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Guantanamo Inmate Database: Naim Kochi

McClatchy Newspapers
by Tom Lasseter
June 15, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan — Naim Kochi didn't want to talk with a McClatchy reporter. He politely declined twice and then, when the reporter showed up later at his house, was slow to recognize his presence.

Kochi didn't want to meet with the reporter because he didn't want to talk about Guantanamo. At all.

Kochi is a senior leader in the Ahmadzai tribe, one of the largest in Afghanistan. He's recently been working at the national peace and reconciliation office in Kabul, trying to coax young Taliban fighters to put down their guns and support U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai.

And that, he initially told the reporter, who met him at the reconciliation office, is all he wanted to say about his life.

Abdul Jabar Sabit, Afghanistan's attorney general, said that Kochi was a man without any real political convictions who'd sought position with every new party to emerge from Afghan tumult and revolution. Kochi joined the Taliban, Sabit said, only because they were in power.

"He was pro-king, and then he was pro-communist and then he was pro-mujahedeen when they took over Kabul," Sabit said. "And when the Taliban came, he was a staunch supporter."

Several other current and former Afghan officials confirmed that Kochi was the deputy minister for tribal affairs under the Taliban regime, not a powerful position, but one that afforded status and protection to his tribe and him during the violence of the Taliban. His tribe, also known as Kochi, is largely nomadic, and during the Taliban regime it was responsible for a massive land grab of grazing areas.

A former senior U.S. defense official and political appointee said of Kochi that "in reality he wasn't hard-core Taliban, he wasn't a terrorist, but by God he was co-opted."

"We found over a dozen things in the intel that he was playing both sides of the street . . . in particular, he was helping Taliban cross over the border" between Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the official, who'd offer details only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

When the Americans arrested Kochi, about 400 representatives from his tribe descended on Kabul, demanding his release. It was unthinkable to them that a man of his position would be taken to a detention camp, where men were shackled, stripped naked and herded into showers in a group, then housed on the floor of an airport hangar, in a makeshift pen made of concertina wire. In Kochi's conservative Pashtun culture, it would be preferable to be shot than to admit that a young foreign soldier most probably had searched his anal cavity.

Asked whether he was ever mistreated during his time in American custody, Kochi said that he couldn't speak of such things.

A former Guantanamo detainee who was there at the same time, Alif Khan, said that guards at Guantanamo who'd heard that Kochi was a former Taliban minister frequently shoved him around or punched him. There was no other confirmation of that allegation.

Even after Kochi allowed the uninvited reporter to remain at his house, and sat down to talk for an hour and a half, little could be learned about his time at Guantanamo. There are no transcripts of a hearing before an American military tribunal there, and Kochi, who said he thought he might be 70 but wasn't sure, didn't recall sitting through one.

He also didn't have an attorney: "These attorneys had no power. And some people told me these were not real attorneys; they were collecting information for the government," he said.

He said he was prone to bouts of depression when he was asked about the experience: "I still have very bad headaches, very bad hypertension. If you want, you can take me to the United States and help me get treatment," he said, with a rueful grin. "My memory is very bad now. What I am saying now I will not remember when I leave the room. And my head hurts all the time."

Like many Afghans picked up by the Americans then released into the wilderness that is Afghanistan, there's little public record of Kochi's case and his time in detention. These men's stories have become names next to internment serial numbers — Kochi was Prisoner 931 — and little else. Their lives have holes in them — two to four years, usually — in which they were living in small cells made of fence and mesh.

Then suddenly one day they were back in Afghanistan. Most no longer have jobs. They're regarded with suspicion. More than anything, they're home, but many are profoundly lost.

Even the dates, the most basic scrap of narrative, are a point of confusion. Listening to Kochi try to piece together the timeline of his detention is an exercise partly of conjecture, partly of subtraction.

Kochi said he was sure he was released from Guantanamo in October 2005. And he thinks he'd been there for "15 days less than two years," which would mean he was taken there in late September or early October of 2003. Before that, he was held at the U.S. camp at Bagram Air Base for three and a half months, if his memory holds, which would put his arrest in June 2003. That's probably correct, he said. Probably.

However, a review of news clippings showed that Kochi was released from Guantanamo in September 2004, not October 2005. And he was arrested on Jan. 1, 2003, not that June.

On that day, American soldiers arrested him on the road from Paktia province to Kabul. He was returning from a meeting with President Karzai and tribal leaders in Paktia.

A group of humvees pulled him to the side of the road.

"I asked the translator why they were arresting me. He did not answer. The only question the soldiers had was, 'Is your name Kochi?' I said yes, and they took me," he said.

During his time at Bagram, he estimates, he was interrogated more than 60 times. It was always the same questions, again and again and again and again, he said.

"They asked me stupid questions: What is your name? Where are you from? Do you have links with the Taliban? Do you know (insurgent leader Gulbuddin) Hekmatyar," he said. "It was difficult to know whether they believed my answers or not. They just kept bringing me back in."

When they took him to Guantanamo, the interrogations followed no set schedule. Sometimes they came twice during the day, sometimes twice during the night and sometimes not at all.

"They asked me all the same questions," Kochi said. "One interrogator told me, 'You will be here for 20 years.' Another told me, 'You will be here for the rest of your life.' "

When he was asked whether there were any bright spots, he said that his diabetes was easier to control at Guantanamo than ever before because he got no sweets, the rice was cooked without oil and the stringy, thin meat had no fat on it.

Kochi smiled as he said it, reveling in the joke of better health through long-term detention.

But soon, his face sagged again. He began to hold his face in his hands, then to rock a little.

"When you ask me about Guantanamo, my head starts hurting. It starts coming back," he said, then lay down and closed his eyes. "Can I eat these words? Can I wear them as a blanket?"

It was time to leave. His story was finished.

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