Some at Guantanamo Mark 5 Years in Limbo
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Shackled at the wrists and blinded by special goggles, the first captives from the U.S. war in Afghanistan were ushered to makeshift prison cells thousands of miles from the battle, at the U.S. naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, five years ago last week.
Gholam Ruhani was among them, the prison's third official inmate, flown in by cargo plane with the first group of 20 men. The 23-year-old Afghan shopkeeper, who spoke a little English, was seized near his hometown of Ghazni when he agreed to translate for a Taliban government official seeking a meeting with a U.S. soldier.
Ruhani is still at Guantanamo, marking the fifth anniversary of the prison and his own captivity. He remains as stunned about his fate, according to transcripts of his conversations with military officers, as he was when U.S. military police led him inside the razor wire on Jan. 11, 2002, and accused him of being America's enemy.
"I never had a war against the United States, and I am surprised I'm here," Ruhani told his captors during his first chance to hear the military's reasons for holding him, three years after he arrived at Guantanamo. "I tried to cooperate with Americans. I am no enemy of yours."
Now prison and prisoner are forever linked, joined by hasty decisions made in war and trapped by that fateful beginning.
Guantanamo, which is struggling to rid itself of roughly 200 of its 393 remaining detainees, served its original purpose of taking dozens of terrorism suspects and enemy fighters from the chaotic Afghan battlefield and elsewhere, administration officials and the prison's supporters say.
But after five years and more than $600 million, it has failed to quickly and fairly handle the cases of hundreds of people such as Ruhani, against whom the government has no clear evidence of a role in attacks against the United States, according to current and former government officials and attorneys for detainees.
In the administration's effort to obtain raw intelligence, officials said, it was easier to ship hundreds of men with unclear allegiances to a naval base in Cuba in early 2002 and ask the hard questions later. But with a government focused on interrogations, a bureaucracy lacking tolerance for risk and a detention policy under legal attack, the United States has found it difficult to free many of the detainees, regardless of the information it has on the threat they pose.
"We of course had to make snap judgments in the battlefield," said one administration official involved in reviewing Guantanamo cases, who spoke anonymously to avoid angering superiors. "Where we had problems was that once we had individuals in custody, no one along the layers of review wanted to take a risk. So they would take a shred of evidence that a detainee was associated with another bad person and say that's a reason to keep them."
That policy, and persistent reports of detainee abuse inside Guantanamo's walls, have provided rallying points for Islamic radicals, undermined international support for U.S. efforts to track down terrorists and ignited a legal effort that has repeatedly embarrassed the administration.
"Guantanamo took on a life of its own," said Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former U.S. ambassador at large for war crime issues. "What started as a solution to an immediate problem became both a more permanent place and a cause celebre internationally."
The White House and the Defense Department say the detention and interrogation facility they call Joint Task Force Guantanamo has been a success in protecting Americans and helping U.S. officials learn more about terrorist networks. Dangerous men are inside the prison, among them Khalid Sheik Mohammed, alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and Ramzi Binalshibh, who is accused of aiding him. They were among 14 detainees transferred there last year as the administration sought, and later won, a law that restricts detainees from challenging their imprisonment in U.S. courts.