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Ex-Inmate Alleges U.S. Abuse at Guantanamo

A Briton held for two years says prisoners were brutally beaten and sexually humiliated.

May 25, 2004|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, England — A Briton who spent two years in the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, accused his American captors of subjecting him and other inmates to a catalog of brutality: beatings, forced injections, sleep deprivation and shackling in painful positions.

Jamal Harith, 37, described how he endured a beating in which a guard jumped up and down on his legs when he resisted an injection of an unknown drug, one of 10 such injections that left him feeling woozy and disoriented. He said interrogators forced him to spend long periods in painful positions on his knees or bound in chains that cut into his skin. On some days, according to his account, guards chained him to the floor for up to 15 hours in an interrogation room with cold air blowing in, forcing him to urinate on himself.

Harith said he witnessed dozens of beatings inflicted by a team of guards known as the Extreme Reaction Force. A guard with a video camera often taped the incidents, he said. Inmates suffered broken arms and legs, and bloodied and swollen faces, he said.

Harith's account of conditions at Guantanamo echoed some of the reports of abuse at U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. He spoke with The Times last week in one of his first interviews with a U.S. newspaper.

Harith's detailed description of captivity in the secretive facility is difficult to confirm. But he said the evidence of wrongdoing in Iraq -- depicted in now-infamous photographs -- makes it harder to dismiss allegations that similar misconduct by U.S. prison guards occurs at Guantanamo.

"It's just like what was happening in Iraq. They'd say the same thing: 'Oh, yeah, really,' " Harith said.

"But the fact that you've seen pictures, then you can believe it, relate to it. All I can say is I have spoken to the people this has happened to. I have seen the effects. I have seen people beat up -- the swollen faces, the limping back or being dragged back. I've seen the effects of it. I cannot produce pictures. All I can say is what happened."

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller supervised the prison in Guantanamo before he was sent in March to run U.S. detention facilities in Iraq. Critics have suggested that Miller declared it was time to "Gitmo-ize" Abu Ghraib by introducing the kind of aggressive techniques used to interrogate suspects in Guantanamo. Miller denies this.

Harith insisted that he was wrongly jailed at the prison where suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are being held. He was among five British detainees sent back in March to Britain. Authorities there released them, saying they did not pose a security threat.

When the British press reported the former detainees' accounts of abuse at Guantanamo, U.S. officials asserted that conditions were consistent with the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of prisoners.

On Monday, the Pentagon said the five former detainees were not credible.

"Credible allegations of illegal conduct by U.S. personnel would be investigated and, as appropriate, reported to proper authorities," a Pentagon spokeswoman said. "The allegations being made by these individuals are untrue and not credible."

Harith and the other four Britons were released after lengthy negotiations between U.S. and British leaders. The U.S. has been widely criticized in Europe for allowing detainees to be held indefinitely at Guantanamo, where four other British nationals remain imprisoned.

Harith's recent treatment by U.S. and British authorities seemed to bolster his credibility. He is the only one of the five former inmates who was not held for questioning by British anti-terrorism police after his return.

The U.S. Embassy in London responded to questions from a British newspaper in March with a letter alleging that four of the men had trained with Al Qaeda and fought alongside the Taliban or supported extremism. But none of the accusations appeared to involve Harith.

Harith does not deny reports that British newspapers paid him and the others for interviews. Harith did not ask for payment for his interview with the Los Angeles Times. The lawyer for another former Guantanamo detainee canceled an interview after a request for payment was rejected.

Harith denies any ties to Islamic extremists and declares that those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks should be executed.

"I think they should be taken up publicly and their life should be taken, simple, I have no qualms about that," he said.

Harith told his story as he lounged at a picnic table in Alexandra Park in Moss Side, the multiethnic area where he grew up in this industrial city in northern England. The tall, rangy man smiled shyly at neighbors who treated him like a celebrity, calling encouragement and shaking his hand. He spoke in a restrained, deliberate tone, a soft chuckle intruding even when he recalled traumatic events.

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