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Afghans Walk Free in Kabul After Long Guantanamo Detour

The 23 suspected Taliban were never charged. One alleges abuse, others disagree.

March 17, 2004|Hamida Ghafour | Special to The Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Twenty-three Afghans who had been held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, were freed from custody here Tuesday, many sporting denim jackets given to them by the American military.

The men, who were flown home by U.S. aircraft, had been detained as Taliban suspects for up to two years but were not charged. A U.S. military spokesman said they were released because they were no longer considered risks.

Upon being freed, several said they had been treated with honor by their captors, although one complained of torture and other forms of mistreatment.

"If you compare it to life in the village, it was good, except we didn't have any freedom," said Haji Osman, 35, who added that he was never told what he was accused of but said he bore no resentment. "The food was fresh chicken, fish, meat, rice and even bananas and oranges. I had no serious medical problems, just a toothache and headache and was given tablets on those occasions. I lacked nothing."

Another released prisoner, known only as Mohammed, countered, "The treatment was so bad, I can't find words to explain it. There was no respect for our culture and religion -- animals were treated better than us. If we did not follow their orders, they would beat us."

Mohammed, 27, said that some prisoners were prevented from sleeping for up to 45 days at a time and that a copy of the Koran was mutilated. He added that one American officer had taunted him by saying that the Taliban had been driven out of Kabul, the capital, so beautiful Afghan women could walk freely on the streets.

The former captives were flown to Bagram air base, north of Kabul, on Monday night and kept in a Kabul prison before being released to the custody of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Three additional captives, from Pakistan, were flown home from Bagram.

"They no longer were deemed a threat, and they no longer had intelligence value," said Maj. Michael Shavers, a spokesman for the Pentagon.

A Red Cross representative said the group was the largest yet to be released from Guantanamo. So far, 110 suspects have left detention there, and 610 prisoners, whom the Pentagon calls "enemy combatants," remain.

The Afghan prisoners were members of the Pushtun tribe from the southern areas of the country, with ethnic and cultural links to the ousted Taliban regime.

Osman, who owns a clothing shop in the southeastern province of Paktika, said he was sitting at home 15 months ago when soldiers came to his house and said they wanted to ask him two questions at their military camp. Instead of being returned home, he was taken to Guantanamo. There, he said, he was housed with 47 other inmates. Suspects who were considered dangerous were kept alone in their cells.

Last weekend, he said, "they just told me in my camp, 'You were captured by mistake. We apologize and the crimes which you have been accused of have not been proven. You can go home.' "

Osman's cousin, 18-year-old Noor Aslam, was kept in a cell by himself. He also said he didn't know what crime he was accused of.

"We were in the rooms most of the time but were given 30 minutes a day to take a walk and a shower. I was praying sometimes, reading the Koran and sleeping. I was thinking all the time, how can I get out? But there was no way to escape. We were surrounded by water."

Their cousin, Mohammedullah, said the Americans often received false tips. "Our people frequently feud with one another," he said, "and the best way to gain revenge is to tell the Americans someone is a Taliban or Al Qaeda."

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