(AP) Some boast they were Taliban fighters. Others – an invalid, a chicken farmer, a nomad, a nervous name-dropper — say they were in the wrong place at the wrong time when they were plucked from Afghanistan, Pakistan, or other countries and flown to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Their stories are tucked inside nearly 2,000 pages of documents the U.S. government released to The Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
Representing a fraction of some 558 tribunals held since July, the testimonies capture frustration on both sides — judges wrestling with mistaken identity and scattered information from remote corners of the world, prisoners complaining there’s no evidence against them.
“I’ve been here for three years and the past three years, whatever I say, nobody believes me. They listen but they don’t believe me,” says a chicken farmer accused of torturing jailed Afghans as a high-ranking member of the Taliban.
The farmer’s name is blacked out in the documents released by the government, which also redacted most other identifying information such as the names of cities, villages, and countries.
There are scant references to allegations of abuse at the prison camp in the proceedings to determine solely if detainees are enemy combatants. One prisoner even calls the camp “paradise” compared to a Taliban jail where he was given little food and had medical problems.
Another prisoner, however, claims U.S. forces in Afghanistan held him underground for two weeks. “They starved me. They handcuffed me, there was no food,” he says.
“I was surprised that the Americans would [do] such a thing,” adds the Briton, who worked in Yemen at a cooking oil company shut down after authorities said it was a front for al-Qaida.
Many of the prisoners portray their circumstances as Kafka-esque, similar to Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” where a man is arrested and forced to defend himself against a secret crime.
“This is not lawful,” complains one detainee who identified himself as a journalist. “If she [the tribunal recorder] has any secret documents against me, she should give them to you now.”
Because the U.S. government considers some information against the men to be of interest to national security, detainees were not allowed to hear all of the evidence.
Case in point: a 29-year-old accused of having knowledge of a terrorist act.
The prisoner admits that when he went to Indonesia after his father died in 2001, he dropped a name and flashed a snapshot to a man he met at a breakfast arranged by his mother’s friend. He’s posing with scientists, who allegedly worked for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, but he says it was taken at a conference where he recited the Koran.
The prisoner says the man — who thought the picture was proof of political prestige — later admitted to attacking the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. The conversation became fodder for one of the allegations against the Guantanamo captive.
“When I found out … that these were very bad people, I tried to get away from them,” the prisoner claims, adding, “I must be stupid.”
Another prisoner accused of being a member of “al-Irata,” asks what the group is — a question that stumps the tribunal president.
“As a court, how can you present it against a person and not know what it was?” asks the prisoner, who says he’s a Saudi fruit and vegetable merchant who came to Pakistan the month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks to fulfill his obligation to help Muslims.
The men complain of not having attorneys because only military-appointed representatives are allowed in the hearings. “It is unfair that the government is going to be talking about me and I don’t have an attorney,” says one whose calm testimony is punctuated by protest.
The proceedings began after the Supreme Court ruled in June that Guantanamo prisoners could challenge their detentions as enemy combatants, a classification that has afforded the men fewer legal protections than prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions.
Most of the prisoners’ testimonies at the prison — which now holds about 540 from 40 countries — haven’t been made public, though the tribunals were open to press coverage. Because of Guantanamo’s remoteness, it was difficult for reporters to stay for indefinite periods.
Testimonies from at least 60 prisoners have been filed as part of the habeas corpus cases challenging their detention in courts in Washington, D.C.
The AP-obtained documents account for nearly 100 testimonies.
The AP filed the request in November under the Freedom of Information Act, asking for testimonies, statements, and other documents. The government on Friday handed over the documents after the tribunals ended in January and the AP filed suit.
Most of the detainees proclaim their innocence, including one older prisoner who tells the tribunal he’s too crippled to have been an enemy combatant.
“How could I be an enemy combatant if I was not able to stand up,” he says, describing how he hasn’t been able to walk in more than 15 years. A witness testifies that the man had a stroke years ago and barely left his house except to visit the doctor.
The United States accused him of being a member of the Hizb-I-Islamic group that authorities said were planning rocket attacks against U.S. forces. Troops also allegedly found weapons.
The prisoner admits there was an AK-47, a BB gun, and an antique rifle that didn’t fire, but he says it’s common for villagers to have weapons for protection.
One nomad says he was looking for his lost goats when he and his brother were captured. U.S. officials say they were captured near an explosive device. Much of Afghanistan is heavily mined.
“How do you move from place to place?” asked the tribunal member. “What do you use for transport? Do you have a vehicle?”
“A camel,” the prisoner says. “I am not against America.”
One detainee whose name was found on a document recovered at a former Afghan residence of Osama bin Laden argues that’s “literally meaningless” because in his Saudi tribe “there are literally millions that share” his name, including two other detainees.
Questions by tribunal members indicate they’re aware of possible cases of mistaken identity.
“In your village, are there other people with the name [blacked out]?” one asks a 47-year-old, who answers yes. The man is accused of being bodyguard to a person suspected of mounting a March 2003 ambush on a convoy in which a Red Cross member was killed.
One 25-year-old prisoner testifies that not only wasn’t he an enemy combatant, but he was a bodyguard for Afghanistan’s U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai. He says his military training came by “order of American officers.”
Many of the men testify they were against the Taliban — though some boasted of fighting with the militia that protected al-Qaida leader Bin Laden before the U.S. military attacked them.
“It was my obligation, my duty,” says one prisoner.
Some challenge the definition of enemy combatant, admitting they were fighting foreign occupation in their regions but were not against the United States or its allies.
One prisoner accused of being a member of the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, a Pakistani group with alleged links to al-Qaida, points to the disputed territory of Kashmir and says the struggle was backed by Pakistan, an ally of the United States. India and Pakistan claim Kashmir.
“If you consider this organization a terrorist organization, then you should consider the Pakistan government a terrorist country,” he says.
One of the longest filings came from Feroz Abbasi, a British prisoner freed from Guantanamo this year. U.S. authorities accused Abbasi of training at a camp run by al-Qaida in Afghanistan and meeting bin Laden, but he was never charged.
He denies the U.S. allegations and provides tribunal members with more than 100 pages of a scribbled biography that talks of a painful puberty and suicidal college years outside London.
Abbasi began his testimony by quoting Malcolm X, the slain black Muslim leader: “I did not come here to condemn America. I want to make that very clear. I came here to tell the truth and if the truth condemns American then she stands condemned.”
Later Abbasi was kicked out of the proceedings for engaging in a heated debate about international law with the tribunal president, who snaps, “I don’t care about international law. I don’t want to hear the words international law again.”
The transcripts also include poignant vignettes, such as a tribunal member commiserating with a detainee who says 12 family members including his children and his brother’s children were killed by an American bomb on their village in remote mountains of Afghanistan.
And there are amusing moments.
A man who says he was forced by the Taliban to serve as deputy minister of intelligence says he stopped working when the Americans attacked Kabul, the Afghan capital.
Tribunal member: So when there was fighting in Kabul you were not there serving as deputy minister?
Detainee: No. When the bombardment started in Kabul, I left my job and went home.
Tribunal member: That’s a pretty good indicator that it’s time to punch the clock out.