Rights & Freedoms

Freed at Last: Three Afghans sent to Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003 are finally home


Hamidullah, who has been freed after 16 years in detention in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and the UAE, is finally home in Kabul. Two other Afghans sent to the UAE, Obaidullah and Mohammed Kamin, both from Khost, have also been released and allowed to return to their families. (Photo: The New York Times' “Guantanamo Docket”)

Hamidullah, who has been freed after 16 years in detention in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and the UAE, is finally home in Kabul. Two other Afghans sent to the UAE, Obaidullah and Mohammed Kamin, both from Khost, have also been released and allowed to return to their families. (Photo: The New York Times' “Guantanamo Docket”)

Three Afghans, who were detained and rendered to the US detention camp in Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and 2003, and then transferred to the United Arab Emirates 2016 and what turned out to be further incarceration, have been released. Obaidullah and Mohammed Karim from Khost and Hamidullah from Kabul have also been allowed to return home to Afghanistan and are now with their families. A fourth man, Wali Mohammed, is still in the UAE. The four featured in a major 2016 AAN report on the experiences of Afghans in Guantanamo which looked at their cases in detail. It found the US allegations against them far-fetched and their files to be full of factual errors and gross misunderstandings. AAN’s Kate Clark has been following the latest developments (with input Ali Mohammad Sabawoon).

News that three of the four Afghans transferred from Guantanamo to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had been released from Emirati custody and repatriated came through on 23 December 2019. The three men had been incarcerated for the best part of two decades: detained by the US in Afghanistan – or by Pakistan which handed them over to the US – in 2002 or 2003. They were then rendered to Guantanamo and held there until they were transferred to the Gulf in 2016. Three of the four men sent to the UAE have given detailed accounts of having been tortured. (The fourth, Hamidullah, has not spoken about the matter.) President Obama, after having failed to close the prison camp itself, worked to get as many detainees out of Guantanamo before he left office in January 2017 and these transfers were part of that drive.

Two other Afghans were sent to Oman at this time: Bostan Karim, a businessman who had a plastic flower shop in Khost and Abdul Zaher, a choki dar from Logar. They were freed by the Omani authorities after a short spell in detention and have been resettled in Oman and their families allowed to join them. So far, however, they have not been allowed to travel. The four men sent to the UAE believed – as did their families and lawyers – that they were also heading for temporary detention and then resettlement and family reunion. Instead, for almost all of the last three years, the UAE authorities have held them in al-Rizan maximum security prison. The men were allowed family visits, but were not permitted to see their lawyers or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The three men’s release has come about because of the 2016 peace agreement between Hezb-e Islami and the Afghan government (for AAN reporting, see here). The chairman of the commission charged with implementing that agreement, Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel, told AAN that the government had been working initially to secure the release of Hamidullah, who comes from a prominent Hezb-e Islami family in Kabul – his father was the religious scholar, Mullah Sayed Agha Tarakhel, who died while Hamidullah was in Guantanamo. Then, Amarkhel said, the existence of the other three former Guantanamo detainees held in the UAE came to their attention. The government has managed to secure the release also of Obaidullah and Kamin and he said they are still “pushing for the UAE to send Wali Mohammed soon to Kabul.” Amarkhel said they had been talking directly to the UAE government. As to whether it had contacted the Americans before agreeing to release the men back to Afghanistan, he said he did not know.

The men who have now finally been allowed to come home are among the unluckiest of the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Afghans whom the US detained in the early years after 2001. As detailed in AAN’s 2016 report, “Kafka in Cuba: The Afghan Experience in Guantanamo”, the US military and CIA carried out mass, arbitrary arrests in this period as they sought information about the location of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and in their ‘hunt’ for ‘Taleban remnants’ (even though, in terms of rebel fighting forces, these did not really exist (1). Of those the US detained, 220 Afghans were rendered to Guantanamo. (2) Many were Taleban, including some senior military figures, but most were not. They included shepherds, taxi drivers and shopkeepers, children, the very elderly and individuals with mental health problems. There were also some significant non-Taleban notables and elders and those who had actively worked against the Taleban when the group held power. The American practice of paying for intelligence incentivised false tip-offs from Afghan commanders who used the US military and CIA to target their personal enemies, or to make money. The Pakistani state also handed over ‘terrorists’, again for money or for reasons of politics. Many detainees were tortured by the US military or CIA and their testimony occasionally led to further detentions. Almost all of those sent to Guantanamo were eventually released and repatriated, apart from the six who were sent to the Gulf in 2016 and 2017.

Two Afghans remain in Guantanamo, Asadullah Harun Gul and Muhammed Rahim (called (called Harun al-Afghani and Rahim al-Afghani in Guantanamo), both of whom were detained in 2007. Rahim was the last Afghan to be sent to Guantanamo and also the last detainee of any nationality that we know of who was tortured by the CIA and rendered to Guantanamo. Three other Afghans died in the prison. (3)

The cases against the four Afghans sent to the UAE

The US cases against the four men transferred to the UAE barely make sense. Moreover, their Guantanamo documents are full of strange assumptions and gross errors of fact. Full details of their cases can be read in our 2016 report, “Kafka in Cuba”, but thumbnail sketches are given below. The men’s names are given as they are most commonly spelt in their US documents, along with Internment Serial Number or ISN, which uniquely identifies each detainee.

None of these detainees were picked up on the battlefield. Nor were any accused of any specific attack. For the most part, trying to make sense of why these men were detained is more likely to succeed if, instead of looking at the allegations against them, the probable incentives, including financial or political benefits, of those handing them over or informing on them is considered.

  1. Obaidullah, ISN 762, mid-30s, from Khost. Detained by US forces July 2002; rendered to Guantanamo, 28 October 2002. Transferred to UAE and further detention, 14 August 2016.

Obaidullah was detained after an anonymous tip-off accusing him of being an al-Qaeda bomb-maker. He confessed to being a member of a cell, but retracted this soon after arriving in Guantanamo, saying he had been tortured. Evidence for this was presented later in court testimony for a petition for habeas corpus, when the state has to justify in court its detention of an individual. Obaidullah said he had been subject to sleep deprivation and physical abuse at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost. The state dropped parts of its case against Obaid rather than contest his torture claim in court. (4)

During a long-running petition for habeas corpus, much of the case against Obaid was shown to be dubious, untrue or derived from statements obtained under torture. For example, blood in a car he had driven that was alleged to be from wounded Taleban turned out to have been from his wife in labour. Yet, the many inconsistencies, wrong assumptions and errors in the state’s evidence revealed during the case made no apparent difference to the judge’s acceptance of the state’s evidence. In the end, the case rested on the original, anonymous tip-off by someone whose identity has never been revealed to Obaidullah and which he could not question and his alleged links with another detainee, a former business partner Bostan Karim, who was transferred to Oman in 2017 (and remains there). Whatever evidence that was not discounted or undermined during Obaidullah’s various hearings pointed to him possibly having been a low-level Taleban insurgent. However, nothing backed up the US claim of links with al-Qaeda or explained why it was deemed necessary to incarcerate him for so many years.

Moreover, certain US allegations against Obaid were simply bizarre, for example, that he had “helped coordinate the movement and activities of various foreign al Qaida” at a time when was a teenager and also did not speak Arabic and that he had hid and relocated to Pakistan “18 Arab al Qaeda members” at the start of the allied bombing campaign in 2001; the foreign militants fled several weeks later and quite openly. (5) 

  1. Mohammed Kamin, ISN 1045, early 40s, from Khost, imam. Detained by Afghan forces 14 May 2003 and handed over to US; rendered to Guantanamo 21 November 2003. Transferred to UAE, 14 August 2016.

 Kamin’s was the flimsiest of all the eight cases covered in AAN’s 2016 report. He was detained by (unspecified) Afghan forces in Khost city who told the US he had a GPS device with suspicious grid points stored on it. The US also deemed the make of Kamin’s watch suspicious; the Casio F_91 has been used in IEDs, but is also a global bestseller, owned by millions round the world.

The allegations against Kamin were, in any case, garbled. He was accused of being a member of, or affiliated to five different terrorist groups of different nationalities, not all of which actually existed: al-Qaeda (pan-Islamic), the ‘Afghan Coalition Militia’ (did not exist), ‘North African Extremist Network’ (did not exist), the Taleban (Afghan), Harakat ul-Mujahedin (Pakistani) and Jaish-e Muhammad (Pakistani). The US did not explain why or how this was possible. The US military also alleged Kamin had met “the Taliban Supreme Leader” after the war against the Soviets, a time when Kamin was aged between 11 and 16 years old and Mullah Omar was a village mullah in Sangesar, Kandahar province, several days’ journey away across multiple frontlines. 

  1. Hamidullah, ISN 1119, mid-50s, from Kabul, dealer in property and second-hand cars from prominent Hezb-e Islami family. Detained (probably) by the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS, and handed over to US August 2003; rendered to Guantanamo 21 November 2003. Transferred to UAE, 14 August 2016.

The US deems as suspicious the fact that Hamidullah is from a Hezb-e Islami family, even though the US also supported this faction during the 1980s against the Soviet Union. It also accused him of having welcomed the Taleban in the 1990s (many Afghans did). Yet the fact that he was imprisoned by the Taleban when they were in power because he was Hezb-e Islami is dismissed.

 The US accused Hamidullah of plotting to bring the Afghan king, Zaher Shah, back to power, although why this should have been illegal or the act of an insurgent is not explained. He was accused of being in league with a coterie of co-conspirators, including groups and individuals, anti and pro-monarchist, anti and pro-American, moderate and extreme, and several that are mutually antagonistic. They included: the Iranians; the Taleban; the anti-monarchist Hezb-e Islam; several stalwarts from Jamiat-e Islami (anti-monarchist) including Mullah Ezatullah (whom the Americans label as Hezb-e Islami) and Haji Almas, both now MPs; the monarchist, pro-American former minister of defence, Rahim Wardak and; the monarchist and notoriously moderate mujahedin faction Mahaz-e Melli, which had not fought since 1992, but which Hamidullah’s Guantanamo ‘Assessment’ document described as “extremist”.

Hamidullah’s files are also full of factual errors. For example: Mullah Ezat was said to belong to Jamiat’s arch enemy, Hezb-e Islami; Taleban commander Mawlawi Kabir whom Kamin was said to have “identified” was reported by the US not only to have been a member of the Afghan National Army (he was not), but at a date before the army was founded and; Hamidullah’s father was said to have been a founding member of the Taleban (he was not). Not only are these ‘facts’ wrong, but anyone knowing anything about Afghanistan would have known they were wrong. Even someone with access to the internet could have readily discovered the errors. Hamidullah’s looked to be a clear case of a man handed over to the US military by his factional enemies as the NDS was then controlled by Jamiat-e Islami. 

The fourth Afghan to be transferred to the UAE, on 17 January 2017, in the last hours of the Obama presidency, Wali Mohammed, has yet to be freed. However, his case is as strange as the others.

Haji Wali Mohammed, ISN 560, mid-50s from Baghlan, money changer at the Central Money Market in Kabul. Detained in Pakistan 26 January 2002; handed over to US forces February 2002; rendered to Guantanamo 30 April 2002. Transferred to UAE 19 January 2017.

The US accused Wali Mohammed of being a financial backer of the Taleban and al-Qaeda. Yet, when the Taleban were in power, he had been detained and bankrupted by them after a joint venture with the Central Bank went badly wrong. (NB The deal itself was not controversial.) The accusation that Wali Mohammed was anything other than a publicly-known figure with a legal money exchange and gold-importing business rested on hearsay – the reports of foreign intelligence agencies and one detainee saying what another detainee had allegedly told him about Wali Mohammed. He himself believes he was framed by the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, to protect one of its agents who owed him money after a tribal jirga asked to sort out the dispute had ruled in Wali Mohammed’s favour.

Wali Mohammed challenged his detention with a petition for habeas corpus in 2005, but only got a hearing in 2013, after repeated procedural delays and permission by the state to use secret evidence. The judge, after taking three years to decide the case, in 2016 dismissed the government’s allegation that he was an al-Qaeda financier as “not credible.” However, she ordered his continued detention because of what she believed was his association with the Taleban and the, by then, no-longer-insurgent Hezb-e Islami (Wali Mohammed’s sister is married to a nephew of Hezb leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar).

The parole-like body which decides whether to continue detaining Guantanamo detainees, the Periodic Review Board at Guantanamo, cleared Wali Mohammad for transfer in September 2016, noting, bizarrely, as he had by then been in American custody for 14 years, that his “business connections and associations with al Qa’ida and the Taliban pre-date 9/11 and appear to have ended.”

Freed, but their names not yet cleared 

None of these four men have ever been tried in a court of law. US assessments of the detainees were never about deciding guilt or innocence or determining criminal responsibility for example, for particular attacks, but about perceived risk. (6) Still, inmates have felt their guilt was assumed and they had to try to prove their innocence, although without the means they would have had if they were in a court of law. The US has set up various assessment boards over the years, but detainees were never allowed to bring witnesses or scrutinise the evidence against them. In some cases, they were not even told the exact allegations. At a review of his case in 2004, when Wali Mohammed got his first chance to speak publicly, he appears flabbergasted: how could the US accuse him of funding the Taleban and al-Qaeda when he was up to his ears in debt and the Taleban had put him in prison? In this extract from the transcript, he is being asked to respond to the allegations being read out by his Personal Representative (an officer chosen to ‘represent’ him at the hearing):

Personal Representative: The Detainee paid for a senior member of the Taliban to travel.

Detainee: I was buried in losses; I’d lost lots of money. Should I pay for my losses, or pay for the Taliban’s tickets? This accusation is not logical.

 Personal Representative: The Detainee purchased vehicles for the Taliban.

Detainee: I still had my own problems and bills to pay; I wasn’t in shape to buy vehicles for the Taliban. Should I pay my loan, or should I buy cars for the Taliban who had treated me brutally? This is not correct; you guys just think about it. (7)

From a transcript of an assessment hearing of Hamidullah in 2006, we can also see him struggling to make sense of the system of justice he was facing. Hearing allegations made by un-named sources which appeared to him to simply be based on misunderstandings, he repeatedly asks his captors to show him proof of his wrong-doing:

Detainee (through translator): I am asking you your basis for my capture. If you have any documents, records, or papers please let me know. Don’t just tell me that someone told you… You say I am al Qaida and I say I am not. Do you have proof of anything? It is up to you to show me the proof. (8)

As to the various petitions detainees have made for habeas corpus, they found American judges presuming the state to be truthful and barely questioning far-fetched allegations or correcting gross factual errors. The courts have let the state present evidence kept secret from the petitioner and allowed it to delay petitions repeatedly, often for many years, and without penalty. Judges have also spent months, or even years making decisions. “Careful judicial fact-finding,” one 2012 study of the habeas cases found, has been “replaced by judicial deference to the government’s allegations,” with the “government winning every petition.” (9) Guantanamo detainees have sought, but not found justice in America’s courts.

Even when the Periodic Review Board ruled that the four men sent to the UAE could be transferred out of Guantanamo, it did not formally decide the allegations against any of them were untrue. Rather, it decided the men no longer represented a danger to the United States “warranting continued detention.” The George Bush contention that those in Guantanamo were the “worst of the worst” has never been lifted. Yet from AAN’s study of these four men’s files and backgrounds, it is clear that none represented a threat to the US or its interests. Rather, they have been subject to extreme injustice.

Conclusion 

That the Afghan government has followed up on its citizens incarcerated in the UAE has come about because of its peace agreement with Hezb-e Islami. Without that initiative, it seems unlikely that anything would have been done for these Afghans detained overseas. Afghan ambassador in Washington Roya Rahmani, for example, told AAN that she had received no instructions regarding the two Afghans still in Guantanamo and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesmen said the detainees there and in the Gulf were the Ministry of Justice’s responsibility, rather than securing their welfare being a consular duty (both interviews in March of this year).

As of today, three Afghans out of the 220 sent to Guantanamo are still in detention, Wali Mohammed in the UAE, and Muhammad Rahim and Harun Gul in Guantanamo, while the two men in Oman, Bostan Karim and Abdul Zaher, are living freely, but not allowed to travel. Zia ul-Haq Amarkhel said the government’s efforts to get all the Afghans freed and allowed to come home would continue.

This dispatch uses material researched for a follow-up report on the fate of the eight Afghans who featured in our 2016 publication. We hope to publish that early in the new year.

 

Edited by Thomas Ruttig

 

(1) Most Taleban had accepted defeat in 2001, as the author wrote in her 2016 “Kafka in Cuba” report:

There would be no Taleban ‘resistance’ to speak of until early 2003 and even that was very patchy and extremely local; it took several years for the insurgency to really take off. In reality, for anyone who knew Afghanistan and was there in late 2001, the opposite was true. The Taleban’s defeat had been total. Barely a single Afghan had rallied to their cause and the collapse they had suffered – military, political and psychological – had been swift and absolute.” (p 9)

(2) The largest national contingent at Guantanamo were the Afghans (220), followed by Saudis (135), Yemenis (115) and Pakistanis (72).  In total, men from 49 nationalities were held there.  “The Guantanamo Docket” published by The New York Times.

(3) They were: Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, died 30 December 2007 from cancer; Awal Gul, died 2 February 2011, after having been recommended for release, reportedly collapsing after exercise and; Inayatullah, died 18 May 2011, reportedly taking his own life (spellings as per US documents).

(4) See “Declaration of Richard Pandis”, pp 7-9, 8 February 2012, and “Kafka in Cuba”, pp 38-40, for more details.

(5) Arab and other foreign fighters fled on mass through Khost city to Pakistan in November 2001 after Kabul had fallen, according to interviews with eye-witnesses undertaken for BBC radio, July 2002 (no URL available).

(6) The one partial exception here are the military commissions held in Guantanamo, although these have been subject to excoriating criticism by lawyers and human rights advocates; see, for example, Steve Vladeck, “It’s Time to Admit That the Military Commissions Have Failed”, 16 April 2019, Lawfare, and Human Rights Watch’s discussion of “The Guantanamo Trials” on its website.

(7) Wali Mohammed Combatant Status Review Tribunals, 2004, transcript, p 5 (see Kafka in Cuba, p 25 for more detail).

(8) Hamidullah Administrative Review Board hearing 2006, transcript, p 8. (see Kafka in Cuba, p 55 for more detail).

(9) See Mark Denbeaux, Jonathan Hafetz, Sara Ben-David, Nicholas Stratton, and Lauren Winchester, No Hearing Habeas: D.C. Circuit Restricts Meaningful Review”, Seton Hall University School Of Law, 1 May 2012.

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