Former detainee paints harrowing portrait of life at Guantánamo Bay
Ex-detainee says suicide attempts were commonplace

(Gold9472: You need to read this.)

Avery Walker
Published: Wednesday June 21, 2006

Jailers at the US base in Guantánamo Bay have coerced confessions they knew to be false, beaten prisoners to the point of disability, and given detainees psychotropic drugs they believed were for common physical ailments, according to an account one former detainee gave RAW STORY.

The story of the Tipton Three, three young English citizens captured by an Afghan warlord and transferred to Guantánamo, has been documented in international newspaper interviews, a successful lawsuit against the US government and in the upcoming film, The Road to Guantánamo. One of the detainees, Ruhal Ahmed, spoke to RAW STORY earlier this week.

As Ahmed tries to return to his former life in West Midlands, England, he says there remains much to be learned from his time as an "enemy combatant" held prisoner by the United States.

The capture of the Tipton Three
Ahmed, Shafiq Rasul, and Asif Iqbal were boyhood friends on their way to a wedding in September 2001. Iqbal was to be married in Faisalabad, Pakistan. The wedding was arranged by his parents. Ahmed was to be best man.

But it wasn't to be. Afghan warlord and U.S. ally Rashid Dostum labeled them al Qaeda operatives and arrested all three. At the time, Dostum and others from the Northern Alliance were rounding prisoners up to hand over to the US as proof of their allegiance to US forces.

Along with what they say were hundreds of other detainees, the three were forced into containers so tight their chests pressed against their knees. Bullets pierced the walls, Ahmed says, killing some prisoners but allowing enough air in to keep others alive.

Mass graves found near Mazar-e-Sharif have since revealed that hundreds of prisoners captured by Dostum died before they ever made it into US custody. Stories of mass suffocation are not unique.

Today, Dostum is chief of staff to the commander of Afghanistan's armed forces.

'If I moved, they would shoot me'
Dostum held the three for nearly a month, along with thirty or forty other survivors. "We had no food [or] water for about two weeks," Ahmed says. "No bath, no shave. We had body lice." Ahmed recalls "bleeding everywhere" from scratching.

Things improved slightly when the men were transferred to an American airbase in Kandahar. It was there that Ahmed claims he first suffered abuse at the hands of the American and British militaries.

"I was on my knees," Ahmed recalls somberly, drifting, "and they were interrogating me at the same time... I think it was a nine millimeter in his hand. And he put it to the temple of my head, and he told me if I moved, they would shoot me." A US soldier was holding the gun, he says, and an MI-5 officer was present. Nobody, he claims, moved to intervene.

The presence of a gun at an interrogation, Ahmed says, was not unique.

"There were other guns, machine guns, always," he explains.

It was in Kandahar that Ahmed first learned of the US prison at Guantánamo Bay.

"They never told us where we were [or] where we were going," Ahmed remarks. "I was in Kandahar for six weeks, so I got to know certain soldiers. They said, 'You might go to Guantánamo.'"

"But I wasn't sure. You can't trust the guards." Even today, Ahmed claims, Guantánamo jailers refuse to tell or confirm to detainees what part of the world they're being held in.

Life at Guantánamo Bay
The guards in Kandahar weren't lying.

Ahmed was stripped down, given body and cavity searches and had his head and beard shaved. He was then dressed in goggles, a woolen cap, a jacket and what jailers called a "three piece suit": a chain that wraps around the waist, connecting handcuffs to shackles. He was on his way to Guantánamo.

There, abuse continued as "the rule, not the exception," Ahmed recalls. Interrogations would be as often as twice a day, or as lengthy as twelve hours, he adds.

Such interrogations were done under the pretense that the world was unaware prisoners were being held at the base, he says. But thanks to the guards at Kandahar, Ahmed knew better.

"I believed people knew detainees were in Guantánamo," he explains. "But we were told that nobody cares and nobody is going to be doing anything about it. After being told that a hundred, a thousand times, you start to believe it."

A change in leadership, he says, changed detainee life for the worse.

"The treatment got really, really bad when [Major General] Miller came," Ahmed avers. "That's when it all started. That's when the torture and interrogation with dogs, hot and cold environment -- stuff like that started happening."

In addition to the more widely reported use of dogs and guns in interrogations, Ahmed claims that one of the most painful forms of abuse was simply being in an extreme environment -- prisoners could be placed in cells that were allowed to grow extremely hot during the day and dropped to freezing at night.

When asked what other forms of abuse he personally experienced, Ahmed says quickly and gravely, "sexual abuse." A strange silence follows. When asked for specifics, he says simply, "I don't really want to go into details."

Major General Geoffrey Miller took over at Guantánamo Bay in November of 2002, with the aim of bringing order to the camp. He has since been reassigned to head US operations at Abu Ghraib.

The confession
"After going through five months of torture, being interrogated twice a day, left in isolation," Ahmed says, "they broke me."

He and his friends admitted to appearing in a propaganda video with Osama bin Laden and 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, both of whom he claims to have never met.

But the confession was contradicted by evidence already known to UK authorities: that Ahmed was working, on probation, and serving community service in Tipton at the time the tape was filmed.

Ahmed admits to having been arrested for a number of petty offenses, including theft, lying to police, and handling stolen goods. Though none of the crimes linked him to militant Islam, they provided investigators with a public record of his whereabouts at the time the tape was filmed.

Shafiq Rasul also admitted to appearing in the tape but was since confirmed to have been working in an electronics store in West Midlands County, England at the time the film was produced.

More strange is the fact that verification of this information -- if it ever took place -- didn't seem to be a factor in either man's release.

"They just dropped it, really," Ahmed says.

"They had no idea what they were doing," he adds. "They just wanted scapegoats. They just want people to believe that Guantánamo Bay is right."

Ahmed believes that Guantánamo interrogators were "obviously" aware that they were extracting false information from detainees. "By torturing people, you cannot make them confess the truth," he explains. "You can make them say what you want, but you can't get what you don't [already] know. Torture doesn't work."

"It shouldn't be allowed in any country, whatsoever," he adds. "Even if a tortured person is a terrorist, you've just become a terrorist by torturing them. You've actually come to his level, and that's the last thing you want."

Maj. Gen. Miller has claimed 400 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay have confessed to being involved in terrorism, and have continued to provide "actionable intelligence" to interrogators.

'His name was Mishal'
"His name is Mishal, I can remember him very well, because I was [sharing a cell] with him for a long time," Ahmed recalls. "We heard that something happened to him, that he tried to hang himself. They had to take him to a separate side of the hospital, and bring in a brain surgeon to work on him."

Ahmed is convinced, based on accounts from other detainees and his own experience at the hospital, that the injuries were not a result of the suicide attempt, but of a subsequent beating from jailers. According to Ahmed, suicide attempts, though recently gaining media attention, have never been uncommon at Guantánamo Bay.

"There's hunger strikes, there's protesting, not talking in interrogation," Ahmed says, "but there's really nothing [else] you can do."

As a result, Ahmed claims that suicides, either out of protest or desperation, have become commonplace. "I witnessed many, many suicide attempts in Guantánamo," Ahmed told RAW STORY. "American officials have actually said about 26 or 46 or something like that, but when I was there, I can recall hundreds of attempts."

US personnel actively attempt to prevent suicide on the base but with methods he believes to be counter-productive to improving detainee well-being.

"If the soldiers knew that you had attempted, or were going to attempt [suicide], they would take away your towels, your clothes. Basically, you would be naked in your cell."

Ahmed also raised disturbing allegations relating to the camp's psychiatric policies. He describes a prison population that is largely unaware they are being given a psychotropic drug.

"There was no help given in terms of psyche or anything," he explains. "The only medication they gave you was Prozac--for everything, they gave you Prozac. They offered me Prozac."

"Most detainees don't even know what Prozac is," he adds. "They think it is a headache pill or stomach ache pill."

The popular anti-depressant, also known as Fluoxetine hydrochloride, is known to have the side-effects of trembling, weakness, restlessness, skin rash, insomnia, itching and changes in weight.

When reached for outside confirmation, attorneys for Guantánamo Bay inmates directed RAW STORY to earlier statements taken from the Tipton three, indicating that all made the Prozac allegation. Mr. Rasul has claimed in statements to US courts that one doctor on the base was an exception to the rule, attempting to address situational issues like loneliness before offering prisoners the drug.

When asked how he coped with conditions at the base, Ahmed's quiet and unmistakably British voice breaks with tears.

"At Guantánamo, we just had to be strong," he said. "I ask myself that sometimes."

Back into the world
During his time at Guantánamo Bay, the British embassy never responded his requests for aid, Ahmed says. And though US officials have visited the camp, he claims prisoners were never aware. None of them, to his knowledge, ever asked prisoners about conditions.

"One day," Ahmed continues, "they just told us we were coming home. We were handed over to the British government, the British police and [then] to Paddington in London."

After two days of questioning at Paddington Station, he explains, "They open the doors and said, 'you can go home.'"

The release of Ahmed, Iqbal and Rasul in March 2004 came four months after the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the detainees' legal challenge to their indefinite imprisonment without charges, and less than three months before the court sided in their favor.

"I think that was one of the reasons why we were released," Ahmed says. "It's not the reason, but it's probably one of the reasons. There was a lot of pressure on Tony Blair by the British MPs."

Ahmed is now married, with a family. Dogs and children are frequent interruptions in an otherwise sober interview.

He's been busy these last few weeks discussing detainee suicides and the upcoming film with reporters, though he plans to step away from the media after the movie's release. When asked if he plans to stay active in politics or media, he answers vehemently: "No, no, no. Only if it needs to be. [To talk about] Guantánamo and prisons alike."

But freedom from Guantánamo Bay, he says, hasn't erased the scars. "Life," he chokes, "will never be normal anymore."