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After incarceration

July 8, 2010

After much wrangling, Germany has agreed to accept two inmates from Guantanamo Bay. But what kind of life awaits them and others like them after years of detention in the highly controversial facility?

Barbed wire in foreground, guard tower in background
Outside the barbed wire, lifes go very different waysImage: AP

Of the 775 detainees held in Guantanamo since 2001, there are now fewer than 200 left, although by this stage, there should to all intents and purposes be none. Such was US President Barack Obama's plan. He wanted to shut the facility down at the start of this year, transferring some and releasing others of those still in it.

But that's not quite the way things have panned out, which is at least partially due to the fact that Europe has been rather lukewarm about accepting former prisoners.

Germany was offered three released detainees, but only accepted two because the third could not be ruled out as a possible threat to national security. Such concerns have been fuelled by reports of former inmates rejoining the fight against the West after their release from Cuba.

Last year two men liberated from Guantanamo in 2007, appeared on a jihadist website identifying themselves by their detainee numbers and reaffirming their dedication to the principles for which they were imprisoned in the first place.

Gunfire in the desert of Yemen
Yemen is off-limits for released prisoners from GuantanamoImage: AP

And they are apparently not the only ones to have rejoined the fight for what they believe in. According to a classified Pentagon assessment that was leaked at the beginning of this year, one in five detainees released from the military prison had either joined or was suspected of having joined militant groups.

Speaking at the time the information came to light, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell neither denied nor confirmed the statistics, but said detainee screening was an "inexact science".

"We are making subjective calls based upon judgment, intelligence," Morell said, conceding that there was a need for "a better accounting of detainees."

Semantic complexities

But German terrorism expert, Kai Hirschmann told Deutsche Welle that talking in terms of "militant groups" is a bit too simplistic and propagates the idea of 'them and us'.

"Many of the prisoners have a conservative world view which means they believe in an ideology, in the creation of a religious-political Islamic state the way they think it should be, but that does not necessarily mean the groups they belong to are militant."

A prisoner sits behind a fence
A prisoner at GuantanamoImage: AP

That said, he also stresses that it is logical for such prisoners to want to go back to what and where they came from. Far from rejecting their beliefs during their time in prison, the men -- often held for years without trial or conviction -- are likely to have cemented their commitment to them.

"When they come out they still have the same thoughts, the same view of the world as before and if violence was a part of it before Guantanamo, it will be a part of it afterwards as well."

Hirschmann says case-by-case analysis is essential in order to prevent detainees from immediately taking up arms upon liberation. Citing Yemen as an example, he said it would be foolhardy to send known Jihadists back to a country known for its burgeoning number of religious schools and partial clan-rule.

Concurrently President Barack Obama put a ban on repatriation to Yemen earlier this year.

The two faces of Europe

Yemen, however, is not the only place to which former detainees have been sent. Despite initial reluctance, dozens of countries across the world have extended a hand and provided the innocent with the chance to start over. Yet as Moazzam Begg, director of Cageprisoners, set up to raise awareness of the plight of Guantanamo detainees, told Deutsche Welle, returnees fare differently in different countries.

"Those who have come to Western Europe re-integrate back into society," Begg said. "Some have gone into education, some to human rights work, some to family, and the only problems they have are the psychological ones."

wall, fence, wire, guards
The facility was due to have been closed by nowImage: AP

Begg, himself a former prisoner of Guantanamo, is in touch with many former inmates and says that the 50 or so now in Western Europe, are doing well.

"We are a resilient bunch who contrary to what people may believe, have a lot to offer society," he said. "People in incarceration look at it like this: We were in prison for up to nine years, but before that we were free men, the older we were, the more familiar we were with freedom, and that is what people come back to. Everyone can relate to being a free person."

Yet the situation in Eastern Europe is not so good, and post-release liberty is not a given. Hungary, Bulgaria, Albania and Slovakia have all offered refuge, but it's a different kind of refuge. Most notably in the latter where three men were placed in a holding facility and treated like illegal immigrants with massive restrictions imposed on their movement.

After five months they started a hunger strike and one of the men went on record saying that the conditions were worse than at Guantanamo.

Through the intervention of Reprieve, another organization dedicated to helping former Guantanamo inmates, the situation has now been resolved. But it highlights the fact that life after controversial incarceration is not plain sailing.

Reporter: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Michael Knigge