Before Barack Obama left office, he released 10 detainees from Guantánamo to Oman. Among them was Abdul Zahir, a 45-year-old man from Afghanistan. Zahir was detained at Guantánamo for 14 years, even though the US government later admitted that he was wrongfully held. He was mistaken for another man who shared his nickname, Abdul Bari. Zahir’s story exemplifies the cruelty of Guantánamo and the policies of indefinite detention and torture, which will, in all likelihood, continue with Trump as president.
“I want to leave behind the bad things that happened to me while I have been imprisoned. I want to focus on the positive things ahead of me, seeing my family again, studying at university and perhaps being able to help others,” Zahir said, according a press release provided by his lawyers before he left Guantánamo. Zahir has three sons and speaks Arabic, Pashto and some Urdu, Farsi and English. Before his capture, he worked as a translator, shuttle driver and Arabic teacher.
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US troops captured Zahir on July 11, 2002, during a raid in Afghanistan targeting another man named Abdul Bari — an alias also used by Zahir. The raid occurred at a compound in Hesarak village, which is a few miles east of Kabul and northeast of Gardez. Abdul Bari (not Zahir) allegedly helped produce and distribute chemical or biological weapons for al-Qaeda.
A day or two after the raid, US forces recovered “suspicious items,” according to a military intelligence assessment, including a white powder that they initially believed was a chemical or biological agent. However, on later examination, the substances turned out to be salt, sugar and petroleum jelly. When the Periodic Review Board determined, on July 11, 2016, that Abdul Zahir should be released, it also concluded that Zahir “was probably misidentified as the individual who had ties to al-Qaeda weapons facilitation.”
Zahir was not the only Guantánamo detainee detained because of a mistaken identity. In fact, another Guantánamo detainee among those released to Oman — Yemeni Mustafa al Shamiri — was also mistaken for another man with a similar name.
Torture and Assault in Guantánamo
Like every Guantánamo detainee, Zahir was tortured. His military defense lawyer, US Air Force Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas told Truthout that after Zahir’s capture, US forces “gave him the treatment that they thought every Brown person, every Muslim person they captured deserved — they tortured him.”
Zahir was tortured by US forces at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and at Guantánamo, where he was transferred on October 27, 2002.
Thomas explained that Zahir suffered beatings, exposure to cold temperatures, cramped confinement, stress positions, hog-tying and sexual assault. “He would be kept in very small rooms with the air conditioning unit running full blast without proper clothing — so, a pair of shorts — and an iron bed,” Thomas said. Zahir “would be placed in interrogation rooms right under the air conditioner and they would make the room as cold as possible, with his hands tied to his waist, and then he would be tied into a fetal position on the floor in that very cold room.” In addition, Zahir “spent a year in a room that he called ‘a cage for animals.’ And in that room, he had to eat, sleep, exercise and shower all in the same place. Including elimination of waste.”
During the time he spent in that small room, a group of US troops would come into the room “wearing outfits meant to make him frightened” and “would spray a burning gas above his head,” while he was shirtless. Those troops would “drop him to the floor and two people would sit on his lower back and tie his hands and feet behind him,” a practice known as “hog-tying.” They would “then pick him up like a sheep and take him elsewhere where they would quickly immerse him in water that was flowing fast from a very big pipe.” After that, they would “take him back to where he was and drop him from about one meter onto the ground still tied.” Guards also grabbed and pulled his testicles “violently, until he fell unconscious.”
As a result of his torture, Zahir “suffered physically and emotionally.” He experienced major depressive episodes that led him to attempt suicide. Zahir protested his treatment on numerous occasions. In one instance, after he protested, a group of guards in riot gear (Forced Cell Extraction team) tackled Zahir and “damaged his spine so badly that they had to conduct surgery,” said Thomas. Since then, Zahir has had to walk with a walker and experiences internal organ issues.
Zahir’s torture was par for the course at Guantánamo. As documented by human rights groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights, beatings, shackling, sexual assault and other forms of abuse have been standard practice at Guantánamo, particularly in its early years. During the 2013 hunger strike, striking prisoners were force-fed, which is also a form of torture. Torture violates international law, particularly the UN Convention Against Torture.
For years, defense lawyers tried to get Zahir released, or at least secure a fair trial. Vermont lawyer Robert Gensburg challenged Zahir’s confinement with a habeas corpus action but was unsuccessful. Zahir was then brought up for trial before a military commission, which is when fellow Vermont lawyer David Sleigh and military co-counsel Lt. Col. Sterling Thomas joined Zahir’s defense team.
In 2006, Zahir was charged with conspiracy, materially supporting terrorism and killing civilians in connection with a grenade attack that wounded Canadian journalist Kathleen Kenna. However, the military commission temporarily shut down, his case never went to trial, and charges were dismissed. According to Thomas, Zahir made numerous, contradictory statements under torture — statements that the US government tried to use against him — but there was no physical evidence tying him to the attack. Thomas also mentioned that part of the reason Zahir was held for so long is because the US government tortured him and did not want those details made public in a civilian court.
How Do Mistaken Identity Cases Occur?
New Guantánamo intelligence reveals that the vast majority of detainees are not the “worst of the worst” as the US government claimed, according to the Miami Herald. In fact, some of those who were captured and incarcerated at Guantánamo had nothing to do with al-Qaeda.
This reality has always been clear to some people within the US government. One of them is Mark Fallon, a retired 30-year federal investigator who, from 2002 to 2004, headed the Pentagon’s Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF), established to investigate cases that would be brought before a military commission. In the early days, Fallon said it was clear to him and CITF that most of the people arriving at Guantánamo were not the super-villain terrorists portrayed by the US government. “We were frankly shocked at who wound up there going on the first plane loads. It was clear it wasn’t senior al-Qaeda leadership or main al-Qaeda men. It was just people who were kind of scooped up and a lot of them were paid bounties for. They were not very effectively, for the most part, screened very well in Afghanistan,” Fallon explained to Truthout.
Only 5 percent of Guantánamo detainees were captured by US forces. Meanwhile, 86 percent were captured by Afghan tribal allies or Pakistani security forces and handed over to US custody, according to a Seton Hall study. The detainees captured by Pakistan or Afghan tribal allies “were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies.” Very few were actually al-Qaeda fighters. “Only 8% of the detainees were characterized as al Qaeda fighters,” according to the study, while 40 percent had “no definitive connection with al Qaeda” and 18 percent had “no definitive affiliation with either al Qaeda or the Taliban.”
It’s not a huge surprise that false charges and cases of mistaken identity occurred amid this race to incarcerate. Fallon said that JTF-GTMO (Joint Task Force Guantánamo), which runs the Guantánamo prison, was looking for anything to pin on detainees. For example, part of JTF-GTMO’s threat indication criteria was whether a detainee possessed a common item like a Casio F-91W or A159W wristwatch because it was “the sign of al-Qaida, [which] uses the watch to make bombs,” which Fallon called “sad” and “comical.” Fallon said CITF concluded “an overwhelming majority” of detainees had no intelligence or investigative value and should be released, while JTF-GTMO argued for further detention. However, it was JTF-GTMO’s assessments that caught the White House’s ear, while voices like Fallon’s were marginalized. Fallon shares his insider perspective on how the US government implemented torture in a book called Unjustifiable Means: The Inside Story of How the CIA, Pentagon, and US Government Conspired to Torture.
Meanwhile, Abdul Zahir will be attempting to get back on his feet, reunite with his family and begin rebuilding a life that was all but shattered. Despite his torture and horrific treatment at the hands of the US government, Zahir says he does not hate the United States or harbor any bitter feelings. Rather, he is focused on moving his life forward. Sterling called Zahir’s resolve “remarkable” and said, “He’s been through things that no human being should have to suffer through. Regardless of what they did. And he had done nothing that was a crime.”
Moving on could be difficult for Zahir. Many former Guantánamo and CIA black site detainees continue to face mental health problems even after being released, such as depression and post-traumatic stress. That makes it difficult for them to readjust into normal society. This means true justice for Guantánamo detainees entails more than just releasing them to another country. It also must include redress for the torture inflicted upon them and the physical, mental and emotional problems resulting from that abuse.
However, true justice does not currently seem within reach for current and former Guantánamo detainees. There arecurrently 41 detainees in Guantánamo, including 26 held in indefinite detention — people whom the government does not have enough untainted evidence to prosecute but claims are too dangerous to release. Like torture, indefinite detention also violates international human rights law. While the Trump administration has dropped the idea of reopening secret prisons, it does want to keep the Guantánamo prison open and put new detainees there. According to the Miami Herald, the Guantánamo military prison could hold another 200 or so prisoners.