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VIII. Cairo to Kabul to Guantanamo: the `Abd al-Salam al-Hila case

`Abd al-Salam `Ali al-Hila, a Yemeni businessman, arrived in Cairo on an EgyptAir flight, Friday, September 19, 2002, checking in the Semiramis Intercontinental, a five-star hotel overlooking the capital’s Tahrir Square.119 He came to Cairo to meet with his Egyptian business associates. Al-Hila disappeared within a week of his arrival in Egypt. According to his brother, `Abd al-Wahab al-Hila, he is believed to have been taken first to Baku, Azerbaijan, and he was then transferred to U.S. custody in Afghanistan. After being held for some sixteen months in Afghanistan, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he is still being held. No charges have been filed against him.

When al-Hila arrived in Cairo, according to his brother, he had a busy schedule of meetings. He managed a pharmaceutical firm in Yemen, and also served as a representative of Arab Contractors Co., Egypt’s biggest construction company, in Sanaa.

Commerce wasn’t al-Hila’s only vocation. The father of three was also a Yemeni intelligence colonel, who was in charge of the “Arab Afghan file.” The Yemeni government had welcomed hundreds and possibly a thousand or more “Arab Afghans” (Arabs who had gone to Afghanistan to join the fight against Soviet-backed government in the 1980s) volunteering to fight the Marxist secessionist rebels in the South during the country’s 1994 civil war. In addition to these foreign “Arab Afghans,” an estimated 30,000 Yemenis also went to Afghanistan; many of them also assisted the Yemeni government upon their return.

After the civil war ended, some volunteers settled down, intermarried with Yemenis, and, by and large, refrained from politics. Others continued to be active in militant politics, seeking a safe haven in Yemen’s hard-to-control border areas with Saudi Arabia. Many others left the country for other destinations.

Al-Hila was the intelligence officer in charge of transferring scores of Arab Islamists from Yemen to other countries, including Western Europe, to seek asylum. His position meant that he had a close relationship with Yemeni President `Ali `Abdullah Saleh, as well as with a broad array with Arab and Western intelligence services, and members of the militant groups themselves.120

Those familiar with the Islamist scene in Yemen say his knowledge of the Islamists’ exodus out of his country made him a valuable source of information for the CIA. Islamists deny his involvement with al-Qaeda, or any armed group, but say he helped thousands to leave the country. According to press reports, an Egyptian militant in Yemen told Egyptian intelligence agents that al-Hila had ties to al-Qaeda operatives. Other reports said that Egyptian intelligence had recorded conversations al-Hila had with Islamist associates in 2000 and 2001 that may have referred to planned attacks.121 This information may have then been passed on to U.S. intelligence, and prompted his apprehension on arrival in Egypt.122

Al-Hila’s trip to Cairo, however, was supposed to be strictly business. He was invited by the Arab Contractors’ head office in Cairo to settle some financial disagreements over his construction business commission, according to his 30-year-old brother `Abd al-Wahab.123 Al-Hila was in a regular daily contact with his family, using both his Yemeni and Cairo cellular phones. On September 24, his family became worried after he did not answer their calls for the whole day.124

“`Abd al-Salam phoned us on the following day to say he had been invited to a meeting with ‘some people,’” his brother recalled. Al-Hila told his brother nervously that, “the atmosphere is cloudy and dark over here,” but did not elaborate further. This was to be his last phone conversation from Cairo with his family. Members of his family kept on calling him on the days following, but he didn’t answer. His two mobile phones were switched off three days later.125

The family subsequently contacted the Egyptian embassy in Sana'a to try to get some information on his whereabouts. They also made requests to the Yemeni president and the foreign ministry to lobby the Egyptian government on their behalf, assuming he was detained in Cairo.

`Abd al-Wahab insisted that his brother was not involved in any armed activities against the Egyptian government. He is not sure why his brother was kidnapped, but says “they talked in the press about his role with the Arab Afghans during [Yemen’s civil] war.”

Yemeni officials called upon their Egyptian counterparts to disclose the whereabouts of al-Hila. The Yemeni ministerial cabinet issued a statement on October 31, 2002, implying he was still detained in Egypt.126 The statement called upon Egyptian officials to disclose al-Hila’s whereabouts in spirit of the “brotherly” ties between the two countries.

The first Egyptian official response to the allegations came on November 3, 2002, in a report by the state-run Middle East News Agency, which quoted an “Egyptian official source” as stating that al-Hila left Cairo on an American flight to Baku on September 28, 2002. The source also denied any involvement by the Egyptian authorities in his “disappearance.”127

The family received no specific information from the Egyptian or Yemeni governments on `Abd al-Salam’s allegedly voluntary flight to Baku. They were told by the Yemeni foreign minister in November 2002 that Egyptian officials showed him the “departure card” each passenger fills out when flying out of Cairo Airport. `Abd al-Wahab, his brother, asked the ministry for a copy of the departure card, but when Human Rights Watch interviewed him in December 2004 he had yet to receive one. Ahmad Sinidar, a Yemeni interior ministry official, told a reporter that “the Egyptians are the ones who know how he disappeared, and how he ended up abroad.”128

Al-Hila’s fate was unknown for more than a year and a half. During that time, his family had no information on him whatsoever: his whereabouts, which government was holding him and why, and his conditions of detention were all unknown. Finally, on April 14, 2004, Yemeni foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi announced that the Yemeni embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, had received a letter from al-Hila smuggled out of Bagram Airbase in Kabul, Afghanistan. His brief letter, dated January 12, 2004, stated that he had been detained by the CIA in Afghanistan for 16 months, after being kidnapped in Cairo by Egyptian intelligence.129

The full letter was published by the Yemeni state-owned daily 26 September, on April 25, 2004:

His Excellency, the Ambassador of the Yemeni Republic,

My brother, Mr. Ambassador, I—`Abd al-Salam `Ali al-Hila—am writing to you from my solitary confinement cell in Afghanistan. I was imprisoned by the Afghanis, but I am in the CIA custody, together with a Yemeni brother in another cell. He is a merchant, who was arrested in Thailand and brought to Afghanistan. There are also seven other Arabs [detained here].

My brother, Mr. Ambassador, I am writing this letter from a dark prison. I don’t know why I am in jail. I am a businessman with a good reputation, who did a lot for this country. … My brother, Mr. Ambassador, I am writing to you asking for help from God and the president of the [Yemeni] republic… I have been put in jail in Afghanistan by the Americans, after I was arrested in the Arab Republic of Egypt during a brief business trip. The CIA conspired with the Egyptian mukhabarat, making false allegations and threats against me, so as to justify their crime of kidnapping me from Egypt and locking me up in this Afghani prison. I did not know I was in Afghanistan except after four months of incarceration. My brother, Mr. President, I am in prison though I am not guilty. You, concerned state officials, and the Americans know well I am not involved in any events related to the Americans or non-Americans; nor do I have any relations with [terrorist] organizations. My only crime is that the Americans wanted information from me, but couldn’t find any, so I was left in Afghani prisons. My last interrogation was a year ago. The Americans cannot imprison me in America because they know I am not a criminal, and imprisoning me will be against their country’s laws, and all other godly as well as ungodly laws. However, they [Americans] are violating these [laws] outside their country, and still claim they protect human rights.

My brother, Mr. President, I don’t know what the Americans and the Egyptians told you about me, [but] I urge you to request my immediate release and my safe transfer home. If they accuse me of anything, then the minimum rights of any accused [include] standing trial in court. Thus, I ask you to lobby the Americans and the Egyptians, who handed me over [to the Americans], to bring me home. And if they accuse me of anything, then they could confront me with it in my country, in a public, fair, civilian court.

My father, the President, I am writing this letter to you, and wait, together with another Yemeni merchant by the name Amin al-Yafi`i. … We hope we will not be unjustly forgotten in prisons! Only God knows how [bad] my situation is! Please take care of my mother, children, brothers, and my trade.

This letter was written on 12 Dhu'l-Qa'dah 1424 Hijri—12/1/2004 AD… I hope from my brother, Mr. Ambassador, to devote attention to the matter and convey my message to the president of the Republic.

In July 2004, al-Hila’s family received a letter from Kabul via the Red Cross dated May 26, 2004. This was the first communication that they had received from him since he had been detained a year-and-a-half earlier. Two months later, they received another letter, dated July 19—this time from Guantanamo. This letter did not mention any details about his arrest or prison conditions. Instead, his letter was full of queries about the family.

In December 2004, the family received another two letters dated October 15 and October 30. Besides the greetings and good health wishes, al-Hila wrote in the October 15 letter, “I was moved to the new prison, from Afghanistan to Cuba, Guantanamo….” The rest of the sentence was blacked out by a U.S. military censor. As of this writing, al-Hila is believed to be still in detention in Guantanamo.

[119] Human Rights Watch interview with `Abd al-Wahab al-Hila, December 2004. An earlier version of this presentation of `Abd al-Salam al-Hila’s case was released as a separate briefing paper in March 2005 [ ].

[120] Human Rights Watch interview with Yasser al-Sirri, London, July 2003; Muhammad al-Shafi`i, “Zawahiri’s Secret Papers, Part Seven,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 19, 2002; `Abd al-Salam `Abd al-Salam Tahir, “Aborted Kidnapping Attempt of an Egyptian Embassy Employee Follows a Chase in Sanaa Streets,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 17, 2003.

[121] Megan P. Stack, “A Yemeni reportedly jailed by Egypt in 2002 apparently has been in covert American military custody since, without legal recourse,” Los Angeles Times (March 30, 2005).

[122] Human Rights Watch interview with Yasser al-Sirri, London, June 2004; Human Rights Watch phone interview with Yasser al-Sirri, December 2004; Muhammad al-Shafi`i, “Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Secret Papers, Part 7,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 19, 2002; Interview with Nabil al-Hila, Middle East Transparent, July 22, 2004.

[123] Human Rights Watch interview with `Abd al-Wahab al-Hila, December 2004.

[124] Ibid.

[125] Human Rights Watch interview with `Abd al-Wahab al-Hila, December 2004.

[126] Khalid Mahmud, “The Disappeared Yemeni Left Cairo to Azerbaijan on an American Flight, Egyptian Official Confirms,” Al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 4, 2002.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Megan P. Stack, “A Yemeni reportedly jailed by Egypt in 2002 apparently has been in covert American military custody since, without legal recourse,” Los Angeles Times (March 30, 2005).

[129] HOOD public statement, “Al-Hila is in Kabul,” April 27, 2004.  HOOD is a Yemen-based independent Islamist human rights organization.

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