In 1997, in a mud-brick room in eastern Afghanistan, al-Qaida interrogators were firing angry questions at Saddiq Turkistani. What is your military rank? Are you connected to Israeli intelligence?
Why have you come to assassinate Osama bin Laden?
Turkistani says the men whipped him on the back and legs with a thick cable and slapped his face. After about a month, he would have preferred execution to the endless beatings, and told them what they wanted to hear.
But that was only the start of Turkistani’s ordeal. The Taliban held him for nearly five years. When they were toppled in the U.S.-led campaign in 2001, the Americans shipped him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – as an alleged agent of al-Qaida, the very people who had tortured him in the first place.
He was “like a bird in the hand of a hunter,” said Turkistani, reciting a poem he wrote at Guantanamo. “It is in agony but … the hunter doesn’t have the conscience to feel for it, and the bird doesn’t have the freedom to fly away.”
As improbable as his decade-long odyssey might seem, Turkistani isn’t alone.
The U.S. military has never given an accounting of former Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo. But an investigation by The Associated Press has identified at least nine men who were imprisoned, beaten and tortured by the Taliban on charges they were foes, spies or assassins, only to be accused by the United States of being enemy combatants.
“I’ve run out of descriptive terms for what happened to them. It’s Kafkaesque. It’s Alice in Wonderland,” said Clive Stafford Smith, legal director of Reprieve, a London-based human rights group representing 39 Guantanamo detainees. “It’s frankly more than bizarre. It’s horrifying.”
The men’s assertions of innocence cannot be independently verified, though at least four have been returned to home countries without ever being charged. Three remain at the U.S. holding facility, and the status of two others is uncertain.
One of them, Abdul Hakim Bukhary of Saudi Arabia, acknowledges having gone to Afghanistan hoping to join forces with the Taliban, only to run afoul of the hard-line religious militia before he had a chance to face Americans in combat.
The U.S. government won’t comment on the apparent contradictions in some of their cases. “Multiple reviews and designations have been conducted since each unlawful enemy combatant was captured, to include during initial detention overseas to lengthy procedures at Guantanamo,” said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman on the issue.
Five of the nine men Turkistani and Bukhary, Jamal al-Harith of Britain, Airat Vakhitov of Russia, and Abd al Rahim Abdul Rassak of Syria – were held by the Taliban at a grim prison in Kandahar before the U.S. invasion. They have become known among Guantanamo defense lawyers as the “Kandahar Five.”
Other than Turkistani, all were accused by the Taliban, which viewed nearly all foreigners with suspicion, of spying.
The only one who acknowledges having any intention of fighting the Americans was Bukhary, who claims he came to Afghanistan to heed a Taliban call for jihad. He made the mistake of saying he had respect for Ahmed Shah Massood, the head of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and was thrown in jail.
“When the Americans came, he saw them as his liberators,” said Shawn Nolan, one of Bukhary’s lawyers, who visited the detainee, still at Guantanamo, in mid-April.
The story of the men detained by both sides is one of the stranger chapters in the controversial history of the Guantanamo prison, which was set up after the Sept. 11 attacks to house suspected al-Qaida and Taliban members. More than half of the 750 suspects who have passed through the facility have since been released, and only a tiny fraction of the rest have been charged.
When the Northern Alliance liberated the Kandahar prison in December 2001, Western reporters were allowed in to see the inmates, including several of the men mentioned in this report. They detailed abuse at the hands of the Taliban and said they were relieved to have been rescued. But a few, instead of being freed along with the other 1,500 men held at the prison, were turned over to U.S. forces.
Why they were brought to Guantanamo has never been entirely clear. Several of the men have testified that they were “sold” to the Americans by Northern Alliance troops.
Steve Sady, a Portland, Ore.-based public defender representing Rassak, said the “Kandahar Five” were eager to be taken into U.S. custody and that his client provided valuable testimony to U.S. investigators on Taliban abuses and should have received protection.
Turkistani said he was brought to a U.S.-run detention center at Kandahar airport, and told his story.
“At first I said to myself, this is a great country; if its people heard my story they will sympathize with me,” said Turkistani. “Unfortunately, the opposite was true.”
Before long, he says, “The bitterness of Guantanamo overshadowed the bitterness of being jailed by al-Qaida.” Even after his release by the Americans, he was held for seven months by Saudi authorities.
Turkistani vehemently denies he was ever a terrorist, a Taliban or al-Qaida supporter or a would-be assassin of bin Laden. Far from being a religious radical, he says he wound up in Afghanistan because Saudi Arabia deported him there for drug trafficking.
Now back in Saudi Arabia, he told his story to the AP from the gleaming lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Taif, a resort town on the slopes of the kingdom’s al-Sarawat Mountains.
Besides the Kandahar Five, the other four former prisoners of the Taliban identified by the AP investigation – a Russian, an Iraqi and two Afghans – found different routes to Guantanamo.
The Iraqi, Arkan Mohammed Ghafil al Karim, says he deserted from Saddam Hussein’s army and was later imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban for two years. He says he was brought to Guantanamo in 2002 so that the American military could learn about Iraq’s army ahead of the invasion of that country.
Lawyers for several of the other men still at the U.S. holding facility were reluctant to talk about their cases, or comment on the conditions of their confinement, given the fact their cases are ongoing.
For those men who have been released, freedom from Guantanamo has not meant an end to their misadventure.
Vakhitov, 30, was flown out of Guantanamo in February 2004 after the U.S. government declared him to no longer be a threat. He returned to the Russian province of Tatarstan, where he says he has been repeatedly harassed, detained and intimidated by Russian security agencies.
He works as a freelance journalist, translator and editor, writing under a pseudonym so as not to raise the ire of authorities. Vakhitov said in a phone interview he counts himself lucky, since the other Russian former Guantanamo detainees have all been either jailed or forced into hiding since their release from U.S. custody.
The Russian men were the subject of a March report by Human Rights Watch, which charged that Russian authorities had tortured three of them and harassed the others. Two were sentenced to lengthy jail terms on charges of blowing up a natural gas pipeline, after having been acquitted in a previous trial. The report criticized the United States for releasing the men back into Russian custody.
Vakhitov, who had been in hiding until recently, says he is still considering leaving Russia with his wife and daughter if the pressure from authorities gets too heavy.
“I want to live in my homeland, but I don’t know whether I will be able to,” he said.
Hardship has also followed Jamal al-Harith back to his native Manchester, England, says his sister, Maxine Fiddler.
Al-Harith was a 34-year-old Web designer and convert to Islam when he set off on a visit to a religious retreat in Pakistan in October 2001. He says he was warned the country was not safe due to deep anti-British and American sentiment in the days before the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, and decided to return to Europe by land via Iran and Turkey.
Instead, he says he was detained at gunpoint near the border with Afghanistan, and turned over to the Taliban, which charged him with being a British spy, beat him and threw him in jail. A couple of months later he was liberated by the Northern Alliance and allowed to call home. He told his family he would be back soon, but instead was turned over to the Americans and sent to Guantanamo Bay. Like many others, he claims he was tortured there.
Back in Manchester, al-Harith has struggled to find work.
“Once you’ve been labeled (as a terrorist) people always say there’s something there, and that’s stopped him from getting a job,” Fiddler said of her brother.
Of the four former Taliban prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay, perhaps none has had a more harrowing ordeal than Vakhitov’s compatriot, Rasul Kudayev, who since 2000 had been held captive by the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, was shot during a prison uprising, turned over to U.S. forces, and is now under arrest again in his native Russia.
He claims to have been tortured and humiliated during two years at Guantanamo, and again at the hands of Russian authorities, who accuse him of participating in a 2005 raid by Islamic militants in the North Caucasus city of Nalchik. His British-based lawyers say the charge is bogus.
Kudayev’s mother, Fatima Tekayeva, said her son wants only to be allowed to live in peace.
“He came back from (Guantanamo) as an invalid,” she said in a phone interview. “But up until today he still finds himself in hell.”
AP reporters Donna Abu-Nasr in Taif, Saudi Arabia; Ben Fox and Andrew Selsky in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Maria Danilova in Moscow; Fisnik Abrashi in Kabul, Afghanistan; and Tariq Panja in London contributed to this report.