Even as a US federal court recently declared Asadullah Haroon Gul’s 14-year imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay illegal, an eyewitness who visited the world’s “dreaded” detention center said many captives did not deserve to be there.
“Not everyone lodged there was a terrorist. Many captives were at the wrong place at the wrong time when they were arrested,” said Syed Nazakat, an award-winning journalist-turned-data analyst. He was the first Asian journalist allowed to access the US facility, located outside the US borders, in 2014.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, he mentioned the case of Ismail Agha, a 12-year-old Afghan boy who spent 14 months in the “harrowing” detention center.
“He was arrested by an Afghan warlord in 2002 and allegedly handed over to US troops for $5,000 bounty. He had been detained for 14 months and was released in 2004,” he said.
Located on the coast of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, 840 kilometers (521 miles) off Miami, the “Gitmo” detention center in the middle of US naval base continues to generate controversy.
Nearly 800 prisoners from 50 countries have passed through its gates since 2001. In the past 20 years, nine captives have also died in the prison.
Currently, 39 prisoners are lodged at the facility, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US, and four co-conspirators who face trial by military commissions.
Also, 10 of them have been approved by US agencies for release but are still being held. Among them is Saifullah Paracha, a 74-year-old Pakistani – the oldest detainee at Guantanamo and who has never been charged with a crime. Ten prisoners are facing military commission proceedings. One is nearing the end of a military sentence and is due to be released in February next year.
So far under US President Joe Biden’s administration, only one detainee, Moroccan national Abdul Latif Nasser, has been released.
‘Child detainees could be more’
Spread over 120 square kilometers (74 square miles), the detention center is administered by the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) and is staffed with personnel from the US Air Force, army, navy, marines, the Coast Guard, the Central Intelligence Agencies (CIA), and other investigative arms of the US government.
According to case files, at least 17 detainees who spent years in cells of the “notorious” prison were below the age of 18, and at least two were below 14.
“The number of child detainees could be more, as the ages of many detainees were deleted or remain unknown. Noting in files shows that the US army quickly concluded that the children were innocent. Yet they remained in Gitmo for years,” said Nazakat, who is also a member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN).
He said one of these children, Yasser, 16, had committed suicide. Quoting doctor at the Camp Delta, a temporary hospital inside Guantanamo, he said many detainees were suffering from acute depression, and many attempted suicide.
Obaidullah was 19 when he was arrested from his home in eastern Afghanistan in 2014. He completed 12 years in prison.
“He was nabbed in the middle of the night after US troops found landmines and a notebook on his family’s property nearby. They also found a borrowed van in the compound, with bloodstains on the back seat. The soldiers suspected that the van was used to ferry wounded al-Qaeda men across the border into Pakistan,” said Nazakat, now founder of a firm DataLEADS, India’s first data-driven platform.
Obaidullah’s lawyer, Maj. Derek Poteet, a US Marine, who visited Afghanistan thrice to collect evidence, found something shocking.
Poteet said two days before the boy was arrested, he had borrowed the van to transport his pregnant wife to the hospital. She went into labor on the way and delivered a girl in the van. Hence, the bloodstains were on the seat.
“In Afghanistan, men do not talk about their women. It is taboo to even talk about women in the family, leave aside their health issues and labor pains,” said Poteet.
Obaidullah’s daughter was born two days before his arrest, and his first contact, after being jailed, with the 11-year-old was via video call in 2013.
Bounties and Casio watches
Nazakat said the US military officials acknowledged that some prisoners were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Some were sold by Afghan warlords and Pakistanis officials for bounties. The US used to airdrop leaflets in tribal areas promising $5,000 per terrorist caught. In the fog of war, many innocents became suspects and terrorists. Some were picked up during random military sweeps along highways and at checkpoints,” he explained.
Some were arrested for wearing the Casio F-91W watch, which was seen as a sign of al-Qaeda. The CIA officials concluded that bin Laden had trained recruits to use this watch as timers in bombs.
“Case files of at least 50 detainees show they were arrested after random checks found them wearing F-91W,” said Nazakat.
At least 22 Uyghur detainees at Gitmo had also a similar story. They had fled their homes in Xinjiang province and crossed into Pakistan, where they were caught and sold for bounty. Nineteen of them have been freed and given asylum in various countries, including Albania and Sweden.
Gitmo was chosen by former US President George Bush because of its extra-judicial nature – as it is outside the US and its commonwealth, hence beyond the jurisdiction of any civilian court.
He said the facility, a virtual fortress, ringed by barbed wire, watchtowers, and surveillance cameras, has several checkpoints, and even senior US officials require security clearance before arriving on the island. To get there, one must first clear security in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, before boarding an aircraft to the Leeward military airfield in Guantanamo Bay.
After clearing security, visitors are allowed to board a ferry to the Windward base across the bay, where they are allowed to enter the prison camps after a series of checks.
No escape from Guantanamo
US presence in Guantanamo Bay began in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. In 1903, Cuba leased this bay on its southeastern end to the US to be used as a naval coaling station. In 1934, it became a US enclave after a perpetual lease was signed.
“There is no escape from there. What is not guarded by the sea is guarded by steep hills on the Cuban side. The US demined its side of the border in 1996 after (then) President Bill Clinton ordered it. Today, even if someone managed to evade the motion and sound sensors on the US side, he would run into mines on the Cuban side. Not to forget the Cactus Curtain, the 13 kilometer-long (8 mi) paddle-cactus fence planted by Cuba. At night, I could see the well-lit American fence twinkling like fairy lights in the distance,” said Nazakat.
Gitmo was divided into four prison camps for different types of captives. Camp Iguana, which once held juveniles as young as 12, also housed three Chinese prisoners. Most of the detainees in Gitmo were held in Camps five and six. Camps seven and 15 house high-value detainees.
“Every camp is surrounded by rings of barbed wire with separate gates. Many detainees are unaware that they are so close to the coast. They were flown in blindfolded, and are taken out only for medical care or to meet with their lawyers. Before they exit and enter the camp, they were subjected to a humiliating search. Guards slid a hand between the detainee’s scrotum and thigh to ensure nothing foreign was attached to the body,” said the eyewitness.
At Camp six, Nazakat saw three prisoners – two were seated and quiet, and the third, a man in his 50s with a long beard, was wandering around and chanting loudly. He peered out the cell’s thick glass window, wanting to say something.
A poem from Gitmo, Ode to the Sea, was included in the English poetry syllabus of Calicut University in India’s southernmost state of Kerala. The poem, which appeared under the pen name Al-Rubaish, was withdrawn later.
In 2006, 14 “high-value detainees,” all top al-Qaeda operatives, were transferred from CIA custody to Gitmo.
Obama failed to keep promise
With the departure of US troops from Afghanistan, civil rights groups have been urging Biden to fulfill his 2020 pledge to close the prison. Earlier, former US President Barack Obama had declared he would close the prison. But he failed to keep his promise after the US Congress in 2011 imposed restrictions on the transfer of detainees.
The Bush administration had transferred about 540 detainees out of Guantanamo by the end of 2008, and the Obama administration transferred nearly 200 out of the facility by the beginning of 2017.
In 2014, five Taliban prisoners were transferred to Qatar. Four of them are now members of Afghanistan’s interim Taliban administration.
In February, the US announced that it was conducting an internal review of how to close Guantanamo. Advocates argue that Biden can dispense with the military tribunals and allow the US Department of Justice to proceed with prosecuting the 9/11 suspects and others accused of terrorism-related crimes.
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