Former Guantanamo inmates tell of confessions under 'torture'

Story highlights

  • Fouad Al Rabiah says he was detained in Afghanistan while on a charity mission
  • Al Rabiah says he was tortured by U.S. interrogators into making false confessions
  • Al Rabiah was freed by a U.S. judge after eight years due to lack of credible evidence
"You know what this is?" Fouad Al Rabiah asked as he held up a photograph of a cell in Guantanamo. "This is my house for eight years." The cell is small, sterile and resembles a cage. It has a hole in the floor where the toilet is.
Al Rabiah, a Kuwaiti father of four, then held up another piece of paper. "This is the first evidence that the United States government had given to the court to tell them that I am the worst of the worst in Guantanamo."
The evidence is a two-page letter in Arabic, which Al Rabiah was accused of writing. It was found in Tora Bora and was presented as evidence Al Rabiah and his son Abdullah were the leaders of an attack in Afghanistan in 1991. His oldest son was only one year old in 1991. "This was not me."
He showed more of the evidence used against him. The U.S. government had accused Al Rabiah of providing material support to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Al Rabiah was interrogated, by his own count, more than 200 times. He says he was tortured: "Lots and lots of torture." He confessed to any and everything his interrogators said about him.
But in 2009 U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered that Al Rabiah, an aviation engineer who had studied in Scotland and America, be released citing a lack of credible evidence that he was associated with al Qaeda or the Taliban.
The evidence presented by the government to the court was "surprisingly bare," and interrogators used "abusive techniques," Judge Kollar-Kotelly wrote in a 65-page opinion. The court said that Al Rabiah's confessions were so inconsistent or implausible even his interrogators did not believe them.
"It is also undisputed that Al Rabiah confessed to information that his interrogators obtained from either alleged eyewitnesses who are not credible and as to whom the Government has now largely withdrawn any reliance, or from sources that never even existed," the opinion stated.
The court concluded, "If there exists a basis for Al Rabiah's indefinite detention, it most certainly has not been presented to this court." Al Rabiah's petition for habeas corpus was granted.
Al Rabiah returned to Kuwait in December 2009. He had lost eight years of his life. "I lost so many things, but I know that I was right," he said. "I know that they were wrong." Al Rabiah is one of 12 Kuwaiti detainees taken to Guantanamo.
Nine other Kuwaitis have been released, including Abd Al Aziz Sayer Uwain Al Shammeri. Al Shammeri had been detained without charge and transferred to Kuwait in 2005 for reasons that remain unclear. Al Shammeri and many of the freed detainees were charged in Kuwaiti courts following their release from Guantanamo but were acquitted of any wrongdoing.
One of those acquitted -- Abdallah Saleh Ali Al Ajmi -- blew himself up in Iraq, according to Pentagon officials.
Al-Ajmi was one of two Kuwaitis who took part in a suicide attack in Mosul in April 2008, the officials said. Records show an attack that day targeted an Iraqi police patrol and left six people dead, including two police officers.
Two people who knew Al Ajmi described him as unstable when he returned from Guantanamo.
Two Kuwaiti detainees, Fawzi Al Odah and Fayiz Al Kandari, remain in custody and their families and others fear they may be indefinitely detained.
I met with Al Rabiah, Al Shammeri and Khalid Al Odah, Fawzi Al Odah's father, in Kuwait 10 years after America's war on terror began.
Life before Guantanamo
Al Rabiah, now 52, had a documented history of doing charitable work with reputable organizations in Kosovo, Bosnia and Bangladesh. Before leaving for humanitarian trips Al Rabiah routinely requested leave from his employer Kuwait Airlines, where he had worked since 1981.
For the first 30 minutes of our meeting Al Rabiah, a serious and intense man, enthusiastically told me about his previous missions and expressed his view that as a wealthy Muslim country, Kuwait should help those less fortunate. "We are well off in comparison to other countries....We cannot see famine and natural disasters and do nothing about it."
Al Rabiah traveled to Afghanistan twice in 2001, July and October, for charitable reasons. He was on a fact-finding mission related to Afghanistan's refugee problems and lack of medical infrastructure, he said. The government said that Al Rabiah was a "devotee of Osama bin Laden who ran to bin Laden's side after September 11." The U.S. court ruled that the evidence strongly supported Al Rabiah's story.
Al Shammeri, 37, also said he traveled to Afghanistan in October 2001 for charitable reasons -- to teach Islamic law in Afghanistan. His life was "normal" before Guantanamo. He was married and had two children, who in 2001 were six and two years old.
He was an Islamic scholar and worked at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Kuwait. He was planning to get a master's degree in Egypt, where he had paid registration dues. He was accepted, he later learned, the same day he was captured in Afghanistan. He was 28 years old at the time.
I met Al Shammeri at Khaled Al Odeh's house, where the former detainees meet on a regular basis for support. He is a tall, relaxed and very funny man who smiles without interruption. He understands basic English. He is far from fluent, but he said with time he understood all the jargon related to Guantanamo.
"Terrorists," he said and laughs. "Guilty," that word too he added. "They never used the word innocent."
The U.S. said Al Shammeri was a member of al Qaeda and one of his known aliases was on a list of hard drives associated with al Qaeda.
Road to Guantanamo
In October Al Rabiah entered Afghanistan through Iran, where he had been looking at the situation of Afghan refugees. "The day that I went into Afghanistan is the day the [American] bombing started. Of course this is all documented because I had the stamp," he said. The U.S. authorities later took possession of his passport and they saw the stamp, he added.
But when the bombing started, the Iranians closed the border. He decided he would try to leave Afghanistan through Pakistan and wrote a letter to his family about the situation.
Al Rabiah said at the time he weighed 108 kilograms (240 pounds) and could not see at night, which made him ill suited physically for the Afghan terrain. On December 25, he was captured in a village outside of Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
The villagers took him to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, who he alleged tortured him. Al Rabiah was in their custody he believes for about a month, and then, he alleges, the Northern Alliance sold him to the Americans for $5,000, the same price as his watch.
He was then sent to Bagram Air Base, a U.S. military-controlled facility north of Kabul, where he said he was treated well. According to legal documents, at this point he told his family he was "detained by the American troops and thanks to God they are good example of humanitarian behavior."
Al Rabiah said he was told at Bagram that they were preparing for his transfer back to Kuwait, but that he would first need to move to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Al Rabiah spent two and half months in Kandahar, where he alleges he was tortured.
"There are more ways of torturing a person than you can imagine," he said.
A report by Human Rights Watch in 2004 called attention to what it said was systemic abuse of detainees by U.S. military and intelligence personnel.
Abuse of detainees in Afghanistan included being stripped, kicked and punched, being forced to endure freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation and forcing detainees to sit or stand in painful positions for extended periods of time, according to HRW.
"Abuse of detainees was an established part of the interrogation process," the report said.
If the U.S. Department of Defense "receives specific, credible information of mistreatment by its personnel, those allegations are taken seriously and thoroughly investigated," according to Lt. Col. Joseph Todd Breasseale, a defense spokesperson.
He added, the "DoD does not tolerate the mistreatment of detainees and will continue to ensure proper training and accountability measures."
Al Shammeri was also sent to Kandahar. Before he was captured he said he realized the situation in Afghanistan was becoming increasingly more dangerous. He heard that every Arab was wanted dead or alive and Arabs were being bought and sold. So he said decided to leave via Pakistan, where he was arrested trying to cross the border.
He said he turned himself in to the Pakistanis thinking they would contact Kuwait and send him back home. "What first comes to anyone's mind is that once a citizen of any particular nation travels abroad...when a problem takes place, the logic dictates that he should be handed to his native country of origin and not to be extradited to a third party nation. That's what anyone in their sane mind would think," he said.
"If I only knew that this would have been the way, I'd have just gone in hiding."
The Pakistani government told him that they were going to send him back home, Al Shammeri said. But according to Al Shammeri, U.S. forces took him by plane to a military camp in Kandahar. Al Shammeri said he had no recollection of time or place. He too alleges he was tortured in Kandahar.
He was interrogated and beaten. He says he did not know what was happening because he did not understand all of the English, his eyes were covered, his hands and feet were tied and all he heard was the voice of an Arab interrogator.
When he was leaving Kandahar, Al Shammeri said he had no idea where he was going.
"They just recited my number...and they took me, shaved my head and then they tied me up and blindfolded me," he said.
"While I was walking toward the plane, there was a female military personnel who took the mufflers off my ears and told me that I am going home, in English, she said 'you are going back to your home' then she put them back on and for a second, I thought they are taking me back to Kuwait."