For the five Afghans who returned home on the
same flight as al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj and the other three prisoners
described in my previous
article, the future is disturbingly uncertain. As I reported
last December, when 13 of their compatriots were released from Guantánamo,
they, like the other 19 Afghans released in August, September and November,
were not freed outright, as was the case with the 152 other Afghans previously
released, but were instead transferred to Block D, a wing of Pol-i-Charki, Kabul's
main prison, which was recently refurbished by the U.S. authorities.
While some of these 32 men have subsequently been released from Pol-i-Charki,
the whole story of U.S. involvement in the prison is deeply disturbing, as are
reports that the "trials" of the men returned from Guantánamo
are "closed-door" affairs, in which, as the Washington
Post explained last month, "they are often denied access to defense
attorneys," and are, essentially, tried on the basis of "evidence"
provided by the United States, which they are not allowed to see; in other words,
exactly the same situation that they faced in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals
at Guantánamo (the military reviews convened to assess the prisoners'
status as "enemy combatants," in which military officers took the
place of lawyers, and secret evidence was withheld from the prisoners).
As Mohammed Afzal Mullahkeil, a lawyer for the returned Afghan prisoners explained,
"When they were sent from Guantánamo, they were told, ‘You are innocent
and you will be free once you're in your country.' When they got to Bagram,
they just brought them to Block D and said they should have a second trial."
In common with previous Afghan releases, the identities of the five men have
been difficult to establish. The Pentagon never discloses the names of those
it frees, and although lawyers representing the prisoners are informed of their
clients' departure, the identities of those who did not have legal representation
– either because they refused to do so, or had not found any way of establishing
contact with the legal community – remain unknown unless the media are present
on their arrival (which has not happened in Afghanistan for many years), or
until further investigation by lawyers or journalists turn up details of their
Shortly after the men were released, the identities of only two of the five
Afghans had been established, but over the weekend Sami al-Haj gave the names
of the other three men, all of whom have now been positively identified. As
with those described above, their stories reveal, yet again, the wholesale mockery
of justice that defines the regime at Guantánamo: outright failures of
intelligence, the presumption of guilt, the refusal to seek out witnesses to
back up the prisoners' stories, and a willingness to accept confessions from
other prisoners as the truth, regardless of how it was obtained, and with no
attempt made to investigate the veracity of the claims.
Haji Rohullah Wakil, a celebrated anti-Taliban commander
Of the two Afghans identified, by far the most
significant is 46-year-old Haji Rohullah Wakil (also identified as Haji Roohullah),
a tribal leader in Afghanistan's Kunar province, whose opposition to the Taliban
was such that he fired the first salvo against the Taliban in Kunar after the
U.S.-led invasion in October 2001. As a result of his anti-Taliban credentials
and his support for Hamid Karzai, Wakil 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. His influence was such that Ghulam Ullah, the head
of education in Kunar, described him as "a national religious leader."
Seized by U.S. forces in August 2002, with his military commander Sabar Lal
and eleven others, Wakil was taken to the U.S. prison in Bagram airbase for
questioning. Although the others were subsequently released, the Americans decided
that both Wakil and Lal had sufficient intelligence value to be transferred
to Guantánamo in August 2003. According to an Associated Press report,
they believed that Wakil "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,
even though both Wakil and Lal had had numerous meetings with senior American
officials and had offered support for the campaign to oust al-Qaeda and the
Taliban from the Tora Bora mountains in November and December 2001.
The outline of Wakil's story has been reported before – both in my book The
Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal
Prison, and in an article
I wrote last October, when his military commander, Sabar Lal, was released from
Guantánamo – but it still appears to be a disturbing example of the incompetence
of American military intelligence in Afghanistan, as the primary charge against
Wakil – that he provided sanctuary to a number of significant al-Qaeda operatives
who had fled from the city of Jalalabad after it fell to the Northern Alliance
on November 12, 2001 – was so utterly at odds with his proven track record as
an anti-Taliban tribal leader who was part of the Northern Alliance and supported
While the full story of Haji Rohullah Wakil deserves more in-depth treatment
than I can supply at present, there appear to be only two possible explanations
for his capture: either that he did in fact aid the al-Qaeda members because
he was working as a double
agent, or that he was betrayed
by a rival. Personally, I find the second explanation rather less far-fetched,
particularly as so many other Afghan prisoners in Guantánamo – at least
two dozen, including Abdul
Razzaq Hekmati, who died in Guantánamo in December without being
given the opportunity to clear his name – were actively opposed to the Taliban,
but were betrayed by rivals who had gained the trust of the Americans.
According to this second version of events, Wakil was probably betrayed by
Malik Zarin, the head of the rival Mushwani tribe, who had ingratiated himself
with the Americans and was using them for his own ends. Although Wakil himself
did not name names in Guantánamo, Sabar Lal, who was finally freed from
Pol-i-Charki in February, to return to his wife and five children, had no doubt
that he had been betrayed. Speaking to the Washington Post last month,
he made it clear that he "was turned over to US forces by Afghans seeking
revenge for his arrest of Taliban fighters near the Pakistani border."
At Guantánamo, Lal had been even more forthright, explaining to his
tribunal 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.'"
Abdullah Mohammed Khan and his dubious friendship
The story of the second Afghan, Abdullah Mohammed
Khan, a 36-year old ethnic Uzbek, shifts the focus from Afghanistan to Pakistan,
and appears to be another example of dubious intelligence on the part of the
Pakistani and American authorities. A former mujahid against the Russians, Khan,
mentioned briefly in my book, but otherwise unknown, was arrested in Peshawar,
in 2001, at the house of a Syrian acquaintance called Musa, who, according to
the U.S. authorities, was an al-Qaeda suspect identified as Abd al-Hamid al-Suri.
Khan denied knowing anything about any connection that Musa might have had
with al-Qaeda, saying that all he knew was that he came to Pakistan from Turkey
with his family for medical treatment on his feet, which were "in very
bad condition." He also denied knowing anything about a CD containing explosives-making
manuals that was apparently discovered in Musa's house. Released after being
questioned by a Pakistani and an American, he was arrested a second time in
January 2002, when traces of explosives were allegedly found on his fingers.
Again, he denied the allegation, saying, "I never touched any kind of explosives
after the Russians [left]," but this time he was seized and sent to Guantánamo,
on what, it appears, was little more than a whim.
At his Administrative Review Board in Guantánamo (the successors to
the tribunals, convened to assess whether the prisoners were still a threat
to the US, or had ongoing intelligence value), Khan ran up against a litany
of allegations made by other prisoners, which are shockingly prevalent in the
transcripts of the hearings, even though there is no indication of the circumstances
under which the "confessions" were elicited, and, moreover, no attempt
was made to verify whether or not they were true.
When faced with these allegations, Khan duly denied a claim that "an al-Qaeda
detainee" had identified him in a photo as Abdul Latif al-Turki, explaining
that this was the name of the person who had provided him with a false Turkish
passport to enter Pakistan, and adding that he was always known by his real
name, and that "if you really showed somebody my picture and they told
you my name is Abdul ... he was lying." He also denied a similar allegation
from "A Libyan Islamic Fighting Group member," who identified him
as "al-Turki" and said that he saw him several times at the al-Ansar
guest house in Pakistan, and an allegation from an Iraqi detainee who had apparently
identified him in a photo and said that he had seen him at a guest house on
the Taliban front lines in Kabul in 1999 or 2000.
On this point, his response was particularly revealing, as any detailed research
into Guantánamo reveals that several prisoners – an Iraqi and a Yemeni
are regularly cited – have spread false allegations against other prisoners.
Most startlingly, this came to light in 2006, when, in an article for the National
Journal, Corine Hegland told the story of an unnamed but principled
Personal Representative for a young Yemeni prisoner, Farouq Saif (known to the
Pentagon as Farouq Ali Ahmed), at his tribunal. This officer – assigned to Saif
in place of a lawyer, and under no obligation to make a stand on his behalf
– was so shocked at the vehemence with which Saif denied an allegation that
he had been seen at Osama bin Laden's personal airport that he went back to
his file and discovered that the allegation had been made by another prisoner,
who had been specifically identified by the FBI as a liar.
In another case reported
by Hegland, another Personal Representative – or perhaps the same man; the details
are unclear – followed a trail established in the case of a young Syrian, Mohammed
al-Tumani, who denied even being in Afghanistan when he was alleged to have
been at a training camp. On investigating the file of the prisoner who made
the allegation, the officer discovered that he had actually made groundless
accusations against 60 prisoners in total. Despite this, both Farouq Saif and
Mohammed al-Tumani remain in Guantánamo, and no one has ever established
the identities of the other 58 or 59 men who were falsely accused.
Khan's version was as follows. "About two years ago," he said, "I
was prepared to be released from here. At that point I lived with some Iraqi
people and because they disliked me they were lying, they were throwing some
allegations on me and that's why my process has stopped and that's why I have
not been released."
Shorn of these additional allegations, the case against Khan was summarized
by his Designated Military Officer (the officer assigned to the prisoners instead
of a lawyer in the ARBs), who stated, "Detainee argues that he is innocent
of all the charges brought before him other than that he was associated with
Musa," to which Khan added, "That's correct. Again, I had some association
with Musa and also I had a bad passport, that's the only things that occurred."
Tricked by the Taliban
The other three Afghans – identified by Sami al-Haj
– were captured in what appears to have been a sly act of revenge by a former
member of the Taliban against one of his former colleagues who had turned against
the regime. The story began when soldiers working for Jan Mohammed, the governor
of Uruzgan province, north of Kandahar, stopped a car containing two men, Ismatullah,
a 25-year-old embroiderer, and Nasrullah, his 23-year-old cousin, identified
by Sami as Nasrullah al-Rosgani (from Uruzgan), and Esmatullah, his cousin.
Ismatullah apparently admitted that he had just delivered a letter to a third
man, Mohammed Sangaryar, which was from Abdul Razaq, the former Taliban Minister
of Commerce. Sami identified the third man as Mohalim al-Rosgani, which was
initially rather confusing, but on Tuesday his lawyer confirmed that Mohalim
al-Rosgani was indeed Sangaryar, and that he too had been released.
Ismatullah explained that he had been going to Uruzgan to sell his car, and
added that Razaq had said that he would pay his petrol if he delivered the letter.
Unable to read, he said that he asked his 23-year old cousin, Nasrullah, to
read it, to check that there "wasn't any danger in it." Nasrullah
said that the letter asked Sangaryar to go to Quetta, but did not mention fighting,
even though the U.S. authorities alleged that Razaq had asked Sangaryar to report
to Quetta "to fight and avoid capture by the Americans."
According to Sangaryar, the letter was actually a trap, designed to punish
him for turning his back on the Taliban and to discredit him by making it appear
that he was still involved with them. He explained that he was a former deputy
commander of the Taliban, who had fought with them for many years in an attempt
to bring peace to his country. He added, however, that he and his tribe had
turned against the Taliban before the U.S.-led invasion, because they had become
too enamored of fighting for its own sake, and, specifically, because they had
dug up the corpse of Asmat Khan, a prominent tribal leader, and had deposited
it in the street as an affront to his tribe. When the American-backed warlord
Gul Agha Sherzai took over Kandahar, Sangaryar said that he and his men handed
in all their weapons, and he then returned to his village to refurbish his home.
What's particularly bizarre about this story is the fact that Abdul
Razaq (aka Abdul Razak Iktiar Mohammed), the former Taliban Minister of
Commerce, was himself seized and sent to Guantánamo, but was transferred
to Pol-i-Charki last August, and fairly swiftly released. Throughout these men's
imprisonment, there was no indication that any effort was made to cross-reference
their stories, and this is, I believe, an appropriate note on which to end these
two surveys of the latest prisoners released from Guantánamo, in which
you'll have no doubt observed that not a single one of these prisoners was actually
accused of raising arms against U.S. forces, let alone of having any involvement
in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.