairs. Prakash, she said, apparently found the mishap funny, leading Gorman to become more concerned that the State Department staff wasn’t taking her concerns for Bakhouch’s well-being seriously.
“With no family to help Mr. Bakhouch this will be a very difficult transition and I fear my client might become homeless — or worse — locked up.”
“With no family to help Mr. Bakhouch this will be a very difficult transition and I fear my client might become homeless — or worse — locked up,” Gorman wrote to Prakash. “Please let me know what you can about assistance that will be offered to Mr. Bakhouch.”
Prakash, who was unable to provide details of the diplomatic agreement with Algeria, replied, “I can assure you we will work to ensure that he is given appropriate and humane treatment upon return.”
On May 7, Gorman informed the State Department’s Guantánamo desk that her client had not been released as she had expected; instead, he had been re-imprisoned. “This is very distressing for us to hear – it’s not the outcome we expected when we repatriated Saeed to Algeria, and we are taking steps to find out exactly what happened,” Jessica Heinz, a staffer in the Guantánamo Affairs office, replied a day later. “I assure you we are looking into this and will take the steps necessary to ensure Saeed is in a good place post-release.”
As the month of May unfolded and Bakhouch sat in prison, Gorman repeatedly emailed asking for updates and more information — missives that went largely unanswered. By the end of the month, the veteran lawyer had received no updates or new information on the circumstances of her client’s imprisonment from Prakash or Heinz.
Fed up with the apparent inattention to the issue, Gorman eventually escalated and fired off a heated email to Kaidanow herself. Gorman pleaded for immediate help, pointing to Bakhouch’s severe mental health struggles with PTSD and depression. “I recognize your concern,” Kaidanow wrote back. “We and our colleagues in Algeria are doing everything we can to ascertain what the status of Mr. Bakhouch currently is and what his ultimate disposition will be. We take every precaution possible to ensure that detainees will be effectively rehabilitated once they are returned, but we cannot prevent the receiving country from acting according to their own laws and procedures.”
Bakhouch’s Mental Health
The letter from CCR to Kadainow raised the State Department failure to fully reckon with Bakhouch’s mental health issues. It was a point Gorman repeatedly emphasized prior to her client’s release from Guantánamo. The State Department staff writing the emails obtained by The Intercept at no point specifically acknowledge Gorman’s repeated concerns over Bakhouch’s mental well-being.
“Before his transfer, the State Department was made aware of a medical opinion about Mr. Bakhouch’s mental trauma and diagnosis of PTSD and depression related to his torture and detention, and that his U.S. attorney communicated concerns about his reintegration in Algeria to your office several times,” the letter says. “Unfortunately and alarmingly, these concerns seemed to have been disregarded at best and weaponized at worst now that Mr. Bakhouch is in custody in Algeria.”
Concerned that Bakhouch had no family support in Algeria, Gorman continually asked about adequate resources to make sure he did not become homeless after repatriation. In one email, Prakash suggested Gorman reach out to Reprieve and the International Committee of the Red Cross — two nongovernmental groups that work with former detainees and human rights issues — to help Bakhouch readjust to life in Algeria.
At one point before Bakhouch’s release to Algeria, Gorman requests information on what assistance the State Department planned to give her client. “Could you please tell me if our government has made any arrangements with the Algerian government to help settle Mr. Bakhouch when he arrives back in Algiers?” she asked.
“There’s not a whole lot I can share re the specifics of our bilateral arrangements,” Prakash wrote in an email, “but I can say we are working to ascertain what the host gov can provide after transfer, and I can assure you we will work to ensure that he is given appropriate and humane treatment upon return. As you likely know, our standard agreements include reference to humane treatment.”
In the emails reviewed by The Intercept, Kaidanow invokes her commitments to personally ensure that each transfer goes smoothly with a focus on “reintegration and rehabilitation.”
Sufyian Barhoumi, another former Guantánamo detainee who was repatriated to Algeria in early April 2022, said those words mean “nothing at all.” Barhoumi and his lawyer, CCR’s Shayana Kadidal, said they have not been contacted by either the U.S. or Algerian governments. Barhoumi said nongovernmental organizations too, including the ICRC and Reprieve, had been unable to offer him assistance.
“We do not take part in the transfer of detainees, nor can we discuss individual cases,” an ICRC spokesperson said in a statement received after publication. “While the ICRC is aware that States normally negotiate security treatment assurances before a transfer, the ICRC does not play a role in these discussions, or any agreements reached. However, we continue to urge detaining authorities in any State to consider the importance of adequately addressing the humanitarian issues related to any transfers that take place.”
“In the course of Reprieve’s Life After Guantánamo work,” Reprieve’s U.S. joint executive director Maya Foa wrote to The Intercept, “we have consistently seen how hard it is for men subjected to this appalling mistreatment over many years to escape further persecution — whether repatriated or transferred to host countries. For many men, the abuse follows them forever; the stain of Guantánamo does not disappear once they are transferred.”
“Arbitrarily detaining so many men without trial has indelibly stained the USA’s reputation as a country founded on the rule of law,” Foa said. “Rehabilitation, reintegration, and reparation for all the men is the direct responsibility of the U.S. Government.” (Reprieve U.S. is a signatory on the letter sent Wednesday to Kaidanow.)
With no income or resources, Barhoumi said he feels stuck and alone: “I just need to start my life.”
State Shirking Responsibility
Gorman has continued to try to spur the State Department into action on Bakhouch’s behalf. Nearly two full months after Bakhouch was imprisoned in Algeria, Kadainow finally replied with specifics, saying she had “a chance” to speak with relevant diplomatic colleagues.
“Our Ambassador in Algiers was informed that Mr. Bakhouch is being charged under Algerian law for membership/affiliation with a foreign terrorist organization, which is a serious crime under Algerian law,” Kaidanow wrote. “He is currently under pre-trial detention while his case is under review by the Court d’Instruction, which will ultimately decide whether to bring him to trial or dismiss the charges and release him. The information regarding his case is still sealed.”
“Closing Guantanamo is not just about policy, it’s about people — the people who’ve been detained and tortured by the United States.”
Kaidanow added, “We continue to assert our interest in his humane treatment and legal rights in a variety of high-level settings.”
The U.S. — and Kaidanow’s — position seems clear: Algeria is responsible for what they now intend to do with their citizen. The U.S. has no further responsibility beyond asking them to honor their commitment to human rights.
For CCR, the lack of direct intervention is unacceptable, but there is little to do but continue to advocate for more care.
“Closing Guantanamo is not just about policy, it’s about people — the people who’ve been detained and tortured by the United States, and the obligations that the U.S. government has to them because of this,” said Aliya Hussain, CCR’s advocacy program manager. “These international law obligations continue even after the men are transferred to other countries, and they are unequivocal, which the Special Rapporteur makes clear in her recent report.”
If the State Department doesn’t follow up and enforce diplomatic assurances, the assurances are worthless, Hussain explained. “How they respond to Mr. Bakhouch’s situation in Algeria will signal how much oversight and advocacy they are willing and committed to undertaking to ensure the success of future transfers.”
Update: August 1, 2023
This story has been updated to include a statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross made after publication.