The Forgotten Man: Two Years Abandoned in Guantanamo


This week is the second anniversary of the arrest of local man Bisher Al Rawi. Will anyone help him now?

The first time MP Ed Davey heard of Mr Bisher Al Rawi was when his brother-in-law walked into his office. A local businessman, Bisher had been arrested while travelling abroad. “It seemed”, says Ed Davey, “that some sort of mistake had been made”; he felt that the matter would soon be cleared up and Bisher would be back home in London with the rest of his family. The source of Bisher’s problems seemed to be a battery charger that he had taken with him to compensate for the dodgy African power supply. The UK police had apparently mistaken the battery charger for something more sinister and questioned him about it before he took his plane. Fortunately Bisher had bought the battery charger from Argos, and was able to show the police a picture of it in their catalogue. To his relief Bisher was free to go, and carried on with his business trip, thinking that this would be the last of his troubles.

When he got to the Gambia, Bisher and was arrested and then handed over to the US Intelligence Services. They questioned him for 27 days using “stress and duress” techniques. The interrogators told him he would be handed back to the Gambian police who would rape him if he did not co-operate. He was given no access to a lawyer. When he asked to speak to the British Consulate the Americans laughed; “Who do you think told us to arrest you?” After two months of interrogation, without access to a lawyer and without any help from the UK government, Bisher was bundled out of the Gambia into the US airbase in Bagram, Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, MP Ed Davey, was trying to find a solution for Bisher’s worried family. He wrote a series of letters to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to Jack Straw, then to anyone he could think of.  The silence, he says, was “eerie”. As an MP Ed was used to receiving at least a reply to his letters, but this time there was nothing. It was as if Bisher did not exist. Then finally the Bisher family received some news; secretly, Bisher had been transferred to Guantanamo Bay. 

580 people are currently held in Guantanamo Bay. According to Tim Otty of the English Bar’s Human Rights Committee, the camps in Guantanamo are a deliberate attempt by the US government to create “a legal black hole”. A place in which even torture and summary execution would not fall within the jurisdiction of the civil courts. The evidence for torture using “stress and duress” at Guantanamo is increasingly well documented. Techniques approved include subjection of prisoners to extremes of cold, heat and light, shackling them in “stress positions”, blasting them with loud music, stripping, and threatening them with attack dogs. Those now emerging from American custody in Abu Graib, Bagram, and Guantanamo tell stories of additional punishments. The testimonies are remarkably similar. Many people recount how pepper spray was used; they were chained in a “hog tie” position for long periods; their hair and beards were shaved; they were deprived of sleep; attempts were made to get them to sign pre-drafted ‘confessions’. The torture happening in Guantanamo represents, says Tim Otty “truly unprecedented conduct on the part of a democratic state”.

Bisher Al Rawi came to Britain as a boy nearly twenty years ago. His family were fleeing Saddam Hussain who had arrested and tortured his father. The Al Rawi family all became British nationals except for their youngest son; Bisher. He, it was hoped, would one day return to Iraq and reclaim the house that the family had once owned there. At the time it was difficult to hold property in Iraq without Iraqi citizenship. Bisher was sent to Millfield, a private school, where he developed his talent for mathematics and developed a passion for adventure; climbing and deep sea diving. Gareth Pierce, Bisher’s lawyer, says he is; “a gentle man, a thoughtful man” with a remarkable sense of humour in the face of attempts to break his spirit.

It is now exactly two years since Bisher’s arrest. He appears to have been abandoned by the British government. “Although he has lived a law abiding quiet life in the UK for nearly twenty years and has paid his taxes to the British government. The UK authorities have washed their hands of Bisher Al Rawi”, says Ed Davey. “I strongly suspect that he is totally innocent and that this is a random arrest and detention”. A meeting between the family, the MP and Jack Straw has done nothing but confirm the unwillingness of the British government to help him. "Mr al-Rawi is not a British citizen” writes the Secretary of State “and I do not consider it would be appropriate to make representations either formally or informally to the US”. Worryingly for Bisher’s family Mr Straw has informed them that Bisher has been stripped of his residency rights in the UK.  When the family met Mr Straw, they made clear that returning to Iraq is likely to place his life in serious jeopardy. Their pleas, just like Ed Davey’s have met “a brick wall”.

Helen Wickstead: 9th Nov 2004