The Anonymous Victims of Guantánamo

Hot on the heels of the release of Mohammed al-Amin, a Mauritanian student who was just a teenager when he was kidnapped for a bounty payment on a street in Pakistan over five years ago, the Pentagon has released another eight detainees — six Afghans, a Libyan and a Yemeni — thinning “the worst of the worst” at Guantánamo from 778 men to just 335.

Of the six Afghans released, the identities of three are unknown. This is hardly surprising, as the Department of Defense never reveals the names of those it releases, and the media long ago abandoned turning up in Kabul to welcome back another bunch of farmers, shopkeepers and Taliban conscripts from their brutal and surreal sojourn in a small corner of Cuba that is forever America. Of the 163 Afghans released since Guantánamo opened (out of a total of 218), a dozen of those released in the last few years have not been identified, and these three look like remaining just as anonymous.

To compensate, however, the three Afghans who have been identified represent a microcosmic cross-section of the ineptitude of the US military and the Pentagon during the two years that followed the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, consisting of a pro-US, anti-Taliban military leader, another man who was arrested after his house was bombed, and another who was seized while walking in the street.

The pro-US military leader — one of several dozen actively pro-American Afghans held at Guantánamo over the years — is Sabar Lal Melma. 40 years old at the time of his capture, Melma was the military aide to Haji Roohullah, the commander of a long-standing anti-Taliban militia based in Kunar province, which was aligned with the Northern Alliance. Roohullah, who was also described by Ghulam Ullah, the head of education in Kunar, as “a national religious leader,” had fired the first salvo against the Taliban in Kunar after the US-led invasion, and as a result of his anti-Taliban credentials and his support for Hamid Karzai, he was rewarded with an important position in the province’s post-Taliban administration, and was also made a member of the Loya Jirga, the prestigious gathering of tribal leaders that elected Karzai as President in June 2002. Betrayed by a rival ­ probably Malik Zarin, the head of the rival Mushwani tribe, who had ingratiated himself with the Americans and was using them for his own ends ­ Roohullah, Melma and eleven others were seized by US forces in August 2002 and taken to the US prison in Bagram airbase for questioning, where they were accused of being part of an Islamic extremist group and helping al-Qaeda fighters to escape from Tora Bora, even though they had had numerous meetings with senior American officials and had offered support for the Tora Bora campaign.

Although the others were subsequently released, the Americans decided that both Roohullah and Melma had sufficient intelligence value to be transferred to Guantánamo in August 2003. According to an Associated Press report, they believed, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Roohullah “had strong links with Middle Eastern fighters in Afghanistan, particularly Saudi Arabians like Osama bin Laden,” and thought it significant that he was a follower of the Wahhabi sect of Islam. In his tribunal, Melma pointed out the injustice of imprisoning him with members of the Taliban: “The only thing I want to tell you that is so ironic here is that I see a Talib and then I see myself here too, I am in the same spot as a Talib. I see those people on an everyday basis, they are cursing at me … They say, ‘See, you got what you deserved, you are here, too.'” Astonishingly, though Melma has now been released, Haji Roohullah remains in Guantánamo, with no immediate prospect of release.

The man who was taken to Guantánamo because his house was bombed is Mohibullah, from Uruzgan province, who was just 21 when he was captured. Woken in the night by the sound of firing, he went into his compound and fired three warning shots into the air to ward off what he thought were burglars. Soon after, an American plane dropped a bomb on his compound, injuring him, and he was captured by Special Forces the following morning. “I never worked with the Taliban, or talked with them or ate with them,” he told his tribunal at Guantánamo. “I was a bus driver.” Two years ago, in an attempt to secure his freedom, he wrote a habeas corpus petition, without the help of a lawyer, in which he explained more about the circumstances of his capture, noting that he was severely injured when his house was destroyed, but that when the Americans, who admitted that the bombing might have been a mistake, took him away, claiming that they were going to treat his wounds, he was transported to Guantánamo instead. “Now it has been two and one-half years that I have been detained here and I do not why,” Mohibullah wrote. “Even the interrogators have still not told me what my crime was and why they detained me.”

The third Afghan — the one who was captured in the street — is Azimullah. Just 20 years old at the time, he explained to his tribunal in Guantánamo that he was captured near a madrassa (religious school), where he was studying. He was accused of acting “as a guide to a group of individuals attacking the Salerno Fire Base” (a US base), but he said that he didn’t know anything about this group, or about allegations that they had “weapons, surveillance equipment (cameras and binoculars) and radios,” or that he “met with an Arab man and an Afghan man who gave him money prior to the attack.” Asked about the circumstances of his arrest, he said that he was walking towards the village with a man named Salim, whom he did not know previously, but whom he had met “on the way going to the village,” when a group of Afghan soldiers “saw us and arrested us.” He explained that he was not told why he was arrested at the time, but that “when they took me to the base,” where he was handed over to the US military, “they told me that I attacked them and that I did this and this.”

The story of the released Libyan, Abu Sufian Hamouda, is rather more complicated. Hamouda, who is 48 years old, was a refugee from his homeland. According to the US military’s “evidence,” accumulated over the last five years, he had served in the Libyan army as a tank driver from 1979 to 1990, but was “arrested and jailed on multiple occasions for drug and alcohol offenses.” Having apparently escaped from prison in 1992, he fled to Sudan, where he worked as a truck driver. In an attempt to beef up the evidence against him, the Department of Defense alleged that the company he worked for, the Wadi al-Aqiq company, was “owned by Osama bin Laden,” and also attempted to claim that he joined the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a militant group opposed to the rule of Colonel Gaddafi, even while admitting that an unidentified “al-Qaeda/LIFG facilitator” had described him as “a noncommittal LIFG member who received no training.”

After relocating to Pakistan, Hamouda apparently stayed there until the summer of 2001, when he and a friend crossed the border into Afghanistan, traveling to Jalalabad and then to Kabul, where Hamouda found a job working as an accountant for Abdul Aziz al-Matrafi, the director of al-Wafa, a Saudi charity which provided humanitarian aid to Afghans, but which was regarded by the US authorities as a front for al-Qaeda. Over the years, dozens of Guantanamo detainees were tarred as terrorists because of their associations with al-Wafa. The majority have now been released, but one of those who remains in Guantánamo, little-known and barely reported, is al-Matrafi, who was kidnapped on a flight from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia in November 2001.

It’s difficult to ascertain whether there is any truth in the allegations that al-Wafa was a front for al-Qaeda. According to the “evidence” against Hamouda, “Members of the Taliban would frequently visit the al-Wafa office in Kabul and had dealings with the director of that office,” which was hardly surprising, as the Taliban was the government at the time. Less clear is the claim that, according to various accounts, including a statement allegedly made by Hamouda, “the director of the al-Wafa office was connected to al-Qaeda and knew Osama bin Laden.” Even setting aside the dubious circumstances under which this “confession” was produced, other detainees have claimed that bin Laden was actually suspicious of al-Wafa, because of its Saudi links.

What’s apparent, however, is that Hamouda’s involvement with the organization centered on its humanitarian work, as another “allegation,” which actually had nothing to do with terrorism, made clear. In the “evidence” presented for his Combatant Status Review Tribunal, under factors purporting to demonstrate that he “supported military operations against the United States or its coalition partners,” it was stated that, while working for al-Wafa, he traveled to Kunduz “to oversee the distribution of rice that was being guarded by four to five armed guards.” In Guantánamo, it seems, even the distribution rice can be regarded as a component in a military operation.

Captured in Islamabad, after fleeing from Afghanistan following the US-led invasion, Hamouda was held for a month by the Pakistani authorities, and was then handed over to the Americans, who began mining him for the flimsy “evidence” of terrorist activities outlined above. Earlier this year, he was cleared for release, and, despite misgivings on the part of his lawyers, stated that he was prepared to return to Libya, even though what awaits him may not be any better than what he was suffered over the last five years. Perhaps, as one of Guantánamo’s truly lost men, he has decided that, if he is to spend the rest of his life in prison for no apparent reason, he would rather be in Libya, where his wife and his family might be able to see him, than in Guantánamo, where, like every other detainee, he was more isolated from his relatives than even the deadliest convicted mass murderer on the US mainland.

The last of the eight, Ali Mohammed Nasir Mohammed, was 19 years old when he was seized by Pakistani soldiers and delivered to the US military in December 2001. Slightly evasive in his tribunal, he said that he went to Afghanistan to “look around to see how the people were doing,” and added, “In my imagination I thought I was going to see many centers with a lot of guards in them and I would see a lot of Muslims. I would find out how the Muslims were worshipping and what they do.” He admitted, however, that he attended a training camp for 40-45 days and also admitted that he had worked for the Taliban, although he said that he had worked only in the kitchens or as a guard behind the front lines, and had not participated in military operations against the US-led coalition, telling his tribunal, “I have never shot one bullet in my life.” After escaping from Afghanistan by passing through the Tora Bora region to reach Pakistan, he was captured by Pakistani soldiers after asking directions to the Yemeni embassy.

What makes his story unusual is that, once the Pentagon had decided that it was not worth holding onto a cook for the Taliban who clearly knew nothing about al-Qaeda, confusion over his identity prevented his release for 16 months. Back in May 2006, as the Washington Post described it four months ago, “He got a checkup. His photo was taken, as were his fingerprints. He was measured for clothes and shoes, then offered a meeting with the Red Cross. As the Pentagon tersely put it later in an e-mail to his attorneys: ‘Your client has been approved to leave Guantánamo.'” However, as his lawyer, Martha Rayner, explained, “He never went home.” “Stuck,” as the Post article went on, “in a limbo of mistaken identities, bureaucratic inertia and official neglect,” his case was “an indictment of a system, still cloaked in the strictest secrecy and largely beyond accountability, in which a man who face[d] no charge and no sentence remain[ed] deprived of the freedom he was granted” in May 2006. “It’s a lovely illustration of what happens when there’s no oversight of the jailer,” Rayner noted, acutely.

The Washington Post article went on to describe what had happened to prevent Mohammed’s release for 16 months. Although he was born in Saudi Arabia and had been living there before his all-advised trip to Afghanistan, he was regarded as a Yemeni, under both Yemeni and Saudi law, because his parents are from the Yemen, where they still live, and Mohammed had a Yemeni passport and grew up there. What particular confused matters was the fact that the US military regarded Mohammed as a Saudi, and while the Saudi authorities washed their hands of him, and the Yemeni government said that it was “unaware of his case,” he languished in Guantánamo for another 16 months, imprisoned in Camp Six, where even cleared detainees are held in solitary confinement, until a new arrangement could be made.

As these eight men finally leave Guantánamo after five years or more in US custody without charge or trial, their cases clearly do nothing to salvage the administration’s reputation for illegal incompetence. And it can only get worse. Of the 335 detainees still held in Guantánamo, the government has admitted that it only intends to put forward around 80 for trial by Military Commission. Of the remaining 255, at least 70, like the men just released, have been cleared for release (some for two years or more), and despite the administration’s blustering this summer that it intended to hold dozens of others indefinitely because, in another revolutionary legal twist, they are too dangerous to be released, but not dangerous enough to be charged, it now seems inevitable that they too will eventually be given their freedom. Even if the 80 proposed trials go ahead, which is extremely unlikely, it must surely be impossible for the architects of this disaster to claim that an 11% success rate is sufficient justification for the moral, ethical, judicial, and financial cost of an operation that has been manifestly revealed not as the triumphant prison wing of the “War on Terror” but as an inept, cruel, degrading and ultimately failed experiment.

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).
He can be reached at: andy@andyworthington.co.uk


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ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British journalist, the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (published by Pluto Press), and the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the new Guantánamo documentary, ‘Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo.’ Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk He can be reached at: andy@andyworthington.co.uk        WORDS THAT STICK ?  

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