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Guantanamo Inmate Database: Tarek Dergoul

McClatchy Newspapers
by Tom Lasseter
June 15, 2008

LONDON — When he's asked about his experiences in U.S. prisons in Cuba and Afghanistan, Tarek Dergoul prefers to talk about what he thinks are far more serious issues in Morocco and Egypt.

"People don't understand the level of human rights abuses going on every day in this world," he said. "It's very sad for me, as a Muslim, to think that so much is so wrong in Muslim countries. But the world is not a nice place. I've learned that the hard way."

Dergoul didn't see the world this way in June 2001 as he was preparing to leave London, where Moroccan parents raised him. He'd been a petty thief, hanging out with other petty thieves, smoking dope, losing his religion.

"I decided I needed to get away, to make some money, clear my head," he said. "I was choosing between Pakistan and Australia. I know today that seems stupid, but this was before Sept. 11. I chose Pakistan. It was a bad mistake."

His story of how he ended up in Afghanistan while the bombs were falling sounds improbable. He said he didn't have much money, 5,000 pounds, and his friend had a little more, but that whatever they had would have gone a lot farther in Afghanistan than it would in England.

Dergoul conceded that he was naive about the dangers of being in a war zone, but he said that he and a few friends decided that there was a business opportunity in the bombing of Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, they'd noticed a steady stream of refugees fleeing the war. They decided they could make a lot of money in real estate by moving in during the chaos, buying property cheaply from Afghans eager to flee and reselling when Afghanistan was stable again.

U.S. authorities accused him of heading to Afghanistan to fight the West. Dergoul said that if he'd wanted to lash out at a Western nation, he could have stayed in England.

In any case, he said he was in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in October looking over a villa he planned to buy, when a bomb landed. Two friends who were in on the real estate scheme were killed, he said. He was buried under the rubble, alive but badly injured. Locals dug him out and rushed him to the hospital, where doctors amputated his left arm.

While he was recuperating in the hospital, he noticed an armed guard in front of his room. After a period of recovery, he said, he was put in an ambulance and driven to a flat, open area outside town where a helicopter with a U.S. flag had landed. He said he overheard the American and Afghan guards mention the sum of $5,000, and that he thought that was the bounty paid for him.

Soon after, his shoulder screaming in pain, he said, he found himself on the freezing floor of a large prison cell at Bagram Air Base near Kabul. He said that he remembered hearing screams, sporadic gunfire and the harsh voices of the guards, who he said threatened him if he talked to a neighbor or moved.

He said U.S. guards took him into an interrogation room at gunpoint and asked where he'd last seen Osama bin Laden. When he said he didn't know bin Laden, they said he was lying.

Dergoul said he begged for medical attention and told his captors that he needed antibiotics and that his feet hurt and were freezing. He said the guards laughed at him until a medical officer came by, looked at his surgical wounds and determined that his right foot, which he said was oozing by this time, needed immediate attention.

Then he described what he called "the oddest" experience: He claimed that he was taken into a medical room where a medical trainee was being instructed in how to amputate his toe. He claimed that he wasn't given anesthesia for the operation. Instead, he said, he was given just enough painkiller to stop the pain from being overwhelming, but not so much that he couldn't answer interrogators when they started asking questions again.

"It was unreal," he said. "A doctor was telling a nurse how to hack off my toe — I could feel him cutting on me — while a guy is asking me, 'Where is Osama bin Laden?' I pretended I was too out of it to understand."

From there he passed through the detention camp at Kandahar Airfield in southern Afghanistan, where at least the weather was warmer, then he was shackled and put on a plane to Cuba on May 1, 2002.

He called his experience in Cuba "torture light." He claims that guards deprived him of food, sleep, light, exercise, conversation. At one point, he claimed, they held his head in the toilet, flushed it and punched him. He claimed that he frequently was pepper-sprayed, a common response to unruly prisoners at Guantanamo.

Dergoul said he turned to religion.

"It wasn't really until I was in Guantanamo that I learned the importance of my faith," he said. "As everything around me was going crazy, I turned inwards, and to the Quran."

That, he said, was the positive side of his experience.

He was released from Guantanamo without ever being charged, and since he returned to London in March 2004 he's been unable to work because of his injuries. He said he doubted that he'd ever be able to do much. He used to work as a sign painter, but his injuries cause too much pain to allow him to paint often.

Instead, he goes to the mosque each day, prays frequently and searches for comfort in the Quran. He wears traditional Islamic clothes these days, one sleeve pinned to his side. He isn't considered dangerous or high risk in England, and he said he had no plans to leave again.

"I used to chase the world, to believe I needed a mountain of gold to be happy," he said. "I understand now that if I had a mountain of gold, I'd only want another. Happiness is found in simpler things, spiritual things, and family and friends."

He reads about human rights abuses around the world and sympathizes.

"I'd never thought much about what America was doing to this world before," he said. "I've had my eyes opened."

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