On 19 December, ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Jihad Ahmed Diyab attempted to enter South Africa at Johannesburg International Airport as a tourist, but he allegedly had no visa. He was turned away and sent back to Uruguay, where he resides as a refugee along with five other released Gitmo prisoners.
On the face of it this seems a banal occurrence. But in reality this act by South African border control is just one more turn of the knife in a prolonged love story that holds all the tragedy of the US’s protracted and inhumane ‘War on Terror’ and its effects on ordinary people’s lives.
Four months ago, in September, Diyab slipped into a coma from a hunger strike in his apartment in Montevideo. Held for 12 years at Guantanamo by the US, tortured, and then released without charge to Uruguay in 2014, Diyab said he was protesting his continued separation from his wife and children who reside in Turkey.
Like most Guantanamo detainees, the Lebanese-born Syrian national has been barred from returning to his family by the United States, due to ‘security concerns’. This situation, coupled with often stringent security controls (despite released prisoners having been long cleared of any crime) mean that many prisoners experience their ‘release’ to third countries – they are very rarely sent home – as a transfer from one kind of prison to another.
The efforts of husband and wife to see one another again read like the script of a tragic love story. Amnesty International reported that his wife Yusra was held in extrajudicial detention in Syria for a year between 2008 and 2009 for trying to contact human rights groups for help lobbying for Diyab’s release from Guantanamo. Here she was tortured. She since fled to Turkey with their children.
Since landing in Uruguay, Diyab has made two attempts to leave – he turned up in Argentina and Venezuela in the hope that they would assist him to get to Turkey – and now his trip to South Africa was the third.
Whether Diyab was hoping to get to Turkey to see his wife and children, or reunite with his family in South Africa, we will never know. But whatever the reason for his arrival on our shores, international law should have compelled authorities to accept him here as a refugee instead of turning him away.
Since the US will not allow them to return home, and since some Guantanamo prisoners face torture and persecution if they do so, cleared detainees are technically stateless under international law. Diyab is already a refugee in Uruguay.
In recognition of the statelessness of these cleared detainees, and in reaction to the inhumanity that they have already faced, advocacy group CAGE Africa in August 2015 submitted a petition to DIRCO requesting that the South African government afford refugee status to between 1 and 11 cleared Guantanamo Bay detainees in line with our responsibilities under the Refugee Act of 1998. Diyab would have been a model beneficiary of this petition, which to date has not received a proper response.
This petition is apparently still under consideration, but Diyab’s attempt at escaping his second ‘prison’ away from his family should provide the impetus for a more humane response from the South African government. Is it not enough that one man will starve himself just to feel his family in his arms again? And how many more cases like this before the government responds to CAGE Africa’s petition?
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)