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Guantanamo Inmate Database: Sabar Lal

McClatchy Newspapers
by Tom Lasseter
June 15, 2008

JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Sabar Lal shifted around on the cheap sofa and shook his head as he spoke in a pained voice about his many misfortunes. "I don't know what my crime was," he said.

During the time of Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001, Lal said, he was shot while fighting them. After the U.S.-led military intervention in 2001, Lal said, he was an anti-Taliban fighter who'd risked his life for the government of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai.

As he sat in a Jalalabad hotel, stroking his long black and white beard, the broad-shouldered Lal spun the story on and on: The Americans had detained him, an innocent man, for about five years before releasing him to Afghan authorities in September or October of 2007.

He told American military officers the same thing during his tribunal at Guantanamo: "All I can tell you is that I fought for six years against the Taliban. I killed a lot of them." It was "so ironic," Lal told the officers, that "I am in the same spot as a Talib" in the cellblocks of Guantanamo.

He was, everyone acknowledged, a border brigade commander on the Afghan-Pakistani border. According to American military officials, however, his time on the border included helping Osama bin Laden escape to Pakistan.

Two Afghan officials who're familiar with Lal and his case say that Guantanamo was where he should have been.

"I can tell you one thing, the Americans did not make a mistake when they detained Sabar Lal," said Mohammed Roze, who directs the Afghan government's peace and reconciliation commission in Konar province, where Lal was detained.

Lal did fight the Taliban in the 1990s, a fact that U.S. officials acknowledged at a military review board hearing at Guantanamo, but during his time as a border brigade commander from late 2001 to 2002, he was infamous for launching missiles into nearby towns to solve tribal and personal disputes, Roze said.

Mateullah Khan, the Konar province police chief from mid-2003 to 2004, said that Lal ran the border brigade units under his command like a private militia and aided various militants who sought to escape into Pakistan.

All of which supports U.S. assertions during Lal's Guantanamo tribunal and review board hearings that he was a militant who helped al Qaida members escape from American troops and coordinated a rocket attack against American forces. According to the U.S. military, bin Laden was among the al Qaida leaders Lal helped escape to Pakistan.

But an investigator whom Lal's American lawyers retained to follow his case after he was transferred last year to an Afghan prison from Guantanamo said that he saw the joint U.S.-Afghan case file on Lal and that there wasn't much in the way of evidence.

"There is in the file absolutely nothing" that supports the U.S. allegations against Lal, said Jonathan Horowitz, research coordinator at One World Research, a Brooklyn-based human rights investigation firm. In entries for physical evidence, photographs and polygraph tests that might build a case against Lal, each section in the form was marked "none," Horowitz said.

Horowitz said that he was given access to the file earlier this year by an Afghan official working for the country's National Directorate for Security, its national intelligence agency.

Lal's attorney, Daniel C. Malone of Dechert law firm in New York, said that especially given Lal's history of fighting the Taliban and working for the Karzai government, the U.S. military's case against him was weak.

Lal later said through Malone that Roze and Khan were previously linked to the Taliban — an allegation that couldn't be substantiated — and that he'd been in a firefight with Khan before he was made police chief.

The U.S. military said that in November 2001 Lal assigned his men to guard nine Arabs who'd fled the fighting against American and Afghan forces to the south at Tora Bora, the battle that marked bin Laden's escape, according to unclassified records from Lal's review board hearing at Guantanamo.

The records didn't indicate whether bin Laden was among the nine whom Lal allegedly held at his base for several days until a militant commander arrived with cash and instructions to smuggle them across the border.

In an interview with McClatchy this April, Lal didn't mention helping those men to safety. At Bagram Air Base, where he was held for about two and a half months in late 2002, Lal said, guards kept him awake for most of his first couple of weeks there. He was taken for frequent interrogations, during which he was asked to detail every footpath that crisscrosses the mountainous area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Lal said.

He said that at Guantanamo, where he was held for some five years, interrogators asked about former mujahedeen commanders, Islamic warriors who fought the Soviet invasion with U.S. backing but later became anti-American militants.

Unlike most of the other Guantanamo detainees McClatchy interviewed, Lal said his interrogations continued regularly throughout his time there, an indication that the Americans thought he had valuable information.

By the end of it, Lal said, he stopped even pretending to like the Americans.

"I told them they (the Taliban) were better than you," Lal said. "They asked why, and I told them that I fought against the Taliban but I was in the mountains then; I was free. But you Americans put me here, in this prison."

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