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Guantanamo Inmate Database: Ilkham Batayev

McClatchy Newspapers
by Tom Lasseter
June 15, 2008

ABAY, Kazakhstan — Ilkham Batayev sat at his father's table, frowning. His eyes, narrowed by anger, were cast down at the floor.

No, he said, he didn't want to talk about how he ended up in Afghanistan in 2001, or anything else that happened before he was detained and shipped to Guantanamo.

"I don't want to go back into the past," he said. "This is ancient history. . . . I don't want to say anything about it."

If the reporter asked again, Batayev said, the interview would be over.

Over a lunch of rice, meat and nuts in this small town on the Kazakh-Uzbek border, a 12-hour train ride and a three-hour car trip from the nearest large Kazakh town, Batayev spoke about many things.

However, Batayev refused to talk about how he — a coach at a sports clinic, the son of a supervisor at a state-run cotton business — got from his home in rural Kazakhstan to the badlands of Afghanistan.

During his military tribunal hearing at Guantanamo, Batayev told U.S. military officers that he'd gone to Tajikistan to sell apples and was kidnapped and taken to Afghanistan, according to a transcript.

There, he said, he was forced to work as a cook's helper for a group of men. He said he didn't know whether they were Taliban fighters.

His kidnappers released him after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, he said. He tried making his way out of the country, but troops commanded by Afghan Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaida, captured him.

Batayev said was taken to the basement of a prison, where there was fighting and he was injured. He was recuperating in a hospital, he said, when U.S. soldiers came and detained him.

That, he said, is his story.

The U.S. government told a different one:

According to documents prepared for a Guantanamo administrative review-board hearing, Batayev wasn't kidnapped — he was a member of the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, and he was associated with a major supporter of extremist Islamic activities in central Asia.

Representatives of a foreign government confirmed Batayev's membership in the group, the documents said. Though that government wasn't named, Kazakh officials visited Batayev at Guantanamo.

Batayev went to Afghanistan with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and was seen fighting there, and when he was caught he had $600,000 in U.S. currency, according to the documents.

There are other problems with Batayev's version of events. He'd have to travel all the way through another country, Uzbekistan, to go sell apples in Tajikistan, a country that has plentiful apple orchards of its own.

In an interview with a Kazakh journalist while he was imprisoned in Afghanistan in 2001, Batayev told a different story. This time, he said he was hiking in the mountains in Tajikistan with some friends when a gang of men loyal to Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan leader Juma Namangani kidnapped them.

Later, he told his American lawyer, Thomas R. Johnson Jr., that he'd gone to Tajikistan to buy goods to bring back to Kazakhstan and sell. In the market in the Tajik city of Dushanbe, he told Johnson, he met a trader who invited him to his orchards. They drove to the countryside, where a group of armed men kidnapped him, he said. He told Johnson that he wasn't sure who the men were.

Johnson said that he couldn't corroborate Batayev's story about being kidnapped. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been known to kidnap people, but, Johnson added, it isn't clear that the men who abducted his client in Tajikistan were with the movement.

"He was kept at Guantanamo because U.S. officers at (his tribunal hearing) or the interrogators found this to be an outlandish account," Johnson said.

American interrogators, Johnson said, thought: "Of course this doesn't happen: People aren't kidnapped and taken to other countries to fight wars."

The problem, Johnson said, is that while those sorts of things don't happen in America, they do happen in places such as Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

However, Wahid Mojdeh, a former Taliban diplomat, said in an interview in Kabul that he'd be surprised if the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had kidnapped people and brought them to Afghanistan.

During his visits to the movement's houses in Kabul on behalf of the Taliban, the men he saw there appeared to be motivated fighters, he said.

"The reality is that during the time of the Taliban there were many people of central Asian countries — Uighurs, Chechens and Uzbeks — who came here" for sanctuary, he said.

Johnson was allowed to review classified U.S. military documents to prepare his defense of Batayev.

"I can't talk about any of the classified information that I saw," said Johnson, who works for a law firm in Portland, Ore. However, "I never saw any credible information anywhere linking him to the (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan). . . . I would feel completely confident going into a court of law in the United States and getting an acquittal based on the information in their files."

As for the $600,000, Johnson said the allegation was ridiculous: "the first time that he was ever interrogated somebody said $600 . . . the amount has only grown."

When Dostum's troops captured Batayev, Johnson said, he was in the back of a truck crammed with men fleeing Afghanistan, hardly the place for a man carrying $600,000.

An interview with Batayev didn't clear up any of the confusion about his story. He said nothing about his reasons for being in Tajikistan, then in Afghanistan.

Walking a reporter outside his family's house as evening came, standing next to the small rows of potatoes in the garden, Batayev was asked once more whether he might give some explanation.

He shook his head slowly and said goodbye.

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