WASHINGTON – Many of them say they are farmers, or shopkeepers, or goat herders. Others say they were charitable people who traveled to Afghanistan to help those oppressed by the Taliban regime. Still others admit they were training with weapons to fight alongside the Taliban but insist they never thought ill of the United States and certainly would not have attacked U.S. soldiers.
They appear alternately confused and indignant, exasperated and thankful, worried and hopeful. And in pages upon pages of their statements and questions and letters to the Americans who appear to control their fate, the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, largely argue that they did nothing wrong.
In more than 5,000 pages of documents released by the Defense Department on Friday night in response to an Associated Press Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the detainees try to make their cases, explaining that they were picked up by the Pakistani government by mistake while trying to flee the U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan in 2001, or that they love the United States and hate al-Qaida. Others, arrested with top al-Qaida suspects, say they do not know anything about terrorism and should be sent home.
The documents are the first public accounting by the Pentagon of who is held at Guantanamo Bay. Previously the Pentagon has blacked out all names when it released such documents. More than 300 detainees tell their stories – which are one-sided and presented in their own defense – while they plead with military tribunal officials to show them the classified evidence the government says it has against them.
Some detainees, including men who were arrested in Afghanistan shortly after the United States attacked, claim to be loosely connected the Taliban. They say they were swept up by overzealous Northern Alliance troops – U.S.-supported opposition forces – who turned them over to the Americans, who then shipped them to an island halfway around the world.
Qari Esmhatulla, for example, told the tribunal that he agreed to be a Taliban cook because his friends challenged him to do so, and he was with the Taliban for just four days before he was arrested by the Northern Alliance while carrying a radio and a few grenades. U.S. officials accused him of joining the Taliban to participate in jihad.
“Out of everything on that paper, the only thing that was right was I had the radio and the grenades with me,” Esmhatulla said, adding that he dropped the grenades and was unarmed when he was captured. “Other than that, everything else is false. I did not say or do any of those things.”
Abdul Rahman Owaid Mohammad al-Juaid, who traveled from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and then Afghanistan before being arrested by Pakistani officials, was accused of having ties to the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which was on the U.S. blacklist for allegedly financing terrorism. Al-Juaid said he took 10,000 Saudi riyals with him to Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad to help fellow Muslims.
“I went to Afghanistan to help the poor people and provide money to them directly,” he said.
One detainee, a Yemeni whose name was not included in the documents, said he met Osama bin Laden at a training camp in Tora Bora, but that the al-Qaida leader “was passing by and just said ‘hi’ and went on his way.” Another Yemeni was accused of saying that if he were released he would be a threat to the United States, and he responded: “This is absolutely false. It is outrageous. I never said such a thing as I would harm or threaten the United States.”
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Saturday that to get to Guantanamo detainees go through several reviews to determine whether they are enemy combatants and should be held. He said the government does not detain people arbitrarily and noted that some of the evidence against the detainees is classified for security reasons and is unavailable to the public.
“I think it’s easy to forget who is at Guantanamo,” Whitman said. “There are terrorist trainers, bomb makers, recruiters and facilitators and financers, would-be suicide bombers.
“These are people who are committed to killing Americans and killing innocent civilians,” he said. “The idea that they are claiming to be innocent shouldn’t surprise anyone.”
Defense officials have long maintained that detainees are treated humanely at Guantanamo Bay and that there is no abuse or torture there. Whitman said al-Qaida operatives are taught to make up allegations of mistreatment.
One detainee said the charges against him were concocted from statements he made after his arrest in Afghanistan amid allegations that he worked with the Taliban. He said he was abused by U.S. troops at Bagram air base and that interrogation and “punishment” caused him to agree with whatever the soldiers said to him. He said he began to tell the truth in Cuba because he was convinced soldiers there would not hurt him.
“I didn’t want to be with the Taliban; they forced me into training,” he said.
Some of the detainees seemed confused by the “combatant status review tribunals,” not understanding whether they are in front of a judicial court or whether they are allowed to call witnesses. If they can call witnesses, how can they get them there from Afghanistan? some ask.
A detainee from Kazakhstan said he was captured by Afghans and turned over to the United States but did not understand why he was in custody because he just grows vegetables. The tribunal officials tried to pry information from him:
“We are trying to figure out why you are here, the U.S. wouldn’t detain someone for two years for simply growing vegetables. Can you help us understand?” the tribunal official said, with no response. “Do you want to tell us why you think you are here?”
The detainee then answered: “I am here because I went to Afghanistan with my family for a better life. They captured me at that house, that is the reason why I am here,” he said, before he was asked if he grew poppies in his garden. “I don’t know what a poppy is,” he said.