An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi


In Jane Mayer’s recent investigation of the CIA’s “black sites” for the New Yorker (reviewed here), she presented a previously unreported story (interspersed with others that I cover in The Guantánamo Files) of the time that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed spent in the CIA’s secret prisons in Afghanistan, which included two notorious facilities near Kabul: the “Dark Prison” and the “Salt Pit.” She also gave a detailed account, based on comments made by his lawyer, of the experiences of Sanad al-Kazimi, a 37-year old Yemeni, who was held in the Afghan prisons from January 2003 to September 2004, when he was transported to Guantánamo.

Al-Kazimi’s story has been outlined once before, by the British human rights group Cageprisoners, which reported that he was arrested in the United Arab Emirates in January 2003, and was then “illegally rendered into the custody of the United States,” instead of being transferred to the custody of his home government. Tortured for eight months, he was then transferred to the “Dark Prison,” where he “endured further significant and continuous torture and interrogations for a period of nine months,” and then spent four months in Bagram before his transfer to Guantánamo. Cageprisoners reported that, during his detention in Afghanistan, he “endured horrific physical abuse”; specifically, that he was “subjected to sensory deprivation techniques, causing extreme disorientation and psychological stress, physical and sexual assault, threat of rape, and repeated plunging into pools of cold water while suspended in the air by a mechanical lift.”

In reviving al-Kazimi’s story –- and adding new details that have not been reported before –- Jane Mayer spoke to his lawyer, Ramzi Kassem of Yale Law School, who told her that his client had explained to him that, in common with others who experienced the living hell of these prisons, he was “suspended by his arms for long periods, causing his legs to swell painfully … It’s so traumatic, he can barely speak of it. He breaks down in tears.” He also said that al-Kazimi “claimed that, while hanging, he was beaten with electric cables,” and explained that he also told him that, while in the “Dark Prison,” he “attempted suicide three times, by ramming his head into the walls”: “He did it until he lost consciousness. Then they stitched him back up. So he did it again. The next time he woke up, he was chained, and they’d given him tranquillizers. He asked to go to the bathroom, and then he did it again.” On this last occasion, Kassem added, he “was given more tranquillizers, and chained in a more confining manner.”

After hearing of this treatment, one can only wonder how much truth there is in the copious allegations made against al-Kazimi in his tribunal in Guantánamo, in which it was alleged that he arrived in Afghanistan on 18 May 2000, “via the Karachi – Quetta – Kandahar route, using a passport obtained from an al-Qaeda facilitator, for whom he served as a driver,” that he “completed a 45-day military basic training course at a terrorist training camp,” that he swore bayat [a pledge of loyalty] to Osama bin Laden, that he served as a bodyguard for bin Laden from August 2000 to February 2001, and that he “stated that he was honored to be a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden.” It was also alleged, in relation to accusations that he “participated in military operations against the United States and its coalition partners,” that he “left Kandahar, and after a 30-minute drive returned to Kandahar to rejoin the fight,” and that, “during their egress from Afghanistan to Pakistan,” he and his family stayed at an al-Qaeda safe house.

Further allegations dealt with his purported activities in the Gulf, after his escape from Pakistan. It was alleged that he was “a participant in several operational meetings with a senior al-Qaeda official in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, during March 2002,” that he “received money to purchase a truck in order to transport explosives from Yemen to Saudi Arabia in the middle of July 2002,” that he received 100,000 Saudi Riyals (about $27,000) to cover the expenses for a forthcoming plot aimed at Dubai’s Port Rashid, that he accompanied an al-Qaeda operative to a flying club in Dubai, and that, while flying with an al-Qaeda operative, he took photos of an airport.

Although al-Kazimi did not take part in his tribunal (having initially agreed to take part), his Personal Representative related his responses to the various allegations in his Unclassified Summary of Evidence. He admitted traveling to Afghanistan, attending a training camp for 45 days, and swearing bayat to Osama bin Laden; crucially, however, he insisted that he “later swore against him, and was wondering why that second sworn statement was not put into this evidence.” He also “admit[ted] nothing” about an allegation that he was one of bin Laden’s bodyguards, and denied a number of other allegations that were not explained in the transcript. When it came to allegations that involved him travelling to Kandahar and staying in a safe house, “He stated that he wasn’t going to Kandahar; he was escaping and that he wasn’t at a safe house. He actually went to a house with his wife and broke down a door. He said he was running away from bin Laden.” In response to an allegation about “rejoining the fight,” he asked, “what fight?” and, as his Personal Representative explained it, said, “There were bombs hitting the house, his wife was injured; he was worried about their safety; it was not a safe house.” He added that he left the house in Kandahar about 6 December 2001, and hid under a bridge for the night, and said that he was trying to get back to Yemen.

According to his Personal Representative, he also said, “the Bush doctrine is fascist, but the truth is very important, which was why he wanted to go to the Tribunal,” and stated that, “when he gets out, he wants to stay in Cuba, and doesn’t want to go back to Yemen. He wants to raise chickens, but the way the government is, he stated he’s fearful the chickens would be considered enemy combatants as well.” His representative added, “He told me he had always told the same consistent story, and that the evidence generated was not logical,” and he also wanted the tribunal to know that “Osama bin Laden told him to go to Yemen to join with … a terrorist organization known for attacking Western buildings and bases, etc. He stated that he received a letter to join, but he refused to join … This is why, he stated, he swore against Osama bin Laden, and all these allegations are not true.”

Whilst it’s clear from al-Kazimi’s story that he is regarded as a “high-value” detainee, who is intended to face one of the 80 or so Military Commissions that the US administration still hopes to convene to try those whom it regards as the most dangerous detainees in Guantánamo, al-Kazimi’s account does nothing to suggest –- as with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed –- that torture produced reliable “intelligence,” and nor is it apparent that, having been subjected to such brutal treatment, his prosecutors will be able to press a case against him without the circumstances of his “confessions” being raised. Generally overlooked in the focus on the “big names” in Guantánamo –- including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Ramzi bin al-Shibh –- his case seems to be one of many in which the opinion of Dan Coleman, a veteran FBI agent interviewed by Jane Mayer for a previous article, Outsourcing Torture, is particularly apposite. These are the key passages:

For ten years, Coleman worked closely with the CIA on counter-terrorism cases, including the Embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. His methodical style of detective work, in which interrogations were aimed at forging relationships with detainees, became unfashionable after September 11th, in part because the government was intent on extracting information as quickly as possible, in order to prevent future attacks. Yet the more patient approach used by Coleman and other agents had yielded major successes. In the Embassy bombings case, they helped convict four al-Qaeda operatives on three hundred and two criminal counts; all four men pleaded guilty to serious terrorism charges. The confessions the FBI agents elicited, and the trial itself, which ended in May 2001, created an invaluable public record about al-Qaeda, including details about its funding mechanisms, its internal structure, and its intention to obtain weapons of mass destruction. [ … ]

Coleman is a political nonpartisan with a law-and-order mentality. His eldest son is a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan. Yet Coleman was troubled by the Bush Administration’s New Paradigm [a reference to the notorious “Torture Memo” of August 2002, which redefined torture as anything less than serious organ failure or death]. Torture, he said, “has become bureaucratized.” Bad as the policy of rendition was before September 11th, Coleman said, “afterward, it really went out of control.” He explained, “Now, instead of just sending people to third countries, we’re holding them ourselves. We’re taking people, and keeping them in our own custody in third countries. That’s an enormous problem.” Egypt, he pointed out, at least had an established legal system, however harsh. “There was a process there,” Coleman said. “But what’s our process? We have no method over there other than our laws – and we’ve decided to ignore them. What are we now, the Huns? If you don’t talk to us, we’ll kill you?” [ … ]

Coleman was angry that lawyers in Washington were redefining the parameters of counter-terrorism interrogations. “Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to someone who’s been deprived of his clothes?” he asked. “He’s going to be ashamed, and humiliated, and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There’s no value in it.” Coleman said that he had learned to treat even the most despicable suspects as if there were “a personal relationship, even if you can’t stand them.” He said that many of the suspects he had interrogated expected to be tortured, and were stunned to learn that they had rights under the American system. Due process made detainees more compliant, not less, Coleman said. He had also found that a defendant’s right to legal counsel was beneficial not only to suspects but also to law-enforcement officers. Defense lawyers frequently persuaded detainees to cooperate with prosecutors, in exchange for plea agreements. “The lawyers show these guys there’s a way out,” Coleman said. “It’s human nature. People don’t cooperate with you unless they have some reason to.”

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.

For a sequence of articles dealing with the use of torture by the CIA, on “high-value detainees,” and in the secret prisons, see: Guantánamo’s tangled web: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Majid Khan, dubious US convictions, and a dying man (July 2007), Jane Mayer on the CIA’s “black sites,” condemnation by the Red Cross, and Guantánamo’s “high-value” detainees (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) (August 2007), Waterboarding: two questions for Michael Hayden about three “high-value” detainees now in Guantánamo (February 2008), Six in Guantánamo Charged with 9/11 Murders: Why Now? And What About the Torture? (February 2008), The Insignificance and Insanity of Abu Zubaydah: Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Confirms FBI’s Doubts (April 2008), Guantánamo Trials: Another Torture Victim Charged (Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, July 2008), Secret Prison on Diego Garcia Confirmed: Six “High-Value” Guantánamo Prisoners Held, Plus “Ghost Prisoner” Mustafa Setmariam Nasar (August 2008), Will the Bush administration be held accountable for war crimes? (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part One) and The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Prosecuting the Bush Administration’s Torturers (March 2009), Abu Zubaydah: The Futility Of Torture and A Trail of Broken Lives (March 2009), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part One), Ten Terrible Truths About The CIA Torture Memos (Part Two), 9/11 Commission Director Philip Zelikow Condemns Bush Torture Program, Who Authorized The Torture of Abu Zubaydah?, CIA Torture Began In Afghanistan 8 Months before DoJ Approval, Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (all April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison, Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, The “Suicide” Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi: Why The Media Silence?, Two Experts Cast Doubt On Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi’s “Suicide”, Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq, In the Guardian: Death in Libya, betrayal by the West (in the Guardian here) (all May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney’s Iraq Lies Again (And Rumsfeld And The CIA), and WORLD EXCLUSIVE: New Revelations About The Torture Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (June 2009). Also see the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

For other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from Guantánamo (September 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), Seven Years of Torture: Binyam Mohamed Tells His Story (March 2009), and also see the extensive Binyam Mohamed archive. And for other stories discussing torture at Guantánamo and/or in “conventional” US prisons in Afghanistan, see: The testimony of Guantánamo detainee Omar Deghayes: includes allegations of previously unreported murders in the US prison at Bagram airbase (August 2007), Guantánamo Transcripts: “Ghost” Prisoners Speak After Five And A Half Years, And “9/11 hijacker” Recants His Tortured Confession (September 2007), The Trials of Omar Khadr, Guantánamo’s “child soldier” (November 2007), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Guantánamo’s shambolic trials (February 2008), Torture allegations dog Guantánamo trials (March 2008), Sami al-Haj: the banned torture pictures of a journalist in Guantánamo (April 2008), Former Guantánamo Prosecutor Condemns “Chaotic” Trials in Case of Teenage Torture Victim (Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld on Mohamed Jawad, January 2009), Judge Orders Release of Guantánamo’s Forgotten Child (Mohammed El-Gharani, January 2009), Bush Era Ends With Guantánamo Trial Chief’s Torture Confession (Susan Crawford on Mohammed al-Qahtani, January 2009), Forgotten in Guantánamo: British Resident Shaker Aamer (March 2009), and the extensive archive of articles about the Military Commissions.

6 Responses

  1. the Shackle Report » Blog Archive » tortured policy says...

    […] other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from […]

  2. “America’s Disappeared” : Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison « Muslim in Suffer says...

    […] other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from […]

  3. Torture Whitewash: How “Professional Misconduct” Became “Poor Judgment” in the OPR Report « says...

    […] other stories discussing the use of torture in secret prisons, see: An unreported story from Guantánamo: the tale of Sanad al-Kazimi (August 2007), Rendered to Egypt for torture, Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni is released from […]

  4. Judge Rules Yemeni’s Detention at Guantánamo Based Solely on Torture « SpeakEasy says...

    […] of the New Yorker spoke to Ramzi Kassem, another of al-Kazimi’s lawyers, who, as I explained in an article at the time, added further details, telling her that: [Al-Kazimi] was “suspended by his arms for long […]

  5. Guantanamo and Habeas Corpus: Judge Rules Yemeni’s Detention Based Solely on Torture – Dark Politricks says...

    […] of the New Yorker spoke to Ramzi Kassem, another of al-Kazimi’s lawyers, who, as I explained in an article at the time, added further details, telling her that: [Al-Kazimi] was “suspended by his arms for long […]

  6. Guantanamo and Habeas Corpus says...

    […] of the New Yorker spoke to Ramzi Kassem, another of al-Kazimi’s lawyers, who, as I explained in an article at the time, added further details, telling her […]

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Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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