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7 of first Guantánamo captives now home

Miami Herald
January 16, 2008
by Carol Rosenberg

One former Guantánamo captive is studying liberal arts in England. Another is famously free, released from an Australian jail after a U.S. military-mandated, nine-month prison sentence.

A third is in Kuwait with his wife and five children, still traumatized, his lawyer says, by his U.S. captivity.

On Jan. 11, 2002, the Pentagon transferred its first 20 men from Afghanistan to its detention center in southeast Cuba, calling them ''the worst of the worst'' of U.S.-held prisoners in the war-on-terror.

The Miami Herald has found that seven of those men have since gone home, some with little fanfare, others after well-publicized campaigns for their freedom.

A dozen of those first detainees remain -- none currently charged with crimes -- six years after Pentagon photographs stirred international outrage by showing the men shackled on their knees at Camp X-Ray.

The names came from Defense Department documents, notably prison camp weight charts, detainee accounts and contacts with lawyers and home nations. The name of the 20th captive that day remains a mystery.

The documents show that, with the exception of Australian David Hicks, there would be little to distinguish the men on their knees from those who would arrive in the months and years later.

''There was a sort of randomness to it,'' said Marine Maj. Dan Mori, whose client Hicks, now free, is kneeling somewhere in that first worst-of-the-worst photo. ``It was probably far too early for them to know what anybody had really done.''

SOLE CONVICTION

Hicks is today the only man ever convicted at President Bush's Military Commissions set up at Guantánamo. Amid electioneering protests in his native Australia, the self-confessed al Qaeda foot soldier settled with the U.S. government for a nine-month sentence, mostly served in his homeland.

He was set free last month and has a midnight-to-6 a.m. curfew under a court order that requires he check in with Adelaide police three times a week.

What can he say about that flight, that first day, whether he can even spot himself in the photos?

Nothing.

As part of his March guilty plea, which netted him nine months in prison on a terror crime that could carry a maximum of life, he agreed to a one-year ban on talking to the media and pledged never to accuse the United States of mistreating him.

In fact, none of the men in the photo who were tracked down by The Miami Herald agreed to an interview.

Feroz Abassi, 28, is now back in England working toward a liberal arts degree at an undisclosed university, said several attorneys who declined on his behalf to specify the location.

''Feroz is studying and doing remarkably well adjusting to his life now after years of abuse and uncertainty about his fate while imprisoned at Guantánamo,'' said Gitanjali Gutierrez, attorney for the New York Center for Constitutional Rights.

She was the first attorney allowed to meet Guantánamo captives, in August 2004, and Abassi was among two men she met there her first day -- after 2 ½ years of confinement.

The Bush administration at one point designated him for trial by military commission. Instead, he was freed in early January after intervention by the British government.

Gutierrez, staff attorney at the New York Center for Constitutional Rights, said Abassi's case illustrates just how wrong the U.S. military was in characterizing that first airlift of prisoners -- ferried 8,000 miles from Afghanistan -- as ``the worst of the worst.''

''At one point, they described him as an al Qaeda leader!'' she said. ``He gets out and what's the first thing he does? He goes off to school. He's gotten on with his life and has gone on to mentor younger students.''

Omar Amin, 40, home in Kuwait since September 2006, likewise declined through his attorney and a family friend to speak with The Miami Herald.

''Omar Amin was deeply traumatized by the ordeal. He's back home with his wife and five children, trying to put his life back together and move on,'' said attorney David Cynamon.

Less is known about the fate of a Pakistani man, Shabidzada Usman, who was the

first on that flight to be set free, 15 months later -- or two Saudi men who were sent to their homeland in 2006 and 2007.

A Taliban member from the first flight, Ghulam Ruhani, has just gone home -- to a U.S-sponsored lockup near Kabul. In the earliest days of the American-led coalition assault on Afghanistan, he was held on a U.S. Navy ship at sea, along with Hicks and American captive John Walker, now serving in a federal penitentiary in California for being a Taliban foot soldier.

Earlier this month, The Miami Herald inquired about the men on that first flight since freed and got this reply from a spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon: The Pentagon had no ''information to share'' on those men.

Since the camps opened, the Pentagon says about 500 men have been released. It says it has a list of ''more than 30'' who have returned to the battlefield, but it refuses to identify most of them.

The U.S. military has also steadfastly cited privacy reasons in declining to identify the first 20 men to be held captive at Camp X-Ray in Cuba.

The Miami Herald investigation turned up one striking finding: Six years after their arrival, four of the original detainees have never seen lawyers. Bush administration policy prohibited civilian attorneys from the prison in the first 30 months. But advocates for the captives slowly succeeded in providing civilian legal counsel. War court defendants automatically get military lawyers.

Few people would have imagined the Pentagon paying to defend the men when they landed at the camp in January 2002.

''These represent the worst elements of al Qaeda and the Taliban. We asked for the bad guys first,'' Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Lehnert told reporters hours before their arrival on an 8,000-mile air-bridge from Bagram, Afghanistan.

It was early in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden, and the Pentagon opened Camp X-Ray at the U.S. Navy base in the Caribbean as an interrogation and detention center far from then-freezing cold Afghanistan.

Guantánamo was chosen for both its isolation and to argue that it was beyond the reach of U.S. courts. None of the original detainees are currently charged at military commissions, but two may face the war court -- Ali Hamza Bahlul, 39, and Abdl Malak al Rahabi, 29, both Yemenis.

Bahlul and Rahabi have never been invited to argue for their freedom before the annual U.S. military parole boards, a key indicator that they are war court candidates.

The first 20 men were a mixed group of alleged al Qaeda foot soldiers and Taliban functionaries, all Muslim and about half of them Arabs.

IDENTITY A MYSTERY

The Miami Herald has discovered the identities of 19 of the first prisoners. Who is the 20th man?

No clear answer emerges from the thousands of pages of detainee documents the Defense Department has released, much of it under Freedom of Information lawsuits by the Associated Press and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But a 2006 affidavit from a two-star general who supervised interrogations provides a possible explanation: In the earliest days of the prison project, when detainees were kept at Camp X-Ray, military intelligence planted informants among them.

Southcom in Miami would not confirm whether such a program existed; nor would it provide its own list of the first 20 captives in a rolling detainee population that numbers nearly 800.

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