In the frantic aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, hundreds of men captured abroad were sent to the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they were held without access to lawyers and denied all other rights.
In time, the cases of three of the prisoners reached the Supreme Court and made history. Their challenges changed the legal landscape at Guantánamo and stripped the military and the White House of unchecked authority to detain people there.
We caught up with two of the men, one in a gray industrial town in central England where he grew up, the other a thousand miles away in the sun-splashed Riviera in France. The third is struggling in war-torn Yemen.
All three of the former prisoners were reunited with their families years ago and managed to build new lives despite the abuse they endured and the stigma of having been held at Guantánamo.
“It’s hard,” said Lakhdar Boumediene, who lost more than seven years in U.S. detention, where he was found to be unlawfully held. “They took my time, my family.”
Their stories still matter today. About 780 men and boys were taken to Guantánamo, all by the George W. Bush administration, beginning 21 years ago, on Jan. 11, 2002. Of them, 35 prisoners remain. Some still have court cases that challenge the legal limits of the war against terrorism and continue to shape its legacy.
Here are the accounts of two of the men whose cases prevailed at the Supreme Court.
His Case Gave Prisoners Access to Lawyers
Shafiq Rasul never saw a lawyer during his 800 days in U.S. detention, even though the case that bears his name gave detainees access to legal counsel.
By the time the justices ruled in Rasul v. Bush in June 2004, the United States had repatriated him to his native England with four other British citizens. The case went forward because other men on the petition were still being held at the island prison.
Today, Mr. Rasul, 45, lives with his wife, their two children and his widowed mother in the same rowhouse along Victoria Road in Tipton, England, where he was raised. Two of his brothers live with their families in adjoining houses in the former factory town of brick buildings and bygone canals.
A soft-spoken man, Mr. Rasul describes himself as a homebody who earns a living by servicing natural gas home heating systems for a locally based national firm.
“I just keep to myself and busy all the time,” he said.
His employers know he was held by the U.S. military, he said, and sometimes he thinks people recognize him as one of three Muslims from Tipton who were held at Guantánamo for two years without being charged. But no one discusses it anymore.
In his first years of freedom, he participated in a British docudrama, “The Road to Guantánamo,” which recounts the foolish journey he and three 20-something friends from central England undertook to Pakistan and then, out of curiosity, to Afghanistan.
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They arrived in Kandahar the day the U.S. bombings began in reprisal for the Sept. 11 attacks.
“It was just stupid,” he said. “Buses were moving to and from Afghanistan” and the four joined a journey from a mosque, he said, to see the work of the Taliban firsthand. One friend was separated from the group and vanished, long ago presumed dead in the bombings. “There was a lot of naïveté,” Mr. Rasul said.
The three of them tried to flee the fighting, but they were rounded up by Afghan militiamen allied with the Americans. By early 2002, they were discovered to be British citizens, handed over to American troops and airlifted to Guantánamo’s crude Camp X-Ray compound.
They were returned to England nearly three years later, and Mr. Rasul became one of the first former prisoners to campaign against the wartime prison.
Interest in his story took him far from home — to Berlin, Japan and back to Pakistan in 2005 to film a portion of the movie.
While he was there, he met his future wife, Kafia. Theirs was an arranged marriage. Finding a wife in England was hard. “When they heard you were in Guantánamo …” Mr. Rasul said, his voice trailing off.
They have two children, a daughter, Khadijah, 13, and a son, Zayd, 12, who view their father’s time in U.S. custody as something fleeting and mostly forgotten. It was only after their father dug out some letters he wrote to his mother from detention that they realized he had been held for years, and not the days that they had come to imagine.
His time in U.S. custody, Mr. Rasul said, made him more devout. “I don’t think I’d be as religious as I am now,” he said. “I didn’t see it as a prison. I saw it as a madrasa, a place to learn Islam.”
He learned to speak Arabic there and made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca seven years ago.
He also gained inner strength, he said, and survival skills after withstanding beatings and other abuses, and he returned home with a sense of duty to the men he left behind.
For a time, Mr. Rasul said, he had nightmares of the sounds of guards dragging shackles along the metal cell blocks at Camp Delta. But those plague him no longer. He has had no formal therapy, but he believes weeks of conversations that he and other prisoners had with Gareth Peirce, a human rights lawyer who documented their detention, had a therapeutic aspect.
It was during that period, back in England, when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in the case, which his mother had filed for him.
The decision would open the spigot to visits by hundreds of lawyers, most volunteers, and, in time, habeas corpus petitions by prisoners contesting their detentions.
By then, lawyers for the British prisoners were compiling accounts of their abuse for a lawsuit against senior U.S. military leaders. U.S. courts rejected the civil suit. But the British government paid out a multimillion-dollar settlement to 16 Guantánamo prisoners, including Mr. Rasul, who blamed British intelligence agents for some of their mistreatment.
Two years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Rasul, it dealt the Bush administration another blow in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan v. Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was then the secretary of defense. Mr. Hamdan was charged with war crimes for serving as Osama bin Laden’s driver and bodyguard in Afghanistan. But in June 2006, the court struck down as unconstitutional the military tribunal that was created at Guantánamo to try Mr. Hamdan.
The Bush administration crafted a new court, this time with the approval of Congress, and in 2008 a panel of U.S. military officers convicted Mr. Hamdan. But he was sentenced to a short term and, with time served, he was back in his native Yemen before Mr. Bush, whose administration he had challenged, left office. A higher court overturned that conviction in 2012.
Mr. Hamdan, now 54, was reunited with his wife and two daughters, one of whom was born after his capture, and his two sons, who were born after his return to Yemen, a nation devastated by civil war. We were unable to reach him.
His Case Gave Detainees Meaningful Court Review
In the years since Lakhdar Boumediene won his freedom, he has struggled to start over. He has done factory work and by his own account was nearly defeated trying to navigate France’s social welfare system to obtain respiratory care for his sickly newborn son. He has co-written a memoir and become a grandfather.
Today, Mr. Boumediene, 56, is an Uber driver on the French Riviera, shuttling tourists along the Mediterranean between Nice, Saint-Tropez and Monaco in a hybrid Peugeot sedan purchased with donations from people who heard his story.
On a good day, he is home by late afternoon with fruit from the market and a few euros for the Disney character banks of his youngest daughters, ages 8 and 10.
His son, Yousef, is now a healthy 12-year-old soccer enthusiast. Two older daughters born before Guantánamo both have children, and sometimes the entire family crams into his four-room, state-supported apartment in Carros, a hillside village north of Nice.
But between the hustle to make ends meet, he is still bewildered by the injustice of it all.
Mr. Boumediene, an Algerian, said he never trained with or joined Al Qaeda. Allegations that he was involved in a plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, Bosnia, proved unfounded. The Islamic Red Crescent had sent him there with his family to administer a charity for orphans, “over a thousand miles away from the battlefield in Afghanistan,” the U.S. judge who ordered his release noted.
Yet Bosnian authorities handed him and five others over to the U.S. military in 2002 for what became an odyssey of humiliation, hunger strikes and abuse.
“I lost seven and a half years,” he said on a weekday afternoon in winter, the Riviera’s slow season, as his youngest daughters spilled into the sitting room after school for hugs and kisses.
On this day, six of his children and grandchildren, who range in age from a toddler to a 27-year-old, supervised the little ones or played on the fringes of an interview with Mr. Boumediene and his wife, Abassia Bouadjmi, who stood by him throughout his time in prison.
“I would travel across the ocean for my husband,” she said of the distance Guantánamo put between them. When her husband was taken away, she and the girls returned to family in Algeria.
Then, under a resettlement agreement between the Obama administration and the French government, they were reunited in Paris. Mr. Boumediene was first taken to a military hospital to strengthen his frail body while his wife and his oldest daughters, Raja and Rahma, waited for him to be well enough to travel to the south of France, where his sister-in-law lived.
He spoke about his time at Guantánamo with a mix of bewilderment and indignation. He said his guards were trained to believe he was a terrorist and expressed interest in just three things — food, sports and sex. He began a hunger strike, he said, after seeing a guard siphoning off food rations intended for the prisoners.
For about two years, Mr. Boumediene refused to consume anything but a nutritional supplement, which at times was fed to him through a tube snaked up his nose and into his stomach, a common practice at the time at Guantánamo.
He was direct about what he thinks should happen now. He wants a letter of apology from the United States — and reparations.
On one level, he said, the landmark 2008 case Boumediene v. Bush means a federal judge can independently evaluate the U.S. military’s basis for holding an enemy combatant at Guantánamo. “But me, I am a person who represents this principle,” he said.
Then, he pulled out two artifacts from his time at Guantánamo. One was a copy of the ruling that, after the Supreme Court decision, ordered his release.
In it, Judge Richard Leon found that the Bush administration had insufficient evidence to hold him, a never-charged detainee, based on “so thin a reed” as an uncorroborated claim from an “unnamed source” that was included in a classified document.
The other was a white T-shirt he wore under his tan prison-issued uniform toward the end of his detention. After the judge ruled in his favor, he used prison art supplies to adorn it with a secret message.
It said: “Boumediene 2, Bush 0.”