By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
MEDINA, Saudi Arabia, June 13 -- Yassar Talal al-Zharani's life began on the Red Sea coast 21 years ago, included a stint as a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan, and ended on Saturday in a reported suicide in the U.S.-run prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The death united his friends and family here in grief and disbelief at the Pentagon's version of events.
They described a man who was optimistic, stubborn and too devout to have taken his own life. "He had memorized the Koran by heart. He was a strong believer. How could he take his own life and spend eternity in hell?" asked his sister Sohayla, alluding to Islam's punishment for suicide.
The death of Zharani and two other detainees last week has reignited resentment in the Arab world over the prison that holds more than 450 people, mainly Arab and Muslim men, almost all without charge.
The U.S. administration says most of the facility's detainees are hardened al-Qaeda radicals caught on the battlefields of Afghanistan who must remain incarcerated so as not to stage new attacks on Americans.
Zharani's father, Talal, a fit, bearded 52-year-old retired police colonel, said he believes his son was either hanged by guards or beaten to death by them. The body has not been returned; the father has asked the Saudi government to demand an independent autopsy and investigation.
Sitting with his youngest son and son-in-law in his third-floor apartment Tuesday, Zharani said that when the truth is revealed, it could lead to the closure of the detention facility. "When we expose their crime to the world, then the price for my son's life will have been the freedom of the other prisoners," he said. "I want Yassar to be the last person to die in Guantanamo."
Yassar Zharani was born in the coastal city of Yanbu, the third of nine children. He was the second of three boys, and he spent a lot of time with his mother and sisters and enjoyed amusing them. "He used to sing children's songs to make us laugh," recalled his mother, Umm-Muhammed, 43.
She wore mourning clothes Tuesday, a long-sleeved black shirt and long brown skirt, her hair in a ponytail.
She's not sure why Zharani went to Afghanistan, she said, adjusting her silver glasses. In the summer of 2001, he had just finished 11th grade, and he got permission from his father to go to the United Arab Emirates to take English-language and computer courses. The next thing she knew, he was in Afghanistan.
Zharani's father said he believes his son was working for a relief organization there and got dragged into the war after the U.S.-led invasion that October toppled the ruling Taliban.
But a young man who was recently released from Guantanamo said he had met Zharani several times in northern Afghanistan before the invasion and knew him as a Taliban foot soldier fighting against the Northern Alliance, the country's main anti-Taliban group at the time. The young man, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he was captured with Zharani in Mazar-e-Sharif in post-invasion hostilities and took part in a prison uprising there with him.
Saad al-Azmi, a Kuwaiti man who was freed from Guantanamo last year, said in an interview that he spent about a week in a cell next to Zharani's. "He used to be gone for hours," he said. "He told me they used to strip him to his underwear, bind his hands and feet together with iron shackles, and pour cold water on him. He said they wanted to know things about Afghanistan."
Azmi said he didn't get a chance to learn more because Zharani was moved. But right before Azmi's release last November, Zharani was still being interrogated, he said. "Word went around the prison blocks to pray for Yassar, among a group of others who were being pushed hard, because he was being interrogated through the night," Azmi said.
Azmi dissents from the common view here that Yassar did not kill himself. "His body was a bit frail, he was young. It wasn't just a short period of torture, it was years of torture. It's very possible he wanted to end it," he said.
Zharani was 17 when he arrived at Guantanamo, making him one of the youngest prisoners. Azmi and others who knew him there said that despite his youth he was always trying to cheer the others up, saying that it was God who was putting them through this ordeal and that He would end it soon. Because of the location of his cell, and his extensive knowledge of the Koran, he also often led them in prayers.
He spoke constantly about his mother, how much she must be missing him, and boasted often that his father treated him like a man despite his age, taking him out with him to adult gatherings and relying on him to drive his mother around in the pickup truck he'd bought him when he turned 16.
But he also had a temper. One former detainee recalls that Zharani returned his Koran to the facility's imam because he was disturbed that soldiers had searched or moved it, in his mind a desecration, while he was out during prison walks or in interrogation. When guards tried to return it, he refused to take the book back. Finally, half a dozen guards in riot gear entered his cell, shackled him and returned the Koran by force, the detainee recalled.
Zharani's letters from prison did not mention any of this. On Tuesday, his mother picked up a ream of letters scrawled in spidery Arabic writing. One letter, dated Dec. 30, 2002, contained these words: "And don't be sad if you are believers. God's deliverance is near." She read from another sheet. "Don't worry. God will unite us. I will be home soon."
Last month, with the release of 15 Saudi prisoners from Guantanamo, his family's hopes were also raised. Zharani's mother recalled that she was seated on the floor Saturday, praying in one of her daughter's rooms, when her husband came home from a trip to Mecca unexpectedly. "I told my daughter, 'Go see your father -- he's home. I hope that soon Yassar will walk in on us, just like that, unexpectedly.' "
But her husband walked into the room, knelt down beside her and hugged her. "He kept saying, 'Be patient, let your faith in God be strong, be patient, let your faith in God be strong.' "
She recounted the story calmly. "Then he told me that Yassar had been killed by the Americans in Guantanamo during a brawl over the Koran."
Her son was a young boy, she said. Why didn't the Americans just see what he had to say and release him? Why didn't they at least let her hear his voice on the phone or visit him? "Now all I want is his body back so I can hug him and say goodbye." She picked up a photo of her son in a skullcap and orange jumpsuit, kissed it and put it back down.
In the men's section of the apartment Tuesday, Zharani's father stood greeting the men dressed in the traditional Saudi robes who streamed in to offer condolences. Each kissed him on both cheeks.
"May God grant you patience," they said. "Our prayers are with you." Then they left. As soon as he sat back down, a high-ranking Interior Ministry official returned his call. The father was agitated but very respectful.
"Sir, how can we allow the Americans to conduct the autopsy when they are themselves under suspicion?" he asked. After a few moments of listening, he relaxed and smiled. "Yes, and an independent investigation into the matter by an objective third party." He hung up.
"The Americans can't be both judge and jury in this matter," he said. "We have to have justice."