Who are the Afghans just released from Guantánamo?

9.5.08

For the five Afghans who returned home on the same flight as al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj and the other three prisoners described in my previous article, the future is disturbingly uncertain. As I reported last December, when 13 of their compatriots were released from Guantánamo, they, like the other 19 Afghans released in August, September and November, were not freed outright, as was the case with the 152 other Afghans previously released, but were instead transferred to Block D, a wing of Pol-i-Charki, Kabul’s main prison, which was recently refurbished by the US authorities.

Pol-i-Charki prison, Kabul

An Afghan soldier stands guard outside Kabul’s Pol-i-Charki prison. Photo by Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press.

While some of these 32 men have subsequently been released from Pol-i-Charki, the whole story of US involvement in the prison is deeply disturbing, as are reports that the “trials” of the men returned from Guantánamo are “closed-door” affairs, in which, as the Washington Post explained last month, “they are often denied access to defense attorneys,” and are, essentially, tried on the basis of “evidence” provided by the United States, which they are not allowed to see; in other words, exactly the same situation that they faced in the Combatant Status Review Tribunals at Guantánamo (the military reviews convened to assess the prisoners’ status as “enemy combatants,” in which military officers took the place of lawyers, and secret evidence was withheld from the prisoners).

As Mohammed Afzal Mullahkeil, a lawyer for the returned Afghan prisoners explained, “When they were sent from Guantánamo, they were told, ‘You are innocent and you will be free once you’re in your country.’ When they got to Bagram, they just brought them to Block D and said they should have a second trial.”

In common with previous Afghan releases, the identities of the five men have been difficult to establish. The Pentagon never discloses the names of those it frees, and although lawyers representing the prisoners are informed of their clients’ departure, the identities of those who did not have legal representation — either because they refused to do so, or had not found any way of establishing contact with the legal community — remain unknown unless the media are present on their arrival (which has not happened in Afghanistan for many years), or until further investigation by lawyers or journalists turn up details of their identities.

Shortly after the men were released, the identities of only two of the five Afghans had been established, but over the weekend Sami al-Haj gave the names of the other three men, all of whom have now been positively identified. As with those described above, their stories reveal, yet again, the wholesale mockery of justice that defines the regime at Guantánamo: outright failures of intelligence, the presumption of guilt, the refusal to seek out witnesses to back up the prisoners’ stories, and a willingness to accept confessions from other prisoners as the truth, regardless of how it was obtained, and with no attempt made to investigate the veracity of the claims.

Haji Rohullah Wakil, a celebrated anti-Taliban commander

Of the two Afghans identified, by far the most significant is 46-year old Haji Rohullah Wakil (also identified as Haji Roohullah), a tribal leader in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, whose opposition to the Taliban was such that he fired the first salvo against the Taliban in Kunar after the US-led invasion in October 2001. As a result of his anti-Taliban credentials and his support for Hamid Karzai, Wakil was rewarded with an important position in the province’s post-Taliban administration, and was also made a member of the Loya Jirga, the prestigious gathering of tribal leaders that elected Karzai as President in June 2002. His influence was such that Ghulam Ullah, the head of education in Kunar, described him as “a national religious leader.”

Seized by US forces in August 2002, with his military commander Sabar Lal and eleven others, Wakil was taken to the US prison in Bagram airbase for questioning. Although the others were subsequently released, the Americans decided that both Wakil and Lal had sufficient intelligence value to be transferred to Guantánamo in August 2003. According to an Associated Press report, they believed that Wakil “had strong links with Middle Eastern fighters in Afghanistan, particularly Saudi Arabians like Osama bin Laden,” and thought it significant that he was a follower of the Wahhabi sect of Islam, even though both Wakil and Lal had had numerous meetings with senior American officials and had offered support for the campaign to oust al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the Tora Bora mountains in November and December 2001.

The outline of Wakil’s story has been reported before –- both in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, and in an article I wrote last October, when his military commander, Sabar Lal, was released from Guantánamo –- but it still appears to be a disturbing example of the incompetence of American military intelligence in Afghanistan, as the primary charge against Wakil — that he provided sanctuary to a number of significant al-Qaeda operatives who had fled from the city of Jalalabad after it fell to the Northern Alliance on November 12, 2001 — was so utterly at odds with his proven track record as an anti-Taliban tribal leader who was part of the Northern Alliance and supported Hamid Karzai.

While the full story of Haji Rohullah Wakil deserves more in-depth treatment than I can supply at present, there appear to be only two possible explanations for his capture: either that he did in fact aid the al-Qaeda members because he was working as a double agent, or that he was betrayed by a rival. Personally, I find the second explanation rather less far-fetched, particularly as so many other Afghan prisoners in Guantánamo — at least two dozen, including Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, who died in Guantánamo in December without being given the opportunity to clear his name — were actively opposed to the Taliban, but were betrayed by rivals who had gained the trust of the Americans.

According to this second version of events, Wakil was probably betrayed by Malik Zarin, the head of the rival Mushwani tribe, who had ingratiated himself with the Americans and was using them for his own ends. Although Wakil himself did not name names in Guantánamo, Sabar Lal, who was finally freed from Pol-i-Charki in February, to return to his wife and five children, had no doubt that he had been betrayed. Speaking to the Washington Post last month, he made it clear that he “was turned over to US forces by Afghans seeking revenge for his arrest of Taliban fighters near the Pakistani border.”

At Guantánamo, Lal had been even more forthright, explaining to his tribunal the injustice of imprisoning him with members of the Taliban: “The only thing I want to tell you that is so ironic here is that I see a Talib and then I see myself here too, I am in the same spot as a Talib. I see those people on an everyday basis, they are cursing at me … They say, ‘See, you got what you deserved, you are here, too.’”

Abdullah Mohammed Khan and his dubious friendship

The story of the second Afghan, Abdullah Mohammed Khan, a 36-year old ethnic Uzbek, shifts the focus from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and appears to be another example of dubious intelligence on the part of the Pakistani and American authorities. A former mujahid against the Russians, Khan, mentioned briefly in my book, but otherwise unknown, was arrested in Peshawar, in 2001, at the house of a Syrian acquaintance called Musa, who, according to the US authorities, was an al-Qaeda suspect identified as Abd al-Hamid al-Suri.

Khan denied knowing anything about any connection that Musa might have had with al-Qaeda, saying that all he knew was that he came to Pakistan from Turkey with his family for medical treatment on his feet, which were “in very bad condition.” He also denied knowing anything about a CD containing explosives-making manuals that was apparently discovered in Musa’s house. Released after being questioned by a Pakistani and an American, he was arrested a second time in January 2002, when traces of explosives were allegedly found on his fingers. Again, he denied the allegation, saying, “I never touched any kind of explosives after the Russians [left],” but this time he was seized and sent to Guantánamo, on what, it appears, was little more than a whim.

At his Administrative Review Board in Guantánamo (the successors to the tribunals, convened to assess whether the prisoners were still a threat to the US, or had ongoing intelligence value), Khan ran up against a litany of allegations made by other prisoners, which are shockingly prevalent in the transcripts of the hearings, even though there is no indication of the circumstances under which the “confessions” were elicited, and, moreover, no attempt was made to verify whether or not they were true.

When faced with these allegations, Khan duly denied a claim that “an al-Qaeda detainee” had identified him in a photo as Abdul Latif al-Turki, explaining that this was the name of the person who had provided him with a false Turkish passport to enter Pakistan, and adding that he was always known by his real name, and that “if you really showed somebody my picture and they told you my name is Abdul … he was lying.” He also denied a similar allegation from “A Libyan Islamic Fighting Group member,” who identified him as “al-Turki” and said that he saw him several times at the al-Ansar guest house in Pakistan, and an allegation from an Iraqi detainee who had apparently identified him in a photo and said that he had seen him at a guest house on the Taliban front lines in Kabul in 1999 or 2000.

On this point, his response was particularly revealing, as any detailed research into Guantánamo reveals that several prisoners — an Iraqi and a Yemeni are regularly cited — have spread false allegations against other prisoners. Most startlingly, this came to light in 2006, when, in an article for the National Journal, Corine Hegland told the story of an unnamed but principled Personal Representative for a young Yemeni prisoner, Farouq Saif (known to the Pentagon as Farouq Ali Ahmed), at his tribunal. This officer — assigned to Saif in place of a lawyer, and under no obligation to make a stand on his behalf — was so shocked at the vehemence with which Saif denied an allegation that he had been seen at Osama bin Laden’s personal airport that he went back to his file and discovered that the allegation had been made by another prisoner, who had been specifically identified by the FBI as a liar.

In another case reported by Hegland, another Personal Representative — or perhaps the same man; the details are unclear — followed a trail established in the case of a young Syrian, Mohammed al-Tumani, who denied even being in Afghanistan when he was alleged to have been at a training camp. On investigating the file of the prisoner who made the allegation, the officer discovered that he had actually made groundless accusations against 60 prisoners in total. Despite this, both Farouq Saif and Mohammed al-Tumani remain in Guantánamo, and no one has ever established the identities of the other 58 or 59 men who were falsely accused.

Khan’s version was as follows. “About two years ago,” he said, “I was prepared to be released from here. At that point I lived with some Iraqi people and because they disliked me they were lying, they were throwing some allegations on me and that’s why my process has stopped and that’s why I have not been released.”

Shorn of these additional allegations, the case against Khan was summarized by his Designated Military Officer (the officer assigned to the prisoners instead of a lawyer in the ARBs), who stated, “Detainee argues that he is innocent of all the charges brought before him other than that he was associated with Musa,” to which Khan added, “That’s correct. Again, I had some association with Musa and also I had a bad passport, that’s the only things that occurred.”

Tricked by the Taliban

The other three Afghans — identified by Sami al-Haj — were captured in what appears to have been a sly act of revenge by a member of the Taliban against one of his former colleagues who had turned against the regime. The story began when soldiers working for Jan Mohammed, the governor of Uruzgan province, north of Kandahar, stopped a car containing two men, Ismatullah, a 25-year old embroiderer, and Nasrullah, his 23-year old cousin, identified by Sami as Nasrullah al-Rosgani (from Uruzgan), and Esmatullah, his cousin. Ismatullah apparently admitted that he had just delivered a letter to a third man, Mohammed Sangaryar, which was from Abdul Razaq, the former Taliban Minister of Commerce. Sami identified the third man as Mohalim al-Rosgani, which was initially rather confusing, but on Tuesday his lawyer confirmed that Mohalim al-Rosgani was indeed Sangaryar, and that he too had been released.

Ismatullah explained that he had been going to Uruzgan to sell his car, and added that Razaq had said that he would pay his petrol if he delivered the letter. Unable to read, he said that he asked his 23-year old cousin, Nasrullah, to read it, to check that there “wasn’t any danger in it.” Nasrullah said that the letter asked Sangaryar to go to Quetta, but did not mention fighting, even though the US authorities alleged that Razaq had asked Sangaryar to report to Quetta “to fight and avoid capture by the Americans.”

According to Sangaryar, the letter was actually a trap, designed to punish him for turning his back on the Taliban and to discredit him by making it appear that he was still involved with them. He explained that he was a former deputy commander of the Taliban, who had fought with them for many years in an attempt to bring peace to his country. He added, however, that he and his tribe had turned against the Taliban before the US-led invasion, because they had become too enamored of fighting for its own sake, and, specifically, because they had dug up the corpse of Asmat Khan, a prominent tribal leader, and had deposited it in the street as an affront to his tribe. When the American-backed warlord Gul Agha Sherzai took over Kandahar, Sangaryar said that he and his men handed in all their weapons, and he then returned to his village to refurbish his home.

What’s particularly bizarre about this story is the fact that Abdul Razaq (aka Abdul Razak Iktiar Mohammed), the former Taliban Minister of Commerce, was himself seized and sent to Guantánamo, but was transferred to Pol-i-Charki last August, and fairly swiftly released. Throughout these men’s imprisonment, there was no indication that any effort was made to cross-reference their stories, and this is, I believe, an appropriate note on which to end these two surveys of the latest prisoners released from Guantánamo, in which you’ll have no doubt observed that not a single one of these prisoners was actually accused of raising arms against US forces, let alone of having any involvement in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

As published on Antiwar.com, CounterPunch, the Huffington Post and AlterNet.

Note:

The prisoners’ numbers (and variations on the spelling of their names) are as follows:

ISN 798: Haji Rohullah Wakil (Haji Roohullah)
ISN 556: Abdullah Mohammed Khan
ISN 888: Ismatullah
ISN 886: Nasrullah
ISN 890: Mohammed Sangaryar

See the following for articles about the 142 prisoners released from Guantánamo from June 2007 to January 2009, and the eleven prisoners released from February to June 2009, whose stories are covered in more detail than is available anywhere else –- either in print or on the Internet –- although many of them, of course, are also covered in The Guantánamo Files: June 2007 –- 2 Tunisians, 4 Yemenis (here, here and here); July 2007 –- 16 Saudis; August 2007 –- 1 Bahraini, 5 Afghans; September 2007 –- 16 Saudis; September 2007 –- 1 Mauritanian; September 2007 –- 1 Libyan, 1 Yemeni, 6 Afghans; November 2007 –- 3 Jordanians, 8 Afghans; November 2007 –- 14 Saudis; December 2007 –- 2 Sudanese; December 2007 –- 13 Afghans (here and here); December 2007 –- 3 British residents; December 2007 –- 10 Saudis; May 2008 –- 3 Sudanese, 1 Moroccan, 5 Afghans (here and here); July 2008 –- 2 Algerians; July 2008 –- 1 Qatari, 1 United Arab Emirati, 1 Afghan; August 2008 –- 2 Algerians; September 2008 –- 1 Pakistani, 2 Afghans (here and here); September 2008 –- 1 Sudanese, 1 Algerian; November 2008 –- 1 Kazakh, 1 Somali, 1 Tajik; November 2008 –- 2 Algerians; November 2008 –- 1 Yemeni (Salim Hamdan) repatriated to serve out the last month of his sentence; December 2008 –- 3 Bosnian Algerians; January 2009 –- 1 Afghan, 1 Algerian, 4 Iraqis; February 2009 — 1 British resident (Binyam Mohamed); May 2009 — 1 Bosnian Algerian (Lakhdar Boumediene); June 2009 — 1 Chadian (Mohammed El-Gharani), 4 Uighurs, 1 Iraqi, 3 Saudis (here and here).

6 Responses

  1. True Blue Liberal » Who Are The Afghans Just Released From Guantánamo? says...

    [...] Read more Who? [...]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    After this article was published, I received the following comment from Tom Welsh:

    “Thanks for the briefing! One thing I have never understood is why the Americans believe that those who have spent years in Guantanamo would not come out hating the USA — even (especially) if they were innocent in the first place. They can’t keep them imprisoned without spitting in the face of justice, and they can’t release them without risking their vengeance.”

    And this was my reply:

    “Thanks for the comments. I think the answer to your question concerns the nature of violence and of faith. If you’re not inclined to militarism and violence, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will become so however you’re treated. As for faith, many of the prisoners have spoken about how their faith helped them through their ordeal, and, moreover, that it was God’s will that they were imprisoned, and it was not their place to question why Allah had allowed them to be imprisoned. In terms of being tested, there is, therefore, virtue attached to the endurance of unjust imprisonment.”

    On reflection, I think that last line should have read:

    “In terms of being tested, it’s possible to see that in some cases there is, therefore, virtue attached to the endurance of unjust imprisonment.”

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    These insightful comments came from a correspondent in Kabul:

    Dear Mr. Worthington,

    By a long chain of unplanned internet travels, I ended up with one of your articles on Guantánamo (The Huffington Post), and certainly plan to read the others in due time.

    Thank you for covering this shameful piece of internationally accepted, ‘democratic’, human rights abuse.

    I just hope that ‘closing down’ Guantánamo, will mean giving ALL its inmates a trial (I dare not use the word ‘fair’) in a reasonably decent court, and not sending them off to their home country, or any other one where human rights abuses and torture are common.

    In order to pretend its hands are clean, the Bush administration (I would not risk implying that he himself has enough brains to devise any of this) increasingly sub-contracts torture to less PR-conscious countries. Pontius Pilate would admire the scheme.

    But block D in Pul-e Charkhi prison is no solution to a human rights crisis. On the contrary, to survive 6 years in Guantánamo without going stark mad, only to end up in block D, is possibly the most cruel torture of all.

    Thank you again and kind regards.

  4. Bagram: Graveyard of the Geneva Conventions « freedetainees.org says...

    [...] be tried or released, and, if the former, whether trials should be based on anything other than dubious “evidence” recycled from Guantanamo. The overriding question about Block “D” – which lawyers are hoping to test in US [...]

  5. What is Obama Doing at Bagram? (Part Two): Executive Detention, Rendition, Review Boards, Released Prisoners and Trials « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] operations in Afghanistan from the very beginning, as was demonstrated repeatedly with the Afghan prisoners in Guantánamo. In his article, he explained that the military “needs to review its intelligence [...]

  6. Bagram: Graveyard of the Geneva Conventions | Dandelion Salad says...

    […] be tried or released, and, if the former, whether trials should be based on anything other than dubious “evidence” recycled from Guantánamo. The overriding question about Block “D” — which lawyers are hoping to test in US courts […]

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