On Sunday, just two days after the Supreme Court's momentous ruling that the prisoners at Guantánamo have constitutional habeas corpus rights -- and as John McCain started a right-wing backlash by declaring, with Cheney-like hyperbole, that it was "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country" -- McClatchy Newspapers, whose 31 titles include the Miami Herald and the Kansas City Star, unveiled the timely results of an eight-month investigation into the stories of 66 of the 501 prisoners who have been released from Guantánamo since the prison first opened on January 11, 2002.
The results (in a series of articles, and in particular, through the prisoner profiles here) should be genuinely disturbing to anyone who still cherishes the illusion, persistently maintained by the administration, that the US military and intelligence services captured the majority of Guantánamo's prisoners "on the battlefield," that these men were thoroughly screened before ending up in Guantánamo as "the worst of the worst," and that throughout their imprisonment they were treated humanely.
Reinforcing the findings that I reported, with a wider scope, in my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America's Illegal Prison, and the statistical analysis of the Pentagon's own claims against the prisoners that featured in an influential 2006 report by the Seton Hall Law School, McClatchy's reporters -- led by Tom Lasseter -- demonstrate that "the dozens of separate tales merge into one: Arrests -- often without real evidence -- brutality and mistreatment in US interrogations, years of their lives spent behind prison-camp wire in a system of justice that no American citizen would recognize."
Although their focus is primarily on former prisoners from Pakistan and Afghanistan -- including a few of the several dozen pro-American Afghan tribal leaders profiled in The Guantánamo Files, who were betrayed by rivals, and whose attempts to clear their names were shamefully ignored by the US authorities -- the reporters also traveled to, or spoke by 'phone to ex-prisoners in nine other countries (Albania, Bahrain, France, Germany, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, the Russian Federation and the UK) to compile their report.
As well as confirming, from completely unrelated sources, that abuse in the US prisons in Afghanistan -- primarily at Kandahar airport and Bagram airbase -- was systematic, and that, for the most part, US forces had no idea who had ended up in their custody, the ex-prisoners also confirm that bounty payments offered by the US authorities added significantly to the failure to net worthwhile prisoners. To cite just one example, in the case of Abdul Haleem, a Pakistani known to the US authorities as Abdul Halim Sidiqi, who was freed in October 2006 after spending nearly five years attempting to persuade his captors that he was not, as they thought, a great leader who had "assembled some 2,000 Pakistani and Arab fighters to fight the United States and its allies," Lasseter writes, "Like most other former detainees interviewed, Haleem wasn't captured by US soldiers. He was rounded up by Afghan troops loyal to warlords who made a small fortune selling their prisoners to the American military. The higher the profile of the prisoner, the more money the warlords could demand. An al-Qaeda-affiliated commander, for instance, fetched a much higher price than an ordinary foot soldier."
The stories uncovered by McClatchy's reporters do not make for comfortable reading. Although they estimate that 52 percent of the men they interviewed had some sort of connection with militancy (these include Afghan conscripts, who had no choice), they also point out that only 11 percent appeared to have any connection "with high-level Taliban or insurgent leaders" -- and al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks don't even get a mention. These figures correspond roughly with the Seton Hall findings and also with the conclusions I drew in The Guantánamo Files: that, excluding a few dozen prisoners with genuine connections to al-Qaeda, around half the prisoners were completely innocent men, sold for bounties by opportunists or rivals, or seized through faulty intelligence, and the other half were Taliban foot soldiers, who had no knowledge of the workings of al-Qaeda, and were recruited to fight an inter-Muslim civil war against the Northern Alliance that began long before the 9/11 attacks. Sadly, the majority of the 273 prisoners who are still held in Guantánamo belong to one or other of these latter categories.
This is an important project, not only because it is thrusting the truth about Guantánamo into newspapers across the United States, but also because, even to those who are well-informed about the prison and the stories of those who have been held there, it reveals new stories that have never previously been reported at all. Although many of the 66 stories have been reported before -- 45 are available in The Guantánamo Files, for example, and of these 45 men, three, Moazzam Begg, Murat Kurnaz and Mourad Benchellali, have written books about their experiences -- others are reaching the world for the first time. Of the 21 stories not included in The Guantánamo Files, eight never made the final cut (for reasons of space), but the other 13 are genuinely new.
These stories -- of eleven Pakistanis and two Afghans -- are emerging now for one particular reason: the reporters' hard work in tracking them down. The majority of the prisoners at Guantánamo went through an administrative review process (the Combatant Status Review Tribunals) to determine whether, according to laws passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, they had been correctly designated as "enemy combatants" who could be held without charge or trial. The entire process was corrupt, not only because it was reliant upon secret evidence that was withheld from the prisoners, but also because even its unclassified evidence was appallingly generalized and generic, as a former insider, Lt. Col. Stephen Abraham, explained last year, in a court submission that is credited with swaying the opinion of the Supreme Court.
Despite these failings, it is largely through these reviews, whose transcripts were released to the public in 2006 and 2007, that the prisoners had the opportunity to tell their stories. The 13 men whose stories were unknown until now, however, were among the 200 prisoners released before the tribunal process began, and the Pentagon has never been obliged to reveal any information whatsoever about its reasons for holding them. Unless they spoke to the media on their release -- or were traced afterwards by lawyers, human rights groups or reporters -- their stories returned to their towns and villages with them.
It is to the credit of McClatchy's reporters that these stories have finally surfaced to add more pieces to the Guantánamo jigsaw, and, crucially, to give voice to those who were brutalized, dehumanized and dismissed as "the worst of the worst."
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