By Aref Mohammed
BASRA, Iraq, Feb 8 (Reuters) - When U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the closure of the Guantanamo prison camp, one poor Iraqi family thought it would soon get back its son.
But even after it found out that U.S. officials sent Hassan Abdul Hadi back to Iraq weeks ago, the whereabouts of the Shi‘ite Muslim from Iraq’s south, who somehow ended up being suspected by the Americans of terrorism, remains unknown.
"The last phone call we had with him, through the Red Cross, was in August. Since then, we haven’t gotten any word," said Abdul Hadi al-Jawhar, Hadi’s father.
The saga of Hadi, known by U.S authorities as Hassan Abdul Said, may be illustrative as the new U.S. administration tries to figure out what to do with around 250 terrorism suspects who remain at the detention centre in the U.S. naval base in Cuba.
What will happen to those detainees if they are sent home? Will many simply vanish into legal vacuums?
A U.S. defence official said Hadi and three other Iraqis being held at Guantanamo, deplored by rights groups and foreign governments as a violation of international legal standards, were handed over to Iraq’s Justice Ministry on Jan. 17.
Yet Bushu Ibrahim, Iraq’s deputy justice minister, told Reuters the ministry had no knowledge of the detainees. Extensive efforts to find someone in the defence and interior ministries who knew of their fate also proved fruitless.
Hadi’s path to Guantanamo began in August 1998, when he left his family’s home near Basra to join an Iraqi army unit up north. His family became worried when they didn’t hear from him.
"We asked about him extensively, but in vain. The last thing we heard was that he had gone into a mine field in Kurdish territory," his father told Reuters in a visit to his home.
"We are a poor family. Even putting a meal on the table is a battle. I certainly did not have the money to travel to find my missing son," he said, surrounded by threadbare furniture.
After Saddam Hussein was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, Hadi’s parents anxiously waited for news, hoping he had been held by autonomous Kurds and would be released.
No news emerged until April 2004, when a message arrived from Red Cross officials in Basra: Hadi was in Guantanamo Bay, established by the Bush administration to hold Taliban and al Qaeda suspects after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I couldn’t believe them. What the hell was he doing there?" Hadi’s father asked himself.
According to a Pentagon list released in 2006, Hassan Abdul Said, born in Basra in 1976, was detainee No. 435 at Guantanamo.
U.S. Defence Department documents allege he was part of the anti-Saddam resistance in Iraq and was later associated with the hardline Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan. The allegations could not be confirmed, and Hadi was never charged with a crime.
It is unusual for Iraqis of the Shi‘ite Muslim sect to join up with Sunni Islamist extremists like al Qaeda or the Taliban.
Mehdi al-Tamimi, head of Iraq’s human rights office in Basra, who has been following Hadi’s case, said he had no knowledge of him being returned to Iraq.
Shawn Nolan, a U.S. defense attorney representing another of the Iraqis transferred from Guantanamo, has been seeking news of his client, Abbas Habid Rumi al-Naely, too.
"The last time we saw him was in December. At that point, it seemed to us that it was close, that his release was pending," he said.
Some transfers of detainees from Guantanamo to their home countries are accompanied by "blackout" periods, but in this case, Nolan has been waiting for three weeks for news. "We’re very concerned about his well-being," he said.
Over the years, Hadi’s mother Attiya Abdul Qadir refused to accept he was dead. She even bought a wedding ring she hoped he would someday give his bride.
She remains resolute. "I want him back," she said. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Khalid al-Ansary, Aseel Kami, Waleed Ihrahim and Missy Ryan in Baghdad, Jane Sutton in Miami and David Morgan in Washington; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Michael Christie)