Paris – 8 Feb 2008
Saber Lahmer is one of the six 'Bosnian Arabs' who were quite literally kidnapped by US agents from outside a Sarajevo courthouse where they had just been acquitted of terrorism related charges. What followed next was a horrifying ordeal in the Kafkaesque story that is Guantanamo. After being held without charge for over eight years Saber Lahmer was eventually released and resettled in France.
Cageprisoners Director Moazzam Begg met up with him at a conference in Paris to mark the ninth anniversary since the opening of the US prison in Cuba. The following is a transcript of the interview conducted between the two.
Moazzam Begg: Can you please introduce yourself to our readers
Saber Lahmer: In the name of Allah Most Compassionate Most Merciful. I send my prayers and peace on the noble Prophet and to proceed…
My name is Saber Mahfooz Al-Ahmer (Lahmer), I am an Algerian national, a graduate of the Islamic University of Madinah and am now a resident in the city of Bordeaux, France where I was transferred to from Guantanamo about a year ago. I was born in 1970.
MB: Before talking about how you ended up in Guantanamo please explain how you were arrested in Bosnia, where you had been a resident prior to your abduction.
SL: About a month after the 9/11 attacks I was raided by the Bosnian police and falsely accused of intending to blow up the US embassy in Bosnia. I was imprisoned in Sarajevo on remand for three months after which I was taken to court. The Bosnian judge in the case ruled that I be freed and there was no case to answer for and that the allegations were baseless. So I was freed and left the prison heading for home. On the way back home, in the middle of the street, I was abducted by US and Bosnian police and rendered straight from there to Guantanamo where I remained for eight years and eight months.
MB: And there were five other men with you who suffered the exact same fate?
SL: That’s right, there were five others and all of us have been released – except for one who is still in Guantanamo. I pray Allah frees all of them.
MB: Before we go on to what happened in Guantanamo can you tell me how you, as an Algerian, ended up in Bosnia?
SL: After I graduated from university in 1996 I was offered work by the Saudi High Commission to go to Bosnia and help the humanitarian effort there as part of my contract which of course was a very important and crucial time for the Bosnians just after the war.
MB: So you saw something of the horrors that were experienced by the people of Bosnia?
SL: Yes, I saw the aftermath of the massacre, rape and pillage of an entire nation – I saw what the cowards had done.
MB: What was going through your mind when they sent you to Guantanamo?
SL: In reality, even when I was still in prison in Sarajevo and I asked those in interrogators “why am I here, held by you?” and they would reply “we honestly don’t know” and there fore they would say that this is just a an procedural exercise – nothing more. Afterwards, when I was sent to Guantanamo the interrogators over there had no idea what to question me about; they would say that the file that accompanied you from Bosnia contained no palpable allegations against me. Hence, they would say to me that if I had any information about other people then I should give it to them but, as for any accusations against me, there simple are none. Subsequently, when I was presented to the court (ARB) in Guantanamo the judge was not able to level any charges against me and that because all the 'evidence' presented about me in my file by the FBI and CIA was laughable he (the judge) ordered my release.
MB: You are of course married with children, a family man. You were married in Bosnia and have children that you've not seen since your abduction. How did you manage to maintain contact with them during your time in custody?
SL: During all the years of my incarceration in Guantanamo I was unable to speak to my wife or children even once. I have two children – a boy and a girl. The boy was about a year and a half when I was taken and the girl I have not even met as she was born after I was taken.
MB: Guantanamo is probably the word's most well notorious prison – at present – but, had you heard anything of this place before you became one of its occupants?
SL: I had no knowledge of this place – not even the word, what it meant or even where it was on the map. I was only aware that there was a country by the name of Cuba. I was only made aware of the Guantanamo prison by the police in Sarajevo a few moments before I was actually put on the plane.
MB: You were kidnapped illegally by US – and Bosnian – authorities. What was the reaction of the Bosnian people in relation to what happened to you all – who were legal residents of Bosnia?
SL: A few days before I was imprisoned at Guantanamo the Bosnian public became well aware that there was some kind of latent plan to hand over the six Bosnian Arabs to the Americans, a plan that was agreed between the governments of Bosnia and the USA. Subsequently, over 5,000 people held demonstrations lasting several days outside the prison where we were held, protesting on our behalf. Their purpose was to stop the oppression against all of us who were facing this impending situation. However, since the US can pretty much do whatever it likes with impunity – under the colour of a 'legal' veneer- this arrest, rather kidnap, was carried out and the business transaction [of our lives] went ahead unabated.
MB: I have seen pictures of how you were all abducted in Sarajevo. Please tell me about the way in which this happened.
SL: They took us in a in a brutal, inhuman and barbaric way; they used extreme force, violence and terror. They beat us severely, crushed us and tried to dehumanise us. Let me explain a little: I was taken to a US military base just outside Sarajevo where I was shackled to the floor for three whole days. The temperature at that time was minus 10 [degrees centigrade]. After this we were taken on board a US aircraft and flown to another military airbase – I don't know if this was in Turkey or Germany – and then on to Guantanamo.
MB: During this time, en route, what were the Americans saying to you?
SL: The statement that I kept hearing repeatedly – via the translators – was, “You are on your way to the American hell from which you will never escape.”
MB: Was it just you – the Bosnians – taken together or were there others who came to Guantanamo with you?
SL: When we stopped over in either Turkey or Germany and boarded another plane there were around forty or so prisoners on board who had been brought over from the Bagram prison. We knew this as we heard different voices speaking in Pashtu, Urdu and some speaking in Arabic. Therefore we realised this was a transit port where prisoners were brought from various places before being shipped off to Guantanamo.
MB: And how were you seated on the aeroplane?
SL: Of course we were seated in a very painful, savage way. Our hands and legs were tied very tightly with
metal shackles; our eyes were covered with blacked-out goggles; our mouths were sealed with cloth; our ears were covered with large headphones; and, if we moved, even slightly, we'd get punched in the face or body.
MB: Were you able to communicate, to speak with any of the other prisoners?
SL: As I said, we'd receive a barrage of punches and strikes from the guards if we so much as moved. Even those who were clearly in a state of terrible discomfort or were just sick received no mercy. Instead, if any one dare complain or ask for medical assistance they would get beaten.
MB: This was in January 2002 – nine years ago. You were from amongst the second group of prisoners sent to Guantanamo and were held at what that time was Camp X-Ray. What did you see when you got there?
SL: When I go there I witnessed [prisoners] people of imaan [faith]. People who refused to bow down before anyone except Allah. When I saw them I recalled the words of Allah Mighty and Sublime: “Indeed this is the group that believed in their Lord and We [Allah] increased their guidance.”
We saw nothing but good of them and we learned a great deal from them even before they learned from us.
MB: What did the Americans say to you when you arrived at Guantanamo?
SL: The first words I heard from them was, “Welcome to the American hell.” After that I was taken immediately to interrogation where they only really sought one thing: If I had any information about anything that I tell them. I told them that this is not my problem. My problem is that you accuse me of trying to blow up the US embassy in Bosnia and yet no one is asking me any questions about that now. They would always avoid this question – and I would remind them.
In the end, when I decided that I would not speak to them about any subject except regarding embassy allegation they began to punish me. Consequently, most of my time in Guantanamo was spent in isolation and solitary confinement.
MB: What were the allegations against the other Bosnian Arabs who came with you?
SL: Exactly the same as me: that we, as a group of six men, were involved in a conspiracy to blow up the US embassy. What I find amazing about this 'conspiracy' allegation is that the Americans accepted that we did not even know one another [before the arrests]. This was the contradiction: they would say we know that so-and-so does not know so-and so and yet, they would still claim that we somehow conspired together.
MB: How were you able to communicate with you family about what had happened to you all this time?
SL: There was no way to communicate with them at all. Hence, I heard nothing from my family for several years. The first letter I received from my family was via my lawyer who first saw me in 2004.
MB: Just so people understand, why would you have a lawyer when there are no charges against you, no court proceeding and legal process that you have access to?
SL: Firstly, according to their procedures a person has the right to legal representation if he is imprisoned – whether he is charged or not.
MB: But this happened only after you'd been imprisoned for almost three years that they allowed an opportunity for lawyers to come to Guantanamo?
SL: Yes, and they did not want this to happen – they did not want to allow us any way to legally challenge our incarceration. However, it was due to the outside pressure placed on the US administration after stories of abuse and torture had become synonymous with Guantanamo and the fact that they were acting in contravention of every law relating to the treatment of prisoners. Even with the presence of lawyers it was just to give Guantanamo a veneer of having some kind of legal system when in fact there still is none. You won't find any place in the world that imprisons people without giving them at least some legal rights.
MB: You spent over eight years imprisoned in Guantanamo. This is an incredibly long time, almost impossible for most people to contemplate. What was the hardest part of your ordeal and how did you deal with it?
SL: I wouldn't say that there were some days in Guantanamo that were hard, they were all hard. And what we witnessed there were events that no one would encounter in any ordinary prison. However, we passed these days with strength and patience from Allah even though we could never have imagined that we could have spent all this time facing the various types of torture and abuse that which have been refined to a modern day art by scholars and psychiatrists. These types of torture are not 'radical' or traditional as such but they have been perfected after many years of experiment and study to a fine art and focus on the psychological as much as or even more than the physical.
MB: What do you think is the biggest lesson the US administration learned from the Guantanamo experiment?
SL: That [our] imaan will never be extinguished.
MB: What were the Americans intending to gain out of all this?
SL: It is as the words of Allah [in the Quran] when he says:
“They wish to extinguish the light of Allah through their words but Allah repels them and protects and completes His light…”
The issue has nothing to do with terrorism. Those imprisoned in Guantanamo are not terrorists and the greatest evidence of this is that they are still avoiding legal proceedings at every level. And you can now see that Obama is trying to play the same dirty game as his predecessor by avoiding any legal process. Instead, they are approaching prisoners and asking them to sign a piece of paper admitting they are reformed terrorists and that they will be freed once they do so and will also not face charges. The reason for this is clear: there are no charges or evidence against these people [the prisoners]. If they were taken to court both Obama and his predecessor would be exposed because these men have been held for so long and after all that no charges. This would be a cause great shame to the US leader. Thus, they prefer people leave Guantanamo without trial.
MB: There are prisoners who have memorised the Quran, memorised texts of ahadeeth [Prophetic sayings] by word of mouth, learned languages from other prisoners and made fitness routines for themselves. How did you spend your time, how did you benefit, as it were, from your imprisonment?
SL: Books to educate oneself were prohibited in Guantanamo and that was because they wanted people to leave that place ignorant and unable to understand anything around them after all this time in prison. They know of course that in many prisons people can study many subjects and attain great benefit from their time in prison so that their time in prison isn't completely wasted. However, out of malice they deliberately made sure we had nothing to study and, based on the concepts developed through psychological experimentation they ensured we did not have the tools to benefit from improving ourselves through gaining knowledge. They only permitted the distribution of the Noble Quran – not for our benefit but for their own, so they could say that they are affording us religious freedoms. This is also evidenced from the fact, especially in the latter days, that almost every prisoner has memorised the entire Quran – al hamdu lillah [Allah be praised].
SL: Yes, certainly. Your brother here took on the task of teaching others all that he was able to from what he had studied during his life as a free man and similarly anyone who had anything to teach would do so in order for others to benefit and gain reward in the Hereafter. So for example, someone who had learned grammar and comprehension would teach those who had little grasp of that subject, likewise those who had memorised classical texts would teach the others and so on. Thus, although the Americans did not wish us to benefit from anything we managed to benefit a great deal from one another.
MB: As you said, you spent many years in solitary confinement. How did you manage to learn anything during that time?
SL: I spent years in isolation: one and a half years in Camp Six, a similar time I spent in Camp Echo and some time in other places and in such places prisoners were prevented from anything. The only thing that one could do during that time was to live with the book of Allah, Mighty and Sublime and no other which was our friend and companion – and what a beautiful friend and companion. During all this time I did not see the sun – or anything outside. In fact, by the time this period had ended I had forgotten the colour of the sky and what it looks like.
MB: There are a few prisoners who have lost their minds in Guantanamo. What do you know about this and how can this happen?
SL: Yes, I have myself seen some people who have in reality lost their minds. They include a Palestinian, some Afghans and some Turkistanis [Uyghurs] who had completely lost their minds. Hence, the US administration does not wish to release them fearing the response the world will have to their already battered world image.
There is of course no doubt that this has happened directly as a result of the torture and abuse suffered by these men and the psychological pressures placed upon them over a period of nine years – especially during interrogations. Day after day, month after month and years after year this has caused the men to lose a grip on reality and led to the descent into insanity. Sadly, this has happened to several prisoners.
MB: Despite this most of the prisoners have left Guantanamo with a heightened sense of their faith and strength of character. How did you manage to keep and indeed, develop your faith during this time?
SL: Guantanamo is a place of isolation far removed from all normal civilisation. Thus, a person of faith will see this as an opportunity to be in seclusion with Allah. I've heard so many of the prisoners say that they had always wanted to have some time to spend alone, to reflect on their lives and spend in contemplation and personal meditation but that the world had always got the better of them. And so we can use this as an opportunity to review the pages of our lives, to correct that which is wrong within us and reflect on our hopes for the future. And essentially, to strengthen our relationship with our Creator since we are prevented from any other thing in this place. And, as it is said, it may be that something seemingly harmful is in fact more worthy than you think.
MB: Were any of the guards or interrogators humane or sympathetic towards you?
SL: As for the interrogators I did not see any good at all from them. Rather I saw the opposite from them, wanting to destroy any hope we had of freedom or a future. Suffice to say that they said things like “if we were allowed to we would have killed you a long time ago. You don't deserve any mercy. It's only the law that's preventing us.” As for the guards they told us that they would get special training two months before they came to Guantanamo and get indoctrinated against us being told that we are savages, that we are very dangerous, that they need to be very wary of us at all times and that we do not deserve to be treated with mercy. Of course, many of them changed their minds by the time they left Guantanamo.
MB: Some of the soldiers embraced Islam and others were sympathetic. What did you experience of this?
SL: Yes, this is true with those you realised the truth and I would ask all those who became Muslims about the reason for this and they would say that it was due to many reasons. They were moved by the brotherhood they witnessed between the prisoners. They were amazed at our bowing and prostrating to Allah and how that is an integral part of our lives which will not give up for anyone. They saw that as the reason behind our incomprehensible (to them) patience. They also commented that when they looked at our faces they would see happiness and tranquillity which they found remarkable under the circumstances. Also, they said, the authorities described us in one way but that their experience of us – almost living with us on the other side of the wire – was the total opposite. They also recognised our treatment as oppression and injustice and saw the hypocrisy of telling the outside world that we were being treated fairly, with respect and dignity. The soldiers [the unbiased ones] saw through all of this. All of these things created in them a desire to ask us more about Islam and eventually enter into its fold – al hamdu lillah.
MB: I just wanted to tell you that there is a sister who embraced Islam recently who was formerly a guard at Guantanamo and she told me that the seed of Islam was planted in her heart during her time there and that she wanted all the prisoners to know this.
SL: Yes – that's true. There were male and female soldiers who embraced Islam secretly. They did this because they understood the negative repercussions they would face, sadly, because of the open hostility towards Muslims.
MB: What was your relationship with the other prisoners like and how did living with them for so long affect you as a person?
SL: Before I arrived at Guantanamo I heard about them through the media, they were allegedly the worst of all of God’s creatures. But, from the time that I met them and began my life of exile with them I recalled the words of Allah Mighty and Sublime:
“Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah; and those with him are forceful against the disbelievers, merciful among themselves. You see them bowing and prostrating [in prayer], seeking bounty from Allah and [His] pleasure. Their mark is on their faces from the trace of prostration.”
These were people of good, of obedience [to Allah] and patience. Their prior concern in life was earning the pleasure of Allah. All of this had a great affect on my life and I began to emulate them in all that is good and, as the poet said, “I love the righteous even if I am not of them”, I tried all I could to be like them though I could not attain their level.
MB: At its height there were around 780 prisoners in Guantanamo but, over 600 have been released. You were there for 8 years and witnessed many prisoners leave while you remained behind. What went through your mind when this happened?
SL: I never saw anyone leave from Guantanamo who didn’t cry in the hope that they would be the last to leave that place – wishing only that their brothers would leave before them. It occurred many times that when a person was told he was due to be released that the prisoner would ask to speak to the authorities so that he could inform that he does not want to be released and instead wants someone else to leave in his stead
. Of course, this is from an internal and brotherly point of view and it does not mean that anyone would like to stay in a place that is filled with oppression and abuse.
MB: It is clear that the US administration seemed bent on breaking the resolve and resistance of the prisoners but, it seems as if the opposite was achieved. The weak became strong and the strong an example for others. What brought this about?
SL: In truth the Americans didn’t understand some of the basic concepts of human nature. They wanted to destroy us – and destroy our faith in the religion of Islam. It was not the case of wanting to prevent terrorism, if it was we would have applauded them. But they wanted to extinguish the light of Allah – and the one who wishes to do this must be exposed because he is at war with the Lord of the Worlds. Relevant to this is the story of Abdul Muttalib when his camels were taken by the King of Abyssinia [Abraha] who had come to destroy the Ka’bah. The king said to him, “I thought you had come to ask me about my intention to destroy the Ka’bah but you ask me for your camels instead?” Abdul Muttalib replied, “I am asking for my property because the Ka’bah has a Lord who will maintain its own protection.” In the end, as we know, Allah destroyed this army of elephants as is recorded in the Quran. This is the final result for whoever wishes to obstruct the way of Allah.
MB: What did you see or experience in relation to religious abuse during your time in custody?
SL: As I said, they used every tool available to dent our faith and tried very hard to make us leave our religion and practice of it. In fact, some interrogators would say that it was their mission to ensure that the prisoners left this place having completely forgotten their religion but, Allah wished to foil their plot. In addition, I saw the soldiers kick the Quran with their booted feet; I saw with my own eyes in Camp X-ray soldiers throwing the Quran into a toilet bucket; I encountered interrogators who would curse and swear at Allah and his messenger in the belief that this would enrage me and that somehow I would start talking to them and co-operating with them as a result. They would make fun of our faith in order to needle us, knowing that it was something very dear to our hearts.
MB: This sort of thing led to more resistance and non-co-operation which included the hunger-strikes. What was the result of this, did you take part in the strikes?
SL: Yes, we took part in the hunger-strikes when abuses against our faith occurred – like the desecration of the Quran. The hunger-strikes were very long and it was an extremely harsh time but, the result was that the US administration put out a general order that no soldier is permitted to touch the Quran. Of course, this wasn’t out of respect for our book or our faith but for their own purposes completely – so that they didn’t have to deal with our response.
MB: How did the authorities try to break the hunger-strikes?
SL: They tried to force-feed us with liquid food by forcing tubes through our nostrils – and sometimes our mouths – and pushing them into our stomachs while we were tied down to a chair with our arms, legs and heads placed in restraints. And, if only they wanted to feed us using this process that’s one thing but, they way in which they forcibly inserted and removed these tubes was so painful that it is clear they just wanted to break our will to hunger-strike rather than the strike itself.
MB: Did they succeed in breaking the strikes in this way?
SL: They did not succeed and they will never succeed because stamping authority by force never wins.
MB: When was the first time you heard that you might be released from Guantanamo and who told you?
SL: After I was declared innocent by the US I was moved to Camp Iguana where I spent several months with the Uyghurs until the time for my release finally came. So, although I had been cleared for release for a very long time I was not released even then until almost a year later.
MB: How did your transfer from Guantanamo and release to France finally come about?
SL: This was through the French ambassador in Washington – I met one of the French embassy officials who offered to accept and take me to France. I asked them what they were prepared to do for me in France and they told me, oddly, that there is no need to discuss too much of that and that the moment I step foot in France I would be afforded all the rights and avenues to advance my life and live as a normal human being. But, since my return I have, sadly, spent most of my time in a tiny room – one that resembles a Guantanamo cell in many ways.
MB: The first thing each person released thinks of is their family. Were you able to make contact with them?
SL: I went to and left from Guantanamo an innocent man – no charges, no accusations even. I was told before I came to France that I’d have all my rights – which would include the ability to go to visit my family in Bosnia but, until now I have been prevented from doing so as I have no travel documents. Hence, I have not seen my children in all this time and no one is even prepared to discuss this issue with me.
MB: How was your first conversation with you children after your release; did they see you as a stranger or even know who you are?
SL: When I called them for the first time they did not really want to speak to me because they could not recognise me as a father – I’m a complete stranger to them. How can a child speak to a stranger with such an obstacle placed in front of it? I sense this when I speak to them all the time.
MB: This has been the experience of many Guantanamo returnees: fathers who don’t know their own children, children who cannot recognise their fathers. Who bears the responsibility for all this?
SL: We cannot just blame America for this, especially for those who are now free. The countries that have taken in Guantanamo prisoners but have made absolutely no provision for the basic human right of a family being together, reunited after such an ordeal, demonstrates still how we are regarded as less than human.
MB: There was some mention of your case recently in WikiLeaks. Can you tell us about this?
SL: Two things emerged from the WikiLeaks for me. Firstly, that I was brought over to France for the promise of a financial incentive and package and, secondly, became a sort of a bargaining chip for the purposes of improving Franco-American relations which, as everyone knows, are quite often sour. This is what has become apparent.
MB: How do you feel about this?
SL: Since my resettlement here no one from the government has spoken to me at all – not once, despite writing to them, or contacting them through lawyers – nothing. At present I just feel like I’ve been moved from the big Guantanamo to the lesser one, simply because I have been abandoned by the very people who promised to me give me my basic rights.
MB: Finally, what advice do you have for our readers and people who are interested the cases of the Guantanamo prisoners?
SL: I would ask all those who read this to
do all they can to assist Cageprisoners and other organisations in their efforts to have the prisoners of Guantanamo released and receive justice. Also, they should not forget those who have been released from there because those who have been freed in reality still live in Guantanamo. And when I ask people to help both groups of people I mean that there must be real, tangible efforts made to assist the downtrodden and forgotten prisoners of Guantanamo. Steps taken must be straight and consistent and as the saying goes, if you speak then listen and if you hit then you [must] feel pain [too].
MB: May Allah reward you with the best for sharing your thoughts.
SL: May Allah reward you and all the brothers and sisters at Cageprisoners for your efforts.
(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.)