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An innocent man in the hell of Guantanamo

Sara Daniel Reportage Website
By Sara Daniel (English version by Leslie Thatcher)
January 1, 2005

He's forgotten nothing of the pain, the humiliation, the solitude. American investigators took a year to clear him. And another year to free him. Beyond the revolting injustice to which he was victim, former journalist Bader Zaman denounces the arbitrariness of American detention centers.

He suffers from hypermnesia. It's twelve months since Bader Zaman was released from Guantánamo prison, but he remembers every detail of his detention. Not only the pain, the humiliation, the solitude, but also little things: dogs' breath, the scrape of the razor against his eyebrows, the accent of the creep who cried out over the megaphone to the other soldiers: "Don't show any sympathy for the terrorists!" He can't forget anything. Today he is free. The Americans have cleared him of all accusations against him. Yet, in Peshawar, this former journalist's liberty still remains under tight surveillance. A few weeks ago, ISI (Pakistani Secret Service) agents came back to see him again. He received them calmly: "What do I have to fear from you now? Have you found a worse hell on the earth than the one you've already thrown me into?"

To meet Bader Zaman, one must dive into the alleys of Old Peshawar. The 35-year-old journalist, who looks ten years older, has transformed himself into a trader in precious stones since his liberation. In a dark little room in the middle of the rubber tire souk, he holds his stock of lapis-lazuli from Afghanistan. Meeting a foreign woman is just not done in this city controlled by Islamists, but Bader Zaman insists on bearing witness. He doesn't really resent the Americans. According to him, the party responsible for his Calvary is the Pakistani Secret Service, which he intends to sue. "I spent two months and twenty-two days in Peshawar prison, fourteen days at Bagram, two months and eight days in Kandahar and two years and four months in Guantánamo, solely because I denounced their practices."

When he was a very young man, Bader and his brother belonged to an Afghan religious organization close to Bin Laden and al-Qaeda that fought the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. He resigned from it in 1987 to protest that organization's links with the Pakistani Secret Services. Later, he who had never touched a weapon denounced the Taliban's obscurantism in his newspaper and described them as puppets of the Pakistani Secret Services. "So they sold me to the Americans. A current practice right after the American offensive in Afghanistan," he explains. "For them, it was just a question of keeping the Americans busy with false suspects. They never stopped playing the international community."

The journalist knows the stories of all the detainees who occupied neighboring cells in Guantánamo. He mentions the taxi driver sold for $5000: "The Pakistanis had just made a raid to find Arabs close to al-Qaeda and hadn't found anybody, so they arrested him. The officer who sold him to the Americans told him: 'Look here, it's worth it to sell people like you to keep the Americans from coming to make war on Pakistan...'" He says the taxi driver is still at Guantánamo.

According to Bader, less than 20% of the detainees presently in the American prison in Cuba are real "bad guys" or Taliban officials like Mullah Fazel. But it was the Kandahar and Bagram detention centers in Afghanistan that left him with the worst memories. For twenty-four days, he was shut up in a container. Then he was forbidden to wash for three months. With a light on at all times, too tight ligatures that cut into his arms and legs, tortures. At Bagram, he saw prisoners being kicked across the ground, others hung by their hands. He also saw offenses to the Koran, which he says was the normal practice in the Kandahar detention center. It was there, by the way, that he saw the guards throw the sacred book into a bucket that was used to empty toilets.

When he arrived at Guantánamo in May 2002, Bader was placed in solitary for over a year. In the prison in Cuba, there were no physical tortures. "The prisoners frequently attacked the guards. I saw them bite Americans!" But they tried to crack the detainees morally. Like when one of the female guards touched one of them on the face, her hand smudged with what she claimed was menstrual blood - testimony corroborated by one of the Guantánamo investigators, Sergeant Erik Saar, who included that episode in a book.

For Bader, after long months of despair in which he kept repeating the same story about the Pakistani Secret Services to people who didn't want to hear any of it, the climax came. "At the end of the interrogations, Federal agents finished by telling me they didn't have anything on me. That I was cleared. But after that, I had to wait another year before leaving Guantánamo. Such a long year!

After that, the conditions of Bader's detention loosened up. He was transferred to Camp 4, a camp for prisoners who "collaborate." He traded his orange overall for a white tunic, and picnics were even organized so the prisoners could see the sea. "We were transported in a closed ambulance, chained to one another. Then we were placed between rows of barbed wire near the water. I remember seeing a ship on the sea."

Bader Zaman has only one good memory from Guantánamo: that's the arrival of his mortal enemy, the one who acted as intermediary for the Pakistani Secret Services to sell him to the Americans - who was himself, in fact, close to al-Qaeda - in the neighboring cell. All the prisoners who knew the truth booed the man. He lowered his head. "That day, I knew that I had been believed, that I could hope to leave that hell. The one who handed me over, he's still there, in the Guantánamo jail...

Who Are the Guantánamo Detainees?

The Guantánamo detention center numbers 500 detainees who, for the most part, were captured in Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001. Among the prisoners, one may find, for example, Mullah Fazel, former Taliban Defense minister, but also people who had the misfortune of finding themselves in the wrong place, like Wazir Mohamed, a taxi driver whose case Amnesty International is defending. The seven French citizens detained in the American prison have all been freed and five of them are now in prison in France. Washington continues to liberate dozens of detainees to - as Pierre Prosper, the diplomat in charge of negotiating these transfers, puts it - "share the burden" with their home countries.

The "gulag of our era," according to the shock formula used by Amnesty in its report on Guantánamo, continues to be the object of much indignation and controversy embarrassing to the American government. Washington is engaged in an arm-wrestling contest with the UN, representatives of which want to meet with all the detainees to investigate accusations of torture. The Pentagon has been forced to adjourn the trial of "Australian Taliban" David Hicks to conform to a judge's decision that the Supreme Court pronounce beforehand on the legality of exceptional military tribunals.

The CIA's Secret Prisons

Has the CIA established a network of clandestine detention centers spread across more than ten countries so they may interrogate supposed terrorists without legal or moral constraints? The "Washington Post" revealed the existence of several secret prisons in Eastern Europe. Since then, the list of countries that supposedly collaborate with the American authorities has continued to grow: Thailand, Morocco, Norway, Sweden, Italy, and Spain have been accused of harboring these centers or tolerating prisoners' transit through their territory. But up until now, only the Czech Republic has admitted rejecting an American request to implant a prison for detainees coming out of the Guantánamo base.

This network of detention centers would have been created in the months following September 11, when the idea of "prison ships" was abandoned by the CIA for "security and logistical" reasons. Then a "black site" with the code name "Salt Mine" was put in place in Afghanistan. And the CIA supposedly also closed a secret dungeon at Guantánamo.

According to the "Washington Post," there are a hundred ghost prisoners. The organization Human Rights Watch - which called them the "desaparecidos" (the disappeared), in reference to the victims of Latin American dictatorships - mentions 40 people detained in secret in its October 2004 report. For several months, voices have been raised within the CIA itself to contest the legality, and above all, the effectiveness of such prisons.

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