'Gitmo' court ruling heartens Saudi families

The Supreme Court said Monday that 'Gitmo' prisoners can challenge detention.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Abdullah al-Juaid was close to tears or joy when he heard the Supreme Court had ruled that inmates at the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay, where his brother is held, can contest their captivity in US courts.

"I'll go to the States and attend his trial if they let me. The idea of seeing him again, hearing his voice and sitting with him makes me very emotional," says the 34-year old civil servant.

The ruling applies to nearly 600 inmates, most of them captured after the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The US had argued that US law did not apply to the terror suspects because the base is not on American soil.

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Mr. Juaid, who filed his brief in January in connection with families of two others detained in Guantánamo Bay, says his faith in the US justice system has been restored. "I had hope that if the US government did not get involved, we would win the case," he says.

But he's still angry. "They caged my brother like an animal," he says, showing magazine photos of men in orange jumpsuits in their outdoor cages. Juaid has filled a thick file with newspaper clippings on the detainees, as well as photos and letters from his brother Abdul-Rahman, who was a student in Pakistan when the war broke out.

Like many families here, he believes his brother was "sold" by Pakistani and Afghan mercenaries to the Americans. "They took up to $3,000 dollars for each Arab they handed to the Americans," he says.

The Saudi government claims the majority of the Saudis picked up were innocent proselytizers or charity workers helping a war-torn nation. The rest, they say, were young men led astray by extremists.

While the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, hundreds of devout Saudis considered it a pure Muslim state and traveled there to work, live, study, or train for jihad, which they believe is a duty of all Muslims.

News that their sons were at Guantánamo was a shock to many Saudi families. Saeed Salem al-Shaher, for example, received word his 20-year-old son Salem had died in Afghanistan during the US attack. Hundreds of friends and family in Asir province came to observe three days of mourning. But eight months later, Mr. Shaher learned that another son had received a letter from Salem via the Red Cross.

"I was happy he was alive but sad he was with the Americans in Cuba," he says. "I don't know what they're doing to him. In his last letter, 13 out of 29 lines were censored."

Graphic pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have caused Saudi families of Guantánamo detainees much anguish. Youssef al-Sulami has a brother at Guantánamo. "Abu Ghraib brought the pain of Yahya's detention to the forefront all over again," he says. "It feels like he was detained last week, not almost three years ago."

Mr. Sulami kept news of the Abu Ghraib scandal from his mother for weeks, hiding newspapers or not allowing them into the house. When his mother found one of the hidden papers and saw the photos, she just fell to the floor, he says.

His brother Yahya was 19 and had been married for two months when the US went into Afghanistan. Nightly news footage of the war there and the death of civilians consumed him. "Every night [Yahya] prayed for the victory of our Muslim brothers over the Americans," says Youssef. "Then one day he just left. He didn't tell us where he was going." He was arrested several months later in Pakistan. "We don't know if he'd even made it into Afghanistan," says his brother.

Badr al-Zahrani, a young teacher of the Koran, has a twin brother, Fawaz, who spent a year and a half at Guantanamo and has been jailed in Haer, near the Saudi capital, Riyadh, since May 2003. "The Americans used to spit on the Korans. Several times they urinated on some of our [Muslim] brothers," he reads from his transcriptions of talks with Fawaz. Badr has put his notes in a journal that he hopes to turn into a book one day.

Neither the men who were released, their families, nor the lawyers for the remaining 124 Saudis know why some were released and others remain at Guantánamo. Or why the Saudi government still holds the five sent back behind bars.

Officials have told the families that the five were sent by the US as a sort of trial case. "If the government releases the ones here, then the Americans might not release the rest," says Ali al-Omar, whose brother is also in Haer.

Fawaz recounted to his twin how, after months of detention in Afghanistan, they were flown blindfolded, hands and feet restrained, ears plugged, and r mouths covered, for what seemed to be days. When he landed he didn't know what continent he was on. "He thought it might be Africa or Asia, because there were a lot of trees and it was hot," he says.

"We're with the Americans in a country called Cuba," he later wrote. "Pray for me."

Unable to afford plane expenses, Badr makes a monthly nine-hour car trip to Riyadh to visit his brother. There he hears stories of mistreatment, but also of how the detainees prayed, memorized the Koran, and kept each other's spirits high. "They became very spiritual in Guantánamo. They all turned to God even more because there was no one else to turn to," says Badr.

Abdullah al-Qahtani says his brother Jaber, who worked with the Wafa charity group, was picked up while walking on the street. He heard he could get his brother released by paying money to his captors, and applied for government permission to travel to Pakistan. By the time he got it, his brother had been "sold" was on his way to Guantanamo, he says.

Juaid, the unofficial spokesman for the families in the Western mountain city of Tayef, has educated himself about international law. His conversation is filled with references to the Geneva Conventions, prisoners' rights, and the US constitution. He travels regularly to Riyadh and Jiddah to speak with officials and to the Abha and Mecca to meet and coordinate with families there. "This was something very new to us," he says. "Most of the families with sons in Guantanamo are simple and of limited income. They didn't know where to turn or who to talk to, and it took us a while to get organized."

Mr. Qahtani says that despite efforts by the lawyers and Saudi government, the case of the detainees had been stagnating for years. Now news of the Supreme Court ruling has given the families a much-needed push. "I'm so excited, I can't think or talk straight," he says. "This is the first good piece of news I've heard since Jaber was arrested. It's a victory from God. A victory for justice. Our prayers have been answered."

But Al-Juaid sounded a cautionary note as he traveled to his parents' house to tell them the good news. "This is the first step in a long journey," he says. "And I'm going to spend whatever time or money it takes till my brother comes home."

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