Detainee Cleared for Release Is in Limbo at Guantanamo
Thursday, December 15, 2005
When U.S. forces freed Saddiq Ahmad Turkistani from a Taliban prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in late 2001, the detainee met with reporters at a news conference and told U.S. officials that he had been wrongly imprisoned for allegedly plotting to kill Osama bin Laden.
An ethnic Uighur who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, Turkistani said he believed in the U.S. campaign against terrorism. He professed hatred for al Qaeda and the Taliban -- groups he said tortured him in prison -- and offered to help the United States. Intelligence officials and U.N. representatives told Turkistani they would seek to find him refuge, possibly in Pakistan, according to accounts he later gave his lawyers.
Instead, Turkistani was taken to a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, where he was stripped, bound and thrown behind bars. U.S. officials then strapped him into an airplane, fitted him with dark goggles and sent him to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in January 2002, according to U.S. lawyers who represent him.
Nearly four years later, Turkistani remains there, despite being cleared for release early this year after a government review concluded he is "no longer an enemy combatant." It is unclear exactly when that determination was made, but Justice Department lawyers gave notice of it in an Oct. 11 court filing.
Turkistani wrote a letter to his lawyers in recent months, in which he asked about the welfare of his family, whom he has not heard from in eight years: "Now, I have been under the control of the Americans for the past three years and eight months. Six months ago, I was told by the Americans that I am innocent and I am not an enemy combatant."
It remains a mystery why Turkistani was sent to Guantanamo Bay at all. Some officials and his lawyers speculate that he has been held by mistake. Or, they say, some officials may have believed he had intelligence value because bin Laden accused him of trying to plot his killing in 1998. U.S. officials have offered no public explanation.
Like a group of five Chinese Uighurs (pronounced wee-gurs) , Turkistani remains incarcerated because the United States simply does not know what to do with him. He does not have Saudi citizenship, and U.S. officials are having trouble getting his home country to take him back. U.S. officials do not want to send him to China, where Uighurs are seeking a separate homeland, saying he is likely to be tortured.
But unlike many detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Turkistani was not captured on the battlefield, nor was he a suspected terrorist. Instead, he was swept up in the confusion that marked the early days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and even as a potential ally found himself with no recourse to challenge his detention.
"The crowning irony is that he is an enemy of bin Laden, who was charged with conspiring to kill him, and we hold him prisoner today," said Sabin Willett, a lawyer who has filed a petition with the U.S. District Court in Washington on Turkistani's behalf. "It's heartbreaking that we throw people into jail to rot."
Turkistani is one of nine detainees who live at Guantanamo Bay's Camp Iguana, a less restrictive area of the prison where detainees have limited privileges including access to television and a few DVDs. Besides five Chinese Uighurs who have not been accepted by any country, there is a Russian, an Algerian and an Egyptian. All have been cleared for release but have not been given their freedom.
A former U.S. official familiar with detention operations said mistakes were made in Afghanistan, when some detainees were shipped to Cuba because space at the U.S. facility in Bagram was limited and there was no clear plan on where to house suspected enemy combatants.
"It's possible to get stuck there if you don't have a state," the former official said. "Particularly at that time, when there were a lot of people getting picked up in Afghanistan, cases people were unsure about tended to end up in Cuba. People did get caught up in the situation."
Another U.S. official familiar with Guantanamo Bay said it is likely that other "stateless" people will surface as the military prepares to release more detainees.
The Defense and State departments are working to return such people to their home countries, if possible, and have unsuccessfully tried to persuade at least 20 nations to take in the Uighurs -- including Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Turkey.
"The government is serious about finding a place for resettlement for the Uighurs and will continue diplomatic efforts to accomplish that goal," said Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a Pentagon spokesman. "The United States has made it clear that it does not expel, return or extradite individuals to other countries where it believes it is more likely than not they will be tortured."
Turkistani is one of more than 200 Guantanamo Bay detainees who have filed habeas corpus petitions in U.S. District Court in Washington, arguing that they are being held unlawfully and asking the court to order their release.
Turkistani told his lawyers that he was deported to Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia sometime in 1997, after he was jailed for alleged possession of hashish. Turkistani said he was given fake Afghan identification and put on a plane from Jeddah to Kabul because the Saudi government did not recognize him as a citizen. He said that Afghan officials detained him for six days before releasing him.
He said he made his way to Khost, Afghanistan, and befriended an Iraqi man. Before long, he and his friend were arrested by four Arab al Qaeda members. Turkistani said he was accused of being a Saudi spy, interrogated and tortured.
Fearing for his life, after 20 days of severe beatings and sleep deprivation, Turkistani said he ultimately gave what he called a "lengthy story" about how the Saudis had sent him there to kill bin Laden. He was turned over to the Taliban and held in Kandahar for more than four years.
Susan Baker Manning, another lawyer representing Turkistani who met with him last month, said he denies allegations that he tried to kill bin Laden and confessed only under torture. Bin Laden, however, asserted in a statement in December 1998 that Turkistani and two accomplices had been hired by Saudi Arabian officials to kill him and failed.
Foreign news reports have indicated that the attack, allegedly by poison, caused bin Laden's kidneys to fail and netted Turkistani and his alleged accomplices hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Manning said that the government has been challenging lawyers' efforts to represent Turkistani, and that he has become intensely frustrated by his lengthy confinement.
"It's entirely possible that it's just a mistake," Manning said. "The enemy took away his life for 4 1/2 years, and we reward him for that by taking away his life for another four years. He clearly opposed al Qaeda and the Taliban, and he still feels that way. He's not a huge fan of the U.S. anymore."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.