I had a good time at Guantanamo, says inmate
February 7, 2004
An Afghan boy whose 14-month detention by US authorities as a terrorist suspect in Cuba prompted an outcry from human rights campaigners said yesterday that he enjoyed his time in the camp.
Mohammed Ismail Agha, 15, who until last week was held at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, said that he was treated very well and particularly enjoyed learning to speak English. His words will disappoint critics of the US policy of detaining "illegal combatants" in south-east Cuba indefinitely and without trial.
In a first interview with any of the three juveniles held by the US at Guantanamo Bay base, Mohammed said: "They gave me a good time in Cuba. They were very nice to me, giving me English lessons."
Mohammed, an unemployed Afghan farmer, found the surroundings in Cuba at first baffling. After he settled in, however, he was left to enjoy stimulating school work, good food and prayer.
"At first I was unhappy . . . For two or three days [after I arrived in Cuba] I was confused but later the Americans were so nice to me. They gave me good food with fruit and water for ablutions and prayer," he said yesterday in Naw Zad, a remote market town in southern Afghanistan close to his home village and 300 miles south-west of Kabul, the capital.
He said that the American soldiers taught him and his fellow child captives - aged 15 and 13 - to write and speak a little English. They supplied them with books in their native Pashto language. When the three boys left last week for Afghanistan, the soldiers looking after them gave them a send-off dinner and urged them to continue their studies.
"They even took photographs of us all together before we left," he said. Mohammed, however, said he would have to disappoint his captors by not returning to his studies. "I am too poor for that. I will have to look for work," he said.
Mohammed said his detention began in November 2002 when he and a friend, both unemployed, left their farming community for Lashkar Gah, a nearby town. He said that as they stood outside a shop they were detained by a group of armed men who accused them of being members of the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic movement formerly in power in Afghanistan.
They were then handed over to US soldiers, who took them to the southern city of Kandahar, he claimed. They were taken to Bagram air base, where Mohammed was held in solitary confinement.
"They were asking me if I was Taliban. I said, 'No, I am innocent'. I thought they were going to release me but instead they put me on a plane," he said. "They asked me to wear a hood for part of the journey. When I got off the plane I was in Cuba."
While Mohammed praised the American soldiers who watched over him, he criticised the US authorities for failing to contact his parents for 10 months to let them know that he was alive. "They stole 14 months of my life, and my family's life. I was entirely innocent: just a poor boy looking for work," he said.
Mohammed and his fellow juvenile detainees returned to Afghanistan last week, after the intervention of the International Committee of the Red Cross. His words of praise for the American soldiers in Guantanamo Bay echo those of Faiz Mohammed, an elderly Afghan farmer who was detained at the base for eight months before being released in October 2002.
"They treated us well. We had enough food. I didn't mind [being detained] because they took my old clothes and gave me new clothes," said the farmer, who was partially deaf.
Camp Delta, which superseded the temporary Camp X-Ray, and Camp Iguana, a lower-security detention facility for juveniles, were established as part of President George W Bush's "war on terror".
More than 600 suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects have been held without charge at the barbed-wire camps since December 2001. They include nine Britons and three British residents.
Human rights agencies such as Amnesty International have alleged that the detention of the boys contravened the Geneva Convention, saying the separation from their families amounted to a form of mental torture. One of the boys was just 11 when he was detained.
The US authorities insist that age plays no role in deciding who constitutes a threat. "Age is not a determining factor in detention. We detain enemy combatants who engaged in armed conflict against our forces or provided support to those fighting against us," said a Pentagon spokesman.
Another US government official contradicted Mohammed's claims that he was entirely innocent when detained. The official said last week that one of the three boys had told of being conscripted into an anti-American militia group; a second said that he was abducted by the Taliban and forced to train and fight; while the third was studying in an extremist mosque and captured while preparing to obtain weapons.
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