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Former Taliban prisoners tell of unending ordeal. From jail to Guantánamo, years of torture

The Detroit Free Press
by Paul Haven
July 5, 2007

In 1997, in a mud-brick room in eastern Afghanistan, Al Qaeda interrogators were firing angry questions at Saddiq Turkistani. What is your military rank? Are you connected to Israeli intelligence?

Why have you come to assassinate Osama bin Laden?

Turkistani says the men whipped him with a thick cable and slapped him. After about a month, he said he would have preferred execution to the beatings and told them what they wanted to hear.

That was only the start of his ordeal. The Taliban held him for nearly five years. When they were toppled in the U.S.-led campaign in 2001, the Americans shipped him to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba -- as an alleged agent of Al Qaeda, the very people who tortured him.

He was "like a bird in the hand of a hunter," said Turkistani, reciting a poem he wrote at Guantánamo.

The U.S. military has never given an accounting of former Taliban prisoners at Guantánamo. But an Associated Press investigation identified at least nine men who were imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban on charges they were foes, spies or assassins -- only to be accused by the United States of being enemy combatants.

"I've run out of descriptive terms for what happened to them," said Clive Stafford Smith, legal director of Reprieve, a London-based human rights group that represents 39 detainees.

Kandahar Five

The men's assertions of innocence cannot be independently verified. But at least four have been returned to their home countries without being charged. Three remain at the U.S. holding facility, and the status of two others is uncertain.

One, Abdul Hakim Bukhary of Saudi Arabia, acknowledged having gone to Afghanistan hoping to join forces with the Taliban, only to run afoul of the militia before he had a chance to face Americans in combat.

The U.S. government would not comment on the apparent contradictions in some of their cases.

"Multiple reviews and designations have been conducted since each unlawful enemy combatant was captured, to include during initial detention overseas to lengthy procedures at Guantánamo," said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman on the issue.

Five of the nine men -- Turkistani, Bukhary, Jamal al-Harith of Britain, Airat Vakhitov of Russia and Abd al Rahim Abdul Rassak of Syria -- were held by the Taliban at a prison in Kandahar before the U.S. invasion. They are known as the Kandahar Five.

Other than Turkistani, all were accused by the Taliban, which viewed nearly all foreigners with suspicion, of spying.

The only one who acknowledges having any intention of fighting the Americans was Bukhary, who says he came to Afghanistan to heed a Taliban call for jihad.

Overwhelming bitterness

The men's story is one of the stranger chapters in the controversial history of the Guantánamo prison, set up after the 9/11 attacks to house Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects. More than half of the 750 people who have passed through the facility have been released, and only a fraction of the rest have been charged.

When the Northern Alliance liberated the Kandahar prison in December 2001, Western reporters were allowed in to see the inmates. They detailed abuse at the hands of the Taliban and said they were relieved to have been rescued. But a few, instead of being freed with the other 1,500 men, were turned over to U.S. forces.

Why they were taken to Guantánamo has never been clear. Turkistani said he was taken to a U.S.-run detention center at Kandahar airport.

"At first I said to myself, this is a great country. If its people heard my story, they will sympathize with me," he said. "Unfortunately, the opposite was true."

Before long, he said, "the bitterness of Guantánamo overshadowed the bitterness of being jailed by Al Qaeda." Even after his release by the Americans, he was held for seven months by Saudi authorities.

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