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Returning Afghans Talk of Guantanamo. Out of Legal Limbo, Some Tell of Mistreatment

The Washington Post

By Marc Kaufman and April Witt
March 26, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan, March 25 -- Afghan men freed today after spending months in legal limbo as U.S. prisoners in the war on terrorism said they were generally well-fed and given medical care, but housed in cramped cells and sometimes shackled, hit and humiliated.

After a chaotic day in which it was uncertain when, or if, all the prisoners would be released from Afghan custody, 18 men wearing new American sneakers and carrying brightly colored gym bags walked out of a run-down police compound here late today. Some hugged jubilantly, while others left feeling bitter and vengeful.

The men, the largest single group of Afghans to be released after months of detainment at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, gave varying accounts of how American forces treated them during interrogation and detainment. Some displayed medical records showing extensive care by American military doctors, while others complained that American soldiers insulted Islam by sitting on the Koran or dumping their sacred text into a toilet to taunt them.

The men uniformly said that American forces treated them more roughly during initial interrogation and captivity in Afghanistan than during the long detainment at Guantanamo.

All of those released said they were innocent and were not terrorists. Some acknowledged that they had fought with the Taliban , but said it was not by choice. Others said American forces snatched them away from ordinary lives as farmers, students or taxi drivers.

Sarajudim, 24, who like many Afghans uses only one name, was one of several men who said they were forced to fight with the Taliban after the United States declared war on terrorism. When Sarajudim and other conscripts tried to surrender and go home, they were betrayed by a powerful Afghan military commander , Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who "sold" them to American forces for cash, he said.

"America wanted to capture terrorists and Dostum just wanted the money, so he sold me," Sarajudim said.

Sarajudim left the Kabul jail today carrying medical records in English, which he could not read, indicating he had received regular medical care at Guantanamo, including psychological counseling for "life circumstances issues."

"The American soldiers treated me well," he said. "I am very happy with them."

Dostum was one of several Afghan military figures who received U.S. financial backing for helping in the war against the Taliban.

Some of the men released today were close-shaven, but most kept their beards. The men who wore their beards in the long fashion of the Taliban complained most about poor treatment at the hands of Americans and insults against Islam.

Ehsannullah, 29, said American soldiers who initially questioned him in Kandahar before shipping him to Guantanamo hit him and taunted him by dumping the Koran in a toilet.

"It was a very bad situation for us," said Ehsannullah, who comes from the home region of the Taliban leader, Mohammad Omar. "We cried so much and shouted, 'Please do not do that to the Holy Koran.'"

Merza Khan, who had been captured in northern Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban, said Americans in Kandahar tied him up and alternately forced him to lie face down on the ground, then squat with his hands on his head for hours. He also said he saw American soldiers throw the Koran on the ground and sit on it while in Kandahar.

The released prisoners' complaints come as the U.S. military is investigating the deaths of two Afghan prisoners interrogated at the U.S. military facility at Bagram air base, north of Kabul. A military doctor listed the two deaths as homicides, prompting the investigation. Human rights activists have also criticized the United States for detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely at Guantanamo and elsewhere without charging them with a crime.

None of the men freed today was told why he had been selected for release among the more than 600 others at Guantanamo. Few had family present to greet them, and most did not have money to catch a bus home.

An exception was Said Abasin, a Kabul taxi driver whose father, an airline official in Afghanistan, had loudly protested his son's captivity for months. Abasin said he was relieved and excited to be home, but could not forgive American officials for keeping him so long. "I am an innocent man who did nothing," he said.

Sulaiman Shah, who said he was a businessman captured for no reason in northern Afghanistan, said Americans generally treated him well, but he also remained bitter. "I was in such a small [cell] and couldn't go outside for many days," he said. "My toilet was next to my bed, and it was a very bad way to live."

The 18 prisoners were flown from Guantanamo to Bagram air base last week, then jailed in Kabul next to a reeking garbage dump. Afghan officials said they wanted to question the men so they wouldn't release any criminals by mistake.

The men arrived home wearing Western-style clothes and American sneakers given them at Guantanamo along with gym bags or knapsacks in which to store their few possessions.

Once in the Kabul jail, all 18 changed into donated clothes in the loose, flowing style traditionally worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan. One man said it was too hard to wash and pray according to the dictates of Islam while wearing Western clothes. But he, like the others, chose to wear his new sneakers home.

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