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Seventeen and a half miles of fence surround the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, separating this remote parcel of American territory from communist Cuba. The fence has just one opening: the Northeast Gate. On either side of the road approaching the gate stands a concrete pillar, twisted with barbed wire. “Enter if you dare” is stamped on one pillar. “Leave if you can,” warns the other. Ironically, the two eight-foot pillars are known as the twin towers. While the real twin towers fell to the ground on Sept. 11, 2001, Guantánamo’s twin towers still stand — a relic of another generation’s war. Had Cuban forces tried to storm the gate during the Cold War years, they would have found the road to the base laced with explosives. Upon detonation, the two towers were designed to collapse and block the road. Today, U.S. military leaders do not view invasion from Cuba as much of a threat. The land mines planted around the base have been removed; the gate is not regularly manned. The fences of Guantánamo Bay no longer serve to keep an old enemy out as much as serve to keep a new enemy in. But questions persist as to whether the majority of those jailed at Guantánamo ever posed a genuine threat to the United States. Defense Department records from military tribunals held at the base over the past year — obtained by Legal Times under the Freedom of Information Act — provide the most concrete and specific information yet about those in U.S. custody at Guantánamo. The information has never been more relevant. Allegations and evidence of abuse at Guantánamo have inflamed distrust and resentment of the United States in the Muslim world, leading to violent riots in countries like Afghanistan and to calls for the closure of Guantánamo from American politicians. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) asserted that Guantánamo Bay had become a symbol for U.S. hypocrisy; conversely, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) likened the prison to a tropical resort. Among the documents are the charges that form the basis for each prisoner’s detention and transcripts from roughly 100 tribunal hearings held between July 2004 and January 2005. The transcripts provide a compelling glimpse into life at Guantánamo and suggest, perhaps not surprisingly, that the population there is far more diverse than what has been portrayed by either the Bush administration or such advocacy groups as Amnesty International. One man — who spent several years living in the United States and Great Britain in the 1990s — is accused of conspiring to commit terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Another prisoner admitted to the military panel reviewing his case that he agreed to pay $18,000 to be smuggled into the United States through Mexico. Several prisoners are accused of involvement in the October 2000 bombing in Yemen of the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. servicemen and injured more than 40 others. In many other cases, the evidence tying a detainee to al Qaeda or the Taliban is more circumstantial — a stay in a known al Qaeda safe house, for instance, or a family member with ties to an Islamic charity on the U.S. government’s watch list. One prisoner is described by the Pentagon’s own charge sheet as a “low-level” fighter, who “reportedly may have” fought against U.S. and coalition troops in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan. Some detainees claim that they were sold to U.S. forces for bounties. Others say they have been detained as a result of mistaken identity. There is no evidence presented during the open hearings and, thus, no way to discern from the transcripts what support the government has to back up its charges. There are no names, and often no nationalities. In the end, there are only the stories of men — young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, defiant and docile — who stand accused of being America’s enemies. THE PATH TO THE PRISON One detainee’s journey to Guantánamo began in the Afghanistan district of Bermal, near the Pakistan border, where he operated a money transfer business, known as a hawala. According to the Pentagon, two of his major customers had ties to al Qaeda. “I was sitting in my shop doing my business. . . . They showed up in my store and just captured me,” the detainee told the three military officers reviewing his case. “If the Hawala business is a crime then yes, we did that crime. . . . But it’s not a crime. . . . We did it to support our families and to help our people living in the area.” Another man recounted that he was forced to join the Taliban and kept under guard in a compound in Konduz, Afghanistan, for 20 days. “They were sending people by numbers to fight,” he said. “After 20 days of people, they surrendered to the Commander of the Northern Alliance.” He continued: “They loaded us into a truck and we went to another city. When we got there they put us all in a big container. Some people died because it was too hot and because of the close contamination.” One prisoner said that he had traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to serve as a Muslim missionary. Two months after he arrived in Jalalabad, the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, and things became dangerous for Arabs in Afghanistan. “My friend . . . went one day to eat lunch and didn’t return home,” the detainee said. “So I went to the market to go look for my friend, to look in the restaurant. An Afghani man saw me. . . . He said Afghans are killing Arabs; he told me to flee.” The detainee traveled with other Arabs through the Tora Bora mountains and turned himself in to Pakistani soldiers at the border. “I was thinking that they were taking me to the embassy,” he said. “After that, I was in prison and next thing I knew I was on my way to America.” THE QUESTION OF ABUSE In the more than 1,500 pages of transcripts that have been released, few detainees reported abuse at Guantánamo Bay. One detainee said he was mistreated by U.S. forces upon his capture in Afghanistan, but said things were better at Guantánamo. “I was ordered to stand up 24 hours for 20 days in a row. I had blood coming out of my body and my nose for days because I was tortured so much,” he said. “They put tight round glasses around my eyes, had my ears shut with plugs and I was covered with a bag. When they took the covers off it was black, pitch black because the blood had accumulated around my eyes. For a whole month I could not touch the area. “Here in Cuba I have been treated nice,” he added. “Overall, it is fine here.” Another detainee called Guantánamo a “paradise” in comparison to the months he spent in a Taliban prison. “American people are very good. Really. They give us three meals, juice, fruit and everything,” he said. “If you are in a Taliban prison, they do not treat you well.” But while there are few reports of physical mistreatment, detainees voiced considerable frustration with their lengthy imprisonment and the lack of information about their future. “I want to let you know that I am a father. Even though I am not important in the American people’s eyes because I am a prisoner, I am very important to myself,” said one detainee, an alleged al Qaeda member charged with providing false passports to associates of Osama bin Laden. “My kids and my wife think that I am important as do my mother and family. I hope that you will consider that.” SEARCHING FOR FAIRNESS In July 2004, following a Supreme Court ruling that Guantánamo Bay prisoners can challenge their confinement in U.S. courts, the Pentagon initiated a formal process to establish the legal basis for each prisoner’s detention. Three-member panels, known as Combatant Status Review Tribunals, consider all available evidence to determine whether a prisoner meets the definition of an enemy combatant — that is, did the detainee support al Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces engaged in hostilities against the United States and coalition partners? Detainees may appear before the tribunal, but cannot see the classified evidence against them. They are not represented by counsel, and anything they say can be used against them. During the hearings, detainees frequently struggled with their inability to confront the evidence against them. “It’s not fair for me if you mask some of the secret information. How can I defend myself?” asked one detainee. “It is unfair that the government is going to be talking and I don’t have an attorney.” “I just want to remind you that this is an administrative process only,” stated the tribunal president, a U.S. Marine Corps colonel whose name is redacted from the transcript. “No punishment will be derived from the things that we do here today.” “The worst punishment is when you have determined that I am guilty when I’m not,” the detainee replied. “I feel that anybody that comes before any tribunal is going to be classified as an enemy combatant. I’m not putting you down, because I don’t know you and you don’t know me. I respect the Tribunal, but the way it’s formed is unjust.” “If I am in a court and you accuse me of anything, I should be allowed to know what the accusations are and to see the evidence,” echoed another detainee. “How can I defend myself if I don’t know what the evidence is about the other accusations?” One detainee said it was unfair that the U.S. military was both his judge and his captor. “The American military is my adversary, and all the laws require that the panel or the board have [a] third party, that is completely neutral and has nothing to do with adversaries,” he said. “If the adversary is my judge also, I should not expect any justice.” BLAMING PAKISTAN Transcripts of the hearings show that some detainees admit to the Pentagon’s allegations, though often disputing that their actions were illicit. In many instances, the prisoners claim that the charges against them were trumped up by Afghan and Pakistani forces so that they could be sold to the United States for bounties. “I am not an enemy of the United States of America. I am against the Pakistanis. I think they sold me to you and all of these wrong accusations were made by the Pakistanis,” said one detainee, accused of being an al Qaeda contact in the Afghan province of Herat. The detainee said he had never been to Herat in his life but believed that he had been set up by members of Pakistan’s intelligence service because he published news articles critical of Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan. “The people you need were hidden by the Pakistanis,” the detainee told the panel. “The innocents were sold to you.” Other prisoners have similar tales. “Unfortunately, I was in the hands of the wrong people. They sold me and the Americans bought me,” one detainee said. “I was only 16 years old at the time.” One man, captured carrying documents with information on weapons systems, counterintelligence, chemicals, and poisons, claimed that Pakistani intelligence agents forced to him to copy by hand the incriminating material out of books before turning him over to the U.S. government. “The Pakistanis are making business out of this war,” the detainee said. “They knew that the more evidence they created, the more dangerous they made me, the more money they would make from the Americans.” The stories are not beyond imagination. U.S. forces in Afghanistan paid cash for al Qaeda prisoners, and many members of Pakistan’s military and intelligence service are thought to be sympathetic to al Qaeda, says Peter Singer, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution. “It is a plausible claim. But it doesn’t mean they’re not guilty,” Singer says. “What it comes down to is whether your intelligence is good or not. You don’t simply accept what the person selling the goods tells you. Check it out for yourself.” A CONFUSING MIX The U.S. military began transporting prisoners captured in Afghanistan and the war on terror to Guantánamo Bay in January 2002. Today, the prison holds roughly 520 prisoners from more than 40 nations. Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defended the prison, saying that those held at the naval base include terrorist trainers, bomb-makers, extremist recruiters, al Qaeda financiers, bodyguards of Osama bin Laden, and would-be suicide bombers. “They are believed to be determined killers,” Rumsfeld said. But human-rights activists have long charged that many of those held at Guantánamo are low-level foot soldiers — or simply unlucky civilians caught inthe wrong place at the wrong time. A review of the unclassified evidence against each detainee at Guantánamo Bay indicates that the group is almost evenly split between those the administration believes are linked to al Qaeda and those who took part in more-traditional combat activities against the United States or the Northern Alliance. The majority were captured in Afghanistan or on the Pakistani border as they attempted to flee, but a number were detained in other countries remote from any physical battlefield, including Gambia, Zambia, Thailand, and Bosnia. In many ways, the debate over the future of Guantánamo Bay has been confused because it is a prison for both low-level insurgents and senior al Qaeda operatives. Ruth Wedgwood, an international law professor at Johns Hopkins University and an informal adviser to the Bush administration, says the military has broad latitude to detain enemy fighters, whether they are “privates first-class or four-star generals or the terrorist equivalent of those ranks.” But Wedgwood concedes that in the war on terror it can be difficult to distinguish between combatants and civilians. “Whenever new intelligence comes in, inculpatory or exculpatory, you have a duty as a captor to keep asking, ‘How do we know who this person is?’ “ To one detainee, taken from his home in the middle of the night, it’s all a matter of perspective. “If there is anybody here that should be called a terrorist, it should be the people that came to my house, that took me at 2 o’clock in the morning. . . . The women were crying and the children were terrorized crying and screaming,” the detainee said. “Those people should be called terrorists.” The man, who said he was 60 years old, continued: “It’s almost been two and a half years. . . . I keep asking myself and I keep asking them: What is my crime? What did I do? And no one answers me.” Vanessa Blum can be contacted at [email protected].

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