On February 5, the New York Times published
a front-page story by Carlotta Gall and myself, Time
Runs Out for an Afghan Held by the U.S., about Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, a 68-year
old Afghan detainee who died in Guantánamo on December 30, 2007, in which
we established that Mr. Hekmati, known to the authorities in Guantánamo
as Abdul Razzak, had – contrary to assertions that he was involved in both al-Qaeda
and the Taliban – helped free three significant anti-Taliban commanders from
a Taliban jail in 1999, but that no significant effort had been made in Guantánamo
to find witnesses who could easily have verified his story, which he had repeated
throughout his five-year detention without charge or trial.
In the wake of various right-wing claims that the journalistic integrity of
the article was in doubt, following an "Editor's Note" issued by the
Times, pointing out that I have described Guantánamo as part of
"a cruel and misguided response by the Bush administration to the Sept.
11 attacks," and that I have an "outspoken position on Guantánamo"
and "a point of view," I thought it might be prudent to relate a little
of the background to the story, explaining its genesis, and directing readers
to other sources to help verify the story reported by Carlotta and myself.
The story of Abdul Razzaq Hekmati had intrigued me while I was researching
my book The Guantánamo
Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison,
primarily because he had called Ismail
Khan – who was exceedingly well known as the governor of the western Afghan
province of Herat – as a witness in his Combatant Status Review Tribunal at
Guantánamo. These tribunals were established to review the detainees'
status as "enemy combatants," and were apparently empowered to call
outside witnesses requested by the detainees, although as Carlotta and I reported,
based on my research, on statements
made last year by Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, who had served on the tribunals,
and on a report compiled by the Seton Hall Law School (PDF),
no outside witnesses had ever been called to appear at a tribunal.
In Chapter 18 of The Guantánamo Files, I looked specifically
at the US authorities' stated inability to locate witnesses requested by the
detainees to appear at their tribunals to clear their names. Because Ismail
Khan was so famous, I mentioned the request made by a truck driver named Abdul
Razzak, who claimed that he had freed Khan from a Taliban jail in 1999, but
had no time to research his story further.
Instead, after also mentioning a few more of the many Afghan detainees who
beseeched the authorities to establish contact with officials in Afghanistan
who could apparently vouch for them, I focused on the case of Abdullah Mujahid.
He had been cleared for release at the time I was writing the book, and was
finally released from Guantánamo – only to end up being held without
charge or trial in a US-run wing of Kabul's Pol-i-Charki
prison – in December 2007.
In Guantánamo, Mujahid persistently maintained that he had been working
for the government of Hamid Karzai, and the authorities' alleged inability to
find witnesses requested by him was demonstrated as a sham in June 2006, when,
in the space of 72 hours, the journalist Declan Walsh located
three witnesses whom the authorities claimed to have been unable to contact:
one was working in Washington DC, another was working for the Karzai government
in Kabul, and the third was working for the provincial government in Gardez.
All three were able to verify his story.
When I read that Abdul Razzak had died of colorectal cancer in Guantánamo
on December 30, I was determined to see if I could find out anything more about
his story, and Googled various variations of his name, and the events he had
referred to, until finally, "ismail khan taliban jailbreak 1999" led
me to Dissension
Within Taliban Made Daring Escape From Prison Possible, a New York Times
article by Carlotta Gall, from January 2002, which matched the account of the
jailbreak described by Abdul Razzak in many ways.
Carlotta Gall interviewed the engineer of the prison escape, 21-year old Hekmatullah
Hekmati, who, as she described him, "was only a teenage Taliban intelligence
officer, barely old enough to grow a beard, when he decided to help Ismail Khan."
According to Hekmati's account, he had become "disillusioned by the Taliban,
whom he saw as power hungry opportunists presenting themselves as religious
students, and bad leaders, who were waging a brutal, ethnically motivated war
against their countrymen." He decided that Khan, imprisoned, with 14 others,
in the Kandahar prison that held the Taliban's most senior political and military
prisoners, might provide a good alternative, having established himself as a
"decent administrator" during his tenure as Herat's pre-Taliban governor.
"I thought he would work more for his country, if he were freed,"
he told Carlotta Gall.
Having secured a job as an intelligence officer at the prison, through a relative,
Hekmati said that he then set about persuading Khan that he was trustworthy.
Speaking to Carlotta Gall, Ismail Khan said, "We spoke to Hekmatullah for
about a year about the escape. Since he was such a powerful Talib he could easily
come to my cell and speak to me. I could not believe he could do it and that
I could trust him." To prove that his intentions were sincere, Khan added
that he told Hekmati that, "if he wanted to go ahead with the plan he should
move his mother and brothers and sisters to Iran for safety," and that
when he did so he knew that the plan was real.
While Ismail Khan's son, Mirwais, and several of his cousins organized the
escape, Hekmati acted as a go-between, delivering a letter to Khan outlining
the plans. In response, Khan said, he "pledged to provide the young man
with a lifetime sinecure and arranged for a four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser to
be sent to Kandahar for the escape." After discussing plans to free all
15 prisoners, the escape team settled on just three men – Khan, Haji Abdul Zahir,
a commander from a famous Afghan family, and his cellmate from Jalalabad, General
Qassim – and on the night of March 2, 1999, while the other guards slept, Hekmatullah
Hekmati opened their cells and led them to a Land Cruiser parked outside, which
had been adorned with the white flag of the Taliban.
After changing into the "black turbans and flowing robes that were the
signature dress of the Taliban," the escape party drove off, passing through
checkpoints with ease. They later got lost in the desert, and hit an anti-tank
mine, which destroyed the vehicle and left both Ismail Khan and Hekmatullah
Hekmati with "broken legs and open wounds," but Hekmati's father,
who had been driving the Land Cruiser, then "set off for help and after
a four-hour walk north reached the front lines of Ismail Khan's own troops,
who arranged a rescue."
Although Carlotta Gall did not mention Abdul Razzak by name, it seemed probable
to me that he was actually Hekmati's father, named as Abdul Raza Hekmati, who
drove the escape vehicle and arranged for the rescue of Ismail Khan and his
own son after the Land Cruiser hit the anti-tank mine. The elder Hekmati evidently
shared his son's disgust with the direction the Taliban was taking. As Hekmatullah
came up with his plans, Carlotta Gall noted, "The only other person he
told was his father, who did not try to stop him but advised him to take it
very slowly and carefully."
In the various accounts that he gave in Guantánamo, Abdul Razzak credited
himself with the motivation to free Ismail Khan, which his son claimed was his
own idea, but in other crucial respects the story of the escape, as described
by Hekmatullah Hekmati, matched Abdul Razzak's account exactly, not only in
his various descriptions of himself as the driver of the escape vehicle, but
also in his description of the incident with the anti-tank mine. Explaining
his role in the escape, Abdul Razzak said, "It was at night time. I brought
[the] Land Cruiser … and I was waiting in a dark place. My son did it, because
he was in the intelligence and he was entrusted by the Taliban. He took all
three of them out and put them in the car… and then we escaped." The following
exchange from one of his military review boards is his take on the incident
with the anti-tank mine:
Board Member: What happened to the Land Cruiser he purchased?
Detainee (through translator): Hit a mine and my son's foot was amputated
and my hand was broken. It was destroyed.
After discovering this story, I contacted Carlotta Gall, who remembered that
a friend of Hekmatullah's had told her that his father had been arrested and
sent to Guantánamo, and that she had spoken about it to Haji Zahir, who
was outraged and said that he would talk to the Americans about it. With the
truth established that Abdul Razzak was indeed Hekmatullah Hekmati's father,
the story then took shape.
I provided Carlotta with information from his Combatant Status Review Tribunal
(CSRT) and his Administrative Review Boards (ARB) at Guantánamo, from
the statements of Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, and from the report by the Seton
Hall Law School, and Carlotta tied the whole thing together, talking to key
figures and securing poignant quotes from representatives of the US and Afghan
governments, and from those who knew Mr. Hekmati.
I was particularly impressed with the comments made by Haji Zahir, who explained,
"What he did was very important for all Afghan people who were against
the Taliban," adding, "He was not a man to take to Guantánamo.
He was a man to give a house to and support." Haji Zahir was even more
significant than the final version of the article indicated. His father, Haji
Abdul Qadir, not only served as vice-president for six months in Hamid Karzai's
first government, but was assassinated in July 2002, and his uncle was Abdul
Haq, a celebrated anti-Taliban commander who was killed by the Taliban in October
2001. Ironically, the void left by the death of Abdul Haq, who was described
in an obituary
in the Guardian as "one of the few homegrown political figures who
could have restored unity to his benighted and wartorn country" raised
the profile of another anti-Taliban Pashtun who had, until that point, struggled
to establish himself in the south of the country. That man was none other than
This was not Haji Zahir's only claim to fame. During the largely disastrous
Tora Bora campaign in late November and early December 2001, when Osama bin
Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and many other senior figures in al-Qaeda and the Taliban
escaped unscathed into Pakistan's largely autonomous border provinces – leaving
numerous foot soldiers and fleeing civilians to be captured and sent to Guantánamo
– Zahir was widely regarded as the only trustworthy commander out of the three
Afghan commanders chosen to lead the US Special Forces' proxy Afghan armies
in the battle against bin Laden's men.
The other two commanders – the thuggish Hazrat Ali and the urbane smuggler
Haji Zaman Ghamsharik – are discussed in Chapter 4 of my book. Haji Zahir never
made the final cut, but I noted in my first draft that he, and the 600 men he
brought with him, were to prove themselves able fighters in the battle for Tora
Bora, and I also quoted some perceptive comments that he made after the operation,
when he explained
to John F. Burns of the New York Times that he had pleaded with the Americans
to block the trails to Pakistan. "The Americans would not listen,"
he said, "even when I told them that one word with me was worth more than
$1 million of their high technology. Their attitude was, ‘We must kill the enemy,
but we must remain absolutely safe.' This is crazy."
I think Haji Zahir's significance – added to that of Ismail Khan – reinforces
the importance of Abdul Razzaq Hekmati's role in striking a major blow against
the Taliban, and I believe that it should make his lonely death, after being
falsely imprisoned for five years by an administration that was blithely and
cruelly unconcerned with establishing whether or not he had been captured by
mistake, count for something more productive than a belated and much-needed
epitaph. This epitaph is clearly important for an innocent man who, even in
death, had his name blackened by the people who had wrongly imprisoned him in
the first place, and who let him die without having had an opportunity to clear
his name, but what his story reveals about the many failures of Guantánamo
should also resonate in the halls of power in Washington.
To this end I was pleased to note that, in an article
in the Washington Independent on February 10, Aziz Huq of the Brennan
Center for Justice at NYU School of Law cited Mr. Hekmati's case as part of
an argument aimed at the Supreme Court, which is currently deciding
whether or not the Guantánamo detainees have a constitutional right to
habeas corpus. In the article, Aziz Huq asked the highest court in the land
"to decide whether the role of the courts is to bless the errors and abuses
of the executive – or whether it is the role of the courts, as a co-equal branch,
to check error and reject lies."
Discussing the failures of the current limited review of cases allowed by 2005's
Detainee Treatment Act, Aziz Huq wrote, "There are many reasons why the
government might be resisting fuller review. It could be that the government,
as a matter of principle, believes it should have the power to lock up indefinitely
anyone it deems is a terrorist-combatant. It could be that it has tortured the
detainees to get information. It could be that it would rather let a man die
of cancer in Guantánamo than follow its own leads to prove his actual
innocence – that he had, in fact, fought against the Taliban."
For further information on Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, I recommend the transcripts
of his CSRT (PDF,
pp. 55-9), his first round ARB (PDF,
pp. 272-85) and his second round ARB (PDF,
pp. 37-51), which reveal even more of his story, to counter the administration's
claims, after his death, that he was "assessed to be an experienced jihadist
with command responsibilities," and that he was also "assessed to
have had multiple links to anti-coalition forces."
Additional claims, not mentioned in the article, which were introduced in his
ARBs – and which almost certainly came from dubious "confessions"
made by other detainees – were that he was paid to smuggle 50 Arab family members
out of Afghanistan and into Iran, that he was "knowledgeable of an assassination
plot against President Karzai the day before it occurred," and, most bizarrely
of all, that he told another detainee that "there were still suicide pilots
in the United States who could carry out their missions." A final allegation
referred to his conduct in Guantánamo, where, it was claimed, he was
"currently instructing others on how to resist interrogation tactics."
As mentioned in the Times article, he refuted all the allegations against
him, but his reason for denying the claim about his behavior in Guantánamo
revealed explicitly how allegations in the prison have often arisen through
conflict between the detainees. He explained that this particular false allegation
arose because a Tajik detainee, who had lived in an adjacent cell for a month,
had "started fighting" with him and had falsely accused him.
Also not mentioned in the article was a specific and rather telling comment
about the Taliban's connections with Pakistan. After explaining that he was
driven to take part in the jailbreak because of his opposition to the Taliban's
"ruthlessness and injustice," he stated his belief that, when Ismail
Khan was governor, "the whole area was peaceful and all the money coming
through the province was safe," whereas the Taliban "were disbursing
money to Pakistan and just wasting money."
He also included additional information about the time that he spent in exile
in Iran after the jailbreak (before returning to Afghanistan to be handed over
to unquestioning US forces by a personal enemy), when the Taliban offered a
substantial reward for his capture. He explained that, because he was protected
by Burhanuddin Rabbani's governing council (the official anti-Taliban government-in-exile
in northern Afghanistan, which was recognized as legitimate by most of the western
world, including the United States), he fled to Iran with his family, where
he was provided with a house and financial support, and where, in addition,
his neighbor was Ismail Khan. "They gave me the house he (Khan) used to
live in, and Khan took another house," he explained. "We had a family
relationship. They invited us to their house and we invited them to our home.
We would eat food and then they would go back home."
The final word on this shameful story – for now, at least – must go to the
Guantánamo spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Rick Haupt, who admitted that he "did
not know" if Mr. Hekmati "was allowed any final contact" with
his family before he died. This seems extremely unlikely, as Mr. Hekmati himself
explained, in the last of his fruitless military reviews in 2006, that after
nearly four years in US custody he had not received a single letter from his
family, and did not even know where they were.
So much for justice.