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Obama's Guantanamo decision having repercussions in Afghanistan, Pakistan

The president's move to close the prisoner detainee facility is raising questions for governments that supported the Bush's administration's treatment of terror suspects.

January 24, 2009|Laura King

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — President Obama's decision to close the much-reviled detention center at Guantanamo Bay has drawn uneasy attention, both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, to government entanglement in the Bush administration's harsh treatment of terrorism suspects.

Obama's executive orders to shutter Guantanamo and conduct a sweeping review of U.S. detention and interrogation practices were welcomed Friday by leaders in Islamabad and Kabul, as well as rights groups and former detainees.

But advocates in both Pakistan and Afghanistan are demanding accountability for official acquiescence -- or active participation -- in past practices such as holding suspects without trial or charges, denial of access to legal counsel and possible abuse of detainees.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, both countries became key allies of the Bush administration in what he termed a "war on terror," and leaders voiced little public objection to what some critics call draconian U.S.-backed measures against terrorism suspects. Pervasive reports of abuse, however, helped fuel anti-U.S. sentiment in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, helping militant groups muster support.

In Pakistan, a new civilian government has been in place for less than a year, replacing that of former President Pervez Musharraf. The current leadership has repudiated many of the former general's policies, while continuing to ally itself with the United States. But rights groups have accused President Asif Ali Zardari's government of lagging in accounting for hundreds of Pakistani citizens who were picked up over the last seven years by security services without being charged or tried, some of them subsequently ending up in U.S. custody.

"This should be a message to my own government," said Amina Masood Janjua, the head of Defense of Human Rights, a group that has sought disclosure of the official Pakistani role in roundups of suspects. Janjua's husband disappeared in 2005, and she believes he is being held by security forces.

Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said Obama's shutdown order "raised the hopes of all who believe in the due process of law." Pakistan has requested that its six remaining nationals held at the U.S. facility on Cuba be repatriated, he said.

But Zardari is thought by most analysts to lack the clout or the political will to confront the powerful intelligence apparatus about its involvement in secret detentions on behalf of the U.S. and Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai praised Obama's move as a reconciliatory gesture, while indirectly suggesting that prisoner abuse had eroded public backing for the Western-led military mission in his country.

"This decision by the U.S. government is a most important step toward bringing more international support to the fight against terrorism, and enrolling all nations in this war," the presidential palace said in a statement.

Karzai, whose plummeting popularity could imperil his reelection bid this fall, has sought to distance himself from some actions by U.S. and other Western authorities in Afghanistan. Political opponents have accused him of doing little to prevent detainee abuse from taking place on Afghan soil.

Obama's decision probably will have repercussions at other U.S. detention facilities, including the large one at Bagram airfield outside Kabul, the Afghan capital. Human rights groups and former detainees have asserted that prisoners held at Bagram have suffered even more systematic abuse and deprivation of rights than those at Guantanamo. The move to close Guantanamo comes as a federal court in Washington weighs challenges to the legality of the detention of four prisoners now at Bagram who allegedly were seized outside Afghanistan.

The American military in Afghanistan said it had no immediate information on how or whether the presidential directive would affect any of approximately 600 prisoners at Bagram. "We will do whatever the administration determines is necessary," said a U.S. spokeswoman at the base, Army Lt. Col. Rumi Nielsen-Green.

Obama's move did little to assuage the fury of ex-detainees, some of whom have been described by family members as physically and mentally broken by their treatment.

Muhammad Sagheer, a 55-year-old Pakistani who was arrested in Afghanistan in 2001 and held for two years at Guantanamo, said he and other prisoners were "caged . . . like wild animals."

Sagheer, who filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the U.S. government in a Pakistani court upon his return, said he was wrongly accused of membership in Al Qaeda, and tortured by his U.S. interrogators.

"I hope all the inmates of Guantanamo will be released soon," he said, reached by telephone at his home in northwestern Pakistan.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, who became known as the voice of the Taliban when he served as the movement's ambassador to Pakistan prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, said Obama was trying to "get rid of the bad image" Guantanamo had created.

But Zaeef, who spent three years at Guantanamo before returning to Kabul, said the directive didn't go far enough. "He needs to restore justice to those who were persecuted there," he told the Reuters news agency. "There were innocent people imprisoned."

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondents Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Pakistan, and M. Karim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.

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