Three years on, Guantánamo detainee, 78, goes home
by Declan Walsh
September 22, 2006
Hero's welcome for ex-Mujahideen commander with failing eyesight and a walking frame.
It's hard to picture Haji Nasrat Khan as an international terrorist. For a start, the grey-bearded Afghan can barely walk, shuffling along on a three-wheeled walking frame. His sight is terrible - he squints through milky eyes that sometimes roll towards the heavens - while his helpers have to shout to make themselves heard. And as for his age - nobody knows for sure, not even Nasrat himself. "I think I am 78, or maybe 79," he ventures uncertainly, pausing over a cup of green tea.
Yet for three and a half years the US government deemed this elderly, infirm man an "enemy combatant", so dangerous to America's security that he was imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.
Arrested in early 2003, Nasrat - or "detainee 1009" as he was officially known - always insisted he was innocent. But recently his hopes started to slide and he feared dying far from his home in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
Then late last month, without warning, the US military let him go. Nasrat was flown to Bagram airbase, north of Kabul, the same way he had left: blindfolded, handcuffed and with his swollen half-paralysed legs chained to the floor. His lawyer was informed of the release, by email, after Nasrat had left Guantánamo Bay.
After he was handed over to Afghan officials his first act of freedom was practical and symbolic. He clambered out of his white jumpsuit and slipped into a shalwar kameez, the baggy pants and long shirts worn by most Afghans.
"I felt like I was born again," he recalled with a faint smile.
Campaigners say Nasrat's case typifies the injustices of America's secretive global detention network. He is not Guantánamo's oldest detainee ever - that distinction fell to another Afghan, Faiz Muhammad, who was dubbed "Al Qaida Clause" by his captors and claimed to be 105 when released in 2002.
A former Mujahideen commander during the anti-Soviet war of the 1980s, Nasrat has been incapacitated since he suffered a stroke about 15 years ago. His troubles started in early 2003 when American soldiers arrested his eldest son, Izatullah. They accused him of links with al-Qaida based on his affiliation with the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Three weeks later the Americans returned, this time for Nasrat. "They said I would be back that evening," he said ruefully. "It turned out to be a very long evening."
He was initially sent to Bagram airbase where, he said, American soldiers inflicted numerous indignities. They confiscated his crutch and pushed him to the toilet in a cart, he said. On one occasion two female soldiers forced him to strip naked and wash before them. "An awful humiliation," he said.
Although infirm, Nasrat retains vivid and bitter memories of his detention. One time, he said, he laughed at an officer who asked how he was doing. "I told them, 'you are very stupid'," he recalled. "I am on the floor in shackles and you are in a chair. I am paralysed but you have tied me like a dog. So why are you asking me how I am?"
Bagram remains one of the most shadowy corners of America's secretive detention network. An estimated 500 prisoners - mostly Afghans but also Arabs, Pakistanis and Central Asians - are held in a legal vacuum outside the scrutiny of human rights groups. In comparison Guantánamo Bay, where he was transferred weeks later, was a "guest house", he said. "They didn't beat me, they didn't torture me, and they treated me like a human being."
There was also some bittersweet news, with Nasrat reunited with his son Izatullah. Father and son were allowed to live in a communal cell with 12 other prisoners for the last 13 months. But otherwise the authorities made few concessions to his age or infirmity. During visits from his lawyer his legs were chained to the floor.
The details of America's blurry case against Nasrat finally emerged during military hearings in 2004 and 2005. Officials said US soldiers had found 700 weapons, including machine guns and rockets, inside his house. And they accused him of supporting Hekmatyar and, by implication, Osama bin Laden.
Nasrat insisted it was all eyewash, the weapons had been gathered for decommissioning; and he fought the Soviets under a different commander. The accusations probably came from an Afghan enemy feeding misinformation to the Americans, he said. "You people do not realise who is an enemy and who is a friend," he told his captors, according to US military documents. "The people that hated you were very few but you just grabbed people like me."
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, his son Abdul Wahid was fully embracing America's democratic vision. Last October the 27-year-old was elected to Kabul's provincial council. He went to the Americans. "I told them several times my father was innocent," he said.
Last month Nasrat returned to his home in Yakhdan, a remote village at the end of a windswept rutted road, to a hero's welcome. Wellwishers streamed in from all around to Nasrat's house - a fortress-like compound that dominates the village, with high battlements, thick walls and a rose garden bordered with spent shell casings. Nasir Khan, 30, walked five hours from neighbouring Kapisa province with a Kalashnikov under his arm. "I have come to give my warm regards to Haji. He is my close friend," he said. "I have very good memories of him from the jihad."
Some foreign visitors came too, including US officers from the base in nearby Sarobi. Nasrat welcomed them as warmly as everyone else. "They said they were sorry," he said afterwards. "I told them I have forgiven you for what you have done." But days later he fell sick with fever, and his reconciliatory spirit wore thin. He wanted compensation, he said, but more importantly he sought justice. "They told me one year ago I was innocent. So why did they only release me now?" he asked.
And one great pain was unresolved - leaving Izatullah behind in Guantánamo Bay. "It was very difficult," he admitted. "I did not want to leave him in that cell but I had no choice. He came to me and hugged me. But he did not cry."
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