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Friday, June 09, 2006

 

THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO




THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO is the story of four friends who set off from Tipton in the English Midlands in September 2001 for a wedding and a holiday. Two and a half years later three of them returned home. Their story is told through a mixture of interviews with the men, news archive and recreation of their ordeal.

Their journey took them from Tipton, to Karachi, Kandahar, Kabul and Konduz, where they were captured by the Northern Alliance, imprisoned in Sheberghan, then flown by the Americans to Kandahar. From there they were taken to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where they were imprisoned in Camp X-Ray then Camp Delta for more than two years. The Americans accused them of being international terrorists and claimed they had footage of them with Osama Bin Laden and Mohammed Atta. They were released when they proved that one of them had been working at Curry’s, an electrical superstore, at the time and the other two were on parole in Tipton.

The Road to Guantanamo is an epic journey - telling the story of Ruhel (19 years old in Autumn 2001), Asif (19), Shafiq (23) and Monir (22) their misunderstandings, ignorance, confusions and friendships as step by step they go from the safety of their small-town teenage existence to the heart of the ‘war on terror’.

On September 10th 2001 Asif Iqbal’ s mother returned home from a visit to Pakistan. She had found a girl for Asif to marry. Nine days later Asif set off for the small village near Faisalabad in the Punjab where his bride to be lived. Whilst he was in the village his best man called to tell him that he couldn’t come out for the wedding. So Asif called another friend from Tipton - Ruhel Ahmed. Ruhel agreed to come out to be best man. A few days later he flew out with two other friends – Shafiq Rasul and Monir Ali.

They all meet in Karachi. After a couple of days on the beach and in the arcades they visit a mosque with Shafiq’s Pakistani cousin Zahid. An Imam calls for men to travel to Afghanistan to give aid to the people. The cost of the journey to Kandahar is only £2.50. All five volunteer.

The next day the bus sets off for Kandahar. After a night's travelling, the convoy arrives in Quetta, in north-west Pakistan, where their coach hits and kills a man, and their driver runs away. Another bus takes them to the border, and they cross into Afghanistan. A taxi takes them to Kandahar which they reach around midnight, just as the first US bombs begin to fall in the distance.

The next day, the convoy travels to the capital, Kabul. Asif becomes very ill, and visits a doctor. The five men spend their time wandering around the city. Communication is hard. Urdu is their third language and they can’t speak Pashtu or Dari at all. Bombing continues in the mountains around them. Anxious to return to Pakistan, they pay for a minibus to take them and a bunch of others towards the border. Instead they are taken north, through the mountains, until they reach Konduz. They are now trapped in one of the last remaining Taliban strongholds in the north, surrounded by Northern Alliance troops led by General Dostum. They are taken to a house in the hills outside the town where the water makes them all extremely ill. Nothing happens.

They are taken back into Konduz. The city is bombed daily by US planes, and the Taliban forces stream into town, but after two weeks a truce is negotiated through the UN. The Taliban agrees all the foreigners should leave the city first. Monir is not with the others when he is told to get on a truck out of town. He is never heard from again.

The four others are told that foreigners have been granted safe passage, so they board a truck headed for Kandahar in the night. The convoy of trucks is bombed by US fighter planes, killing or maiming most of the passengers. Zahid is on a truck that is hit. They find him soaked in blood but still alive.

The four are captured by Northern Alliance troops. Along with hundreds of other prisoners, they are tied up and herded into containers. Ruhel Shafiq and Zahid are lucky. Their container has canvas sides. Asif is not lucky. His container is metal and airtight, and the prisoners begin to suffocate. Asif loses consciousness. When he comes round there are bullet holes in the sides of the container. Many prisoners are dead – either from bullets or suffocation. Asif has a gunshot wound. He licks the condensation on the walls of the metal container – a mixture of blood and water – to survive.

The four men are detained at Sheberghan prison for 10 days, and are visited by Red Cross officials, who notify the British embassy in Karachi. However, on 28 December, US forces policing the prison take the three Britons and fly them to a detention centre at Kandahar air base, where they are beaten and interrogated, by both US soldiers and the SAS. Zahid is left behind, and eventually imprisoned in Pakistan.

On 13 January 2002, Asif and Shafiq are taken to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, where they become detainees in the open-air cages at Camp X-Ray. Ruhel joins them on 10 February. A few months later, they are moved to the newly built Camp Delta, a prison comprising metal containers. During their incarceration, all three are interrogated by the US and MI5 (UK security service). They are tortured hundreds of times, and accused of countless offences. In May 2003, a video is discovered of a rally attended by Osama Bin Laden and Mohammed Atta - the leader of the September 11 hijackers - at which the FBI claim to have spotted all three. MI5 disprove this allegation as in reality Shafiq had been working at Curry’s, and Asif and Ruhel had been on parole back home in Tipton.

Eventually, on 5 March 2004, after over two years at Guantánamo, Shafiq, Asif and Ruhel are taken back to England, and interrogated in London by the Anti-Terrorist squad at Paddington Green station. The next day they are released without charge.





THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO

Additional background information about the “Tipton Three” and their experience detention center at Guantanamo Bay:

Executive Summary

Account of the Detention of Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal, and Rhuhel Ahmed in Afghanistan and Guatanamo Bay

The full dossier is available for view at:

http://www.ccr-ny.org/v2/legal/september_11th/docs/Guantanamo_composite_statement_FINAL.pdf

The three young men, Muslim British nationals who grew up near Birmingham, England, were held for more than two years under the custody of Afghani and American forces. After heading for Pakistan to plan a wedding in the fall of 2001, the three young men made their way into Afghanistan to do humanitarian work becoming victims of extraordinarily bad luck and circumstance. Finding themselves unable to depart Afghanistan, they were apprehended by the forces of the Northern Alliance during a mass surrender by forces loyal to the Taliban. This calamity gave rise to two years of interrogation, abuse, maltreatment, and deprivation at the hands of Afghani, British, and American military and intelligence officials. In their written statement and the film The Road to Guantanamo, the three detail the events leading up to their capture, their more than two years of detention in various facilities, and eventual release and return to Britain—all while never actually being charged with a crime.

While two years of abuse and mistreatment were to follow, conditions in Afghanistan were among the bleakest of their time in captivity. While under the control of Northern Alliance forces, food, water, and clothing were scarce. Sanitation was non-existent, with nearly all the prisoners suffering from head and body lice infestation, dysentery and exposure. Indeed, they were amongst a handful of prisoners to even survive their initial transport by Northern Alliance forces. After being packed into metal container with approximately 200 other men to be transported to Sherbegan prison they were not given food or water. Afghan forces simply shot through the container to provide ventilation, killing or injuring numerous prisoners in the process—including Asif, who was struck in the arm by a bullet. The 18-hour journey was spent in the container with the dead and dying. Conditions at the prison were only marginally better. In fact, the arrival of American forces only begin the long cycle of arbitrary beatings, abuse, and interrogation.

After being identified as foreigners by the Northern Alliance, the three were amongst a group of prisoners transferred by U.S. forces to Kandahar for further processing and interrogation. During the flight to Kandahar, they were secured in stress position while in the cargo plane. Shafiq’s description:

In normal circumstances the position would have been difficult to maintain for any length of time. Given that I was extremely weak and that I was suffering from dysentery, dehydration, hunger, and exhaustion it was impossible to maintain this position for more than a few minutes at a time. If however I leant back or tried to move, I would be struck with a rifle butt. These blows were not designed to prevent us from falling back or to adjust our position, they were meant to hurt and punish us.

In Kandahar the men continued to be held largely without proper nutrition, sanitation, clothing, or shelter (an increasingly grave problem as by then winter had come to Afghanistan). In addition to suffering the daily indignities and abuses omnipresent at the facility, all three were also repeatedly interrogated by American and British forces. After recounting their stories, they were accused of belonging to radical organizations and attending radical gatherings in Britain of which they had no knowledge. As the men did not provide the “correct” answers to their interrogators’ questions, these encounters often merely occasioned further violence and beatings. Asif recounts one interrogation by an American official in Kandahar:

I said I was not involved in Al-Qaeda and did not support them. At this, he started to punch me violently and then he knocked me to the floor and started to kick me around my back and in my stomach. My face was swollen and cut as a result of this attack. The kicks to my back aggravated the injuries I had received from the soldier striking me with a rifle butt. After a few moments the guards dragged me back to the tent. Whilst he was attacking me, the interrogator didn’t ask me any other questions but just kept swearing at me and hitting me.

Interrogators had told the men they would be transferred to Belmarsh or other maximum security prisons in Britain for detention and trial; however, after several weeks Shafiq and Asif were instead readied for transfer to location unknown to them—Guantanamo Bay. Rhuhel was to stay at Kandahar for several additional weeks for reasons which remain unexplained. Though split up, they all recount the horror of their flights to Cuba (the transfer involved a stop in a third country presumed to be Turkey). The conditions on the flight to Cuba were similar to their previous transfer, with the notable addition of goggles, earmuffs, and other measures to achieve total sensory deprivation. Shafiq describes one element of the torment of the transfer:

During the plane journey the shackles had been so tight that they really cut into me. I still have scarring on my left arm from them and I lost the feeling in my right hand for a long time because they were on so tight.

Arriving at Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray, the men were kept in the open-air 6’x 6’ cages that have been seen in photographs. They were not allowed to speak to one another, stand up, or lean against the edge of the cages. They were allowed out once a week for 5 minutes to exercise. They slept on mats and had to keep their hands over the blankets while sleeping, which was difficult to due to constant noise, the constant high-intensity lights, and intentional sleep-deprivation by the guards. Despite the heat they were only allowed 1-2 minutes to shower each week. They were also often only given 1-2 minutes to eat, with any remaining food then being taken away. Certain cages were exposed to near constant direct sunlight during the day. Each prisoner was given two buckets, one for water and one to use as a toilet. As the cages were out in the open, they also had to contend with snakes, spiders, and scorpions. Initially denied Korans or even the right to pray at all, ritual mistreatment of the Koran later became a staple of daily life, as Asif notes:

They would kick the Koran, throw it in the toilet, and generally disrespect it. It is clear to me that the conditions in our cells and general treatment were designed by the officers in charge of the interrogation process to ‘soften us up.’

All three were subject to numerous and continued interrogations by both British and American military and intelligence officials. Under the pressures of repeated physical abuse and the unceasing privation of daily life, all three eventually acceded to interrogators’ claims that they had come to Afghanistan for jihad—admissions which they interrogators often assured them would lead to a speedy dispensation of their cases. By contrast, the interrogators only pressed increasingly fantastical claims that the three laundered money for Mullah Omar or had known Osama bin Laden. They also describe the interrogations as often random, haphazard, and unorganized with officials from different agencies often forcing them to go over the same set of questions on repeated occasions or wait alone with a guard in the room for several hours before an interrogator arrived. Rhuhel notes:

I was interviewed every 3 or 4 days. The routine would be I was taken, short-shackled at the air-conditioner would be turned up to make the room freezing. The longest time I was short-shackled was about 6 or 7 hours.

The conditions of daily life improved slightly when the three were reunited after being moved to the purpose-built facility at Camp Delta; however, they were still housed in cages in open-ended metal shipping containers. Hunger strikes by the detainees led to the relaxation of some rules. They could now converse with one another, pray more freely, and were afforded the additional luxuries of pit toilets and two extremely brief showers per week. Nevertheless, the now ritualized beatings, deprivation, shackling in stress positions, death threats, verbal abuse, occasional spates in isolation, harassment from dogs, and other provocative actions by female interrogators continued unabated. The men, of course, continued to be denied legal representation or any other contact with the outside world—aside from occasional and frustrating visits with British officials (they continued to also be interrogated by other British officials, sometimes outside the presence of American officials). They were also refused adequate medical care, resulting in permanent, debilitating conditions in some cases.

The Tipton Three were released and returned to Great Britain on March 7, 2004.






THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO


Two of the “Tipton Three”, Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal were named as plaintiffs in a landmark Supreme Court case in 2002. A brief description follows:

Synopsis of Rasul v. Bush:
The Guantánamo Detainees Case Decided by the Supreme Court

In early 2002, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed two habeas corpus petitions, Rasul v. Bush and Habib v. Bush, challenging the U.S. government’s practice of holding foreign nationals captured in connection with its war on Afghanistan and al-Qaida in indefinite detention, without counsel and without the right to a trial or to know the charges against them. The Supreme Court, over the administration’s objections, agreed in November 2003 to hear the cases of the Guantánamo detainees together with al Odah v. Bush. The arguments were heard on April 20, 2004; in a historic ruling on June 28th, 2004, the Court ruled that the detainees have access to U.S. Courts to challenge their detention.

The Center for Constitutional Rights began this case in February 2002, shortly after the first detainees were sent to Guantánamo. Representing two Australians—David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib—and two men from the U.K.—Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal, CCR filed a petition seeking a writ of habeas corpus in the District Court for the District of Columbia. The petition challenged the Presidential Executive Order of November 13, 2001, which authorized indefinite detention without due process of law, as a violation of international law and the U.S. Constitution. It was shortly after 9/11 and a very different climate existed in the United States at that time: no other legal organization was willing to join us in our efforts, and CCR received scores of death threats and hate mail.

The core contention of the litigation was that the United States cannot order indefinite detention without due process. The detainees have the right to challenge the legality of their detention in court. To make that challenge meaningful, they have the right to be informed of the charges they face, and the right to present evidence on their own behalves and to cross-examine their accusers. The failure of the Bush Administration to provide these protections raises serious questions about their commitment to the U.S. Constitution and international law.








THE ROAD TO GUANTANAMO

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