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'Is This How You Treat One of Your Own?'

July 24, 2005|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

Cyrus Kar's zeal for 15 seconds of film cost him 55 days in prison in Iraq.

For three years, the 44-year-old history buff and business teacher had been working on a documentary about Cyrus the Great, the Persian conqueror who freed the Jews from Babylon and wrote the first charters of human rights. Kar had filmed in Iran and Central Asia. Iraq, the site of ancient Babylonia, was to be last. He hoped by then that hostilities would ease.

When the fighting dragged on longer than he anticipated, Kar went into Iraq anyway. And on a day when he spotted a bridge that looked like a modern version of one Cyrus had reportedly crossed on his journey to Babylon, Kar couldn't pass it up.

He never got there. Instead, Kar, his Iranian cameraman and an Iraqi cab driver he had hired that morning in May were stopped at a checkpoint about 90 minutes north of Baghdad.

That stop, he said in lengthy interviews in Los Angeles, 10 days after he was freed by U.S. authorities, began a "nightmare journey."

Based on the discovery of washing-machine timers -- often used by insurgents to detonate roadside bombs -- in the trunk of that cab, Kar was accused of being of a terrorist "that the president will hear about."

Blindfolded, shackled and handcuffed, he was shuttled -- in Humvees and helicopters -- to four prisons. His American captors posed him against his will with the alleged bomb components and kept him in solitary confinement in the same prison where Saddam Hussein and stalwarts of his regime are being held.

Kar said that during his captivity, he was pushed against a wall by an American soldier and had a hearing in which he was denied a lawyer, key witnesses and documents, but was informed that he had passed a lie detector test.

Less than a month after he was detained, FBI officials told relatives in Los Angeles that he had been cleared. But it would take almost another month, after his story had appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, and after the American Civil Liberties Union had sued in federal court, before he would be released.

Kar, a slightly built man who was born in Iran, grew up in the U.S. and holds dual citizenship, says the ordeal shook his faith in the government of his adopted country.

"I was under the impression that we had gone to liberate a society from a brutal fascist dictator, and I was all for it," he said. "The fact that I was abandoned by my own government was the hardest part of my incarceration."

Kar's story, based on seven hours of interviews in Los Angeles, offers a window into the experience of being a captive of the U.S. military in Iraq. The version he recounted here is more critical than the version he gave reporters in Baghdad on the day he was released.

Much of what he describes was verified independently by The Times through interviews and documents.

U.S. officials have cleared Kar. The Pentagon acknowledged last week that his imprisonment "was difficult for Mr. Kar and his family, but it was essential to conduct a thorough and complete investigation

The Pentagon noted that the presence of timers, which have been used in improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have killed and wounded 42 U.S. soldiers and 45 Iraqis since January, justified Kar's detention.

"Clearly, the presence of these potential IED components offered a strong basis for apprehension and detention," Lt. Col. John A. Skinner, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mail response to questions about the case.

"While it is understandable why someone who is ultimately found not to pose a threat would be frustrated by their detention, a very serious, deliberate and methodical process is followed," the statement said.

But Kar said U.S. officials knew early in the process that he was not connected to the timers or terrorism. He expressed serious doubts that he would have been freed but for attention from the media and help from the International Committee of the Red Cross, ACLU lawyer Mark Rosenbaum and his colleagues.

History as a Hobby

Kar has a bachelor's degree in business administration from San Jose State and a master's degree in technology management from Pepperdine. He has worked in Silicon Valley and taught graduate business courses online through the University of Phoenix. But on his resume, where some people might list sports as hobby, he lists "history." His apartment is filled with documentary videotapes and history books.

He became fascinated with Cyrus the Great after a visit to Tehran, where his divorced mother still lives, three years ago. Kar's namesake, he learned, had conquered Babylonia, then ruled it by a strict written code of human rights that later influenced Thomas Jefferson. Cyrus the Great's life seemed to represent the two cultures Kar held dearest.

Kar decided to do a documentary. The project became his passion. For three years, he researched and filmed in the United States, Turkey, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, while teaching part time and living in a modest Los Feliz apartment.

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