Bosnia seeks return of 6 detainees held by US in bomb plot
by Nicholas Wood, Sarajevo
Three years after six men were accused of plotting to blow up the US and British Embassies here, the Bosnian government is seeking their return. The six were handed over to US peacekeepers here and are being held at Guantánamo Bay, the American military base in Cuba. A court here in January 2002 dropped charges against the men for lack of evidence and ordered them released.
The men, all Algerians who claim Bosnian citizenship or residency, were immediately handed over to the peacekeepers by the Bosnian police and eventually taken to Guantánamo Bay. Like the rest of the detainees at Guantánamo, they have been classified by the United States as enemy combatants whose status is being examined by a military tribunal and the Defense Department. But unlike most of their fellow prisoners, they were not taken captive in conflict zones, like Afghanistan, and had been living in Bosnia for several years.
The men's continued detention has presented the Bosnian government with a difficult balancing act, officials here said. Under pressure from Parliament and human rights officials, the government has recently sought to find out more about the men's status and has taken recent steps to meet its legal obligations to defend four of them who hold Bosnian citizenship. At the same time, the government is also eager to appear as a strong ally to the United States and avoid the impression that Bosnia is providing a safe haven for Islamic extremists.
In July, a member of Bosnia's Justice Ministry, Amir Pilav, visited four of the men in Cuba. In a recent interview, he outlined the possibility that all six men could be returned to Bosnia and set free, or face trial on minor charges. He said all criminal proceedings against the men concerning the suspected plot to attack the embassies had been dropped in Bosnia, although two of the men, Saber Lahmer and Belkasim Ben Sayer, could face charges of having used false documents to apply for residency. The official report on the visit, and what possible action might now be pursued, will be discussed by the government next week.
Concerns over the presence of Islamists in Bosnia have existed since Muslim fighters from the Middle East and North Africa joined the Bosnian conflict from 1992 to 1995 to help Bosnia's Muslims. While many returned home after the war, others stayed on and in many cases married Bosnian women. Four of the six detainees have Bosnian wives.
Human rights observers and former Bosnian officials charge that the government has flouted its obligations to the men, partly as a result of UN pressure. Four of the group were stripped of their Bosnian citizenship when they were expelled from the country. A Bosnian court restored their citizenship. The former head of Bosnia's antiterrorist task force, Rasim Kadic, said in an interview that Bosnia has been unable to defend the men's interests properly for fear of angering the United States. The US Embassy here declined requests for an interview. The Bosnian government ‘had no way out,’ Kadic said. ‘We had to practically sign them away. The presence of US soldiers here is a guarantee for Bosnia for a long time to come, and we have to pay a price.’
This report appeared in The New York Times, 22 October 2004