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Guantanamo Inmate Database: Ali Shah Mousavi

McClatchy Newspapers
by Tom Lasseter
June 15, 2008

GARDEZ, Afghanistan — Sitting in front of a military tribunal at Guantanamo, Ali Shah Mousavi tried to make sense of it all.

A former member of Afghanistan's interim loya jirga, the first democratic legislative body formed after the Taliban fell, Mousavi is a Shiite Muslim, a sect that the Taliban brutally oppressed and al Qaida often targeted for death as apostates.

Yet the American officers before him were presenting a series of accusations that made him out to be a Taliban and al Qaida supporter.

The Americans said that Mousavi had met with Taliban leaders in an effort to funnel cash to al Qaida in early 2002. They said he was a key Taliban leader's main representative in Iran. They said he'd taken about $150,000 from Iran to eastern Afghanistan to fund militants near his hometown of Gardez.

Mousavi already had made his case — that he was innocent — with a narrative that wove in the intricacies of Shiite Islam and the history of the Afghan revolt against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. He explained that Afghan political and tribal infighting after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion often led to one side or the other peddling false information to the Americans in hopes that U.S. troops would kill or arrest a rival.

At the end of the tribunal, though, Mousavi tried a simpler argument. In Afghanistan, he said, schoolchildren study logic, and as part of that, teachers sometimes create logic problems that demonstrate the danger of false conclusions.

For example, he said, a teacher might say that a tree is tall, that a person named Ahmed is tall, so it follows that Ahmed is a tree. Or, Mousavi said, the teacher might point out that rats live in the walls, that rats have ears, so it follows that the walls have ears.

That, he said, was the essence of the United States of America's case against him: Mousavi lived in Iran, Iran is an enemy of the United States, so it follows that Mousavi is an enemy of the United States. Or, Mousavi fought under a commander against the Soviet Union, that commander's son is now with the Taliban, so it follows that Mousavi is with the Taliban.

"That is how, logically, you are getting wrong this conclusion," he said.

The speech did not work. By the time that Mousavi was released from Guantanamo in October 2006, he'd spent more than three years in captivity. He never understood why he'd been arrested in the first place.

Abdul Jabar Sabit, Afghanistan's attorney general, interviewed Mousavi at Guantanamo, and American military officials briefed Sabit about the charges against Mousavi.

Asked about the $150,000 from Iran, Sabit shook his head.

"That was not the case," Sabit said. "He was there because of the Kalashnikovs. . . . His house was searched, and two Kalashnikovs were discovered, and that was enough for the Americans."

In other words, Mousavi was sent to Guantanamo and imprisoned there for almost three years because U.S. soldiers found a couple of AK-47 rifles in his house. In Afghanistan, a country ruled for centuries by warlords and competing clans, almost every house has an AK-47 or three.

"There was a feud, and he was handed over to the Americans even though he was innocent," said a senior Afghan intelligence officer who's met Mousavi and reviewed his case several times. "He is actually very pro-government."

In fact, Mousavi has gone so far as to persuade local tribal elders that despite their missteps and despite his own wrongful imprisonment, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul is the best way forward for Afghanistan, said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because intelligence officials in Afghanistan often are targeted for assassination.

Sitting down to talk to a McClatchy reporter in Gardez, Mousavi frequently laughed or waved his hands dismissively in the air when he described his ordeal. None of it, he said, made any sense.

In 1982, Mousavi fled Afghanistan and the Soviet invasion and began living in Pakistan. He slipped across the border every two months or so to attack Soviet troops, and he took command of a small unit of mujahedeen, or "holy warriors." When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s, Mousavi prepared to move back.

However, as he got word of the civil war among Islamic factions for control of the country — his group was a relatively moderate one, and it looked as though the extremists were winning — he decided to move to Iran instead and finish the medical studies he'd begun some 10 years earlier.

When he heard that the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan, the issue was settled: He knew he'd be killed if he returned.

"The Taliban was in control, and I opposed them; I opposed their views," he said.

Mousavi had become a doctor, trained in pediatrics, in 1989. But Iran's government wouldn't allow Afghan refugees to practice medicine, he said. So he continued working as a taxi driver and day laborer. The years passed, and it began to look as if Mousavi would spend the rest of his life behind the wheel of a taxi or lifting lumber.

Then the world changed. There was an attack on America. The United States invaded Afghanistan. The Taliban were falling. Mousavi stayed riveted to a small television set.

"When we heard the news that the Taliban had collapsed in Afghanistan, my friends and I celebrated," he said. "We began to count the moments until we could return to Afghanistan."

Mousavi waited for the winter to pass, then took his family to Kabul and on to Gardez in April 2002. His house was gone, destroyed by the fighting between mujahedeen and Soviet forces.

There still was bitter rivalry among Islamic groups, divided by how much they'd supported the Soviets and then the Taliban. There were rumblings that those who'd been loyal to the Soviets were filling the ranks of the new security services. Men were killed in the middle of the night, and no one knew whether it was because of a tribal squabble, political greed or revenge for past alliances.

Mousavi said he was enthralled by it all: His nation once again was trying to find a way forward.

He thrust himself into tribal matters and quietly lobbied for position.

In June 2002, a tribal council selected him to help represent Gardez in the loya jirga, and he helped to elect U.S.-backed interim President Hamid Karzai.

Without a job or house in Afghanistan, and with jobs scarce, Mousavi said, he returned to Iran to continue working odd jobs and save money for a clinic in Gardez.

When he returned to Afghanistan in August 2003, he was met with a hero's welcome, he said: Carloads of townspeople met him at the mountain pass outside the city to accompany him home. Mousavi's brother had opened a clinic in his absence and he was going to expand it.

He'd been home for two days, receiving guests and large meals in his family's compound, when American soldiers broke through the door.

"We heard the sound of someone breaking down the front door of my house," Mousavi said. "My cousin said, 'Here come the Americans.' I wasn't afraid; I thought they were coming as part of a patrol and had accidentally broken the door."

"Then they broke the gate of my guesthouse, and suddenly there were 10 weapons at our heads. They said, 'Nobody move,' " he said.

The soldiers asked for him by name.

"They said they wanted to take me for questioning," Mousavi said. "I asked, 'Do you have any documents authorizing my arrest?' I thought Afghanistan had become a country of law. They told me, very recklessly, very stupidly, that they were not bound by the laws of Afghanistan, that they were American soldiers."

Telling the story to a reporter at his family's compound, Mousavi stopped, looked up and asked the other men in the room to leave. He couldn't bear for them to hear, once again, of his shame.

Watching the last man leave and close the door, Mousavi returned to his account.

"They (American soldiers) said they wanted to search me. I told them I would not allow it. One of the soldiers told the others, 'Shoot him if he moves.' Then they searched me and searched my family," he said. "My whole family was standing there.

"They said, 'We are going to blindfold you and tie your hands.' I said, 'Please, not in front of my family.' They said, 'If you resist, you will be shot in front of your family.' So I stood there, and they blindfolded me in front of all of them. This is one of the worst memories of my life."

As he was being blindfolded, Mousavi said, his thoughts raced. He knew that a rival had set him up, but which one? As an ethnic Tajik (a minority in Gardez) and a Shiite who had political clout, Mousavi had many enemies in a nation that Sunni Muslims dominated.

He didn't have much time to sort it out.

"I was sitting in front of my house, blindfolded, when someone kicked me in the back," said Mousavi, who was about 44 at the time. "I fell forward, and so much blood and dirt filled my mouth that I could barely breathe."

Mousavi was taken to an American military base outside Gardez, where he was kept for 22 days in a line of men who slept on the dirt between two concrete barriers.

He was interrogated a handful of times, he said, and was asked about bringing $150,000 from Iran. Mousavi said he'd tried to explain that he'd had only $350 in his pocket when he flew back to Afghanistan.

After about three weeks, he was taken by helicopter to the detainment camp at Bagram Air Base.

He spent the first month there in isolation.

"For 15 days they did not let me sleep. They played very loud music the whole time. And a soldier at the gate commanded me to stand and then sit and then stand again. When I did not obey him quickly enough, he would tie my hands to the ceiling," Mousavi said. "Other times, four or five soldiers would come in and beat me, and then tie my hands to my feet and leave me like that on the ground."

After his month in isolation, he was put in a small cell, a cage made of concertina wire. Guards came for him once or twice a week and took him to interrogation. American men, who said they were with the CIA, accused him of having ties to al Qaida.

"I told them that Shiites are quite different than al Qaida," Mousavi said. "They showed a picture of me from the loya jirga and said your turban looks like al Qaida and your beard looks like al Qaida."

The Americans also said he was involved in a battle east of Gardez in March 2002 that the U.S. military dubbed Operation Anaconda, a battle with al Qaida militants that lasted about two weeks.

"I told them I wasn't even in Afghanistan when this fighting took place," Mousavi said with a shrug. "They kept talking about 'Anaconda.' I had no idea what they were talking about."

On Nov. 27, 2003, some three months after he was dragged out of his family's home, Mousavi was loaded onto an American cargo plane and strapped to the floor. On either side of him sat a long line of men wearing blacked-out goggles and headphones, which were designed to prevent them from hearing or seeing anything.

He said he was interrogated during his second day at Guantanamo — "the same questions they asked at Bagram" — then wasn't questioned again for three months.

An interrogator named Larry showed up in February 2004 and said he'd like to have Mousavi take a battery of lie-detector tests, some with a microphone on his collar, others with wires taped to his arm. Mousavi said he passed them all.

After Larry, two women who said they were with the FBI began questioning him in sessions that stretched across two months.

"At the end of two months of interrogations with them, the women said there was no proof I had links with the Taliban or al Qaida. They said, 'During the interrogations we realized you are not affiliated with other parties, that you are independent, but it is also clear that you oppose the presence of foreign troops, so you are a threat,' " Mousavi said, again shaking his head. "I told them that this is an occupation and a lot of people are against it, so you will have to arrest all of them. One of the women replied: 'For the moment, we have you.' "

Mousavi said he was transferred in the summer of 2004 to Guantanamo's Camp Four, a site reserved for low-risk detainees. He spent most of his time chatting with other Afghans and playing chess or cards. In his final year and a half at Guantanamo, he said, the Americans didn't interrogate him once.

At Guantanamo, he said, U.S. soldiers never hit him. In fact, he said, he got along well with most of them.

His only problem, he said with a rueful smile, was with many of the other inmates, the Afghan Taliban and Arab al Qaida members, who the Americans said were his allies.

"When they learned that I was a Shiite, the Arabs would not eat at the same table as me; they would not speak with me," he said.

"There were five Shiites in the camp, and everyone thought they were spies for the U.S.," said Nusrat Khan, an Afghan who was at Guantanamo for more than three years.

When the Afghan detainees — many of them loyal to the Taliban — told the Arabs that Mousavi had been a member of the loya jirga and he supported Karzai, America's choice for president in Afghanistan, they became even more venomous.

"When they walked near me, the Arabs spat at me. They called me traitor, infidel," he said.

A man who lived in the cell next to Mousavi, Mohammed Akhtiar, confirmed his account, as did several others who were there at the time.

"They said we were all cooperating with the Karzai government, that we were infidels and that they had put us 'on the list' " to be killed, Akhtiar said.

Another former detainee, Mohammed Aman — Akhtiar's cellmate — told a similar story.

"Dr. Shah had a very bad time there," Aman said. "The Arabs were always calling him an infidel."

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