Adel al-Gazzar is possibly the last person who deserves to go from the frying pan into the fire. After losing a decade of his life to the cruel exigencies of the war on terror, the 46-year-old returned to his native Egypt for the first time last week, only to be seized by security officers and flung into jail upon arrival. Al-Gazzar had languished in Guantanamo Bay for eight years before being released without charge. His story, says his U.S.-based lawyer, Ahmed Ghappour, is both a grim reminder of Washington’s many missteps in prosecuting its war against al-Qaeda as well as a warning for Egypt’s political future. “Mr. al-Gazzar is an innocent victim of the tragedy that is Guantanamo Bay — but also now a victim of the legacy of [ousted dictator Hosni] Mubarak,” Ghappour tells TIME.
Al-Gazzar’s ordeal began in 2001, when the religiously devout former accountant was among a group of almost a hundred other defendants facing a military tribunal in Egypt. Observers and rights activists claimed the trial was a sham, political theater on the part of the regime of Hosni Mubarak aimed at quashing legitimate Islamist dissent. At the time, al-Gazzar was already living abroad in Pakistan, where he worked with the Red Crescent charity. He was convicted in absentia for his supposed subversive political affiliations in 2002, but at that point it really didn’t matter. By then, he was already in Guantanamo.
The U.K.-based NGO Reprieve, which does advocacy on behalf of Guantanamo inmates, chronicles the sequence of nightmarish events that led to al-Gazzar’s detention in the early years of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan:
Desiring to ease [Afghan] suffering as best he could, Adel signed up with the Red Crescent and volunteered to go into Afghanistan to help the refugees. Within two hours of crossing the border to a refugee camp, the area was hit by a US airstrike.
Adel’s leg was injured and he spent the next month convalescing in a Pakistani hospital before being sold to the US military for a bounty. In the midst of his recovery, he was transferred to a US prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the routine included severe beatings, exposure to freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation for days on end, and the suspension of prisoners by their wrists. Adel endured this torture for eleven days before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay. He had received no medical attention during his time in Kandahar, and as a result, his leg was infected with gangrene so severe that it had to be amputated.
According to his lawyer, his injuries had been so grievous and poorly tended to that they required several different surgical procedures. All the while, U.S. officials at Guantanamo Bay interrogated him — and soon realized he was innocent. But because of the dangers of returning a supposed political dissident to a place like Mubarak’s Egypt, al-Gazzar was kept in limbo for eight long years at Guantanamo. He was eventually transferred to Slovakia in 2009.
This year, following the dramatic toppling of the Mubarak regime, al-Gazzar sounded out both government officials and family friends about the prospect of returning. The hated State Security Investigations Service which had pursued him in the Mubarak era — and tormented his family while he was in U.S. custody — had been scrapped in the wake of Mubarak’s ousting. Al-Gazzar was hopeful that a new political era for Egypt would mean a smooth return home. “Along with millions of other Egyptians,” says Ghappour, his U.S.-based lawyer, “he had a rekindled hope in the future of Egypt — one that included the rule of law.” But when he arrived in Cairo on June 13, he was greeted by more than just the family he had not seen in a decade. Police allowed him a fleeting, momentary reunion with his wife and children and whisked him off to jail, placing him under arrest for his bogus conviction in that Mubarak-era case.
He waits now in Cairo’s infamous Tora prison, the historical abode of political prisoners in the Mubarak years. Ghappour fears his client may endure the same arbitrary and extended detention countless ordinary Egyptians suffered during the three decades of Mubarak’s rule. His arrest comes amid growing fears that the revolution in Egypt has gone sour — thousands have been swept up in similarly dubious circumstances by the interim military-led government, while press freedoms have been clamped down on by the state, with journalists routinely getting arrested or brought in for questioning. What happens next for al-Gazzar may be a bellwether for Egypt’s political future. There are numerous other Egyptians with Islamist leanings living abroad watching his ordeal closely. But for him, after a decade of torment and injustice, his struggle is far more personal. “He has an amazing amount of resolve,” says Ghappour. “All he wants to do is be with his family.”