Belgium: Possible Extradition of Nizar Trabelsi to the United State : Another Act of War?

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Since the 6 May 2010, when the Belgian coalition government collapsed and new federal elections were announced (these took place on 13 June, but negotiations for a new coalition government are still ongoing), government ministries are responding only to 'current affairs' with all major policy decisions placed on hold. In the case of the demand made by the United States federal judge Alan Kaye for the extradition of Nizar Trabelsi issued on 16 November 2007, three years of legal interventions by his lawyers, Fernande Motte-Deraedt, Marc Neve and Chantal Morreau, have failed to convince the Belgian authorities to refuse the American's extradition request. The final decision is now in the hands of the justice minister in Belgium's temporary government, the Christian-democrat Stefan Declerck. While Declerck continues to negotiate with his American counterpart, it seems likely that he will rule that the issue of Trabelsi does not fall under the remit of 'current affairs'. While Trabelsi continues his anxious wait in a prison cell in Ittre, is seems most likely that Declerck will pass his case on to the new justice minister in the new government, when it is eventually formed.

In fact, the minister is correct in his decision not to treat the extradition as a 'current affairs' issue. For it is a decision that not only throws into stark relief the Belgian government's alliance and submission to the Americans in the " war on terror " in Afghanistan, but also the whole nature of anti-terror legislation in Belgium, as well as the silence of peace movements, and movements for democratic accountability in Belgium, concerning all these questions.

The extradition dilemma

The final advice of the Courts to the justice minister issued in June 2010 is that it has no objection against the extradition of Trabelsi to the US. This advice came despite of the arguments of the defence which pleaded mainly on the basis of three arguments. First, Trabelsi's present status (he has applied for political asylum in Belgium) forbids his extradition while the asylum application is pending. Second, the extradition request makes no new allegations against him, as the only accusations are ones for which he has already been tried and sentenced for in Belgium. Third, Trabelsi remains at real risk of torture and inhuman treatment in the US, where such treatment has become official policy since 9/11 in their war on terror.

When the Belgian courts acceptance of the US extradition request became public in Belgium, their was no public outcry. This was mainly because public opinion wants to get rid of this " foreign terrorist ", and is happy to accept US-offered guarantees that not only would Trabelsi not suffer the death penalty but that he would appear before a federal and not a military court. On the value of American guarantees, it is worth reading 'America's non-compliance', a text written by British lawyer and writer Gareth Peirce who argues that American guarantees when it comes to t the war on terror are worthless .

The Belgian Court put forward three conditions to justify its positive advice. One was that Trabelsi should not be sentenced to the death penalty. The two other two conditions have been kept secret. Speculation would suggest that one of these secret conditions relates to the possible sentence for Trabelsi (even as the death penalty was ruled out). If extradited, tried and condemned in the US, will the final sentence and prison conditions be acceptable for European (human rights) norms? On Thursday 29 April 2010, a Brussels law court, examined this question in a final and extraordinary session. In a letter, dated 11 November 2009, which reflects on the sentence that will eventually be handed down to Trabelsi, the American ministry of justice is in no doubt that, if found guilty, Trabelsi will be sentenced to, quote, : " two times life without parole ". The Belgian justice system is well aware that this could be the tipping point for a European Human Rights Court. In a press release issued by the European Court of Human Rights on July 6 2010 , which concerned a possible life sentence for four British terrorism suspects if extradited to the US, the Court stated that it needed answers to a number of questions before it could finally rule in this case. The central question posed by the European Court is identical to that posed by the case of Trabelsi: given the length of the sentences faced by the suspects, would the time spent in a supermax prison, amount to the violation of Article 3 (of the European convention of Human Rights)?

There is another scenario that could be put forward, one which is not countenanced in the letter of the American ministry of justice of 11 November 2009. And that is, even if Trabelsi is not convicted in an American court, there remains a very real possibility that he would not be released, as he will still be considered a " security threat " to the US. And, as such, he could be held in indefinite custody, just as it happened in the case of dozens of " enemy combatants " in Guantanamo. Another option would be to render him to Tunisia, the country of his birth.

Sentenced or acquitted in the US, if the Belgian courts accept the extradition request, they are effectively condemning Trabelsi to social death. More than a decision based on the will to seek justice, the extradition of Trabelsi will be a new act in a decade long "war on terror". To be prepared for every eventuality, in December 2009, a procedure was introduced by Trabelsi's lawyers at the European Court in Strasbourg aimed at preventing Trabelsi's extradition, should the justice minister rule in its favour.

The arrest of the 'Ben Laden lieutenant'…

This month, Nizar Trabelsi, former international football star, who had played in the past in the national team of Tunisia, signed a contract for Standard in Belgium when he was 19, and afterwards joined the German Bundesliga's first division Fortuna Dusseldorf, will be forty years old. On that date, he will have spent nearly one quarter of his life in a Belgian prison cell. After a personal and professional crisis, Trabelsi, at the end of the 1990s, converted to a form of political Islam. In September 2000, he went to Pakistan and, from there, to Afghanistan, where he helped to construct mosques and wells with the money he had earned as a football player. Whilst in Afghanistan, he was approached to enter a military training camp. According to his own confession, made after his arrest, he came back from the training camp with " the will to become a martyr " and a mental plan to commit an attack against the military base of Kleine Brogel, a base in Belgium used to store nuclear weapons on behalf of the American military. Later, before the court, he would declare that he decided to abandon the plan before any preparation or beginning of execution was made .

Trabelsi eventually returned to Belgium in July 2001. On 11 September 2001, planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. Immediately, the whole western world prepared its response. On 13 September, barely a day after 9/11, and a day before the Day of Mourning declared in all EU countries for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, the Belgian police arrested Nizar Trabelsi in his apartment in Uccle, a commune in Brussels. The police services did not have to track him down or search for him, nor did they fully understand for why they had to arrest him. Trabelsi was a public figure and for his arrest all they had to do was to ring the bell of his apartment and thereupon place him in handcuffs. Which proves that all Trabelsi's movements, ever since his departure and sojourn in Afghanistan, until his return to an apartment in Brussels, were perfectly well-known to the Belgian and other security services, like the ones of the Netherlands?

This is not to say that Belgium has no right and duty to intervene and prevent an attack against a military base on its soil. Although one cannot help but mention in passing that there has been a long wait, a wait that has stretched over decades, for an urgent intervention by the judiciary and the police against the existence of a base the presence of which on Belgium soil is steeped in illegality. For it is a well-known public fact, vaguely confirmed by different ministers of defence, that the existence of this Belgian American Nato base in a dense populated area, is shrouded in secrecy and was established in the total absence of any parliamentary control. And that in violation of Article 2 of the Non proliferation treaty for nuclear weapons , the base holds 10 to 20 nuclear missiles on its grounds.

The lightning-arrest of Trabelsi, a day after 9/11, rather than an urgent judiciary intervention to prevent an imminent attack on the military basis, was apparently needed in order to send a political signal. If the Belgian authorities really wanted to mount a case against Trabelsi, all they had to do was to investigate, follow his moves and monitor his contacts. All they now had to go on were his so-called 'intentions', as no real beginnings to the plot or attempts to execute it had been made. Despite his confessions, no one will ever know what was really in the mind of Trabelsi.

The arrest of Trabelsi at the moment chosen was the start of a case that would be blown out of all proportions for political use. The case became symbolic of the Bin Laden threat against the West, symbolic of the vigilance of the West, and later it would be used as one of the justifications for anti-terror laws, alerts, arrests or berufsverbot for his 'sympathisers' and now probably for extradition.

…and its political benefit

One has to know that Belgium not only hosts the Nato headquarters and the capital of the EU, but at the moment of the 9/11 attacks, Belgium also assumed the presidency of the Minister Council of the European Union. The President of the Council, Guy Verhofstadt, was at the same time the Belgian prime minister. Strange separation of executive and judiciary powers, it was Verhofstadt himself who ordered the arrest of Trabelsi: " The day after the 11 September attacks, Guy Verhofstadt, Belgian prime minister orders his immediate arrest. " The arrest expressed the European firmness and boosted the confidence of the public opinion: an emissary of Osama Bin Laden had been arrested in the capital of Europe, one who was preparing a suicide attack; his arrest prevented a 9/11-WTC-American scenario in Belgium (and the capital of Europe).That Trabelsi didn't even started his project and did not have the necessary professionalism or the network or the contacts to carry out a 9/11 attack was not important.

The arrest of Trabelsi was also a political gift for the Americans

While no tangible proof was and still is not forthcoming to prove the theory that the New York attackers were the masterwork of Bin Laden, with Trabelsi it was different. The man arrested a day after 9/11 very quickly, openly and without any attempt at constraint acknowledged to the investigating officer, the intentions that he harboured: from his contact with Bin Laden, and his endless admiration of him, all the way up to his plan to commit the attack. And so he was a welcome gift in the preparations and justification of the 7 October 2001 Operation Enduring Freedom to destroy Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, that started four weeks after the 9/11 attacks. His confession ensured that from the very first day, different foreign police services and in particular the Americans took a significant interest in the case of the imprisoned ' Bin Laden lieutenant': Not more than two weeks after his arrest, the Americans asked and received a copy of Trabelsi's file . American investigators came to Belgium and had numerous interrogations of Trabelsi. They tried to convince him to engage himself into a formal (and paid) collaboration. The Americans were particularly keen to find the identity of the Kleine Brogel 'mole', the one who had passed on to him the detailed plan of the military base. Trabelsi refused the collaboration and the extradition demand seems to have been the answer of the Americans to his non-cooperation.

Trabelsi, for his part, loyal to his reputation as an international football star, in the beginning readily and complacently assumed the role of iconic Islamic radical. But Trabelsi's personality has obviously none of the pure or hard characteristics attributed to an 'Al Qaeda warrior'. First of all, in general, well-known public figures such as Trabelsi are not known to be the ones who carry out the terrorist attacks. Trabelsi has no past history of militancy. He hasn't done harm to anyone, not even hurt a fly, not in Belgium, nor elsewhere in the world. If there was a plan, it seemed to be more the expression of a desperate will to do something spectacular then something strategically planned. In his declarations to the press he stated that " he loved everybody, except the American military ". When in prison, in statements issued to the media, he maintained that after his release he will keep himself busy with his family and that he has no intention to hurt anyone. These statements, added to the fact that he actually did nothing, his personal history … didn't move the Belgian justice to consider his case with a certain clemency. The conviction of Trabelsi had more to do with the condemnation of 9/11 then with a reasonable sentencing of Trabelsi's intentions.

The maximum punishment in Belgium, Tunisia and the United States

After spending two years in preventive detention, Trabelsi was sentenced, in 2003, during a mass trial of 23 " islamists ", (this mixed different cases, like that of the Belgian participation in the murder of Afghan commander Massoud) to the maximum punishment in Belgium 'for planning a terrorist attack' of ten years in prison. Belgium was not alone in condemning Trabelsi. Tunisia and the United States would follow. Because Trabelsi has Tunisian nationality, his case came before a military tribunal in Tunisia in January 2005, which condemned him in his absence to 20 years in prison for 'involvement in a foreign terrorist organisation in a time of peace'. In April 2006, the case was dealt with by the Federal Grand Jury, Washington D.C. (district of Colombia) in the United States. This court charged him with 'membership in an association of wrongdoers dedicated to the assassination of American citizens, utilising weapons of mass destruction, and related equipment, and membership of a Foreign Terrorist Organisation '(in this case Al Qaida). Following this, the United States demanded his extradition. Membership of an association of wrongdoers dedicated to carrying out terrorist attacks is punishable in the United States with the maximum penalty of life imprisonment - in Trabelsi's case two times life imprisonment, without possibility of parole. The related charge of membership of a terrorist organisation is punishable by fifteen years in prison, in this case two terms. On November 19 2008, the Council Chamber of Nivelles decided to rush towards his extradition.

From footballer to punching ball

Due to his 'terrorist' status, every session of every court that his considered his case has been transformed into a military barracks, with Trabelsi brought in shackled and blindfolded. Some sessions were declared open only to his family and lawyers and on the demand of the prosecutor the public were prohibited from attending. Trabelsi has been subjected to the most severe incarceration regime imaginable in Belgium. First, he has been constantly transferred from one prison to another: from Lantin, to Arlon, to Ittre, to Nivelles, to Bruges and back. Then, he has been regularly locked up, not as a disciplinary measure but for 'administrative' reasons, in a 'special individual security regime' in the prisons, or in a special 'maximum security unit' in two Belgian prisons. These special units are to be found in the prison of Lantin, the Block U, and in the prison of Bruges, the AIBV (section for particular security measures for individuals). This regime of isolation for Trabelsi was established on the orders of the prison system's highest authorities. It was established against all medical advice - even against the advice of some prison directors. In 2007 a psychiatrist writes on Trabelsi's condition: " During my last interview, Mr. Trabelsi reported recent complaints: asthenia, trouble with concentration and therefore amnesiac retention, discouragement, helplessness, clinophilie ... suggesting depressive symptoms he already presented at the previous prison. More troubling, though criticized, are his visual and auditory hallucinations that probably are signs of a long term semi sensorial deprivation, especially as Mr. Trabelsi is still fragile..Consequently, I think it would be against the interests of his long term health to keep him in a special security regime ". His special security regime was also established in the face of his hunger strikes as well as the repeated legal interventions of lawyers. An example of this individual security regime is provided by a letter dated December 2008, from the head of the Belgian prisons, Hans Meurisse, to a prison director, where he argues in favour of a special regime and measures for Trabelsi as follows:

"Concerning Trabelsi, there is a constant threat to the security and the order within the facility and it is therefore necessary to place the person in a particular, individual security system to minimize the risks ... It should be noted that the risk of proselytism is elevated, particularly given the population of the facility which is predominantly Muslim and who is looking up to him.

The measures are : prohibition to take part in communal activities ; access to individual yard once a day ; no contact with the public writer ; no classes or work ; no sport or body training facilities; no activity on section ; shower once a day, alone to avoid contact with other inmates ; systematic control of the incoming and outgoing correspondence ; containment of visits to a room with a transparent separation wall between the prisoner and the visitors ; partial deprivation of the use of telephone ; systematic application of the clothing search; observation day and night, while respecting the maximum night rest ; compulsory stay in the assigned living area". In 2009, when Trabelsi is transferred from the special security unit in Bruges to the prison in Lantin, the same head of the penitentiary institutions orders his incarceration in the high security unit for exactly the same reasons as mentioned in 2008: " On his arrival at Lantin, Trabelsi was subjected to two special individual safety measures to observe his attitude in his new residence and to adjust the detention regime that would eventually follow. These two measures have proved to be useful to limit the security threat in the prison, but insufficient on the long term given the elements described above (risk of proselytism, rumours of plans for escape). These measures are not sufficient to guarantee the security within the prison ... A particular individual solitary confinement is necessary... "

For nine years, following his conviction for terrorism, Trabelsi has been denied every possibility to benefit of sentence reduction provided by the law. At the end of 2005, Trabelsi could officially apply for a conditional liberation. Refused. Similarly, the demand for political asylum in Belgium, made in the same year, was refused. He hasn't been granted a single day of holidays from prison. Trabelsi has proved to be the dream punching ball for anti-terrorism specialists. Thanks to him, the authorities could declare a terrorist alert during several months. As the world was set to celebrate the New Year in 2007 with fireworks, Brussels became the only town in Europe to forbid fireworks on the grounds of the 'terrorist menace'. It supposedly transpired that Trabelsi was planning to " escape from the prison in Arlon ". He was subsequently transferred from Arlon to Lantin. Parliamentary questions about the seriousness of this anti-terrorist operation were never responded to and Trabelsi was not even questioned let alone charged in relation to these allegations. In November 2008, he was transferred from the prison at Nivelles to the one at Ittre, following rumours that he was " planning to escape from Nivelles ". Concerning his evasion plans and the special security regime that was imposed to Trabelsi a prison director writes in a report, contradicting word by word the arguments of the anti-terror specialists and the chief of the penitentiary institutions : " Rumours on his plans to escape (always denied by the concerned) ran late 2007. But nothing material or probing ever appeared in this sense…To my knowledge, no objective evidence would suggest that there is a particular risk of him trying to escape from the execution of his prison sentence during his detention…I think he would have too much to lose to take such a risk.. For the acts of terrorism as such, I observe a peaceful behaviour in prison, an absence of proselytism and a discourse of regret over the danger he exposed.. " . In December 2008, he was transferred from Ittre to Bruges, because he was supposedly " running the Belgium branch of Al Qaida from inside the prison ". When Ashraf Sekkak escaped from Bruges prison in July 2009 by helicopter, Trabelsi, who could be found at that moment in the Bloc U at Lantin, was linked to this case and several weeks later " some razor blades were found in the proximity of his cell ". His transfer to Bruges followed immediately and his isolation was again reinforced. Except for members of his family, no individual has been allowed to visit Trabelsi since August 2009.

Violence and counter-violence

When the United States demanded his extradition in 2008, I decided to pay Trabelsi a visit at the prison at Latin. These visits are governed according to the rules, with an official request to visit, following by screening, issue of a visitor's permit, searches and a guard at the door during each visit. In the articles of the journalist Claude Demelenne, MR senator Destexhe and Nadia Geerts (the trio who have organised in Francophone Belgium a campaign against the 'Islamo-Leftists'), they are suggesting that I have made 'dubious links' with the 'terrorist Nizar Trabelsi.', and, because of these links, the withdrawal of my license as a teacher in prisons in August 2009 for reasons of security (a decision based on secret evidence) was 'justified and normal'. Therefore, the case of Trabelsi, it would seem, provides the authorities with an opportunity to initiate a 'work ban' on all those who pay him a visit.

In relation to my 'dubious links' with Trabelsi, I would like to offer the following observations

Firstly, while this is not a view that is openly expressed, the discussion on Trabelsi takes place against a backcloth of a dominant imagery, that draws from the war in Afghanistan, of 'monsters and barbarians' and of a dehumanisation of our enemies. To draw attention to this detail is not insignificant as it ensures that it is precisely this imagery that prevents us from seeing that the man in shackles, sporting a religious beard, the one that you see time and time again in the photographs in your newspaper is a man, just like you and me.

In fact, alongside his imposing athletic physique, there lies an exceptionally gentle character. And this is not just my view, but something that the psychiatrists, the guards at the prisons and those within the legal apparatus, have confirmed. Trabelsi has also acquired an exceptional reputation amongst his fellow detainees. This is only in order to 'proselytize', the authorities argue. On one of those rare occasions that he was not isolated in the special security unit, a Belgian sentenced to life imprisonment occupied the neighbouring cell. I did not hear this story from Trabelsi himself, but from a lawyer. This man was severely depressed, he would not leave his cell, not even to take a smoke, and he hardly ever washed and barely ate. It was Trabelsi who raised his morale. The man told his lawyer: 'If ever I am given the right to leave this prison, it will be Trabelsi who I go back to visit first'.

The prisoner whom I met on my visits to Lantin was, after nine years imprisonment, physically - and above all psychologically - a wounded man. Trabelsi is a very emotional person. He speaks a lot about death, above all of the death of children. Some say it became an obsession. On one occasion that I paid him a visit, he brought with him a collection of newspaper cuttings that he had put together over the years. The vast majority of the newspaper articles and the photographs related to children assassinated during the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. 'Palestine, Palestine': more than Afghanistan or Iraq it was always Palestine that his mind returned to. He pulled out a photograph of a Palestinian child, the head only, without a body. 'If ever I write a book, that photograph must be the image on the very first page', he insisted, while I asked him if he really thought that this would be the best selling argument for his book. Each time the media mentions the cases of children who disappeared or are murdered, he sends the parents a message of support. When he was in the prison at Ittre, there was a rumour that he wanted to undertake something against Dutroux, the famous Belgian child kidnapper and killer. Some might say that this was him posing and constructing a new persona. Personally, I don't think this is the case. One cannot take a 'pose' after almost a decade in detention. I have known many criminals during my time teaching in prisons. It happens that to start with I could be naive and be deceived by someone, but generally my perceptions of an individual have proved correct over a period of time. In saying these things about Trabelsi, it is not my intention to make a martyr out of him, or a source of inspiration or an innocent victim. But I do want to challenge the clichéd framework around which any discussion of the 'international terrorist Trabelsi' is constructed. It is precisely these clichés that prevent us from seeing that there are really important questions that his case raises, questions that haven't even been considered. Trabelsi was a talented and famous international footballer, a man whose preoccupation, until he was twenty five years old, was to make a successful career and lots of money. He was not at all interested in religion, let alone in political violence. What was it that brought him to go to Afghanistan? How did it come about that, once in Afghanistan, he gave away nearly all his money to humanitarian causes? And, then, next, to return to Belgium to carry out a terrorist attack?
Naomi Klein asks much the same question when she writes on the aborted bomb attacks that took place in London in 2005. In her article 'Terror's Greatest Recruitment Tool' (11 August 2005), she writes: 'La Republica mentioned that Hussain Osman, a man suspected of having participated in the attempted bomb attacks in London on the 21 July' [he was arrested in Rome on the 29 July 2005] 'had told the Italian investigators that they planned the attacks 'after watching films about the war in Iraq'. Above all, these were films which showed 'women and children murdered by British and American soldiers... where the widows, the mothers, the daughters are in tears'. In addition 'Osman expressed the view that it is our tolerance of this barbarism, carried out in our name, which feeds terrorism'.
For myself, I have no answer to the questions raised by the case of Nizar Trabelsi. But the point is that these questions haven't even been asked in Belgium. My 'dubious links' with Trabelsi consist of encouraging him to write his story - to devote himself to this during all those weeks in isolation. We have not been able to finish this work because since his transfer from Lantin to Bruges in August 2009, I was first withdrawn from the list of visitors and shortly after I was banned from access to all prisons in Belgium.

Death sentence or asylum

Belgium has been implicated in the American war against Afghanistan for nearly as long as Trabelsi has been in prison. After nearly ten years of war, the American-led alliance is losing the war and the Taliban is stronger than ever. Trabelsi is the type of person that our soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan. His trial, his possible extradition, his isolation for many years, is not examples of proportionate justice but relate more to the inevitable consequences of this war. Belgium, and those for whom it is fighting in Afghanistan, notably the US, is too involved, they are stakeholders in the war in Afghanistan - as such they cannot be expected to judge Trabelsi outside this political situation of war. It is clear that the harsh treatment of Trabelsi and his eventual extradition is adding fuel to the fire and are an invitation for creating more potential terrorists and more violence. Another way is possible. The first thing to say in the Trabelsi case is that Belgian engagement in the war in Afghanistan must be stopped. A sign that a conflict will be stopped and that there is a will to go the way to peace has always been about the release of prisoners and former combatants. A first sign of showing a will for peace can be the refusal of the extradition request from the US. Instead we could start a dialogue with the likes of Trabelsi, and all the others that are grouped under the common sensational denominators of 'the kamikaze network for Iraq of Muriel Degauque' or 'the Afghan channels of Malika al Arud'. The British managed to successfully negotiate the end of the conflict in the North of Ireland with the IRA and Sinn Fein and solve the question of the political prisoners as a first and central step. Why are our governments continuing to publicly proclaim that they refuse to talk with the Afghan resistance to the US-led occupation, and their sympathisers? Why do we continue to impose the roughest incarceration regime on the prisoners we take?
On the other hand, the case of Trabelsi is perhaps another occasion to pick up the thread of an old European tradition. The French President Mitterrand gave political asylum in France in 1985 to some members of the Italian Red Brigades on the condition they laid down their arms. The Brazilian President made the same choice in 2009 in relation to Cesare Battisi of the Armed Proletariat for Communism (PAC), who was subject to an extradition request from Italy following the issue of a life sentence for four murders. What is it that prevents Belgium from doing the same for Trabelsi, who didn't commit anything but having a plan?

By Luk Vervaet, a teacher in prisons

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