The Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession
In another resounding demonstration of the importance of legally constituted checks and balances on executive power in the United States, the Associated Press, after filing a request to the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act, has secured 58 transcripts from the latest round of annual Administrative Review Boards at Guantánamo, convened to assess whether the detainees still pose a threat to the US, or if they are still presumed to have ongoing “intelligence value.”
This is just the latest in a series of important actions undertaken by the AP with regard to Guantánamo. Previously, the agency secured the right to reproduce 60 habeas petitions, and obtained the 517 Summaries of Evidence for the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs) held at Guantánamo. Used to assess whether the detainees had been correctly designated as “enemy combatants,” these documents were analyzed by Mark and Joshua Denbeaux of Seton Hall Law School to produce a ground-breaking report in February 2006, which demonstrated that, according to the government’s own allegations, only 8 percent of the detainees were accused of having any kind of affiliation with al-Qaeda, 55 percent were not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the US or its allies, and 86 percent were not captured by US forces, but by their Pakistan and Afghan allies, at a time when the Americans were making bounty payments, equivalent to an average worker’s lifetime salary, for the delivery of al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects.
Subsequent revelations have done little to suggest that even these lowly figures are reliable, and the recent testimony of Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who was involved in compiling the “evidence” for the Tribunals, has been particularly damaging to the government’s case. Abraham declared that the gathering of materials for use in the tribunals was severely flawed, and frequently consisted of intelligence “of a generalized nature – often outdated, often ‘generic,’ rarely specifically relating to the individual subjects of the CSRTs or to the circumstances related to those individuals’ status,” and concluded that the whole system was geared towards rubber-stamping the detainees’ prior designation as “enemy combatants.”
In spring 2006, the AP secured its greatest victory, after taking the government to court over its refusal to reveal the names and nationalities of the Guantánamo detainees, as well as 8,000 pages of transcripts from their CSRTs and the first round of ARBs. A treasure trove of information (though not necessarily in the way that Donald Rumsfeld had in mind when he declared, in December 2001, that the first prisoners captured crossing from Afghanistan to Pakistan “should be a treasure trove” of intelligence leads), these documents not only revealed – for the first time in four years, scandalously – who was actually held in Guantánamo, but also provided, through the transcripts, the first opportunity for the detainees to tell their stories to the world.
Although the tribunals and review boards were – and are – as monstrously illegal as the rest of the Guantánamo regime, with lawyers excluded from the hearings and decisions based largely on secret evidence obtained through torture, coercion and bribery, the information contained in the transcripts was so compelling that, when cross-referenced with the detainees’ names and arranged chronologically, it provided the basis for my forthcoming book The Guantánamo Files, which unveils the story of Guantánamo and the majority of its detainees for the first time.
The latest documents secured by the AP have just been released to the public by the Department of Defense, and it would, I think, be fair to say that they are the second most important set of documents relating to Guantánamo that have been released by the Pentagon (following the spring 2006 documents described above). As well as containing the 58 transcripts from the Second Round of the ARBs, the documents also include, for the first time, the ”evidence” – in the form of the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence so heavily criticized by Stephen Abraham – for all the Tribunals with the names of the detainees included (they were previously redacted), as well as all the Unclassified Summaries for both rounds of the ARBs. Also included are transcripts of the habeas corpus petitions of 179 detainees, and the whole set of documents is indexed so thoroughly that it appears, implausibly, to have been compiled as a testament to the importance of Freedom of Information legislation, with the aim of facilitating a greater understanding of Guantánamo and its detainees than has previously been possible.
These documents will provide lawyers, human rights activists and researchers with an invaluable base from which to gain at least a glimpse into the lives of the many dozens of detainees without legal representation, who have never taken part in any tribunals or review boards and whose stories were hitherto completely unknown. More crucially, perhaps, they will also enable critics of the regime to follow the ways in which additional allegations – produced under dubious circumstances in countless interrogations both at Guantánamo and in secret prisons – have mounted up against the detainees during the long years of their illegal imprisonment.
The only disappointment is that the documents relating to the decisions made by the review boards about whether to release detainees, or to continue to hold them, are so heavily redacted as to be all but useless, but even on this point other documents – the “Indexes to Transfer and Release Decisions” – provide invaluable, and previously concealed information about who has been released, and, more crucially, about the many dozens of detainees – at least 70, according to my first analysis – who have been cleared for release through the ARBs but are still held at Guantánamo because the US government cannot reach a satisfactory agreement with their home governments (as in the cases of the Yemenis), or is unwilling to return them to regimes where, ironically, after years of lawless and brutal detention in US custody, they face the prospect of torture or other ill-treatment. While information about who has been cleared is made available to individual detainees’ lawyers, the value of these documents is that they enable this information to be extended to those particularly vulnerable individuals without legal representation.
Of particular interest, for now, are the transcripts of the ARBs, especially as the AP trailed the release of the documents with a series of press releases over the weekend, picking out a few stories that contain important information. Chief amongst these is the transcript of the review board hearing of Mohammed al-Qahtani, one of several men presumed to be the intended “20th hijacker” on 9/11. Al-Qahtani’s story has been widely reported, particularly in 2005 when Time obtained a day-to-day transcript of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” to which he was subjected over a 50-day period from November 2002 to January 2003, when he was, amongst other things, interrogated and kept awake for 20 hours a day on most days, stripped naked, sexually humiliated, and forced to bark like a dog.
Although al-Qahtani’s lawyer reported in March 2006 that he had recanted his confession, the transcript of his ARB hearing is the first time that he has denied the 9/11 allegations in person, telling his review board, “this is the first statement I am making of my own free will and without coercion or under the threat of torture,” and stating, “I am a businessman, a peaceful man. I have no connection to terrorism, violence or fighters.” Refuting allegations that he admitted traveling to Afghanistan in 2001, that he attended a training camp, and that met Osama bin Laden and agreed to participate in a “martyr mission” for al-Qaeda, al-Qahtani said that the statements were not true and that he had only admitted to them while he was being “tortured” at Guantánamo, and included his allegations of torture in a statement that was read out to the board.
In other press releases over the weekend, Andrew O. Selsky and Ben Fox of the AP focused on the story of Ayman Batarfi, a Yemeni doctor caught up in the failed Tora Bora campaign, in November and December 2001, when the US military allowed Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and numerous other senior figures in al-Qaeda and the Taliban to escape across the unguarded Pakistani border. Explaining that he was not a terrorist but had been caught up with al-Qaeda in the Tora Bora mountains, Batarfi said that he met Osama bin Laden in the mountains, to explain to him that the defense of Tora Bora was a lost cause, because “Most of all the total guns in the Tora Bora area was 16 Kalashnikovs and there are 200 people.” He noted, however, that bin Laden “did not prepare himself for Tora Bora and to be frank he didn’t care about anyone but himself. He came for a day to visit the area and we talked to him and we wanted to leave this area. He said he didn’t know where to go himself and the second day he escaped and was gone.” Abandoned in the mountains, Batarfi said that he struggled to tend to the wounded and dying, who were overwhelmed by American air power. “I was out of medicine and I had a lot of casualties,” he explained. “I did a hand amputation by a knife and I did a finger amputation with scissors, and if someone was injured badly I was just operating on the table.”
Batarfi’s story is not widely known, although I was able to cover it in depth in my book because he has taken part in previous tribunals and review boards. As a result, I was more interested in uncovering the stories of other detainees whose voices had, until these documents were released, not been heard at all despite having spent over five and half years in US custody. Although these men are not strictly “ghost” prisoners – because their names and nationalities were released under duress last year, as opposed to the thousands of unknown, unrepresented and unreported prisoners held in Afghanistan, Iraq and other undisclosed locations – there is still something deeply disturbing about the fact that, after all this time, in which they have been held without charge or trial, in conditions of almost total isolation that would be difficult for even the most hardened of convicted criminals on the US mainland to endure, the voices of these men are being heard for the first time.
They include Hani al-Khalif, a former Saudi soldier, who served with US soldiers during the first Gulf War, who maintained that he had traveled to Afghanistan in the winter of 2000 to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance, and explained, “The Taliban government is the right side to belong to because the other side has come out of the Taliban which is wrong,” and another Saudi – who didn’t wish to be identified – who said that he “wanted to participate in jihad for religious purposes to help people in need of food distribution,” because this would “strengthen his relationship with God,” and described how he had made the decision “because of emotion, because I saw a picture of a little baby that had dirty clothes and her hair was not combed or cut.” He insisted that “his goal was to help for two months and then return home,” but said that on arrival in Afghanistan he was tricked into attending the al-Farouq camp (a camp for Arab recruits that was affiliated with al-Qaeda), where he was dismayed to discover that it was “a terrorist training camp with political motivations, not religious goals.”
Also included is the testimony of Hisham Sliti, a Tunisian client of the London-based legal charity Reprieve, which represents dozens of Guantánamo detainees. Clive Stafford Smith, Reprieve’s legal director, reported Sliti’s story in his book Bad Men: Guantánamo and the Secret Prisons, in which he portrayed an affable former drug addict, imprisoned for many years in prisons in Italy and Belgium, who reminisced at length about the quality of the European prisons compared to Guantánamo. “In Italy the prison was wide open for six hours a day,” he explained. “You could have anything in your room – I had a little fornello, a gas cooker. Can you imagine the Americans allowing that? Here, we call a plastic spoon a ‘Camp Delta Kalashnikov,’ as the soldiers think we’re going to attack them with it.” In the first hearing that Sliti deigned to attend, he lived up to Stafford Smith’s character sketch, explaining at length his various exploits in Europe, and telling the board that he only ended up in Afghanistan because he had begun attending mosques in Belgium, where the country had been portrayed as “a clean, uncorrupted country where he could study Sharia and further his religious education,” but that what he found instead was that “I didn’t care for the country. It was very hot, dusty and [the] women were ugly. The atmosphere and environment didn’t agree with me.”
Another first-time testimony is that of Ravil Mingazov, the last of eight Russians in Guantánamo, who, it turns out, was actually born in Tajikistan. A former soldier in the Russian army, Mingazov explained that, although he had been honored for excellent service early in his career, he subsequently converted to Islam and fell out of favor with the KGB to such an extent that he deserted the army, left his wife and family, and fled to Afghanistan with the help of members of the Taliban-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Refuting allegations that he trained at al-Farouq, he said that he had made up these stories while imprisoned at the US airbase in Bagram, and added that he had in fact fled from the IMU, traveling to Pakistan, where he stayed at a center run by the missionary organization Jamaat-al-Tablighi in Lahore. He explained that he was captured, with 16 other Guantánamo detainees, after moving to a guest house used by university students in Faisalabad, which was, unfortunately, owned – or otherwise connected to – the “high-value” al-Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah.
Sadly – given its undiluted focus on anti-American militancy – the only other first-time story, that of the Saudi Abdul Rahman al-Zahri, was the only one of the previously unheard voices picked up by the AP, which reported that he “proudly proclaimed himself a holy warrior and ‘an enemy of the United States.’” As the AP described it, al-Zahri “praised the Sept. 11 attacks and other terrorist strikes and said they were retaliation “for your criminal acts and your military invasion [of] the Islamic countries.” While this was a fair précis of his story – although it did not mention that he was not a member of al-Qaeda, stating instead that he would have been “honored” to have been chosen as a member – it was, as I have indicated above, unrepresentative of the majority of the stories reported in the transcripts.
On the sixth anniversary of 9/11, al-Zahri’s “confession” will no doubt assure some Americans that the Bush administration’s unprecedentedly lawless and brutal conduct over the last six years is justified, but I believe that what the majority of the documents reveal – both through some of the examples cited above, and through the many stories of wronged men betrayed by rivals or through false intelligence that are scattered throughout the transcripts – is exactly the opposite. From my particular perspective, as someone who has studied the stories of the detainees in depth for the last 18 months, the most heart-rending aspect of the transcripts is the confusion and despair shown by detainees who, year after year in their review boards, and often more frequently in their interrogations, have painstakingly repeated their stories ad nauseam, refuting wild and unsubstantiated allegations, and at a loss to understand why they, in particular, have been singled out for inclusion in a never-ending cycle of total isolation and evidence-free crimes. To give just one example, the Afghan Mohammed Zahir, a 54-year old teacher who had fled to Iran during the time of the Taliban, has been telling his captors, since he was seized in 2003, that he had returned to Afghanistan to serve the new government of Hamid Karzai by teaching in a secular school, but received threatening night letters from the Taliban, who betrayed him to the Americans. “You captured me because I am an Afghan or a Muslim,” he told his review board, “but I haven’t done anything. I was teaching the children under the tree.”
In conclusion, then, the release of these documents – which was perhaps contrived by the Pentagon to coincide with 9/11, in the hope that they would be conveniently brushed under the carpet – does not vindicate the government’s post-9/11 policy, when, as CIA director Cofer Black so memorably described it, “the gloves came off,” but hints rather at the true legacy of 9/11: torture, “disappearances” and a regime of secret prisons that should be anathema to those living in a country – the United States – that was founded on the rule of law, and that should only be able to regard itself unflinchingly as a beacon of civilized values if it returns to these foundations, insisting that those in charge of the country return to the rule of law that they have flouted so outrageously, with such damaging consequences for America’s reputation abroad, and a concomitant disregard for the rights of Americans themselves (as the hidden history of torture in the case of Jose Padilla recently showed).
In the reflected world in which America admires itself, the prisoners revealed in these transcripts should be charged with crimes and prosecuted in a recognized court of law, rather than being consigned to an extra-legal black hole, where men’s futures are dealt with in a paranoid and gullible atmosphere in which allegations obtained through torture, coercion or bribery are regarded as the truth, abuse is rife, and the presumption of innocence has been done away with completely. 9/11 was a crime – a monstrous crime – but it should not have provided an opportunity for the nation’s supposed defenders to embark on a counter-campaign that has ended up mocking the very values that it purported to defend.
ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (to be published by Pluto Press in October 2007).His website is: www.andyworthington.co.uk He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org