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How we survived jail hell (Part 2)

The Observer
By David Rose
March 14, 2004


For the second six months of 2002, the interrogations ceased. But from the beginning of 2003, interviews with MI5, the FBI, the CIA and US military intelligence became increasingly frequent. Rasul says: 'They kept taking us and taking us, showing us photos saying: "This guy says you've done this, this guy says you've done that" - what they meant was that other detainees desperate to get out were making allegations, making stuff up that they thought would help them get out of the camp.

Last year the Americans introduced a formal system of rewards for co-operation with interrogators, so that detainees would be given an increasing number of so-called 'comfort items' such as books, extra clothes and utensils in return for their testimony. (The books, best-selling novels, usually came with pages torn out, which the censor had deemed too subversive or exciting.)

Experts on the psychology of interrogations and false confessions say that for prisoners who were already depressed and isolated by more than a year of arduous incarceration, this system seems almost calculated to produce fantastical accounts. Professor Gisli Gudjonsson of King's College London is perhaps the world's leading authority in this area, and he has testified in dozens of trials and helped expose numerous miscarriages of justice. One of the methods which his research has shown to be particularly prone to generating unreliable testimony is the use of deception, where an interrogator will claim he has incontrovertible proof of a suspect's guilt when in reality this does not exist.

Such methods, the three men say, were employed against them time and time again. For example, Rasul says, he was told that photographs of him and an 'al-Qaeda membership form' and his passport had been found in a raid on an Afghan cave. 'Actually I'd left my passport in Pakistan. Then the interrogator told me that next to my file they'd found my brother Habib's al-Qaeda file. The interrogator said he wasn't lying, and that next time he'd bring it with him. When it came to the next time, he claimed he'd made a mistake.'

The interrogators also used the good cop/bad cop routine. 'It was scary although I knew what they were doing. I think they tried it more with some of the Arabs and the young kids.'

Less funny were the conditions in which interrogations were conducted, in so-called 'booths' behind the cell blocks. Throughout their interviews, the detainees wore their three-piece suits, and were shackled to the floor.

In 2003, many more interrogators were brought in, some of them young and inexperienced. 'You'd look at these guys in their shorts and polo shirts and think: 'This guy's an interrogator? He's only 20 years old,' says Rasul. 'About two months ago one guy asked me: "If I wanted to get hold of surface-to-air missiles in Tipton, where would I go?" I started arguing with him. Did he really think I lived in some sort of war zone. I was scared in the interrogations but towards the end the questions just seemed stupid.'

However, last summer the situation of the Tipton Three suddenly took a serious turn for the worse. The Americans had a video of a meeting in August 2000 between Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers. Behind bin Laden were three men, and in May 2003 someone alleged they were none other than Iqbal, Rasul and Ahmed.

For the previous two weeks, Rasul had been in the relatively comfortable conditions of Camp Four, the lower-security section of Guantanamo where prisoners are freely allowed to associate and play football and volleyball. Suddenly he and the others found themselves in solitary confinement in the isolation block for three months. Finally, Rasul says, a senior interrogator arrived from Washington and played him the video. He protested that the men in the video looked nothing like him and his friends, and none of them had worn beards. More to the point, in August 2000, when the video was shot, he had been working in a branch of the electronics store Curry's, and was enrolled at the University of Central England - a fact, he suggested, his interrogators could easily check. Instead, he says: 'They told me I could have falsified those records, that I could have had someone working with me at Curry's who could have faked my job records.' I'd got to the point where I just couldn't take any more. Do what you have to do, I told them. I'd been sitting there for three months in isolation so I said yes, it's me. Go ahead and put me on trial.' The other two made similar confessions.

Last September it was MI5 which for once helped them when they arrived at the camp with the documentary evidence which showed they could not have been in Afghanistan at the relevant time. Rasul says: 'We could prove our alibi. But what about other people, especially from countries where such records may not be available?'

There is also the danger that false testimony from one inmate, extracted by the Guantanamo incentives system, may breed a false confession from another. Iqbal recalls: 'One inmate said I had been in the Farouk terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. It led to a whole series of interrogations where they tried to persuade me that I had been. The way the system is it's accusation after accusation; if this one won't work maybe this one will, if that won't work try this one, until they finally get their confession.'

For those who do confess, and fail to sustain their alibis, trial by an American military commission and a possible death penalty awaits. Those who have been charged are no longer at Camp Delta, the three men reveal. They have been moved to a new, super-maximum security facility outside the main compound - Camp Echo. A few men have been returned thence to the main Guantanamo Camp; they describe a white-walled, sound-absorbent hell of 24-hour solitary confinement in cells smaller than Camp Delta's, with a guard permanently stationed outside each cell door. Camp Echo's current inmates, say the three men, include the Britons Feroz Abbasi and Moazzem Begg, and the Australian David Hicks. One detail of Hicks's life inside Guantanamo Bay reveals the desperate measures prisoners go to retain their sanity. He occupies his mind all day by catching and killing mice. More than a year ago, the three men said, Hicks renounced Islam and shaved off his beard. He no longer answers the call to prayer. 'He's just a little guy with a very deep voice,' says Rasul. 'If you met him you'd think he was the typical kind of Aussie you might see drinking Fosters in a bar.'


Proof of the Tipton Three's alibis led to rapidly improving treatment. Every Sunday after last September, Rasul says, they were taken to a shed they called the 'love shack', and allowed to sit unchained on a sofa to watch movies on DVD. They were allowed to read magazines, and were sometimes fed with hamburgers from Guantanamo's branch of McDonald's.

Unaware of the stream of leaks to the media which suggested their release might be imminent, they began to sense that the end of their ordeal might be drawing near. Even then, they were still being interrogated regularly. Rasul says: 'They'd still show us pictures, try to get names. My last interrogation was on 5 March. But I could see the guy was getting desperate. At one point he said: "Look, I'm from the CIA, I can get you anything. What do you want? Coke? Ice cream?" '

For men who had been through Kunduz and Kandahar, this was not impressive. All are convinced that there are no 'big-time' terrorists at Guantanamo: arguably the most dangerous, in American eyes, says Ahmed, is a group of Taliban mullahs. American intelligence sources have confirmed this view to me. The 'big-timers' - men such as Khalid Shaikh Mohamed, architect of 9/11, have never been near Guantanamo. One source says: 'Guantanamo may even be a bit of a front, designed to divert al-Qaeda's attention. It takes everybody's attention away from more important matters and locations where big fish are being held. The secrecy surrounding it makes everybody think that very serious stuff is going on there.'

The three say some of the inmates have seen such suspects - not in Cuba, but at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. According to Iqbal, 'we spoke to people who'd been with them there when they were being interrogated. They said they flew them out of there alive, but in coffins.'

Reviled so publicly by Rumsfeld, now the Tipton Three must struggle to rebuild their lives. Their home town, say their families, has become too dangerous: effigies of men in orange jump suits have been strung from lampposts, while the area is a strongholds of the extreme right-wing BNP.

For now they have been marvelling at the little things, Rasul says: sitting in cars without chains and being able to operate the windows; finding that food does not arrive automatically at set hours, and can be tasty and varied. This weekend their dominant emotion is relief. As they come to reflect on the experience over the coming weeks, it seems likely to turn to a burning, righteous anger.

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