By Josh White and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 5, 2006
Many of them say they are farmers or shopkeepers or herdsmen. Others say they were charitable people who traveled to Afghanistan to help those oppressed by the Taliban government. Still others admit they were training with weapons to fight alongside the Taliban but insist they never thought ill of the United States and certainly would not have attacked U.S. soldiers.
They appear alternately confused and indignant, exasperated and thankful, worried and hopeful. And in pages upon pages of their statements and questions and letters to the Americans who appear to control their fate, the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, largely argue that they did nothing wrong.
In more than 5,000 pages of documents released Friday night by the Defense Department in response to an Associated Press Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the detainees try to make their cases, explaining that they were picked up by the Pakistani government by mistake while trying to flee the U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan in 2001, or that they love the United States and hate al-Qaeda. Others, arrested with top al-Qaeda suspects, say they do not know anything about terrorism and should be sent home.
The documents are the first public accounting by the Pentagon of who is held at Guantanamo Bay. Previously, the Pentagon blacked out all names when it released such documents. More than 300 detainees tell their stories -- which are one-sided and presented in their own defense -- while they plead with military tribunal officials to show them the classified evidence the government says it has against them.
Some detainees, including men who were arrested in Afghanistan shortly after the United States attacked, claim to be loosely connected with the Taliban. They say they were swept up by overzealous Northern Alliance troops -- U.S.-supported opposition forces -- who turned them over to the Americans, who then shipped them to an island halfway around the world.
Qari Esmhatulla, for example, told the tribunal that he agreed to be a Taliban cook because his friends challenged him to do so, and he was with the Taliban for just four days before he was arrested by the Northern Alliance while carrying a radio and a few grenades. U.S. officials accused him of joining the Taliban to participate in jihad.
"Out of everything on that paper, the only thing that was right was I had the radio and the grenades with me," Esmhatulla said, adding that he dropped the grenades and was unarmed when he was captured. "Other than that, everything else is false. I did not say or do any of those things."
Abdul Rahman Owaid Mohammad al-Juaid, who traveled from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and then Afghanistan before being arrested by Pakistani officials, was accused of having ties to the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which was on the U.S. blacklist for allegedly financing terrorism. Al-Juaid said he took 10,000 Saudi riyals with him to Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad to help fellow Muslims.
"I went to Afghanistan to help the poor people and provide money to them directly," he said.
One detainee, a Yemeni whose name was not included in the documents, said he met Osama bin Laden at a training camp in Tora Bora, but that the al-Qaeda leader "was passing by and just said 'hi' and went on his way." Another Yemeni was accused of saying that if he were released he would be a threat to the United States, and he responded: "This is absolutely false. It is outrageous. I never said such a thing as I would harm or threaten the United States."
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday that to get to Guantanamo, detainees go through several reviews to determine whether they are enemy combatants and should be held. He said the government does not detain people arbitrarily, and noted that some of the evidence against the detainees is classified for security reasons and is unavailable to the public.
"I think it's easy to forget who is at Guantanamo," Whitman said. "There are terrorist trainers, bomb makers, recruiters and facilitators and financers, would-be suicide bombers.
"These are people who are committed to killing Americans and killing innocent civilians," he said. "The idea that they are claiming to be innocent shouldn't surprise anyone."
Defense officials have long maintained that detainees are treated humanely at Guantanamo Bay and that there is no abuse or torture there. Whitman said al-Qaeda operatives are taught to make up allegations of mistreatment.
Although it is nearly impossible to determine if their claims are true, several detainees alleged abuse at the hands of their U.S. captors. Some traced the abuse to jails in Afghanistan, others to sites in different countries where they had been taken before Cuba.
One detainee said the charges against him were concocted from statements he made after his arrest in Afghanistan amid allegations that he worked with the Taliban. He said he was abused by U.S. troops at Bagram air base, and that interrogation and "punishment" caused him to agree with whatever the troops said to him. He said he began to tell the truth in Cuba because he was convinced soldiers there would not hurt him.
"I didn't want to be with the Taliban, they forced me into training," he said.
Some of the detainees seemed confused by the "combatant status review tribunals," not understanding whether they are in front of a judicial court or whether they are allowed to call witnesses. If they can call witnesses, how can they get them there from Afghanistan? some ask.
A detainee from Kazakhstan said he was captured by Afghans and turned over to the United States, but did not understand why he was in custody because he just grows vegetables. The tribunal officials tried to pry information from him.
"We are trying to figure out why you are here, the U.S. wouldn't detain someone for two years for simply growing vegetables. Can you help us understand?" the tribunal official said, with no response. "Do you want to tell us why you think you are here?"
The detainee then answered: "I am here because I went to Afghanistan with my family for a better life. They captured me at that house, that is the reason why I am here," he said, before he was asked if he grew poppies in his garden. "I don't know what a poppy is," he said.
Said Amir Jan, like some others, said he ended up in Guantanamo because "somebody got paid by turning in people, those are the people who should be here, not us." Detainees said Pakistani officials were paid bounties of as much as $10,000 to turn over suspects, making a business off the war.
"When Americans came to Afghanistan, I was in prison, we were cheering and screaming. We were going to be released and the Taliban isn't in power. How could I be so bad to turn around and fight against the people who released me from prison?" Jan said, before asking for help from the tribunal. "Please, I am hoping that you guys, very beautiful lady, look at my case, study, try to find out who I am, and decide about me."
One detainee who has been ruled to be "no longer an enemy combatant" and has been freed -- Egyptian Sami al-Laithi -- told the tribunal that he thought the review process was unfair. He said the definition of the term "enemy combatant" was so broad that it could not be understood.
"The American military is my adversary, and all the laws require that the panel or the board have to be third party, that is completely neutral and has nothing to do with adversaries," al-Laithi said, before a tribunal official explained that it was an administrative proceeding, not a legal one. "If the adversary is my judge, also I should not expect any justice uphold."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.