You would think, perhaps, with over 500 prisoners released from Guantánamo, that the remaining 263 might conform, in some way or another, to the administration’s long-standing description of them as the “worst of the worst” terrorists.
Sadly, for the administration’s credibility, this is clearly not the case, as the stories of three recently released prisoners demonstrate. I have already written about the first of these men, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, a joint Pakistani-Egyptian national, who was seized in Indonesia and rendered to Egypt for torture, based on nothing more than a comment he made to a group of Islamists who had befriended him in Jakarta.
In addition, the stories of the two Afghans released with Madni though involving slightly less brutality do nothing to justify the United States’ detention policies in the “War on Terror.” Instead, they serve to confirm, as I have demonstrated before, in my book The Guantánamo Files and in several articles in the last year (examples here and here), that the basis for seizing Afghans and sending them to Guantánamo was both misconceived from the outset and misapplied in practice.
It’s easy to forget that, in terms of the treatment of prisoners captured in wartime, Afghanistan was the precursor to Iraq, as the administration, ignoring all precedents, recklessly extended the definition of terrorism to prisoners who were defined as “enemy combatants” (or “security detainees” in Iraq), when they should have been held as enemy prisoners of war, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. In practice, this disturbing policy was further undermined by ineptitude, as it led to the imprisonment of a large number of innocent men who were either betrayed by opportunistic rivals or the United States’ own Afghan allies, or captured as a result of woefully poor intelligence, sometimes by indiscriminately rounding up large numbers of potential suspects.
In all cases, moreover, a robust screening process, which would have mitigated the worst effects of the above, was sacrificed in exchange for a belligerent insistence, on the part of those directing the United States’ military activities, that this was unnecessary. In contrast to all previous wars since the Second World War, in which battlefield tribunals were instigated (in accordance with the Geneva Conventions) so that witnesses could be called to identify those caught by mistake, no such procedure was enacted in Afghanistan.
Chris Mackey, the pseudonym of a military interrogator who worked in the Afghan prisons at Kandahar and Bagram that were used to process the prisoners for Guantánamo, wrote a book about his experiences, The Interrogators, in which he explained that those deciding what would happen to the prisoners (at Camp Doha in Kuwait) stipulated that every single Arab who ended up in U.S. custody was to be sent to Guantánamo.
Mackey also made it clear that, although only Afghans with “considerable intelligence value” were supposed to be sent to Guantánamo, it was not until June 2002, when around 600 detainees had already been transferred, that those in charge on the ground in Afghanistan came up with a category of temporary prisoners who could be held for 14 days without being assigned a number that entered the system overseen in Kuwait. It was, he explained, the only way that they could deal with at least some of the many innocent Afghans who ended up in their custody. As is demonstrated by the stories of the two Afghans just released, however, even this failed to stem the flow of wrongly detained Afghans who continued to be sent to Guantánamo until August 2003.
On Feb. 10, 2003, the day before Eid al-Adha (the Feast of Sacrifice, the biggest feast day in the Muslim calendar), the first of these men, Abdul Wahab, a 35-year-old farmer from the village of Lejay, in Helmand province, was traveling with six other people in a taxi that was stopped by U.S. soldiers. According to Abdul Wahab’s account, he was traveling to repay a debt owed by his brother, who had borrowed some money and had sold some donkeys to repay the debt.
To the Americans, however, who stated that they had been “viciously attacked” the day before by a 40-man pro-Taliban guerrilla unit led by Abdul Wahid, a local warlord, Abdul Wahab and at least 70 other men seized in the vicinity of Lejay were suspected of having been part of Wahid’s militia group. Most were released, but eight to 10 of the men including Wahab were flown to Guantánamo, where the U.S. authorities confidently claimed, in his tribunal, that he “suffered hearing loss when captured, which was caused by firing weapons,” that he “stated he used ‘klash-n-krors’ [Kalashnikovs] against U.S. personnel,” and that he “was captured at a checkpoint in the same type vehicle and clothing that was witnessed leaving the site of [an] ambush against U.S. forces.”
In the case of another of the men, Abdul Bagi (released in 2005 or 2006), the purported similarity of his clothing to that of the suspected insurgents was spelled out more explicitly. Bagi, it was claimed, was “apprehended wearing an olive drab green jacket consistent with the eyewitness accounts of the individual attacks.” For his part, Bagi was remarkable restrained in his response, stating simply, “The green jackets are in the shops, hundreds of them, everybody can buy them and wear them.”
Abdul Wahab also denied the allegations against him, which, in the case of the “klash-n-krors” allegation, had the taint of a confession produced under duress. He protested that he had not suffered hearing loss, had not raised arms against the U.S., and, like Abdul Bagi, was not wearing suspicious clothing at the time. “I am a poor man,” he told the tribunal. “I am innocent. I have nothing to do with Taliban [and] I have nothing to do with the al-Qaeda. I don’t know these people.”
He also denied another allegation that one of the men captured with him was “an intelligence supporter [sic] of the former Taliban chief of intelligence,” and that another was “a Taliban commander who was attending a meeting with other senior Taliban officials” saying that he did not know any of the people in the taxi, except a fellow villager.
It seems extremely unlikely, in fact, that any of those seized fulfilled the U.S. military’s presumption that they had captured anyone involved with the Taliban. All the men seized on that day except, inexplicably, a man called Kushky Yar, the uncle of Abdul Bagi, who was grabbed with his nephew in the street near their homes while heading to the bazaar to buy parts for a tractor have been released, as the grand claims made against them (which, again, had the ring of coercion) melted away.
Fifty-six–year old Alif Mohammed, for example, who was accused of orchestrating the attack using a satellite phone, said that he was just a poor tinsmith, and he pointed out that he would never have worked for Abdul Wahid because the warlord had killed his nephew and his nephew’s pregnant wife. In his tribunal, Abdul Bagi spoke in his defense, saying, “Alif Mohammed is a drug addict, and he is a very poor guy. The Taliban beat [him] too much because he is a drug addict and was close to killing him. How could he be their commander?”
Throughout his time in Guantánamo, Abdul Wahab maintained his innocence, frequently in the most heartfelt terms. “Whenever I eat here in the detention center,” he explained to his review board, “I am thinking about my children, what they have to eat. I wish you consider me as a normal person and send me home, please.” When asked what he would do if released, he said, “When I go home I will make some money to buy some food for my children if they are alive. If they [have not] died already.”
Although he did not speak much about his treatment in Guantánamo, he did make reference to a polygraph test, whose outcome, rather disturbingly, suggested that the administration was using the test solely in an effort to confirm guilt, and not to provide an opportunity for prisoners to prove their innocence. “When I passed [the test],” he explained, “the guy told me, ‘You [have passed the test by one] hundred percent and you are going home.’ I don’t know [if] the machine is lying or the guy who told me I passed everything [is] lying to me, I don’t know.”
The second Afghan, Mahbub Rahman, was born in 1985, according to the Pentagon’s own records, and was, therefore, either 17 or 18 years old at the time of his capture, sometime around August or September 2003. If he was 17, then his treatment directly contravenes the terms of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to which the U.S. is a signatory, which recognizes that juvenile prisoners defined as those accused of a crime that took place when they were under 18 years of age “are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities” and requires its signatories to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict.”
If Mahbub Rahman was a child soldier, in other words, the U.S. was supposed to promote his rehabilitation rather than hauling him off to Guantánamo, along with other, more well-known juveniles including Omar Khadr and Mohamed Jawad, who are both facing a trial by military commission, and Mohammed El-Gharani, a Saudi resident and citizen of Chad, who was just 14 when he was seized.
It transpires, however, that there was no proof that Rahman was a child soldier at all. Although he was accused of spying on American forces, shooting an Afghan soldier and two civilians, and being caught with two automatic rifles, he denied all the allegations, insisting that his only crime which had no impact on the United States whatsoever was to shoot, in self-defense, an enemy of his family who was threatening him with a gun and who had killed one of his brothers several years before. In a long and rambling story, he explained how, after the shooting, he had fled to the madrassa (religious school) at which he had been studying in Pakistan, and was captured after returning to Afghanistan to visit his family.
To complicate matters, three other prisoners were seized at the same time as Mahbub Rahman, although only one of these, Azimullah (who was released in April 2007), was also transferred to Guantánamo, where he too was ensnared in the “spying” allegation, which purportedly revolved around a plot to attack a U.S. base. He was also accused of being involved in a firefight with Afghan soldiers. Azimullah, who knew Mahbub Rahman because they studied at the same madrassa, also denied the allegations against him, explaining to his tribunal, “I was walking toward the village with my friend, and the Afghan soldiers were in there and they saw us and arrested us.” He said that he was not told why he was arrested at the time, but that “when they took me to the base they told me that I attacked them and that I did this and this.”
There is far more to this story than I can cover here (including, as an intriguing aside, the fact that Salim, the friend mentioned by Azimullah, was last heard of in Bagram, having somehow avoided the flight to Guantánamo), but what’s clear about the cases of Mahbub Rahman and Azimullah is that, even if the allegations about spying and being involved in a firefight with Afghan soldiers were true, these actions had nothing to do with terrorism, al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks.
Instead, their stories like those of hundreds of other Guantánamo prisoners serve only to demonstrate that there was no basis whatsoever for transferring them to a novel offshore prison devoted to endless interrogation and indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial, which was supposedly justified by the administration because it held the world’s most dangerous terrorists.
No Happy Ending
I wish I could say that this story has a happy ending, but since August 2007, when the U.S. military finished refurbishing a wing of Kabul’s main prison, Pol-i-Charki, the Afghans released from Guantánamo have not been freed on their return. They have been held in this new prison wing, known as the Afghan National Detention Facility (ANDF), where the demarcation lines between Afghan and U.S. control are far from clear.
Some of these men have subsequently been released following trials in Afghanistan, either because they were found to be innocent or they were judged guilty but freed because of time already served in Guantánamo, but it’s disturbing to note that these trials are regarded by outside observers as largely perfunctory affairs that have, shockingly, drawn on “evidence” provided by the U.S. authorities, even though that same information was used to clear them for release from Guantánamo. Such is the discomfort about the situation in Afghanistan itself that President Karzai recently formed a commission to look at the men’s cases. The commission approved further releases, but there is little about the process that would reassure an objective outsider that any of these men are finally receiving anything that resembles justice.